A Guide to Recognizing Your Pasties, or A Non-Alphabetical Glossary of Burlesque
Lauren Emily Whalen
Pasties come in every shape, size and color. They can be plain or blinged within an inch of their minuscule lives. They can have tassels attached. They go on one’s butt cheeks with tassels attached and referred to as “assels.”
How do they stay on? You can use rubber cement, spirit gum or eyelash glue — if you can locate the eyelash glue tube at all (see also, Falsies). In fact, some swear by the above methods, especially the former theater majors. But most often, and especially when you find yourself with pasties but no way to stick them on, you’ll become best friends with tape.
Medical tape is an option, but that shit is sticky. On the bright side, your pasties will stay firmly tacked on your body. On the dark side, your pasties will stay firmly tacked on your body forever, or at the very least, require a lot of post-show scrubbing.
The most common way to affix pasties is wig tape. Wig tape can be purchased at any store that has wigs, though your best bet remains stores that cater to drag queens — bonus, you can also find costume pieces, makeup, jewelry and various sparkly bits and bobs.
Wig tape can come with clear, white or blue backing. Wig tape can come in rolls like Scotch tape, or sticks like Juicy Fruit gum. Wig tape can be easily cut with any kind of scissors, or even torn with nimble fingers, to achieve the perfect size for the back of the pastie, as well as whatever amount of stick gives the dancer peace of mind.
Taking off pasties at the end of the night is the equivalent of ripping off two heavy-duty Band-Aids, only you’re ripping them off your nipples. Don’t worry, eventually your nipples will lose some, most or all sensations! It’s a glamorous life.
What some burlesque dancers will call a merkin, or a “wig for the vulva”, as it’s essentially one large pasty that you stick down there. Any dancer can sport a pussty/merkin regardless of what they’re packing.
Unlike pasties, which are available for purchase at alternative/sex stores–though the quality isn’t great–a pussty is often custom-made, by you if you’re crafty or by someone you pay if like me, you are not. Like pasties, a pussty can be plain, sequined, jeweled to the goddesses or it can even resemble a ‘70s-era merkin with fake pubic hair.
How does it stay on? Much like pasties, options are: eyelash glue, rubber cement, wig tape or medical tape, which I used when I sported a jeweled pussty for a vintage Playboy tribute show and which ripped out most of my existing pubes. But hey, free bikini wax and the pussty stayed on.
Not exactly a G-string, not exactly a pussty. My friend Ali calls this “the slap bracelet of the pooswah,” a reference you will only understand if you were born before 1990. Think of a C-string as a thong without the strings on the sides that secure it to one’s hips.
Sound unstable? That’s because it is.
In the front: a pussty (just as with a pussty, one does not need to possess a vulva to sport a C-string) for the crotchal area. Secure the pussty. Then gingerly thread the “string” part of the contraption… there is no good way to say this except, “through your butt crack.”
Get it really smushed up in there. Like a thong, right? Except less comfy! Then, stick the pre-taped “end” — which often looks like a single pastie — just above the crack of your ass.
Self-conscious about dressing-room gawking? Believe me, nothing is out of bounds in a burlesque-changing space. Plus, everyone’s so preoccupied with wrangling their own costume pieces, and their sticky reinforcements, the sight of you wrangling a flimsy string will inspire nary a glance. Hell, if you need help, just yell.
In the 1950s, removable fake boobs. In burlesque, removable fake eyelashes of varying sizes, from subtle fringe to actual feathers. Can be applied via magnet — these are more expensive — or with a tube of glue approximately the size of a baby’s pinky finger, that is inexplicably attracted to the bottom of one’s makeup or gig bag. The hole at the mouth of the eyelash glue is approximately the size of a flea’s asshole.
A G-string ideally close to your skin color — this can be achieved by dyeing the fabric or even just coloring it with foundation makeup — worn under certain underpants where your, uh, private parts stand a strong chance of popping out to say hello at inopportune moments (what’s known as a “lip slip”).
