Dita von Teese, burlesque superstar, author, actress, costume and lingerie designer, and formidable businesswoman, is idolized by many who might not otherwise fancy themselves enthusiasts of burlesque, let alone openly admire a star of “adult entertainment.” She has revived both an early incarnation of her art (even the “tease” in “striptease” seems charmingly antiquated by standards shaped by Hustler and the Internet-driven ubiquity of porn) but also an aesthetic, a mode of comportment that harkens back to a time when women went to finishing school and learned to dress, pose, sit, walk, gesticulate, speak, and even laugh with a certain delicate restraint. It’s an aesthetic wherein a woman’s dignity is an integral part of her sexual allure, rather than a thing to be sacrificed in pursuit of sexiness.
Von Teese’s burlesque performances and her vast body of work as a model (for which she has maintained both artistic and financial control, designing and copyrighting the images) are marked by a playfulness that never gets sloppy, a sensual and sexual openness that never succumbs to the crass: in her most outré moments one can’t quite imagine her doing anything “obscene.” This juxtaposition of the high and low art, the very artfulness itself, has made Von Teese the most celebrated burlesque dancer in the world, and gained her fans of both sexes, even made her an unlikely feminist idol.
The Rumpus: How do you rehearse? How much of what we see onstage is improvised?
Dita von Teese: It depends on the act. Some are very precise and more tightly choreographed than others. Others are not so much apart from hitting certain marks and parts of the song, because the sizes of my stage vary so much that I have to be ready for anything, to work with a new space. Plus with the complexity of most of the costumes and the way they come off, there’s got to be a little leeway in the choreography.
Rumpus: One thing people often remark on regarding your work, and the “vintage” burlesque it harkens back to, is that it is so elegant, playful, and even innocent compared to many of today’s forms of titillating dance performance and stripping. Why do you think “adult entertainment” has diverged from the ladylike to this much more overt (perhaps even humorless and literal) and pornified manifestation? Or is it a mistake to even analogize today’s adult entertainment with burlesque?
von Teese: It’s all relative. To relate adult entertainment to burlesque, because that’s what it originally was in the 1930s—titillating entertainment for adults. I don’t romanticize the past much when it comes to this subject, because one could buy hardcore porn, heavy bondage and fetishistic erotica from the time the camera was invented. It’s always been there, and some people have always wanted it; it’s just that nowadays it’s easier to find it. People are people and have always had these urges and fascinations with sexuality and even extreme sex, so I think it would be a mistake to say things are so different now. It’s only different because we are freer to be how we want to be publicly. We also have more access to erotica due to the way technology has changed. (continue reading)