Whether you’re a local or visiting from out of town, New York is one of the most exciting places in the country to see burlesque. There’s no shortage of top tassel-twirling to titillate and tease, from classic showgirl glamour to the avant-garde and outrageous. We spoke to two top experts — Jo Weldon, author of The Burlesque Handbook and headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, and Fancy Feast, burlesque artist and author of Naked: On Sex, Work, and Other Burlesques — whose perspectives are essential when understanding New York’s burlesque scene, which has a unique life of its own.
“New York City has one of the most vibrant and varied burlesque scenes in the world,” Weldon says. ”I think of the time when I started doing burlesque in the late ‘90s as a golden age of burlesque, but this is definitely another golden age. And I would hate to see anybody miss this. In New York. I think it’s an essential element of our downtown culture.” Plus, Fancy Feast says, New York’s burlesque scene can be delightfully in-your-face. “There’s something really uniquely confrontational about New York burlesque, which is not to say that it’s unfriendly, it just means that you’re more likely to get motorboated or have your lap sat in,” she says with a laugh. “More participation is required and expected of New York audiences because we want to make sure that you’re awake and paying attention.”
Before you begin, though, a few rules: first, never touch a performer without their consent. Second, always bring bills to tip your performers, and listen to the emcee about just how to do that — some performers will come around themselves, while other times there will be a tip bucket. And third, when you give a tip, don’t expect anything in return. As Fancy Feast says, “It’s just an indication that you enjoyed what you’re seeing. It’s really not paying for a specific service.” It’s also important to remember that what you’re seeing here is personalized, individualistic artwork. “Most of the burlesque performers in New York are creating their own routines. So it’s not like going to see a Vegas show or a Broadway show, where a producer and choreographer have come up with the number they invent,” Weldon says. “When you see someone in burlesque performing, they’re not just exposing their bodies, they’re exposing their creative vision…it’s amazing. It’s an independent art form. It’s just incredible.”
So when you’re ready for a shimmy and a shake, take your pick from this taste of the city’s most scintillating shows for every palate and passion.
132 9th Ave, New York, NY 10011
Bathtub Gin is a Chelsea speakeasy, but with a twist. Here, on Tuesday and Sunday nights, you’ll also find high-quality, glamorous burlesque that nods to the form’s naughty history with not just a floor show, but a bath show: the last performance of every night features a performer taking an actual bath in an actual bathtub. There’s even a splash zone. “Be mindful that if you’re sitting in proximity to the bathtub while the performer is splashing around in it, you may find yourself getting sort of log flume wet. [It’s] an interactive experience,” Fancy Feast laughs. Plus, both she and Weldon say the cocktails are some of the best in the city.
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189 Chrystie St, New York, NY 10002
Over 15 years since it opened, The Box is still an exclusive boundary-pushing late-night venue on the Lower East Side known for variety performances — music, aerial, fire and more — and of course burlesque. The latter includes the inimitable Rose Wood. Indeed, if you see her, Fancy Feast says, “consider yourself lucky. That’s a very New York Holy Grail.” So many of The Box’s performers are internationally renowned, you’ll have a stunning night out no matter what. You’ll need a reservation as well, though you can always take your chances (“Lacking a reservation, your chances will be calculated arithmetically: vibe multiplied by style divided by how many people you’re with,” the site shares). The shows start late — doors often open at 10 or 11 p.m. — and you must dress to impress. Fancy recommends sitting near the front if you can.
Burlesque at the Beach
1208 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11224, May-September
For over 25 years, Burlesque at the Beach has been a Coney Island staple from May to September. Known for its fun-loving atmosphere, it features a host of different producers developing shows all summer long, so you’ll see everything from classic burlesque to comedy to punk sensibilities within this wide range of burlesque babes. If you’re in town during the summer, check out the fireworks at the beach then make your way back toward the Sideshows by the Seashore Theatre, which also houses the Coney Island Museum and fabulous Freak Bar. The Miss Coney Island Pageant, the last show of the season, is among Burlesque at the Beach’s most beloved shows and sells out every year.
308 Bowery, New York, NY 10012
Styled as a vintage-inspired supper club and a nod to burlesque’s heyday, Duane Park is the only burlesque venue in New York that also features performances to live music. Expect an evening of classic burlesque performances, not to mention excellent food and cocktails, Weldon says. As with Bathtub Gin, Fancy Feast says, “the caliber of performance is so high quality and there are a lot of people innovating within that space. So it’s not just going to be a traditional fan dance that you see a million times.” You’ll find classic, yes, but not staid, in an evening that calls back to New York’s sophisticated uptown nightclubs of yore.
The Slipper Room
167 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002
You never know what you’re going to get at The Slipper Room, and delightfully so. Indeed, Weldon says, this is the venue where you’ll see the greatest range in performance styles, from showgirls to experimental flights of fancy, and it’s been that way for almost 25 years. If you’re stopping by, make sure to get there early for a table, though even if there’s only standing room you’ll still be able to see everything. On Fridays and Saturdays, there are two shows a night, or you can get there for the early show (9:30 p.m.) and stay for the late show (12 a.m.) for the price of one ticket.
The New York Burlesque Festival
Various Venues, September/October
The New York Burlesque Festival recently celebrated its 21st anniversary, and it takes place in late September/early October every year in four different venues across New York: Brooklyn’s Bell House and Brooklyn Bowl, and Manhattan’s Sony Hall and Le Poisson Rouge. Burlesque artists from across the country and the world flock to the city for this annual event celebrating the art form in all of its glitter, glamour, pasties, fishnets and glory. It’s a marathon of sorts, each show bursting with acts of all kinds, and it’s not to be missed if you’re in town.
106 Norfolk St., New York, NY 10002
Nurse Bettie is an intimate little pinup-themed bar — named for the inimitable 1950s pinup Bettie Page — on the Lower East Side with weekly burlesque shows. Weldon describes it as a neighborhood venue, one with its own regulars, but it’s no less vibrant. Even in its small space, the shows, featuring a variety of burlesque performances, get rowdy and fun. If you love a retro vibe and a casual atmosphere, this is the spot for you. Shows start at 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and be sure to buy your tickets on their site here.
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