Catharsis and purification in Neo-burlesque striptease

Erin Hill

The power of catharsis was first introduced in Aristotle’s Poetics as “the cleansing (purifying, purging) of feelings such as pity and fear by feeling them in an aesthetic context, such as the theatre.”1 In Aristotelian philosophy, catharsis was conceived specifically in relation to tragedies; the phenomenon evoked empathy amongst audience members for the characters onstage. The accident of catharsis was believed to create moral people, for once one has felt true empathy one cannot commit injustice.2 Recognizing the ability of theatre to evoke empathy, Brazilian doctor Augusto Boal developed a theatre pedagogy entitled Theatre of the Oppressed. Practiced worldwide, his exercises encourage critical thinking and focus on empowering the oppressed to ultimately effect positive social change. Augusto Boal warns against Aristotle’s philosophy of catharsis when applied in the mainstream National theaters that host aristocratic and socially respectable high-art. Boal asks, “[if catharsis is correction], what does it correct? [and if] catharsis is purification: what does it purify?”3 Boal contends that Western theatre practices represent a coercive system. The content of the work shown at conventional theatre houses uphold the values of the ruling class; the audience who experience catharsis in such productions is thereby intimidated and pressured into complying to the standards of aristocracy and the state, thus ignoring the possibility for representation of alternative realities. Challenging the orthodox use of catharsis, art-practitioners on the fringe of society expose these possibilities on unconventional stages. Through striptease and exotic dance a controversial form of catharsis is established. The climax of a striptease does not evoke empathy; it is not purgation in the Aristotelian sense of the word. Nor does striptease reinforce the status quo, rather, exotic dancers challenge societal norms.4 Striptease challenges the traditional roles of the obliging performer and the submissive spectator. In striptease, the audience-spectator relationship is simultaneously dialogical and individualizing. The performance inspires in both spectator and dancer an individual catharsis, thus creating alternative realities that are shaped to satisfy the spectator’s desires, and bring catharsis to the dancer through empowerment.

To illustrate this audience-performer connection, I have gathered sources that reveal the multiplicity of perspectives: from the history of striptease culture to legal cases regarding censorship and human rights. To exemplify and not generalize the style of Burlesque, I will be focusing on the use of striptease in neo-burlesque performances, using the work of English burlesque dancer Amber Topaz. To begin, I will discuss the codified movement vocabulary of striptease: how tease defers the climax and empowers the dancer. The use of personal narrative and humour will illustrate how neo-burlesque performers simultaneously advocate for and critique the sexualized body. The neglect of exotic dance in mainstream discourses, as well as the state’s creation of laws against it, underlines the controversial ability of neo-burlesque performance to subvert the status quo.

Hailing from a lineage of cabarets and variety shows, contemporary exotic dance takes to the stage with a question pursed on its lips: neither high-art nor social dance, where does it fit? Exotic dance incorporates many different styles: lap-dance, pole-dance, belly dance, gymnastics, classical dance- some women even dance on pointe. The post-war era was a pivotal moment for striptease culture; cabarets were recovering from the damages of World War II which had made casualties of their audience and budget. Then in the 1950’s, as counterpoint to the sexual repression of the times, a new interest in adult movie houses and pornographic magazines erupted.5 With the inception of peep shows and topless bars, the slow tease aspect of striptease became less valued. Professor Sherril Dodds discusses the development of this devalue throughout the 1960s.

The rhetoric of ‘free love’ prompted nudity to lose its cachet of an illicit thrill, while factions within the burgeoning feminist movement denounced it as an andocentric objectification of the female body. (…) For several decades after, the ‘tease’ disappeared and stripping slipped into the realm of pornography.6

Burlesque dancer by night, scholar by day, Dodds has devoted much of her research to understanding the disparities between the exotic dancers in Gentlemen’s Clubs and the dancers of Burlesque. In the chapter “Naughty but Nice“, Dodd’s explains, “the difference in these two strands of striptease culture is that burlesque is a self-proclaimed performance whose codified movements involve tease, humour, a sense of character and social commentary.”7 Moreover, the involvement of choreographic creativity recognized in classical dance also plays an important role in the development of neo-burlesque performance. The emphasized disparity between these forms lies in intention; where classical ballets use their specific movement vocabulary to express themes such as romantic, yearning love, burlesque points to an explicitly sexual content.8

Unlike other dance forms whose choreographies unfold towards a surprising resolution, in striptease spectators know what the climax will be: pasty tassels and skin. The surprise is hidden in the ‘how’, in the pathway leading up to the final moment of full exposure. The essence of tease, routinely overlooked by our fast paced society in pursuit of immediate satisfaction, remains the pulse and rhythm of burlesque. An account of the self-proclaimed “Original Yorkshire Tease” Amber Topaz performing in London in 2008 illustrates these qualities:

All that is left is the corset. She smiles. We smile. She gestures for applause. We whoop and off it comes. She looks shocked, then smiles knowingly. We want more. She shimmies her breasts, red sequined pasties flying round like little windmills. We applaud, we cheer, but still want more. She nods to her breast and twirls a single pasty tassel.9

The audience enters into a dialogue with the performer; paying for the tease and pleasure that the dancer will offer. The conventional model of supply and demand is enacted each time the spectators applaud for more and the dancer responds by removing more clothing. The use of tease persistently delays the climactic moment of supply, thus the dancer hold the reins with complete control.10 For the spectator, the dialogue becomes a narrative experience between their subjective desires and the objective performance. When finally the finale hits with titillating humor, catharsis is experienced both collectively and independently; the resolution as orchestrated by the performer exposes each spectator’s individual fantasy.

