This blog post will be a little different from the others. It will be quite long (but we’ve had worse in this department), based on an interview and it will include a bit of anthropological jargon. Plus it’s going to be my attempt at encouraging you to try something completely new. Aha, expect some (almost) naked bodies as well. Ready? Let’s start the show! Today I’d like to invite you inside a magical world of burlesque, full of glitter and hidden meanings. The entrance to this world is located in Praga district of Warsaw, in Madame Q – a body-positive epicentrum of the city. Our guide will be Betty Q, whom I interviewed for this blog post. She’s an experienced burlesque performer who teaches the art of burlesque as well as popularizes it in Poland, where it’s still a relatively new phenomenon. She’s also a co-owner of the place that we invite you to visit.

I met up with Betty Q in her burlesque locale which she opened in autumn last year together with a friend. I like the retro interior of Madame Q straight away. Tiny checkerboard floored stage, miss matched chairs and tables and empty gold frames on a forest green wall. I wouldn’t mind my apartment looking like that. When I reach inside my bag to get a camera Betty asks to wait until the weekend when burlesque shows are being held. Then the place transforms. Fresh flowers and candles appear on the tables creating both, a cozy and elegant atmosphere. After seeing it during a show last friday I can definitely agree. The place really does look different. Plus there are some special cocktails at the bar and diverse audience at the tables. Gender, age and clothing doesn’t matter here. Everyone is welcome, as long as they’re searching for an interesting way to spend an evening, outside of the mainstream.


More than getting undressed

Let’s start from the beginning and explain what actually is burlesque. The short version is that it’s simply women and (less frequently) men taking their clothes off in front of an audience. However this blog post is not a shortcut so let’s get the full story as explained by Betty Q, a well-known propagator of burlesque, who has been performing for years, as well as teaching it to others. Betty’s perspective will allow to look at burlesque as a complicated, layered act. It’s not just five minutes of pretty girls stripping, but a whole lot of emancipation, social and historic context and power structure between the performer and the audience. In short, it’s tons of politics hidden under sparkling thong.

I have to admit that when I was planning the interview with Betty I anticipated it to take us no more than 30 minutes. One and a half hour later I knew that we only just scratched the surface of what burlesque is really about. It’s a fascinating, complex and widely unknown art form. Therefore I decided not to cut out all of the parts of our conversation that might be more interesting for all those with social science background, or just those who enjoy analyzing social problems. This kind of content rarely appears on our blog, but, as an etnographer, I decided that it’s interesting to me and I don’t want to just skip this. And, since it’s my blog, I can do whatever I want so get yourself a cup of coffee and enjoy the rest of this blog post.



When I ask Betty Q to explain what burlesque actually is, she says that it’s a subversive striptease in performance and quickly adds that two words in this definition need further explanation. Subversive meaning different than understood colloquially. Colloquially, a striptease is a pejorative action of a woman who, by the act of taking off her clothes, objectifies herself. Let’s reverse it. What happens is that by making a conscious decision about who she takes off her clothes, for whom she does it and why, she actually gains agency, becomes empowered. Subversive striptease is not demeaning, but empowering. In turn, performance is a kind of stage expression. In turn, the performance is a kind of stage expression. Because burlesque is not dancing. This is another important thing to remember. Girls who appear on the stage  do not necessarily dance, they do many different things that are meant to be spectacular for the viewer.There was a very good, on point term used in an article in “Wysokie Obcasy” a few years back. The author called her text ‘Undress about something’ and it gave me a lot to think about. Because that’s precisely what I’m doing. I’m undressing about something. I use striptease as a tool to achieve my own goal. I like doing it because I feel that’s hat I find fulfilling.


Classical burlesque, neoburlesque, boylesque – what does it all mean?

