The most influential 30s burlesque dancers, who were successful in their decade and the genre. Rivalries and disputes continue over who invented what, when, where and how.
A decade of innovation which produced some of the most iconic and influential burlesque dancers. Not only did these Burly-Q Queens define the genre but they continued performing through the decades as burlesque legends. Find out what each woman brought to striptease during 30s burlesque.
(Image from The Sphinx & The Milky Way)
Chicago burlesque legend, Sally Rand, was originally a silent movie actress. Unluckily, she had a slight lisp and when films became talkies in the late 1920s she lost her career.
According to Sally Rand’s history, she was given short-notice for a dancing job and walking past a shop window saw a pair of vintage fans. She bought them, planning to upcycle the props and make a toga-type dress.
Sally Rand set to work but ran out of time and the burlesque fan dance was born. Her most famous performance came at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair entitled Century of Progress. She was arrested four times that day. Bravo!
See her legendary fan dance performance which also made an appearance in the 1934 movie Bolero:
She also invented the bubble dance to cope with the wind of an out-door performance. Though there’s some dispute over who first thought up the fan dance and she had a long term rival for that honour.
(Image from Eros et Vanites)
The New York burlesque performer, Faith Bacon, was inspired into a dance career after visiting Paris. She was initially the “principal nude” in Earl Carroll’s Vanities. Due to indecent exposure laws at the time, anyone nude on stage was prohibited from moving so lights would play across her body.
According to Faith Bacon, along with Carroll, she tried many tricks to get around this law. In 1930 they came up with the fan dance which was an instant success. Though, she was soon arrested. Faith Bacon began wearing a small “chiffon arrangement” beneath the fans and was found not guilty of giving an indecent performance. Phew.
Check out the famed Faith Bacon fan dance:
She went onto dance in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. Then, when Sally Rand performed at the Chicago World’s Fair 1933, Faith Bacon turned up to bill herself as “The Original Fan Dancer”.
After an accident, Faith Bacon was left scarred and her career struggled. She later tried to sue Sally Rand and stop her fan dance performances. Rand responded saying, “The fan idea is as old as Cleopatra. […] She can’t sue me for that.”
Nita & Zita
(Image from Argonaticos)
Little is known about the real Nita & Zita. The twin sister, burlesque dancers performed across the United States, and, possibly, Shanghai, Panama, and perhaps Paris and Egypt too.
The pair were known for their elaborate hand-made costumes and retired to New Orleans in the late 1940s. There they became quite reclusive. Their birth names were Flora and Piroska and there they died in 1985 and 1991, respectively.
Their neighbour Betty Kirkland was put in charge of their belongings and this is when they reached the height of their fame. The sale of their amazing burlesque costumes and crafts led to a five-year garage sale.
Disputes over ownership and collectors in the city still barter over Nita & Zita memorabilia, making these two women preservers and poster girls of burlesque’s golden age. They’ve also sprouted many tributes.
(Image from Johannaost)
Burlesque dancer and stripper, Sherry Britton was known for having “a body to die for”. The 5″3 tall, 18 inch waist beauty is an icon of burlesque’s hey day. Though, she’s noted as saying, “I despised burlesque.”
Nonetheless, she enjoyed stripping in clubs and is remembered for her classical music soundtrack, long gowns, crowns and that silhouette.
Gypsy Rose Lee
(Image from Opera Gloves)
Possibly the best-known burlesque dancer is Gypsy Rose Lee. She began in 30s burlesque when her talented sister June eloped and her dance skills weren’t enough to support her and her notoriously overbearing mother.
It began with an innocent wardrobe malfunction. As it often does. Her strap broke on stage and her dress fell to the floor. The crowd’s response led to Gypsy making this a key part of the show and a burlesque legend was born.
Known for her wit, she became one of the biggest stars of Minsky’s Burlesque as a teaser. “She is always about to undress, but she never completely fulfils the promise of her eyes and hips,” wrote David Dressler in a 1937 study of New York Burlesque.
In the late 1930s she briefly turned to Hollywood to make a career but returned to burlesque in the 40s. We have many favourite Gypsy Rose Lee moments, see her on What’s My Line? in 1959:
Check out A Gypsy Rose Lee Burlesque Perspective.
(Image from Vanity Fair)
Burlesque dancer, Ann Corio began in burlesque as a chorus girl at age 15. By 1936, like Gypsy, she was bringing in a star wage as a headliner of Minsky’s Theatre and during the depression dontchaknow.
Claiming to have never performed bump ‘n’ grind, she too left burlesque for Hollywood, in this case to avoid new styles of dancing. After disappointment she returned to the stage as a straight actor before being convinced by a theatre owner to create a burlesque revival on a shoestring budget in 1961.
The show was a huge success, featuring on Broadway and touring America. See her witty hosting of This Was Burlesque TV special in 1965 (below). She put the show together, directed and also performed in it:
As we now know, burlesque was revived once and has since experienced a new resurgence. These women continue to inspire and be remembered for their contributions to the art form.
Check out Five 20s Burlesque Dancers to Remember and our answer to what burlesque means.