Burlesquers: Give Them a Reason to Keep Coming Back

By now, most of us have seen a certain article that recently resurfaced--one titled “The Shittiest Burlesque I’ve Ever Seen.” I want to believe that the former article gets shared, not to purposely box out new performers, but as a way to vent mutual frustrations. Though harsh, uncompassionate, and totally not condoned in its approach by me, it is an interesting audience member’s perspective. What can we do to be better for our audience?

There are many performers out there who would like to see burlesque taken more seriously in the entertainment industry. A more structured and serious environment could provide benefits we all desire like higher, more consistent pay for everyone, as well as offer up better venues and in general, promote the success of our industry. But rather than encourage performers, the article mentioned above simply denies them the right to grow into and out of the awkward moments. It goes against the spirit of our come one, come all mentality and doesn’t exactly make for a warm environment. Kumbaya aside, that doesn’t mean we can’t do better as a whole.

I don’t believe in limiting a burlesque stage to the top crop of well-established performers–we all need space to grow and there should be stages available to all levels of performers. I am not the performer I was 3 years ago, and I will bet neither are many of the headliners we see today.

There are different schools of performers involved with burlesque–those who do it for themselves, and those who do it to be entertainers. Both are valid and necessary in the world of burlesque and often performers may start in one and transition to another. Calling myself out, burlesque was once a journey of self-esteem for me. I was that performer doing a rhinestone encrusted dance for acceptance.  I wanted something from them, without ever stopping to think that they paid to be sitting there. This was my message, after all. I didn’t really consider the audience’s needs, or what kind of effect my performance had on them.

When I began to see burlesque as part of the entertainment world, my viewpoint shifted. I began to give greater thought to what was entertaining and how I could deliver that fantasy they are paying me to see. I am not saying lose all sense of your individual artistic expression, however. This is a call to consider how your audience sees you and how your act can impact them. Giving thought to your audience shows an appreciation of their time, energy, and money. Instead of “I want to do X here in the music” what if we at times we asked “What does the audience see if I do X? Does it read well?”

It’s not that burlesque can’t be a great medium of self-discovery and learning. It should showcase individualism (and celebrate it), but it seems that performers can get wrapped up in themselves all too easily—whether it's delusions of grandeur or blatantly needing love and energy from an audience when they paid to get it from you. You are absolutely allowed to do burlesque for any reason at all, but consider that audiences are the ones who keep a show going. Share your energy with them, give them your love and it will become a reciprocal relationship. This what you are being paid to do.

You can tell the performers offering up a piece of themselves versus those who do not. They want you to look at them, they want to feel something (love, lust, disgust, enchantment). The best performances I have ever seen have filled me with an intense feeling of something.

Love the audience enough to push yourself to be better. Some performers hit the stage already owning, finding their stride right away and experience the results they desire. Others work through early performances find growth and success at a different rate. Both groups experience highs and lows--meeting and facing challenges with the simple question of “How can I grow as a performer?”

I love this art form, and I have come to understand that burlesque performance is not a linear based corporate ladder to success. So why not invest in making yourself stronger, forging the best path for you ahead? From strictly a producer's standpoint, it can be frustrating to see performers I’ve known for years get comfy and stop working on improvement. It’s harder to see performers, when they experience a setback—not getting booked into certain shows or festivals—give up.  Instead of using this setback as an opportunity for motivation towards improving, the blame is placed externally. It’s really hard to talk to peers who take the “You just don’t understand my art” stance without allowing for any acceptance of constructive feedback. You can be as weird as you want–just be a really fucking good weirdo. Sometimes, a booking really comes down to an act fitting within the producers scope for their show. Not every “No” is personal and directly related to your talent as a performer. However, you have a choice: you can work on making improvements, or not.

Not everyone has major performing aspirations, but regardless what you want out of burlesque--you owe it to your audience to be the best fucking 5 minute strip show you can. Even if you don’t do this full time, burlesque is still a job. You wouldn’t show up to a new job, then decide you don’t want to finish new hire training. Some fields require you to take continuing education if you want to keep said profession–and yes you have to pay for that. So why do we think it’s OK to accept money for something and not do the absolute best we can when delivering our product? Why do we see an air of entitlement for bookings when we’ve stopped trying to up our game?

I get it, a lot of us are busy. We have other things going on in life–jobs, partners, kids, fur-kids. But there is always room to learn and improve—to work on adding new things to your arsenal of strip-tease. Understanding that you are there to entertain an audience, to me, is a way of understanding that these few minutes are not just about me, but about selling my fantasy/story to a room of strangers. Selling your art requires you to learn the important skill of self-awareness. The most successful and talented performers I’ve met have been not only humble, but aware of their imperfections and their strengths. And have overcome the huge obstacle of making both work in their favor.

