Is burlesque more “artistic” than stripping? Is one more body positive than the other? Aria Delanoche breaks down the difference between the two communities, and what she loves about both. By Sophia Larigakis.
Aria Delanoche is a Chicago-born, Montreal-based burlesque dancer and stripper. Her ass-shaking abilities are of the highest echelon, and her grin is as mischievous and memorable as the Cheshire cat’s. The costumes she dons (and expertly shimmies out) of are works of art, made by her or in collaboration with artists and designers. When I asked Aria what initially drew her to striptease, she responded: “as a sexually expressive woman who has often been shamed and blamed because of it, I was thrilled to see a sex-positive arena in which sexual performance was applauded and respected.”
Aria is self-taught, and within just a year of her first-ever burlesque performance (at an amateur variety show), she shared a stage with Dita von Teese. A Renaissance woman of the modern age, Aria’s skills don’t end with her striptease prowess. She is also a stylist, photographer, seamstress, cocktail-mixer extraordinaire and all-around charming as hell.
Pic by Michael Ritter, from Aria’s Instagram
Sophia: What are some differences between the burlesque and stripping communities? In Montreal, is one community tighter than the other—why or why not do you think?
Aria: If there’s one thing that really separates the two communities, it’s competition. At the strip club, you are in direct fiscal competition with your coworkers. Every dollar they make is a dollar you don’t make, because there are only so many clients and the race is on to take home the clients’ cash. When you come to the club, you aren’t promised your fair share. You pay for use of the room, and everything you make is what you walk away with. Competition is only a facet of the relationship, though– at times we’re also each other’s dance teachers, stretching buddies, open ears and comedic relief. The competition is not all-encompassing– there are people who will say, “No, you go ahead. I’ve already made my personal minimum today.”
On the other hand, the Montreal burlesque community is kept alive because its members support each other. On a very micro-level, in the dressing room, we have each other’s backs. It’s definitely easier to do this because there’s no fiscal competition. But I like to think it extends beyond that.
Burlesque is sometimes perceived as somehow more “acceptable” and “artistic” than being a stripper. Do you find that that stigma overflows at all into the burlesque community, a kind of high/low-art distinction or taboo?
This is a huge issue in the burlesque community! Many of us work both jobs. Many others look down on those who do. Burlesque has roots in sex work; our legends like Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr started dancing in strip clubs. Some would argue that it is the sale of services– one-on-one dances– that classifies stripping as sex work, while burlesque is excluded from that title. Because of this distinction, some burlesque dancers hold strippers in disdain, and perpetuate stigmas against sex workers. I’ve heard dancers and teachers call moves or costume pieces “too stripper-y” with a tone of pointed distaste, under the argument that burlesque is supposed to tease and not give it all away. While I respect the desire to keep the two distinct, I believe the stigmatization is harmful for everyone involved.
And of course, it comes back to money– the main difference between the two realms of work. Burlesque costs money, almost as a rule. Many of us pour hundreds to thousands into extravagant costumes (a very important aspect of our performance), attending shows for research, and applying to festivals. Burlesque is exceptionally expensive, and therefore highly inaccessible to lower income people.
Stripping, on the other hand, is a way of using sexuality to reap fiscal security. For many dancers, it is the highest paying per-hour (averaged) job available, based on factors like level of education, social class, hiring discrimination, and location. I see the deriding of strippers by burlesque dancers as a particularly ignorant and classist brand of slut-shaming.
What are some differences you’ve noticed in how the respective audiences (burlesque, stripping) interact with the performers?
I’ve seen some people at burlesque shows say or do disrespectful things, but for the most part, they’re really lovely. There’s a tradition in burlesque to cheer, hoot and holler for performers– to vocalize support during the performance, even (especially) if it’s not going well. The audience is on your side from the start, and is there to reciprocate the energy you’re giving them. At the strip club, the energy exchange is a whole lot different. The clients are there for a reason. They’re looking for something, be it validation, a sub to dom, or a shoulder to cry on. The most successful stripper figures out what the client is looking for and finds a way to fit that mould. The energy exchange is completely one-sided; it’s as much a sale of emotional labor as it is a sexual service.
Both stripping and burlesque seem to me almost like forms of femme drag. They both emphasize the trappings and paraphernalia of high-femme gender performance. Burlesque tends to be infused with humor and satire, plus intentional excess, all of which I also associate with drag shows. Stripping is perhaps less obviously self-reflexive. Can you talk a bit about gender performance in burlesque and stripping?