Burlesque is not a homogenous art form. There are many different genres of performances, various subjects and trends in them. Some girls show very classical numbers and you may wonder what are they about. They’re about nothing. It’s a pretty striptease. But when they prepare their performances their aware of the history, of how burlesque used to look like in its Golden Era in the 30s, 40s and 50s, of how  daily life looked like for women back then. And it definitely wasn’t an easy life. In such classical performances, girls show something unprecedented, because at that time, burlesque performers were emancipated feminists who left their husbands husbands, took their kids, traveled around the United States, earned good money, and even came out as lesbians. These were the times in which burlesque was an enclave of all things unusual. It was starting the conversation about eroticism in Puritan America. It was really something! So when the girl comes out on the stage and shows a classical number, I believe that she derives the tradition. On the other hand, there are girls like me, crazy women performing neoburlesque, which is primarily a socially, politically and semantically involved type of burlesque. These numbers are about something. Something, meaning what? Betty Q lists a few of her own socially engaged numbers: I have a number about woman’s life cycles, from the first menstrual period to the menopause. I have a number about pedophiles. I have a number about the environment. I have a number about pacifism. These are just a few of the matters that are important to her. And for the skeptics, doubting the sense of including social problems in performances that consist mainly of people removing their clothes, Betty explains that burlesque is an art form like any other. When you’re becoming interested in any form of art, may it be painting just to give an example, you want to express yourself with your paintings. The same happens when you enter the stage. You want to communicate something to the outside world.



How about men? Are there any male burlesque performers? It is a very feminized form of art. Historically, it’s been recently that men started performing burlesque although there are less of them. But they do exist 😉 And you can watch some of them at our place as well. On the Madame Q stage men appear on average once a month. And that reflects statistics. There are less boys, but they are definitely more visible. Paradoxically, it’s easier for men to make a career in burlesque. They are few, but they are more in your face. They immediately become a sensation and, quite honestly, do not have to be awesome to stand out. If you’re a girl, you must be awesome. Betty immediately reassures me that very good male performers do exist and can be found on the checkerboard stage as well. She is not a huge fan of the term ‘boylesque’ though. Betty explains that in her opinion this term is too narrow and excluding, which is everything burlesque should not be. That’s why she prefers the broader, gender neutral, term ‘burlesque’ .



If you’re curious about many genres of burlesque, may it be in it’s classical, contemporary, male, female, drag or any other form, be sure to check out the events on Madame Q’s Facebook page. There you’ll find all the information about upcoming burlesque shows.


Place unlike any other

For Betty Madame Q is her second home. That’s why it’s so important to her that there’s a right atmosphere. Before we opened and I was planning how I want this place to look like, I thought of myself and the kinds of spots that I like going to. I’m a lazy person and an old lady at heart, so I detest places where you’ve got no place to sit down or the seats are uncomfortable. It’s even worse when it’s to loud and  nothing’s happening. Because alcohol itself is not an entertainment for me. I need something more. That’s why at her place there’s constantly something going on.



Madame Q is primarily a burlesque locale but that’s not all that’s going on here. There are movie screenings, concerts, discussions about various social and political matters. There’re hula hoop classes for those who wish to be more flexible. And there’s a series of events called alter POSE, which is really cool for those who enjoy drawing or painting. At alter POSE events you’ll have the opportunity to practice sketching human body, and it’s not necessarily the type of body that you’re familiar with. When we started planning Madame Q we knew that live performances are going to be the most important part of it all. Drinks came second. I really wanted to serve people good, inventive cocktails. That’s why we don’t have a menu. Every week there are different special cocktails being served. Each is inspired by the performers of the night. I highly recommend trying the Betty Q with gin, becherovka, cucumber and basil, if you get a chance. It’s delicious! If you’re more a whisky sour kind of person it’s fine too. The bar is well stocked and bartenders are ready to prepare the classics as well. Or suggest you something completely different that you’ve never tried before. Some of you will probably be interested to know that Madame Q is a vegan bar. So you want get an egg white in here, instead you can try a trendy aquafaba. Those of you who need to snack on something while drinking, can order vegan snacks as well.



Next on the owners’ list of must-haves were comfortable seating arrangements. It’s simple. You have a reserved table where you sit. And this is your table. And you feel comfortable. This is such a small thing, but for me it’s crucial. Plus the music at such a level that you can talk without having to shout over it. Madame Q is an intimate spot, designed for 50 seats, which are carefully planned. What I particularly liked about Madame Q is openness to guests’ needs. You want to go to the show but you don’t have company? No problem. You will be seated with cool people who also came to the show themselves. You’re tempted to go and see burlesque performances, but there’s a group of 14 foreigners, whom you met while studying abroad, coming to visit you? Take them with you! This is a place where language is not a barrier, and if there are more English speakers, the show can even be conducted in two languages. The organizers just need to know about it. Therefore, it is necessary to make a reservation. And it’s best to do it in advance! Last year we had weekends that were totally sold out. Now it’s the start of the season, so you can easily book in the week in which the event will take place.



