Because of the immense amount of misinformation thrown about these two types of venues, it is difficult not to associate both of these artforms with something pornographic or indecent. From cabaret’s humble beginnings in France as a more upscale alternative to typical taverns to burlesque’s history steeped in satire, both have experienced a revival of sorts in recent years.
What is Cabaret?
The earliest iterations of cabaret have been recorded in the early 1500’s. They never really were seen as entertainment venues (more like pubs) and separated itself from the typical tavern with a wider variety of food and the occasional entertainment. Over time, artists began to gather at these cabarets, which eventually led to its “underground culture” reputation.
Today, there are several different forms of cabaret, the majority of which liken its idea to a sort of “modern-day vaudeville” or “variety show”. Drag shows, stand-up routines, monologues and original music are things you can expect at a cabaret. While cabaret definitely has some erotic (and maybe even downright pornographic) undertones, an explicit, personal peepshow and striptease experience is something you should probably go somewhere else for.
Also check out our article on A Quick History of Cabaret to learn more about Cabaret.
What is Burlesque?
If you compare burlesque with cabaret, you’ll start to see that burlesque has deeper, more varied connotations. The word itself comes from the latin word burla which means “mockery”, “ridicule” or “joke”. Its roots came from literature and became a widespread term in Europe by the 17th century.
In terms of performance art, it branded itself as a sort of musical theater parody-type show that became popular in the mid-late 1800’s in England. As it died out in Europe in favor of other kinds of entertainment, it grew and became very popular in the United States; American burlesque shows adding other performances reminiscent of the popular minstrel shows of the time. Singers and performers who would strip became a normal feature of American burlesque and stripping became a normal feature by the 1930’s.
With the rise of Neo-Burlesque today, people can expect theatrical drama or comedy performances, modern dance and a significant amount of striptease elements. Modern burlesque shows also purportedly place a significant amount of investment on the costumes and dresses (or lack thereof!) used in the performances, so you should expect to see a lot of choreography geared towards utilizing the flashy-ness and glamour of these frilly, sometimes garish garments.
If there’s anything they have in common,
It’s probably going to be theater. Remember that you’re going to see a show. Whether you are sitting down having some drinks at a small, cozy table at a cabaret or having corsets thrown at you at a burlesque, keep in mind that it’s all part of the show and you need to respect etiquette, as well as the artform, along with its actors.
If you want to have a good time in these places, it’s a good idea to let the performers do their thing, but remember that it isn’t a strip club per se and treating them like professional strippers may have you getting kicked out the door faster than you can say “Moulin Rouge”. Alcohol’s a good thing to have around to let loose, but always know your limits.
It’s risque, it’s all a show, it’s sexy, it’s theater. So when in doubt, unless they say it’s okay, look but don’t touch!