While audience response to personal fantasies is a crucial part of the striptease experience, performers also engage with personal narrative and persona. Carol Rambo Ronai, a sociologist and exotic dancer explains that in striptease culture, narrative resistance is used by performers to “resist the ubiquitous imputations of deviance that they confront in their everyday lives.”11 In this sense, narrative becomes an action by which subjects may create and manage their own identities. In neo-burlesque performance, the deviant language from which narratives of resistance are constructed always involve humour and parody. Amber Topaz demonstrates this cardinal rule of neo-burlesque stating, “Humour connects you to the audience […] ’cause they don’t feel like I’m some untouchable kind of erotic dancer – I’m a showgirl.”12 First used in 16th century France and Italy, the etymology of the word burlesque is derived from the idea of parody.13 Used today, this sense of mockery allows the performer to maintain a distance from the typical striptease body. The dancer may choose to advocate or critique, to expose or caricature.14 In Topaz’s work, humour reframes the sexualized body, enabling a shift of perspective away from mainstream views of striptease culture as pornographic or disempowering. Furthermore, neo-burlesque performance transgresses the expected voyeurism of exotic dance: whereas a traditional striptease relationship involves a patron exerting power over the dancer, the humouristic inclusion of audience members into neo-burlesque performance obliges the spectator to relinquish that control back to the dancer.

Augusto Boal’s warning against catharsis as a systematic standardization of society also applies in reverse effect. Well-known to the government, the potential of exotic dance to enable the undoing of social order has spurred the creation of laws prohibiting such activities. In “Dance Under the Censorship Watch,” Judith Lynne Hanna reports that censorship attacks on both publicly funded “high art” dance and “low art/entertainment” exotic dance, revealing the persistent desire to prohibit that which is considered obscene.15 The fact that any performance, whether a ballet in the theatre house or a burlesque performance in a strip club, may be subject to censorship proves that the power of catharsis supersedes that of aesthetic.

The conservative, disapproving view of striptease as an inappropriate and dirty engagement is not in comparison to high-art; rather it is in fear of social deviance. As Hanna explains,

Questions of stigma, morality, and entertainment appear to divert dance critics’ attention from exotic dance. Social class and elitist bias are manifest as well. Nudity is okay when seen in mainstream theatres by wine-drinking quiche eaters but not in club theatres by beer-drinking pretzel eaters.16

Furthermore, government endorsed restrictions on striptease do not come from concern for the dancer’s well-being, rather they come from the historical perception of dance as lascivious and contributing to capricious human behaviour.17 The negative societal reaction to exotic dance is rooted in recognition of the cathartic ability of striptease performance to subvert social norms.

When we look to the inception of exotic dance in Western cultures, the question of origin seems intangible. Which came first; the dancer or the patron? The origin of traditional and classical dance forms may be answered by means of a timeline, whereas the popularity of striptease seems to have burgeoned with no clear beginning. Neo-burlesque performance engages the audience in both a personal and collective experience; for catharsis to exist the striptease dancer needs the spectator as the spectator needs the dance. Should the community of neo-burlesque dance continue to expand what will be lost is not a question, when what will be gained is empowerment in the affirmation of alternative realities and of a self-chosen, sexualized body. In Amber Topaz’s words, “nobody told me that I’m not quite the right height, not quite the right look, or not quite the right sound. I can sing any song I like, I wear any costume I like and I’m perfect for the role.”18


1. Joe Sachs, “Aristotle: Poetics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed March 20, 2012,
2. Sachs, “Aristotle: Poetics,” 3.
3. Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 27.
4. Naomi M. Jackson, “Dance and Human Rights,” Dance and Politics ed. Alexandra Kolb (Bern: Peter Lang, 2011), 205.
5. Judith Lynne Hanna, “Right to Dance: Exotic Dancing in the United States of America,” Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion ed. Naomi Jackson and Toni Shapiro-Phim (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 89.
6. Sherril Dodds, Dancing on the Canon: Embodiments of Value in Popular Dance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 111.
7. Ibid, 125.
8. Hanna, “Right to Dance,” 88.
9. Dodds, Dancing on the Canon, 106.
10. Dodds, Dancing on the Canon, 122.
11. Kari Lerum, “Exotic Dance Research: A Review of the Literature from 1970 to 2008,” Sexuality & Culture 15, no.1 (2011): 56-79.
12. Dodds, Dancing on the Canon, 125.
13. Douglas Harper, “Burlesque,” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001-2012. Accessed March 20, 2012,
14. Dodds, Dancing on the Canon, 120.
15. Judith Lynne Hanna, “Dance Under The Censorship Watch,” Journal Of Arts Management, Law & Society 31, no.4 (2002): 305-6.
16. Ibid., 309.
17.  Jackson, “Dance and Human Rights,” 205.
18.  Dodds, Dancing on the Canon, 113.