Jo Weldon is the Headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque and the author of The Burlesque Handbook, which contains detailed and illustrated instructions for making pasties and twirling tassels in every direction. She is also the author of the upcoming fashion history book FIERCE: The History of Leopard Print, available for pre-order. For more on the history of pasties, see Rosey LaRouge’s The Pastie Project,
You can follow Jo at @joweldon
Tassel-twirling is a revolutionary performing art skill, rarely appreciated outside of burlesque striptease. It involves pasties, which are generally two circular and conical pieces of stiffened and spangled fabric, angled with a 20-45 degree forward from the edge to the tip, with a tassel attached to those tips, which are then glued or taped to the body, most commonly over the nipples. Once affixed, rhythmic movement causes the tassels to move in circular motions, most frequently vertically, through physics similar to those which cause hula hoops to twirl horizontally.
Throughout history, tassels have been attached to pharaohs’ jewellery, kings’ robes, prayer garments, curtain swags, and graduation caps, signifying luxury and accomplishment. Their significance at the tips of women’s breasts seems to have taken them in a new direction: a sign both of compliance with and rebellion against modesty restrictions for stripteasers.
Nude dancers have been part of nightlife for as long as there have been parties. However, the idea of the burlesque stripteaser as a creative force, not just for her (though the art of striptease is hardly restricted to one gender, the majority are women) movement, but for the artfulness with which she disrobes, has developed a particular place in Western culture in the past 100 or so years. As the stripteaser became a common fixture in burlesque shows in the early 20th century, she became increasingly more individualistic, developing her own themes, costumes, and choreography, just as other variety artists did. As burlesque became increasingly geared toward adult entertainment, the stripteasers became the main features of the shows, often with a fourth-wall-breaking catwalk stage that led them, elevated but virtually accessible, into the midst of the audience.
Needless to say, wherever women’s bodies are made visible, the government takes a particular interest in observing their actions down to the most minute detail, in order to preserve the public good. Each county in the US has regulations, often established by the bureau of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, to decree with exhaustive exactitude what can and cannot be uncovered, and when, and with which movements, often measured to the inch. Navels, under-breasts, and gluteal folds (where the muscle of the buttock meets the top of the thigh) are discussed in great detail and hashed out for many hours in legislative environments, with great concern for the community in which these theatres exist.
Somewhere right now a legislator is arguing about exactly how much breast may be shown in a nightclub, lingering over every section of exposed flesh so the prurient public won’t have to, describing each centimetre of it with vivid and explicit exactitude, all to preserve morality and community stability.
Most often, law enforcement will require that the genitals and nipples (note: generally only women’s nipples) must be covered. In burlesque, this led to the stripteasers revealing as their last layer of garments those which most minimally cover only the parts which are required to be covered. Hence, g-strings and pasties.
While law enforcement may have assumed that if they required nipples to be covered, bras would be worn, enterprising strippers of the 19-teens-and-20s figured out a way to affix nipple-shaped nipple covers, both complying with the law and reminding the viewers that nipples were most certainly present under there. They enhanced the covers with sparkles and beads and tassels, and it didn’t take long for them to discover that bouncing up and down or shimmying their shoulders or flexing their pecs could make the tassels move in circles.
Early famous tassel-twirlers include Carrie Finnell, a woman of great substance who was known for her “educated breasts,” which she could make twirl with sheer pectoral muscle control, causing them to pop out of her bodice; Sally Keith, who twirled tassels on her breasts and derriere at the same time; and in the 1950s Jennie Lee, founder of the Burlesque Hall of Fame which is now a museum in Las Vegas. Tura Satana, Miss Japan Beautiful, killed men with her bare hands in Russ Meyers’ sexploitation masterpiece Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill, and twirled tassels for Elizabeth Montgomery and Dean Martin in Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed in the 1960s. Audiences lost most of their interest in tassel-twirling except as a relic of the past in burlesque re-creation shows such as Ann Corio’s Burlesque As It Was, and a novelty when done by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, with tassels set at the centre of her spider-web-beaded bra, until the neo-burlesque movement which began in 1990s brought it back as part of a movement of post-punk nightlife. Tassel-twirlers began to show up at fetish, drag, and rockabilly shows, and a revival was born!
The formerly elusive tassel-twirler can now be found by searching local nightlife and theatre listings for burlesque. While far from every burlesque performer twirls tassels, almost every show features a tassel twirler, including performers who twirl them on their behinds (assels) and on their junk (tasticles). It just makes sense for each show to include a twirler, as they are rarely seen anywhere else -- and keeping in mind that they must be contained since their under-boobs and gluteal folds are a risk to public safety and decency. By all means, see these incredibly dangerous performers for yourself!
You can certainly try this at home. The following steps, which I have taught to thousands of people of various body types, ages, genders, and levels of ability, are designed to lead you to tassel-twirling bliss:
1) Acquire a pair of tasseled pasties, generally found on Etsy. It’s best to buy them from experienced burlesque performers and crafters, since pasties made without their intimate knowledge of twirling physics are likely to be more difficult to twirl due to inefficient construction.
2) Affix the pasties over your nipples with fashion tape, toupee tape, spirit gum, or latex glue. Try to place them near to the middle of your breast tissue for greater ease.
3) Stand in front of the mirror with your arms over your head, your heart forward, your shoulder blades brought slightly together, and move your hair and jewelry out of the way.
4) Rise on the tips of your toes.
5) Bounce up and down until you find the rhythm that works for you, and make sure you learn to sustain it.
Once you’ve mastered this basic bounce, which I have found works on perhaps 90 percent of bodies in my classes, you can try shifting your shoulders, shimmying from side to side instead of bouncing up and down, and even lying on your back to discover how to make the tassels go in different directions and master all the moves you can. Different moves work for different people, and it’s a process of discovering what works for you rather than following a rigid system of proper style. The most important thing is to find a move you can sustain, so that you can twirl for awhile. If you can’t stand up, you can use your hand to bounce your breast up and down. When your hand gets tired, you can invite someone else to bounce it for you.
Super insider pro-tip, if you plan to take it to the stage, make sure you rehearse in the shoes you’re going to be wearing on that stage.
While it may look painful to the uninitiated, very few of my peers or students report discomfort while bouncing or shimmying. In fact, one of the greatest pleasures in my life is that, when they twirl tassels for the first time, I get to see women of every age and shape grin with joy while they look at their half-naked bodies in the mirror.
If you like, you can bless your body with the following, which I use when teaching pastie-making and tassel-twirling classes:
“Dear Manifestor of Boobs: We are gathered here to celebrate these fatty deposits that attract, nurture, and entertain. We hereby swear to honor our breasts for fullness or flatness, for perkiness or droopiness, natural or enhanced, in sickness and in health, with all the fresh air, comfy bras, and sparkly pasties that suit them best. We will caress them with love and, if necessary, put glitter on their scars. We will accept no shame on their behalf, in public or in private. With these pasties we salute the chests we are blessed with and the breasts of every be-breasted creature we encounter.”