Burlesque performances are growing in popularity in major cities across the UK. But is it an art form that transcends debates about the sex industry, or just glorified stripping for kooky outsiders? Kieran Yates enters the tantalizing world of nipple tassels to find out...

I walk into the ornate building of Decades at Proud Cabaret in East London, newly refurbished and dripping with decadence, kitted out in the style of a 1920s speakeasy. You get the feeling a gaggle of flappers are going to come up and shimmy behind you at any moment -- which of course, during the show, they do.

Founded by the infamous businessman Alex Proud, he uses his welcoming address to insist that female managers have been key to the success of the night, a contribution that appears to be central to Burlesque -- and it's true that female touches (no pun intended) are felt everywhere.

And so there I am, ready for my first Burlesque night. I have been to other shows -- one in Vegas a few years ago which was a high budget, high energy glitter extravaganza -- but I was so far from the front that I hardly saw an outline of a nipple, and it was so far from 'intimate' that I didn't get a real sense of it. Now there's no excuse not to -- burlesque nights are strewn all over the capital, from smaller places like Burlexe in Soho to Volupte near Fleet Street and The Tassel Club in trendy Shoreditch.

The art of Burlesque -- or 'The tantalizing tease' -- has been a strong force in Europe since the late 17th century. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which itself derives from the Italian burla -- a joke, ridicule or mockery. Shakespeare's comic female prostitutes in plays like Measure for Measure ('Kate Keepdown' and 'Mistress overdone') and Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath' were some of the early English characters that approach their sexuality with a playfulness and wit which mirror the approach to Burlesque today. The point at which it really took off was in the Victorian era, and most fittingly, in the period of Decadence in Britain in the early 18th Century. These days, the lines are blurred between burlesque the art form and its frequent comparisons to stripping or lapdancing.

The fact that 'Decades' is a luxury affair and doesn't feel seedy at all is a relief. Plush booths, velvet curtains, and waitresses dressed up like saucy pin up girls mean that the night is less embarrassing that I would have imagined. It certainly tries to portray humour and art into the acts -- the host, 'Coco,' is a blonde Jessica Rabbit-style lounge singer dressed in full sequined gown who sings and winks to members of the audience, sitting on mens laps (including, erm, my date) while another of the acts, a self parodying Russian ballet dancer, performs stand up.

Rather than be a one dimensional night of girls dancing, 'Decades' merges a range of acts -- something that Howard Wilmot, Director of another infamous London night 'Burlexe' (described as 'The Vagina Monologues of Burlesque') tells me is important in order to recognize the cultural merit of the scene:

"My show is a portfolio of women's stories based on real women, and the concept of burlesque and women's stories and empowerment. I mean, it is stripping, you can't get away from that, but burlesque really about the relationship between the audience and the performer, the way in which they tell a story."

Wilmot has a point. Most of the women on this particular night are highly performative, taking on the roles of women from all decades. We journey through a timeline of burlesque, including glamour, swing, jive, and war time pin up girls saluting as they quickly get undressed on stage, whipping off suspenders and unstringing each other's corsets. Despite how it sounds, I should note that it's far less 'girl on girl threesome action' and far more about the cheeky side of sisterhood. The climax being the reveal of glittery heart shaped nipple tassles or 'pasties' as they say in the trade, which are adhesives for your nipples, so you can twirl to your hearts content without the hint of an areola slip. The tease is key, and the confidence of the women is striking. A word used over and over when talking to artists and people around me is that it feels empowering.


Feminist blogger Lydia Harris argues that this rhetoric can be problematic: "Empowerment is a word that often used to describe burlesque; you're an empowered performer as opposed to a 'disempowered' lapdancer. But given that capitalism has entirely co-opted the idea of empowerment and is making money by selling it back to us, I'm not sure that word can be trusted any more. Either way, people are still just looking at your breasts."

This feeds into the debate at the heart of burlesque -- isn't it just glorified stripping? The key word in defence is often 'tease' -- the seductive art of the tease is what makes the genre so titilliating, while also fun and playful. At the advent of feminism, you could be forgiven for thinking that burlesque might have hung its nipple tassles up to dry for good. However, it is thriving in London, with acts like Dita von Teese paving the way for acts such as Ruby Jewel and Sherry Trifle, who have the art of the tantalizing tease down to a tee.

Ester kneen, a designer/maker who sells burlesque themed temporary tattoos is sure that the Burlesque aesthetic is a viable commodity. She sells tattoos of pin up girls and says that "Burlesque is a look that is entirely sellable. I sell to people who want to engage with the sexiness of the art, and have a lot of male customers wanting pin up tats!"

Caroline Kent, aka Ava De VilleSo, Burlesque has cultural merit as an art form, and even in fashion as a design concept. But what is it really like, away from the razzle dazzle lights and a pouts? Caroline Kent, aka Ava De Ville, a perfomer around London says that the dance and confidence go hand in hand:

"I love the rush, I love having the audience in the palm of my hand, I love the climax of all the work that goes in to a performance in terms of choreography and costume-making. It allows me to express my sexuality, my creativity, and the dominant side of my personality, all at the same time." Miss De Ville is by her own admission, a feminist. So is it ok to be anti-stripping and still enjoy burlesque? Ava is adamant it is:

"Definitely. Burlesque (in its purest form) is about something very different and more complex than stimulation imagery. I think that porn etc. can be related to broader issues in society and the damaging commodification of female sexuality, whereas burlesque often subverts this, the focus is on empowering it's subject rather that demeaning them. It's all a question of power and equality and often in porn/lads mags women are demeaned and objectified, denied a narrative and an expression. Burlesque is all about the expression of a back-story, bundled up in a sexual and playful package."

What is interesting is that I might have expected some 'lads on tour' in the audience or at least a handful of horny teenagers, and while I'm assured they do attend (a dancer tells me with an eye roll and a sigh) the audience is made up mainly of women, something performer Oliver confirms as he says that the clientele on these nights are 70% female. If we view the art as women for women, then, perhaps that explains the lack of a clear heel and the great outfits. Not to mention of course, the men.

Male burlesque dancers, often called 'Boylesque' dancers, are, in my opinion, as vital to the shows as the women. The dancing is a world away from the greased up pecs of Chippendales, and as a result, they are seen as pushing a far more effeminate sexuality. Also the flexibility is not to be tested -- the gymnastics of the men makes me wince. 24-year-old Oliver, one of the dancers at Decades, spends some nights trussed up in military uniform from the 1920s to what look like, well, sexy liederhosen.

So does he get compared to a male stripper? "It's a completely separate thought process, a completely different animal. Burlesque is an art, about performing and creating. You get the full spectrum, hen nights, first dates, office workers couples. It's not all braying girls wanting to see nakedness. I think it's all to do with facial expressions and your own movements." Are his friends jealous that he spends every night dancing with scantily clad women? "Absolutely. They can't get over how lucky I am!"

By the end of the night I've seen enough shiny nipples to last me, well, at least a few months, and unfortunately discovered that I haven't thus far in my life been using my hips to their full capacity. I speak to a dancer I grab before she exits the stage to the murky unknown of the burlesque dressing room and I start harping on about feminism and whether she's a commodity and how I'm new to the art of Burlesque. With a snap of her hip and a wink she says, "Oh come on, this is all you need to know about burlesque -- does it make you want to get up there or not? If it does, then it's doing it's job."

With that she's gone, and so am I, quickly, because, well, I kinda do.

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Learn more at the Proud Cabaret website.