If you have to ask, “does this costume require a safety thong?” the answer is yes.
The biggest deal in burlesque.
Your stage name is your “brand”. Regardless of how you feel about that term, our culture has required us all to be the equivalent of Heinz ketchup, recognizable and always sellable. And never, god forbid, like anyone else.
Choose carefully. You might pluck your stage name out of thin air, like a magician with a scarf or a hat rabbit. One turn of phrase and boom, you have an identity. You may have to make lists, playing with firsts and lasts, with puns and witty turns of phrase.
Anything that sounds French connotes a certain glamour. Puns imply a goofy-sexy sense of humor — “and she’s funny.” Anything involving the monikers “Kitty” or “Cherry” better be goddamn original elsewhere, because burlesque is bursting with Kitties and Cherries, often newbies who don’t know any better and are under pressure after booking their first show.
Always Google your stage name before use. The last hassle you need as a burlesque newbie who’s still learning to put on pasties and wobble in heels is an angry email from a dancer in St. Louis or New Orleans or the Netherlands who’s been around since burlesque was invented, and who cannot believe your audacity in using their special name. Google can save you a world of hurt.
Other words for burlesque dancer that make you sound very fancy and glittery, which is especially needed on the nights you feel like hammered shit but not sick enough to cancel.
These words are also used to justify why you simply cannot wake up early (“I’m a showgirl, I don’t go on till midnight!”), why you go to work with a riding crop and/or feather boa sticking out of your Coach bag (“I have show pony rehearsal right after I clock out, tee hee!”), and why you perform any kind of bizarre behavior including but not limited to leaving a dinner party early where the other women will not stop discussing…dishwashers (“gotta run, my showbo pal is debuting tonight, good luck with the Whirlpool!”).
Welcome to burlesque’s greatest debate.
Are burlesque dancers, in fact, strippers? Depends on who you ask. And whoever you ask will have very strong opinions.
If you ask me, burlesque dancers and strippers are similar but not the same. I have referred to myself as a stripper and I’m not alone. I know people who take it off in theaters and at Deja Vu-esque clubs. I adore Hustlers and the Magic Mike Cinematic Universe (the MMCU).
That said, I cannot work a pole to save my life. I like the comfort of covered nipples and crotch. While I have worked the bar crowd, I know I couldn’t do that at a club, my livelihood depending on each grabby hand I dodged.
Are burlesque dancers better than strippers? That is an unequivocal hell no. If you consider stripping sex work, you should also know that sex work is worthy of respect.
Strippers make more money. A lot more. Even after predatory club fees, strippers have the potential to make bank, which burlesque dancers not named Dita Von Teese do not. Fancy costumes cost money and that money comes right from the dancer’s pocket. If the dancer is creative, they also mean labor. Lots of it. Unpaid.
You know who else does unpaid labor? A club stripper who has to sell lap dances and listen to the sob stories of unfulfilled patrons like so many therapists while their abs are still aching from pole work and/or working the crowd in Pleasers. A club stripper who might not be safe walking to their car at the end of the night because an asshole has mistaken their friendliness, which is part of their job, for romantic overtures. A club stripper who has to compete with their colleagues to get the best shifts.
So no matter what you think of the Great Burlesque Dancer vs. Stripper Debate that will go until the end of time, respect your friendly neighborhood strippers. And tip.
The genre of burlesque most non-burlesquers are familiar with, thanks to films like Cabaret (an amazing flick, though more Fosse dancing than actual burlesque, though Fosse did perform in burlesque houses as a teen) and Burlesque (a so-bad-it’s-good favorite even though technically not burlesque because there are no pastie reveals).
Think long gowns with matching gloves, high heels, feather boas; or suit jackets, visible garters, choreography that involves a hat, cane, chair or all of the above. Music that’s decidedly waa waa in sound, jazz or Broadway preferred. Makeup and hair that’s decidedly femme.
The downside of classic is that it can give way to gatekeeping: what is and isn’t classic and who can and can’t perform it, as well as the misinformed belief that classic is the superior form of burlesque. Cue endless eyerolls.
