‘Burlesque in Berlin still has the excesses of the 1920s’

These days many people move to the German capital to join the high-tech world of startups. But others are still chasing the dream of Berlin as it was in its 1920s heyday.

'Burlesque in Berlin still has the excesses of the 1920s'
Elena Gabrielle. Photo: Private

One recent gig stands out for Elena Gabrielle as being a moment when she questioned what on earth she was doing in Berlin.

She had been invited to perform at a fundraiser for Syrian refugees in the south of the city. It was around 3am, and when she turned up at the venue, it turned out to be a squat.

“I ended up performing to a group of 40 drunk punks and I just thought ‘where am I, and what am I doing here?’ But you’ve just got to roll with it and remember this is the life you chose. You never know what you’re going to be doing, which is half the fun of it,” Gabrielle tells The Local.

Eight months ago, the 28-year-old moved to the German capital from Melbourne, Australia to make a living as a burlesque dancer. Since then she has set up her own monthly show and regularly guest performs around town.

Burlesque, she says, is misunderstood by many people not so well acquainted with the scene.

“There is a lot more to it than what people might think. Obviously some people think burlesque is just stripping, which it is, but there are different styles. There is classic burlesque, which is American showgirls with glitz and diamantes, but you also have neo-burlesque, which is satirical – the word burlesque actually comes from the Italian for satire.

“Neo-burlesque is the kind that I do. I wouldn’t say I’m just a burlesque dancer. I sing and strip, but I’m also trying to say something. So a lot of my stuff is commenting on safe sex and women’s issues, but in a funny way.”

Her audience is almost always female dominated, signalling another major difference between burlesque and a regular strip show.

“The good thing about burlesque is that any woman can do it, whatever body shape. Generally it's people who have studied dance but whose legs aren't long enough or whatever, so they forge a career in this way.”

Elena Gabrielle. Photo: Private

“Women sit and watch it and say, ‘ah this woman's got cellulite,’ or ‘she's got small boobs, or big boobs like me’, which is empowering.”

Gabrielle, who had already danced burlesque for years in the southern Australian city of Geelong, was attracted to Berlin as being “the home of cabaret,” a place where singing and performance had been heavily satirical during the the raucous 1920s.

But when she arrived she found a gap in the market for exactly this kind of performance. In a city focused on showgirl acts, she has been able to forge a niche combining burlesque with singing and stand-up comedy routines.

Germans have responded well to the shows, she says, although they are often slightly overwhelmed at her openness to talking about almost anything on stage.

There have been more practical considerations, though.

“I’ve had to learn to speak slower. I’ve done shows where I’m confronted with blank faces and I think ‘ah God, they’re not liking this.’ But normally they’ll get it a couple of seconds later, or you get people translating in the front row… But going slow can be tough when you’re trying to deliver a punch line.”

And Germans have provided rich comedy material for her, particularly their full-on way of flirting with women.

“I was never really used to that. Australian men don’t really make a move at all.”

Despite her glamorous job, she has also had to deal with the same mundane hassles of moving to Germany as every other expat.

“Learning the language has been tough, and the bureaucratic stuff has been really hard for me. It’s like they're saying ‘we don't want you to live here’ and throw the bureaucratic stuff at you, then the language. Now it's the spring so it's allergies.”

But some of the struggles are very much the luxuries of an artist.

“Trying not go out so much has been a challenge, too. When you’re an artist, you are such a night owl and you get invited out all the time, sometimes it's five in the morning and you just want to go home and sleep. Trying to get into a routine has been difficult,” she says.

And although much burlesque and cabaret is now performed in English, the 1920s spirit of Berlin is still very much alive.

“If you flash forward nearly a hundred years, it is still the same mentality as then, with loads of drugs here and partying. It's especially evident in some of the more intense performance parties where burlesque dancers are doing erotic sex-focused shows.”


REVEALED: The most commonly asked questions about Germans and Germany

Ever wondered what the world is asking about Germany and the Germans? We looked at Google’s most searched results to find out – and help clear some of these queries up.

Hasan Salihamidzic, the sports director of FC Bayern, arrives with his wife at Oktoberfest in full traditional dress. Photo: picture alliance/dpa |

According to popular searches, Germany is the go-to place for good coffee and bread (although only if you like the hard kind) and the place to avoid if what you’re looking for is good food, good internet connection and low taxes. Of course, this is subjective; some people will travel long stretches to get a fresh, hot pretzel or a juicy Bratwurst, while others will take a hard pass.

When it comes to the question on the bad Internet – there is some truth to this. Germany is known for being behind other rich nations when it comes to connectivity. And from personal experience, the internet connection can seem a little medieval. The incoming German coalition government has, however, vowed to improve internet connectivity as part of their plans to modernise the country.

There are also frequent questions on learning the German language, and people pointing out that it is hard and complicated. This is probably due to the long compound words and its extensive grammar rules, however, as both English and German are Germanic languages with similar words in common, it’s not impossible to learn as an English-speaker.

Here’s a look at some of those questions…

Why is German called Deutsch? Whereas ‘German’ comes from the Latin, ‘Deutsch’ instead derives itself from the Indo-European root “þeudō”, meaning “people”. This slowly became “Deutsch” as we know it today. It can be a bit confusing to English-speakers, who are right to think it sounds a little more like “Dutch”, however the two languages do have the same roots which may explain it.

And why is Germany so boring? Again, probably a generalisation, especially given that Germany has a landmass of over 350,000 km² with areas ranging from high rise, industrial cities to traditional old town villages and even mountain ranges, so you’re sure to find a place that doesn’t bore you to tears.

Perhaps it is a question that comes from the stereotype that Germans are obsessed with being strict about rules, organised and analytical. Or that they have no sense of humour – all of these things being not the most exciting traits. 

Either way, from my experience I can confirm that, even though there is truth to German society enjoying order and rules, the vast majority of people are not boring, and I’m sure if you come to Germany you’ll meet many interesting, funny and exciting people. 

READ ALSO: 12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Germany

When it comes to the German weather, most people assume a cold and cloudy climate, however this isn’t entirely true. While the autumn and winter, especially in the north, come with grey skies and sub-zero temperatures, Germany can have some beautiful summers, with temperatures frequently rising above 30C in some places.

Unsurprisingly, the power and wealth of the German nation is mentioned – Germany is the largest economy in Europe after all, with a GDP of 3.8 trillion dollars. This could be due to strong industry sectors in the country, including vehicle constructions (I was a little surprised to find no questions posed on German cars), chemical and electrical industry and engineering. There are also many strong economic cities in Germany, most notably Munich, Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg.

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

Smart and tall?

Why are Germans so tall? They are indeed taller than many other nations, with the average German measuring a good 172.87cm (or 5 feet 8.06 inches), however this may be a question better posed to the Dutch, who make up the tallest people in the world.

Why are Germans so smart? While this is again a generalisation – as individuals have different levels of intelligence in all countries – this question may stem from Germany’s free higher education system or their seemingly efficient work ethic. Plus there does seem to be some scientific research behind this question, with a study done in 2006 finding that Germans had the highest IQ in Europe.

So, while many of the questions posed about Germany and Germans on Google stem from stereotypes, we can confirm that some aren’t entirely made up. If you’re looking to debunk some frequently asked questions about France and the French, check out this article by our sister site HERE.