From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A striptease or exotic dance is a form of erotic entertainment, usually a dance, in which the performer, known as a 'stripper', gradually undresses to music. Etymologically, the word is a portmanteau of strip and tease. Euphemistally a stripper is called an exotic dancer.
The origins of striptease as a performance art are disputed and various dates and occasions have been given from ancient Babylonia to twentieth century America. In terms of myth the first recorded striptease is related in the ancient Sumerian story of the descent of the goddess Inanna into the Underworld (or Kur). At each of the seven gates, she removed an article of clothing or a piece of jewelry. As long as she remained in hell, the earth was barren. When she returned, fecundity abounded. Some believe this myth was embodied in the dance of the seven veils of Salome, who danced for King Herod, as mentioned in the New Testament in Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6: 14-29. However, although the Bible records Salome's dance, the first mention of her removing seven veils occurs in Oscar Wilde's play of 'Salome', in 1893: which some have claimed as the origin of modern striptease. After Wilde's play and Richard Strauss's operatic version of the same, first performed in 1905, the erotic 'dance of the seven veils', became a standard routine for dancers in opera, vaudeville, film and burlesque. A famous early practitioner was Maud Allan who in 1907 gave a private performance of the dance to King Edward VII.
Empress Theodora, wife of VIth century Byzantine emperor Justinian is reported by several ancient sources to have started in life as a courtesan and actress who performed in acts inspired from mythological themes and in which she disrobed "as far as the laws of the day allowed". Form these accounts, it appears that the practice was hardly exceptional nor new. It was, however, actively opposed by the Christian Church, which succeeded in obtaining statutes banning it in the following century. The degree to which these statutes were subsequently enforced is, of course, opened to question. What is certain is that no practice of the sort is reported in texts of the European Middle Ages.
Other possible influences on modern striptease were the dances of the Ghawazee "discovered" and seized upon by French colonists in nineteenth century North Africa and Egypt. The erotic dance of the bee performed by a woman known as Kuchuk Hanem, was witnessed and described by the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. In this dance the performer disrobes as she searches for an imaginary bee trapped within her garments. It is likely that the women performing these dances did not do so in an indigenous context, but rather, responded to the commercial climate for this type of entertainment. Middle Eastern belly dance, also known as Oriental Dancing, was popularized in the US after its introduction on the Midway at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago by a dancer known as Little Egypt.
The People's Almanac credited the origin of striptease as we know it to an act in 1890s Paris in which a woman slowly removed her clothes in a vain search for a flea crawling on her body. At this time Parisian shows such as the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère pioneered semi-nude dancing and tableaux vivants.