Hell yes, showgirls are drag queens! Burlesque is (for me) totally femme drag– big lips, bigger lashes. The word burlesque is synonymous with caricature, parody, satire, which I agree is a tenet of drag as well. My characters tend to play with tropes like the vamp, the seductress, the femme fatale. These are constructions borne of fear and contempt for women who claim ownership and control of their sexuality, and who perform dominance. I have received abuse at the hands of men who conflate independence and outward sexuality with immorality, wantonness. Caricaturing is cathartic! I play a grotesque interpretation of these characters to simultaneously reclaim and ridicule them.
In the strip club, I found less opportunity for catharsis. I’m still in femme drag on the outside– big lips, bigger lashes– but it’s less genuine in that I play whichever character required to hit the client’s sweet spot. I value my time, and so I dedicate myself to making good money, and that often means playing into the clients’ desires. If he wants a gentle girl, time to play the gentle girl. If he wants a fierce femme, that’s what I serve. There is less opportunity to challenge these tropes intelligently because the motives are different. I’m not choreographing and designing a theatre piece– I’m improvising conversations and bodily cues with the interest of satisfying the client and in turn making their dollar.
Do you feel like you experience sexual harassment in stripping or burlesque more than in other arenas of your life or work experiences you’ve had, such as working in restaurants and bars?
It’s important to acknowledge here that I am an extremely privileged stripper. I work in a safe, fancy (read: expensive) club in a big liberal city, and the local burlesque joints have proven safe spaces for me. I know that dancers around the world in less ideal situations face much more trauma and harassment than I do. I am also a cis white person, which means I am less likely to be on the receiving end of harassment in general. I do, however, experience men crossing boundaries without permission, far more frequently than at bars or restaurants. The issue is an assumption that since I’m a sexually performative person I’m open to advances and tolerant of touching without consent. This is not the case. I am quick to correct this behavior when it arises, and I am lucky to be in a situation where I am able to do so without fear of losing my job and financial security.
Burlesque is super body-positive. Is there a similar sense of body positivity in your stripping community? Is your relationship to your body and how you use it in the strip club different than on a burlesque stage?
My stripping community is prevented from being body positive by managers who only hire certain shapes and sizes of dancers. The dancers themselves are not the issue. The club is perceived as higher quality by the manager and clientele if it upholds often problematic beauty standards. Managers cultivate a staff that reflects their personal tastes. I’ve heard stories of girls being asked to lose ten pounds or change their hair, and some of the black dancers have tales of trying every club in the city only to be told they “have enough black girls.” So no, my stripping community is not body positive. It is, after all, controlled by a man.
Apart from body autonomy, where do feminism and striptease (in burlesque and as a stripper, respectively) intersect?
My burlesque practice is a form of resistance—a self-empowering act and a public statement on body autonomy, freedom of choice, and freedom of sexual expression. In this right, it is feminist. The harder question to face is where feminism and burlesque don’t intersect. In order to accept burlesque as feminist, the community and the work would need to be actively anti-racist and anti-classist. In reality, we face a lot of problematic tendencies and behaviors. Burlesque has a long history of exoticizing people of color and appropriating cultural relics, from orientalism to blackface. Some dancers still perform appropriative acts, despite the kickback from activists within the community. This is a problem made worse by general under-representation of people of color. When the incredible Miss Poison Ivory won the Burlesque Hall of Fame’s competition for Queen of Burlesque in 2016 she became the first black queen in 20 years, and the second ever. She was called a token, told that she had won “because she was black” and not by the merit of her performance, to the point that she publicly issued a response defending her validity—something a woman of color should NOT have to do within a feminist community. Some members of our community combat under-representation and history erasure through showcases– Calamity Chang’s “Asian Burlesque Spectacular” and Jeez Louise’s “Jeezy’s Juke Joint: A Black Burly-Q Revue,” for example. The Irresistible O teaches a class on The History of POC in Burlesque. These people and many more are doing the work, and we cannot discount or forget that.
And stripping? I support sex workers, the value of their work, and their rights. I cherish them, and I appreciate their feminisms. I’m with arguments for personal agency, reclaiming and subverting tropes, and ritualizing acknowledgement of objectification through performance. I don’t think stripping fails to be feminist because it “panders to the male gaze” or “reinforces the patriarchy.” But again, feminism must acknowledge and challenge all the systems of oppression– and when the club has proven itself to be a space that actively employs and perpetuates racist ideology, going so far as to be inaccessible to women of color, I stop being able to appreciate its value. When big bodies, trans people, and people with disabilities are simply not part of the picture, I wonder whether this particular brand of sex work is actually valuable for feminists. Unlike burlesque, I don’t have the faith in stripping to be a vehicle for sex-positive action and education–not because of strippers, but because of strip clubs.
Sophia Larigakis is a Canadian writer living in New York City.