A genre of burlesque that parodies and/or pays tribute to — often a loving combination of both — pop culture. Nerdlesque encompasses every property from Lord of the Rings to Jem to anything in the Marvel or DC universes, to various manga and Murphy (as in Ryan, who has approximately 1,000 projects going on at once). You don’t have to be Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons to perform in, and create, nerdlesque that’s both a love letter to diehard fans and an enjoyable night out for all.
Of course, there are gatekeepers who don’t find your costume accurate enough or your music cool enough or you enough of a superfan to even dare making an act or show. These people are generally backstage, in the industry, and/or jealous.
A solo is all you. You choose the costume, the music, the props, the choreography. You pay for it all. You can outsource whatever you’d like, but know that it will cost more. You put it together in a rehearsal space, which you will also have to pay for, or more commonly, the limited square footage of your own apartment. Ideally, you will “book” the solo (get it in shows) enough times to profit.
This does not always happen. Solos, plus costs of makeup and travel/transportation and pasty tape and preshow snacks and postshow drinks, are both necessary and why burlesque dancers typically don’t make a lot of money. The dollars fly out of your hands more quickly than they fly in, if they fly in at all.
What has the best chance of booking: anything Halloween, which is burlesque-dancer Christmas. Actual Christmas solos book as well. You can book the same solos year after year, refining costume pieces, choreography and even music as you go. Or you can keep everything the same, stored inside your gig bag to be whisked out annually in October or December or whenever C2E2 (Chicago’s version of ComiCon) is happening this year.
Strut and strip
A solo light on hardcore choreography, during which the dancer does their own version of “sexily walking around the space while removing clothing and interacting with the audience.”
Not all burlesque performers are trained dancers. Even for those who are, it’s nice to have a strut and strip solo in your back pocket for the gigs when you twisted your ankle in last night’s shoes, or you are coming down with a cold, or this is show four of four in two days and it’s almost one a.m. and you just can’t anymore, but also you need the money.
A strut and strip is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Even if it’s not classic, this is the type of solo a newbie audience member or bar patron will be familiar with thanks to pop culture presentations of burlesque. It’s both comforting and titillating, which can be highly profitable.
That’s not to say a strut and strip doesn’t require planning. As with all burlesque, your moves — even if that’s just sexy walking, which by the way is much harder than it looks — and the order in which you remove your garments must be strategic. There is room for improv and audience interaction, but you do have to reveal before your music runs out and you can’t just look like you’re dropping trou in your apartment at the end of a workday.
Do NOT chew gum during a strut and strip. I’ve seen that, and it’s horrifying. Also, please cut the tags out of your costume pieces. Remember, they will spend a considerable amount of time bunched up on various floors. Do you really want people to look at a bunch of tags when they should be ogling your juicy ass?
A document outlining the run order (order of acts), setup/takedown instructions (see also, stage kitten) and music (which should be emailed to the producer by a predetermined deadline), call time (when performers are expected to be at the venue), showtime, and other factors that performers and crew need to know. Put together by the stage manager or producer. Should include contact info for performers who are running late. Can be electronic, paper or both.
Run orders are a whole thing. They are always subject to change, depending on who is late, who has food poisoning and had to cancel last minute, who specifically requested not to go first…and who was put first anyway. Run order is delicate because you want to start and end with a bang, not put similar acts too close to one another, etc. It requires a skilled producer, and not all producers are skilled.
I try not to overthink my place in the run order, but as a chronic overthinker, I often fail.
The bag you take to and from gigs. Can be any shape, size and color.
May include: essential costume pieces (see also, Safety thong), extra costume pieces, wig tape (for pasties and actual wigs), simple makeup, elaborate makeup, body glitter, wallet for cash tips and post-gig drink money, extra pair of civilian underwear in case you lose yours in whatever is passing for a dressing room, hairspray, hairbrush, hair pins, various hair tools, robe/caftan for backstage or front of house lounging, bottle of water, bottle of wine, bottle of whisky, Advil.
