Brace Scholar Denise Taveras ’21 Examines Female Empowerment in Burlesque Performances

Burlesque, a form of live theater that includes skits, comedy, dance, and music, did not incorporate striptease until the Great Depression. Prior to her research, Brace scholar Denise Taveras ’21 did not know this but discovered that it was an attempt to keep audiences coming back for performances. On December 4th, Taveras presented her project entitled “Burlesque: Understanding Empowerment Through Objectification.”

In her presentation, Taveras explored the “Narrative Striptease Era” from the 1930s to the 1960s, where burlesque variety shows were a prevalent form of entertainment. Taveras redefined her idea of burlesque performance through her research of the art form and its gendered implications.

“Throughout my research, I set out to understand how the performers found empowerment in spaces that were originally used to objectify them for the pleasure of their audiences, and these audiences were predominantly middle class white men,” said Taveras.

During the Great Depression, many women resorted to working as burlesque performers to make additional income, according to Taveras. She found that, in some cases, women were taken advantage of due to their jobs as performers and that existing marginalization was exacerbated.

Taveras said, “A lot of women turned to Burlesque because it paid well, and it was what a lot of people needed. Performers… [were] forced to appeal to what their audiences understood of sexuality and eroticism, regardless of what they were comfortable with, because they had to work. A lot of performers also faced marginalization through their identities and being women. Women have a history of being marginalized, especially women of color.”

Even though these male-dominated attitudes caused issues for burlesque performers, they were able to use striptease as a form of resistance and expression. Taveras emphasized that once women began to gain authority over their performances, they were able to reclaim social and sexual agency that had been taken from them.

“I found that throughout my research, the narrative striptease era allowed for more space for performers to explore and have female empowerment through their performances. It’s because within this era, a lot of performers had more creative control over their acts. There was the creation of the Exotic Dancers League, which was the union, and that was created in 1954. There was an emphasis on gimmicks, personas, and storylines in stripping and that could be used to incorporate commentary on gender roles and political satire,” said Taveras.

She continued, “There was also a popularization of the exotic, especially during this area, as I mentioned earlier, and this created a lot of job opportunities for performers of color, and these job opportunities allowed these same performers to have a platform to enact some resistance through the commentary and satire that they could incorporate.”

Attendee Victoria Ortiz ’23 found that the videos of burlesque performances in Taveras’ presentation gave good visual representation of the empowerment described in the performances. Ortiz also found importance in learning more about burlesque, which has strong ties to American history and theatre.

“I thought [the presentation] was important just because her whole point of it was to show how the form of dance can be used as a tool for empowerment, specifically because it had such a heavy impact on women being objectified and things like that, so I thought it was really important to learn about how people can take that power back and use it for their own good and their own benefit,” said Ortiz.

Karsten Rynearson ’22 noticed the strong theme of female empowerment through burlesque. Rynearson found significance in women taking control of their objectification through striptease and burlesque.

“I think that [Taveras’s project] takes something that is to some degree stigmatized, burlesque dance, erotic entertainment, or entertainment that can be read as an erotic anyway, and applies a specific lens to it. It makes something that maybe people, from a quick at first glance, may look decidedly patriarchal and shows how it can actually be a tool for empowerment, and I thought that was a really interesting take on it. I really liked that part. I think just sort of taking a new lens on something that maybe a lot of people could just look at and see as oh that’s the patriarchy,” said Rynearson.

Dr. Kiran Bhardwaj, Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies, was Taveras’s faculty advisor on the project. After working on the project alongside Taveras and attending the presentation, Bhardwaj felt that Taveras’s analysis encapsulated the research she had done through the spring and summer.

Bhardwaj said, “I think what’s particularly nice about the work that Denise did was that it was so rich: she did a historical review of burlesque, she used her theorists well and wisely in order to both analyze the ways in which performers were marginalized, as well as how they used their performances as methods for resistance to oppression.”