Archives 2009

Burlesque v. Geisha

or  democratising the erotic


Natalia Read

In the East and the West there are two different sexualised art forms. There’s high culture geisha in Japan and low culture burlesque in Europe. Whereas burlesque is going through a revival, geisha is vanishing.

A palpable cultural shift has occurred in Europe in recent years which has allowed burlesque to become, while not mainstream, certainly a socially acceptable  form of entertainment. The London Burlesque Festival was inaugurated two years ago and last year the – ironically named – Ministry of Burlesque acquired a seven-figure investment from a major mainstream media company to create a TV channel and studios exclusively committed to burlesque.


Traditional Maiko

Traditional Maiko

For various reasons a certain amount of mystery has always surrounded the geisha world, confined as it is to hanamachi (literally translated as ‘flower towns’).  These are designated areas where a young girl may be first apprenticed as a maiko for five intensive years of tuition and practice after which the title of geisha may be bestowed upon her.

The tradition of geisha in Japan has shrunk to about 800 qualified practitioners. It is more likely to be amaiko, an apprentice, rather than a geisha whom a tourist may see out shopping, dressed in a kimonowith an obi (sash), her face a mask of pure white pigment with red lips. In the 1920s there were, it is calculated, about ten times as many geishas than there are now.

Westerners are often confused about whether or not geisha is a form of prostitution and there are historical reasons for this confusion.  Originally prostitutes were licensed to practice only in certain areas outside the city and an economic hierarchy developed amongst them. At its apogee there were extravagantly wealthy courtesans whom only the richest men could afford.  Meanwhile at court there were geishas, originally boys but later women, who were trained in the gei, that is, in traditional artistic pursuits, social graces and refined erotic displays. When the geishas were moved out of court to their own area, courtesans objected that their own livelihoods were threatened. In due course these two groups were licensed separately.  Geishas were legally obliged to confine their business with clients to the exposition of gei and had to dress and conduct themselves soberly in contrast to the flamboyant extravagance of the courtesans. In time, geishas acquired social status of a kind, became what we would call fashion setters, and were revered for their grace and elegance in karyukai, ‘the flower and willow world’, the refined stratum they inhabited.

How they came into the profession varied.  Over a hundred years ago small girls may have been sold into geisha by their families, and there is evidence into the twentieth century of continuing ritual deflowerings of maiko. Sayo Masuda, anonsen (hot spring resort) geisha working in the 1930s, revealed in a book she later wrote that such women were often forced to have sex in exchange for money.  There are also stories of promiscuity and prostitution during the Allied Occupation of Japan up to 1951 but they arose because Japanese prostitutes sometimes told soldiers they were geishas.  After World War II new laws in Japan forbade institutionalised coercion in hanamachi. Today’s geisha ormaiko freely choose to enter the okiya, the few  geishahouses that remain. Now and then there are stories in contemporary Japanese newspapers about geishas who have become mistresses of wealthy men but the incidence relates to adult choice rather than institutionalised abuse. Where she was once literally on the outskirts of accepted society, now the geisha is amongst the last to hold a precious key to ancient Japanese arts and rituals.


Burlesque Star

The burlesque which we all know these days might more properly be called neo-burlesque.  Amongst the most important pioneers of neo-burlesque in the 1990s was the American dancer Billie Madley, famous for her role in the New York show ‘Cinema’. Today’s acts are built around expensive costumes, lewd humour, and above all witty pastiche and parody of the teasing erotic dances that started, as contemporary costumes testify, in nineteenth century European cabaret venues such as the Moulin Rouge in Paris.  And there is striptease. But this is not a defining feature of burlesque.

Nor does burlesque have anything to do with prostitution. If there is striptease the focus is not on nudity but on style and execution of the routine, on the performer being witty and sexy rather than sexual.  Any unsavoury tension is converted into risqué, digestible humour, perhaps even the grotesque.  The show has nothing to do with the link between money, sex and ‘exotic dancing’ unless these are made the butt of an onstage joke.

A new generation wistful for the spectacle and the glamour of past times has grown in Europe and America and is bringing burlesque back. The old incarnation of the tradition was taboo in its day.  The contemporary version is much less so, reflecting our loss of constraint and our increased sense of humour when it comes to sex.  At its most profound, burlesque performance highlights the farcical nature of human desire.

The flower and willow world, on the other hand, is disappearing. While legal controls on the geisha’sconduct have made it a respectable and culturally valuable occupation, it is nevertheless not usually regarded as a profession which educated parents would encourage their daughter to enter. The few young women who still wish to become geishasnowadays elect to begin their training not at the age of fifteen as used to happen, but after they have completed school or even college.

Yet again another tranche of traditional custom may be eradicated by the influence of the West’s democratic values. In contrast to burlesque, which had no place to go except up, the prospects for geisha, representing the pinnacle of a thousand years of progressive cultural refinement,  are not promising. Deconstructed reinvention worked for neo-burlesque but somehow – one wouldn’t bet on ‘neo-geisha’.



Masuda, Sayo, Autobiography of a Geisha (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003)

Golden, Arthur, Memoirs of a Geisha (New York: Vintage, 1999)

Seigle, Cecilia Segawa, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993)

Aihara, Kyoko, Geisha: A Living Tradition (London: Carlton Books, 2000)

Baldwin, Michelle, Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind (Colorado: Intrigue Press, 2004)


Photo Credits

1. ”Traditional Maiko”, Sam Lim

2. Model: Petra So,

3. ”Geisha Dancing”, Michael Ruru,

4. ”Burlesque Show”, Marcy Cimitero,

5. ”Burlesque Star”,  David Wooley,

6. Geisha poster fragment, anon.

7. ”Modern Geisha”, Lance Lucas,


Natalia Read is the West Midlands regional editor of the online publication ArtArtArt at   She has a degree from  the University of Bristol (2008) and recently completed a training programme with Matt Roberts Arts in London.

Natalia Read