Inside New York’s World of Burlesque
Shows start late and can stretch to the wee hours of the morning, work next day be damned.
So you want to descend into New York’s after hours underworld to see a burlesque show.
Know that shows always start late. Know that it’s always the MC’s job to coax the crowd into not hating him (and it is very often a him) for hogging the stage between performances. Know that you’ll be watching in rooms full of tourists and couples, both queer and straight, and old timers who feel strip clubs would be beneath them. Know that performances can go for three or four hours, and if the mood is right, can sometimes stretch to the wee hours of the morning, work next day be damned.
The word burlesque comes from the Italian burlesco, which comes from burla, which means making fun of something and, true to form, modern burlesque is about lovingly mocking everything from gender norms to the emotional minefield of love to Susan Sontag.
“Burlesque is about playing around with gender and performance and glamour,” says Dirty Martini, who serves as the makeshift matriarch of today’s burlesque scene, as one of the originals who helped revive it. Often what that means is that sometimes burlesque is what Martini calls “a beautiful girly show,” full of garters and frills and jazzy swing tunes, and sometimes burlesque is neo-burlesque, the feminist subversion of burlesque, where you’ll have a woman standing on stage eating dollar bills from her underwear and then pulling more dollar bills out of her bottom. (That was one of Martini’s more famous routines. She calls it the Patriot Act.)
Burlesque is stripping, in that it is very often women taking off lingerie on stage, but it isn’t considered stripping. It’s seen as classy, timeless, and cloaked in nostalgia, afforded a respect that stripping isn’t.
“Because middle-class white women started doing it,” says Kay Siebler, a professor at Missouri Western State University, who’s written some papers on burlesque. The more things change in burlesque—and things have changed, starting with a growing appetite for gender-related tomfoolery, as well as the growing presence of women of color— the more things stay the same.
But before you hop on the subway and head into the unknown, here’s a handy list of the weirdest, strangest, most adventurous burlesque shows currently showing in New York City. Over the last few months, I’ve racked up a lot of hours in these clubs as I worked on an audio documentary on the state of New York burlesque. From late night Slipper Room shows to head-spinning Nurse Bettie cocktails, I can report that burlesque is alive and well in NYC, and positively bursting at the seams with an overload of the freaks and beauties it is famous for.
(Note, we’ve used the $, $$, $$$ symbols to note how expensive the venues can get.)
12 Jefferson Street Brooklyn, New-York 11206 $ Check the calendar
Home to shows like Howl's Moving Tassels, a burlesque tribute to Miyazaki, as well as the Fuck You Revue, an burlesque showcase run by performers Zoe Ziegfeld and Fancy Feast, whose title is aimed at current power structures, this venue truly lives up to the adjective in its name. Ziegfeld says the Fuck You Revue’s most consistently popular show is its annual Sucksgiving, a colonialist clapback burlesque show that exists at a unique intersection of social justice, hipster liberalism, and plain old-fashioned sexual desire. If you want something a little sleazy, messy and loose, where you’ll jostle with hipsters for space at the bar, head to the Bizarre.
2 Wyckoff Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11237 $$ Check the schedule
It might be a hipster bastion known for its aggressive consent-focused policies (designated consenticorns mill around, making sure everyone is having a safe, sane, and consensual time), but it also hosts some quality burlesque shows. There’s more drag and gender fluidity here than at some of New York’s older burlesque clubs, as well as a distinctly more modern, campier style. You’ll hear the dulcet sounds of Christina Aguilera and see sparkly men asking for their daddies before you see some of the prettier, more traditional frills you’ll find elsewhere. Come to this retrofitted ice warehouse to feel young; leave when you feel you aren’t quite young enough.
167 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002 $$ weekly burlesque revues
At neo-burlesque club The Slipper Room the mood often gets combative. Performer Cheeky Lane has a routine where she’ll pull men onstage for a lap dance, then sit motionless in the man’s lap, staring at him, for the remainder of the song. There’s Chips Kooney, who calls himself the world’s greatest illusionist, whose routine is aggressively bad, and there are aerialists, performing slow, contemplative routines that seem inspired by great tragedies, all interspersed between pretty girls performing to music as old as their grandparents. MC James Habacker comes onstage in between acts dressed as his alter ego, borscht-belt Jew Mel Frye, and indulging in a host of stereotypes that play well to an audience of soused late night guests. Habacker’s joint is one of the most reliable starmakers in town; he says at any given time there’s a waiting list of 300 dancers looking for the chance to show Habacker their stuff.
Bartschland Follies at the McKittrick Hotel’s Club Car 530 W 27th St, New York, NY 10001 $$$ Every Friday at 11
Certainly the priciest option on this list, Susanne Bartsch’s weekly variety show is not for those dipping a toe into hedonism. It’s reserved for the dedicated, who know the names of New York’s most popular underground entertainers, who can appreciate some clown strippers followed by a drop-in by drag queen Aquaria. The party starts around midnight, when the glossy, glitzy creations of the night begin tiptoeing towards the stage. Some staples of the scene include Peter Peter, who can yoyo using his genitals, and Joey Arias, New York nightlife sovereign. This eclectic show contains all the pageantry of some of the McKittrick’s even less budget-oriented options, like the fabled Sleep No More, while also possessing a kinetic, hilarious energy that Sleep No More, in all its seriousness, lacks.
106 Norfolk St, New York, NY 10002 $ Wednesdays and Thursdays 10pm — 11:30pm
After long nights spent listening to male MCs ramble aimlessly while dancers quick change in their dressing rooms, it’s a relief to hear Shelly Watson and Calamity Chang preside over the night at this '50s-themed Lower East Side pinup bar. Watson and Chang are raucous, knowing and filthy, offering artfully raised eyebrows and a look at what happens when burlesque is by women, for women. The show’s free, the lights are dim and sequins are plentiful.
315 West 44th St New York, NY 10036 $$ 9:45 every Sundays
Every Sunday, as Monday rears its ugly head, there’s Birdlesk to soothe what ails you. Located in Midtown,and reminiscent of a time when many variety shows were located there, this show is run by nightlife king Murray Hill. “Some people have ‘em at the first hello, I have them at the wide polyester tie,” the man, who owns an elaborate polyester necktie collection, once said. See Hill and his neckties guide performers like “the blushing beauty of burlesque,” Rosie Cheeks, onto a stage that once hosted Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
132 9th Ave, New York, NY $$ Tues. & Sunday 9:30pm
“Nobody does brains, beauty and bustiers like our burlesque dancers,” the website reads. True to form, it’s a grand old time for high rollers afflicted with sepia-tinted nostalgia. Over an $18 cocktail you can witness Art Deco-esque dancers with names inspired by olden-day slang, gemstones and cocktails, all dancing like global warming isn’t about to bring the world to an end. If you spend enough money, by the end of the night, late capitalism will seem like a bad dream.
And of course, there’s an actual bathtub in the room. It just wouldn’t be right if there wasn’t.