Burlesque: The Forgotten Innovators – Part 1

Burlesque has boomed as a contemporary art form in the last two decades, as more and more new faces take to the stages and Facebook pages, driven by a love of all things burly-q. But as a popular, increasingly mainstream art form, burlesque often finds its history edited, with certain key names popping out (Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm, Sally Rand, Bettie Page etc) all the time, hailed as the pioneers of burlesque and heroic innovators in the field. And don’t get me wrong, we have much to thank these tremendous ladies for, laying the foundations of burlesque as we know it; we quite simply wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for them.

But with its trans-continental origins, vibrant, varied history and oft-forgotten characters, there’s a lot more to burlesque than nipple tassels and Dita Von Teese. So, we decided to dedicate our next few blogs to some of the more obscure and less well-known anecdotes and stories about burlesque and those names who contributed so much to the art-form but who are often missed off of lists of famous burlesquers of yesteryear. Ladies and gentlemen, we present: The Forgotten Innovators of Burlesque.

International singer and Broadway star Anna Held, circa 1899.

Vaudeville singer Anna Held was not a strip-teaser, but she certainly helped pave the way for those who removed their clothes onstage after her. She was discovered working in Paris by the infamous Florenz Ziegfeld Jnr who took her from the European music halls to Broadway in America. The musical comedies upon which Held & Ziegfeld worked established him as a producer of shows known for featuring beautiful, scantily-clad ladies and helped to make Held a household name on the international circuit.


The first burlesque company to be founded by an American, was ‘The Famous Rentz Santley Novelty & Burlesque Company’, run by Michael Leavitt. His shows featured a huge variety of acts, from comedy to can-can and much more.


One of the key precursors to modern burlesque dance was the ‘Skirt Dance’. Popularised towards the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it capitalised on the social taboo of seeing women’s legs (normally respectfully covered). British dancer Kate Vaughan is given credit for the first incarnation of the skirt dance in performance.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, skirt dancing had become a staple element in American vaudeville. It had been stripped of any hint of sauciness or bawdy behaviour, rendering it safe, family-friendly entertainment, even performed by children.

Annette Kellerman - from the Motion Picture News magazine, 1920.
Annette Kellerman in one of her famous diving poses – from the Motion Picture News magazine, 1920.


Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman is another name too often left off of the list of burlesque stars and innovators of yesteryear. Kellerman deserves credit for inspiring the ever-popular tank act (featuring beautiful women submerged in a tank of water, often dressed as mermaids) and she could also be called the first ever swimsuit model. Kellerman herself performed a diving act, wearing a full-length bathing costume (from neck to ankles) at amusement parks and beaches and occasionally in Vaudeville venues too.

We’ll be back later this month, with more stories of the forgotten heroes and heroines of burlesque, join us then.

(Research credit: Striptease – From Gaslight to Spotlight by Jessica Glasscock, Harry N Abrams Publishing, 2003.)