These terms are used interchangeably very often, even by performers themselves. However, there is a key difference. Don’t find out the hard way, which would be after you’ve already bought tickets for a show, or even after you already showed up there!
Burlesque is Part Striptease, Part Regular Dancing
The pasties, strings, and nipple tassels female dancers use to cover their modesties date all the way back to the roaring 20s in the US and France. They were a loophole around public nudity bans. Today, they serve mostly theatrical purposes, including special effects like smoke, fire, and lights.
Burlesque has evolved with the times, as nudity has become common in regular theatrical performances today, and it’s lost its shock factor. Most of the acts are humorous, including parodies and tributes to celebrities and politicians to statements about stereotypes, gender roles, politics or other issues.
Cabaret is a Musical Comedy Involving Spectators
A cabaret act is basically when a number of performers sing a funny song and directly involve the audience. They engage spectators in a kind of dialogue and frequently bring patrons onstage, who become the target of well-meant jokes. Lyrics are bawdy, and politically incorrect is the norm.
Sometimes songs are sung live, and other times a recorded track plays in the background. With burlesque, music is never live. With time, this is becoming the norm for cabaret too, because the venues are small, and so is production value. This is in line with convention.
Among the most popular cabaret instruments are keyboards, ukuleles, and accordions. You might come upon the kazoo as well. This is a seemingly simple wind instrument that continues to amaze unsuspecting audiences.
Boylesque is Both…and Neither
This third, most modern style is a spin on burlesque, featuring exclusively male performers. It features drag parodies and honest tributes to male gay or straight sexuality.