May also include: various black clutter. As a burlesque dancer, one quickly accumulates a trove of black lingerie: bras, panties of every possible coverage from granny to G-string, underbust corsets, overbust corsets, waist cinchers (no bust at all, so not a corset), stockings that run if you look at them funny, and stockings that could withstand a nuclear apocalypse. From Target, from Cosabella, from the corner of the dressing room, doesn’t matter: you will have various black shit. And it never hurts to stuff some in your gig bag before rushing out the door, in case of losses or snags or a surprise second solo.
Possibly my favorite burlesque slang: like the mulleted TV detective, literally making something out of nothing, under a ticking clock of enormous pressure.
MacGuyvering is an essential skill because in burlesque, shit goes wrong. You will forget an unforgettable, irreplaceable custom-made costume piece. You will break an irreplaceable prop seconds before your cue. You will bring the wrong costume or send the wrong music. You will forget to wear pasties and not realize this until you are in the process of removing your bra onstage. You will.
MacGuyvering can include but is not limited to realizing your Christmas-bow pasties are missing at a drag-bar holiday show minutes before you are scheduled to go on, grabbing two actual Christmas bows off a prop present backstage, and sticking those to your nipples, before returning home later that night to find your Christmas-bow pasties…at the bottom of your bag. But the number went off without a hitch and your nipples will recover. One day.
Audiences go wild for splits. Every time. Even cheerleader/ballet splits. Even half- or jazz splits. They just do.
A strategic move that makes an audience go wild (see also, Splits).
A tassel twirl is exactly what it sounds like: using the tassels affixed on the pasties affixed on their nipples and/or ass cheeks, occasionally both, the dancer makes them twirl. This can require a strategic amount of shoulder shimmy and posterior pop, sometimes combined with bouncing up and down for maximum effect. Requires practice — like dying, tassel twirling is an art.
When one has tassels, the audience is easy to impress. It’s important to keep in mind that a burlesque dancer’s harshest critics are… other burlesque dancers. The audience, on the other hand? Just impressed at your public nudity. Sure, you may have to win over the reluctant plus-one, the bar patron who unexpectedly wandered into a pop-up performance, the preppie with a stick up their ass. You may not be successful. But hey, the majority of them are just happy you’re here, you’re naked, and you’re twirling those tassels, or at least trying.
Pastie pop, aka nip slip
Just what it sounds like: the moment when for whatever reason — not enough tape or too much sweat or it’s just a Friday — your pastie comes off your nipple in front of an audience. Depending on your state’s “blue laws” (what has to be covered in environments where alcohol is served), this can be bad for the venue, so what do you do? You deal. Even if that means finishing the number with your back to the audience as your friend yells “It’s okay, girl!” from the audience, or if you are Han Solo onstage with Princess Leia and it’s almost the end of the show so you just… cover your tit with your hand.
A pastie pop is a burlesque rite of passage. It will happen to you. Embrace it.
A stage kitten works their ass off. In addition to bopping onstage after each performer gets all the hoots and hollers, and bending over in a cute way (which is a challenge, try it) to pick up discarded costume pieces — which can be ALL OVER the space, including audience members’ seats, laps, and heads — stage kittens come on before each performer who needs setup.
And these aren’t always little props. Presets can involve tables, chairs, giant martini glasses, what have you. These big props might need smaller props set on top of them. And these props can’t just be set anywhere. A stage kitten must communicate with each performer, and sometimes the producer and/or stage manager, to make sure everything is correct. This can involve note-taking.
Basically, a stage kitten drops off sparkly crap. They pick up sparkly crap. They haul sparkly crap through and in and around very tight spaces. They have to do this quickly and efficiently, so as not to drag down the show’s runtime. And they get very little love.
In certain troupes, performers must start as stage kittens. While I don’t agree with this, I do think every performer should kitten. Keeps one humble.
Stage door Johnny
A cute old-fashioned term for “groupie.”