What I personally like about Madame Q is the dress code as well. Performers on stage are getting undressed while the audience has the opportunity to get dressed. There’s a ‘dress to impress’ dress code so you can interpret it however you like. Betty admits that she doesn’t care whether you come wearing a Gucci suit, your grandma’s skirt or a gold tracksuit. As long as it’s gold, you’re fine. I’m really into it, because it finally gives me the opportunity to take my glitter dresses out of the closet. Who knows, maybe next time I’ll even sport my David Bowie-esque silver boots.


What to expect from a burlesque show?

Burlesque performers enter the stage at Madame Q every Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m. The entrance fee is 40 złoty (10 euro). During the night there are normally 2 performers showing 3 of their burlesque numbers. Betty adds that it’s usually one local performer and one visiting from abroad. We try to give local performers an opportunity to perform alongside the best performers from the world, so that they can learns and evolve as artists. Also, a lot of people visit us regularly, so we need to get performers from abroad so that we’ve got something new to show them. We make sure that nobody is bored. Last week’s show, which I attended, was unusual, as it coincided with Betty’s birthday. There were 4 different artists on stage, including herself. This week is special. I’ll be performing alongside my pupils. There will be as many as 4 people, but this time there won’t be anyone from abroad performing.


Each show is different, but its structure remains unchanged. Each number lasts five minutes, and between the performances you’ve got time to talk, go for a drink, go to the toilet, go for a cigarette. You might think you’ll get bored in twenty minutes, but no. There is lots going on here. We sell merch, signed posters, etc. Performers come out between the numbers. Often they sit at various tables and talk to the guests. So it’s cool. A burlesque show is a theater with strictly defined rules, in which there are more actors than you could imagine. And all equally important. Did you think that these are only performers who appear on stage, do their thing and disappear? Well, that’s not the case. There’s also a show host who announces the performers and explains to the audience what’s going on on the stage. Another character in this ‘burlesque play’ is the stage kitten whose task is to take care of the the stage. Do you know what happens when a person slips on glitter while wearing high heels? She loses her teeth. Last but not least, there’s the person responsible for the audience, a caretaker. That’s someone whose job is to make everyone happy, to let people know where their table is, how the bar works, when the performances are starting. The evening keeper is a gatekeeper. He introduces guests to a foreign world, familiarizes them with it, explains the ins and outs. Thanks to him, even those who come for the first time will feel at home right away.

The performances themselves vary greatly. During the show I attended there was a bit of politics (literally, as one of the performers entered the stage carrying pictures of famous polish politicians), lots of romantic ethereal movements, bit of comedy and tons of eye-catching costumes. There was even one performer singing. Well, Betty did ‘warn me’ that all goes in burlesque. In Madame Q you even get to see a live performance of opera aria, if you’re lucky. One thing is for sure – everyone will find something for themselves.

Time to say goodbye

Here’s the deal, this blog post is already long like a winter night and I still have not said everything. Let’s have a deal that you go to Madame Q yourself, check out if burlesque is for you and if you still want to read more about it, you’ll let me know. We can arrange something 😉 Who knows, maybe you’ll get lost in the world of burlesque so much that you decide to learn the tricks of performances yourself. If so, be sure to check out Betty’s burlesque academy. There are various workshops so you can learn everything from making your own tassels to expanding theoretical knowledge about this art form. Personally, I’m hooked. And if you prefer to remain on an audience it’s fine too. Go and see the show ASAP, there’s even one happening tomorrow (it’s finally friday after all!). Everyone at Madame Q will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable and inspired, and Betty will welcome you into her home like a real hostess. I’m glad that people visit once and then… keep on coming back. Now I’ve got such a relationship with the audience than some people come over to say goodbye to me before they leave. I never have guests at home, so that’s actually a great idea. I’ll have guests in here.


[Where] Madame Q, Burdzińskiego 5/24, Warsaw
[When] Friday & Saturday at 9 p.m., the door opens at 8 p.m. and the show start on time to be sure to get there early
[How much] The entrance is 40 złoty (10 euro), prices of cocktails vary, special cocktails cost around 25-30 złoty (6-7 euro)