Burlesque & “Salomania”
Burlesque audiences also had a fascination with exoticism, which grew in part from the larger cultural fad surrounding the Biblical character of Salome, known best for her bewitchingly erotic dancing skills and her bloodthirsty desire for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This trend, which became known as “Salomania,” permeated popular culture around the turn of the century. The Salome story was adapted into plays and operas, depicted in paintings, incorporated into women’s fashion, and also used as the inspiration for many imitative Dances of the Seven Veils, on burlesque stages and elsewhere.
The figure of Salome – described by Judith Lynn Jarrett in Stripping in Time: A History of Erotic Dancing as “the archetypal femme fatale” (88) represented a vicious, dangerous sexuality that was equated by some with the increasing freedoms demanded by the New Woman. Salome suggested “something savage and above all real” (Shteir 47) which was as fascinating as it was frightening to contemporary audiences.
Another exotic addition to burlesque was the art of belly dancing, which entered the popular consciousness following the phenomenon of dancer Little Egypt. Little Egypt’s sensuous “hootchy-cootchy” dancing was a featured attraction at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and her style of performance was increasingly incorporated into burlesque following that event.
With their uncorseted bare stomachs and sweeping, gypsy-like skirts and veils, belly dancers and other Salome-esque figures were able to be culturally constructed as a hyperfeminine “low other” whose exotic sexuality could be safely consumed and enjoyed by the white, Western public. The implied dangers of Salome and Little Egypt’s brand of sexual performance were therefore at least partially neutralized by the very exoticism which made them so appealing, as their considerable power was “contained and distanced” by their “exotic otherness” (Allen 228).