Stage-door Johnnies used to wait outside the venue for showgirls, so I wanted to include this definition as a nod to burlesque history. Modern-day burlesque dancers tend to use the word “groupie.” And groupies are not cute.
Groupies try to get backstage by saying they know one of the performers. First of all, no one belongs backstage except for performers and necessary crew, and second of all, you don’t “know'' a burlesque performer if you’ve met them once in passing.
Groupies take unauthorized photos and videos at shows — this is a big, big deal, as performers have gotten fired from their day jobs when the wrong photo landed in the wrong place — and then post them without dancers’ permission.
Groupies shamelessly add dancers’ private Facebook accounts, slide into our DMs, offer us drinks/sex/“photoshoots”/ick.
Groupies get very offended when dancers don’t return the affection that groupies feel they deserve just by begging for free tickets to our shows and commenting endlessly and inappropriately on photos of us and our cat — not a euphemism, literally our pets.
Groupies can be tolerated, even embraced, but are often held at arm’s length.
The groupie-to-stalker pipeline is real and it is scary.
Don’t be that guy.
Wikipedia defines a missing stair as “a metaphor for a person within a social group who many people know is untrustworthy or otherwise has to be ‘managed,’ but whom the group chooses to work around, by trying to quietly warn others of their behavior [aka a whisper network], rather than deal with them and their behavior openly.”
Sadly, “missing stairs” aren’t exclusive to the burlesque community, and neither is their behavior. Missing stairs are not always cishet men, but usually they are, and this is important to know. Yes, there are cishet men in burlesque, but mostly, the community is made up of those of us on the cishet fringes: those who aren’t male, aren’t white, aren’t cis, aren’t heterosexual, any and all of the above. In other words, most of us vulnerable to missing stairs.
You will still be new to burlesque when you learn to watch your back. To listen to whispers, and your own gut, and listen hard. To try to figure out who to trust and who not to, but even this gets confusing because loyalties can be strong, impenetrable. To speak up, or to not speak up if you know you won’t be believed because everyone loves the person who “accidentally” walked into your changing space and put his hand squarely on your ass. To say no, and to say no again, and to say no again, even if that means less gigs, more rumors, vaguebooks about how “difficult” you are as a performer.
Be careful, honey.
The mental, physical and emotional downfall a burlesque dancer experiences after a night of performing, from the highest high to the lowest low.
Muscles that can only be described as “hurty,” aching arches from high heels or even ballroom shoes that are supposed to be easier on one’s feet — soreness that transcends the dancer’s very skin. The lower back is very cranky, especially if the dancer is over twenty-five years old. In short, the meat suit feels like shit.
That’s to say nothing of the inherent exhaustion that compels the dancer to starfish on their bed or if they can make it that far, collapse on their loveseat, Victorian fainting couch-style, into a pile of Cheez-It crumbs.
That’s to say even less than nothing of the seemingly empty insides — no organs, no brain, no heart or soul — that can only be relieved by staring at the ceiling or the latest episode of Great British Bake-Off, or a gentle YouTube video from Japan that chronicles the making of a globby pumpkin beverage.
Glitter crash feels neverending, but the good news is, it’s not. Hydrate, zone out, nap. Later in the day, don the comfiest togs in your dresser drawers–nothing that touches the skin too much–and take a walk in your neighborhood. Feel the sun on your face. Treat yourself to a coffee with the sweaty, crumpled dollar bills from last night’s tip get, and feel incredibly edgy as you do so.
The glitter crash cure is simple: time. Give it twenty-four hours. You will be okay.
Lauren Emily Whalen (She/Her) is the author of several books, including TOMORROW AND TOMORROW, a rock band remix of Macbeth co-written with Lillah Lawson, out October 17. Her essays have appeared in Write or Die/Chill Subs, Scavengers Lit, Querencia Press's Spring 2023 Anthology, Blue Mesa Review, and Jabberwock Review. Say hello on Instagram @laurenemilywrites.