The Three Books of the Burlesque Bible


by: Shoshana

Often the story of beginning in burlesque, is “I saw it and now I want to do it my own way and make it my own”.  The more involved in burlesque you become, the more interested you are in reaching out and finding a sense of community, first regionally, then nation and worldwide.  You to learn and grow from those around you as well as those who came before you.  Regardless of where you are in your burlesque journey, it is important to have a foundation of burlesque as it was, and an understanding of the brief history of the burlesque revival.  Why?  Because everyone will look to you.  You will constantly be asked by fans, media, students, and potential audience members, and it is important to have the most basic arsenal of knowledge.  Ultimately, burlesque, what it was, and what it will become is entrusted to you.  You are burlesque.  You are the legacy.

There are many, many great books about burlesque and I invite you to leave your favorites in the comments section below, but these are what I have come to refer to as the Canonized Bible of Burlesque.  If you are only going to make time to read three books; these are the ones.

behind_burlyAlso a film, Behind the Burly Q, is the must read history of burlesque as it was. Leslie Zemeckis spent years researching and compiling the stories of burlesque legends.  Given access to performers memorabilia and diaries, Zemeckis has woven the stories into one of the most thorough and entertaining books on the original burlesque movement in America that you will ever read.

From the website: “Full of gossip and firsthand accounts of backstage exploits, heartbreak and success Behind the Burly Q is also a heartwarming and inspiring book about the women and men whose lives have never before been chronicled in such detail.”

BurlesqueNewBumpandGrindIf Behind the Burly Q is the must read to learn about the original burlesque movement, Michelle Baldwin’s Burlesque and the New Bump and Grind, is the gospel of the neo-burlesque movement.  Baldwin chronicles the early days of the revival in New York and Los Angeles, and how burlesque quickly spread across the country.  With interviews from the biggest starts in the current burlesque circuit, brilliant quotes, clever photographs, and tales of the hits and the misses of the early days of the revival, Baldwin’s Burlesque is a staple for any burlesque library.



Now that you have a foundation of where it all began it is time for the mighty Jo Weldon’s Burlesque Handbook.  Aptly named, the Handbook is the result of years of instruction handouts from the School of Burlesque and years of stage performance and teaching experience.  Divided into four sections: Burlesque Movement, Act Development, Refining Performance, and Take a Bow, Weldon covers everything from technique and music selection, to costumes and backstage etiquette.  There is simply no better how to burlesque guide out there.





An incredibly basic timeline of burlesque in America:



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  1. I’m also a performer, and I have to disagree with Behind the Burly-Q being included in any list of great burlesque books. It is not a history of burlesque – perhaps it is a history of white burlesque, but not as burlesque as a whole. The author lumps all non-white performers into a chapter called “The Exotic Others” and claims there was no way to really find out the history of Black legends/that there weren’t many to begin with, which is patently untrue. Black burlesque performers were integral in integrating the South and were faced with Jim Crow laws, violence and hatred. Their history is rich and is, in my opinion, more compelling than hearing the same stories about Gypsy and Lili St. Cyr over and over again.

    That she writes about minstrel shows as if they were just any other form of entertainment and refers to “stereotypical blacks” is even more troubling.

    Michelle and Jo’s books are excellent and deserve all the credit they get. I hope that the burlesque community will stop holding up Behind the Burly Q as a comprehensive history worth reading, and recognize it as just another example of a white historian only writing about white history and getting away with calling it just “history”.

  2. Thanks for your feedback. What single book do you feel is a more complete history of the original burlesque movement? We love book recommendations!

  3. I don’t think it’s been written yet! I know that a member of the community has been doing oral histories of the legends and I hope that she turns it into a book as she’s been interviewing a wide variety of women. We are quickly losing so many stories as we lose our legends, and I hope she puts her material into print. If I were a better researcher/writer, I would do a book on the history of the Black performer circuit during Jim Crow South (anyone who is an ambitious writer is free to take that idea and run with it!). I’ve heard some of those stories in person and they are really incredible.

    I wanted Behind the Burly Q to be a real history, but it 100% isn’t. And there is just no room in our community for anyone who refers to people as “stereotypical blacks….and also country bumpkin types”.