The desire to give my audience the best I can keeps me focused and disciplined. It keeps me in front of mirrors working on poses, faces, and swift swishes of fabric every which way. It keeps me reaching out to others for help, review, and feedback.  Beyond titles, beyond our peers, there are the people paying money to see us. Give them a reason to keep coming back.

 

 

On the Fringe

The other night Suicide Girls brought their Blackheart Burlesque show through Phoenix and today my Facebook has been flooded with details and critiques of the show. It took me some time to attempt to develop a thoughtful review that would add something with substance to the rhetoric, rather than continue to hurl nasty insults about the performers and their perceived degree of skankiness (In short: STOP IT). I hope that I’ve accomplished the goal I set out to achieve below.

Burlesque, as any other art form, is a living entity, capable of evolution and vast interpretation. Female performers especially seem to garner the most attention when they take a classic approach with beautifully elaborate costumes bedazzled to the height of delicate femininity and choreographed to classic jazz. When they choose to rebel against the archetype, the resulting act can be met with disdain from the public and even amongst peers. In my humble opinion, this only discourages new innovation that is necessary to nurture the art form that provides much needed flexibility to evolve with a culture as time passes. I may never choose to create an act that sits out there on the fringe, but it is often the abstract, the wild, the truly unique and daring acts that dazzle and inspire me to reach beyond the boundaries of a mermaid gown and gloves.

What the Suicide Girls offered up was an interpretation of burlesque they felt was most palatable to their audience. It was a collection of performances meant to highlight their brand: young, alternative girls, gyrating to edgy, modern music. The striptease, unfortunately, was an afterthought of untied strings hanging down below breasts with neither a captivating intent or enticing playfulness. The delight of watching a performer slowly dial up her sensuality on stage, revealing bits of her flesh as the music carries her through the act, was lost to a high level of sexuality from the moment the girls appeared on stage. It was as if the intensity was locked on 10 from start to end and it’s long term effect was numbing, rather than exciting.

The Suicide Girls had the luxury of a large venue, lighting technicians and a dressing room large enough to accommodate several costume changes. Of course, the ticket prices reflected the venue, clocking in at three times the Phoenix standard. They have a professional choreographer and even more importantly, they are sponsored by Inked Magazine. They find themselves in a fortunate situation many others in the community don’t have. It was not the lack of classic burlesque I found to be offensive, it was the lack of a thoughtful production. There are many who have found themselves without a glamorous venue or sponsors who have produced fantastic shows. I wondered why this traveling show, with the tools to create something very special….didn’t?

The sets lacked a central theme, other than the obvious draw of edgy girls. The costumes consisted of off-the rack lingerie, that on-stage made them look like drunk girls dancing on a bar rather than polished and professional. The uninspired costuming contradicted strongly with the brazenly confident girls dancing on stage. I wished that the costumes highlighted the power each of these girls brought to the stage.  Entertainment should be out of the ordinary, it’s why we love it! Entertainment is an escape, it’s a fantasy. On stage you have the ability to write your own story, to present yourself to your audience and force them to see you the way you wish to be seen. Unfortunately the message delivered on that stage was that alternative girls are good for nothing more than a hypersexualized freakshow spectacle. The choreography was unapologetically bold and modern, set to very danceable music, but the impression that still sits at the forefront of my mind is that it was sex for the sake of sex without that je ne sais quoi that holds the viewer captive.

I’m bored of the comments comparing them to sluts, strippers, and streetwalkers on Van Buren. Also, stop fucking using the word “slut.” It’s unimaginitive and makes for a weak argument on the state of a woman’s sexual behavior. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a stripper, and when I see that word being thoughtlessly flung around as an insult, it agitates the tiny raging feminist inside of me. Even if the choreography came straight from the strip club, that doesn’t necessarily make them any less of a performer worthy of your respect. However, what transpired on that stage was a show designed to make young girls appear as dancing slabs of meat on display for the world’s voyeuristic pleasure. The beautiful girls who took the stage were limited by acts that never let them be more than a body. Instead, the show merely perpetuated the myth of the tattooed girl as the whore with uninhibited sexuality, a girl whose consent is given to any and all.

In the burlesque community there are quite a few tattooed/pierced/alternative performers who regularly dazzle the audience not just by their otherness, but through masterful stripteasing skills acquired from years of hard work and dedication to their craft. In fact, their appearance is not their sole draw, and thus the acts they create come from more than their bodies but their soul and that is what gives them such incredible entertainment value. Blackheart Burlesque fizzled because it haphazardly pieced together a shallow production that eroticized a caricature of today’s alternative girl, burlesque performer or not.

What I Wish I Had Known as a Student

The topic of confidence has come up many times when asked about my burlesque life. Twice now I’ve been interviewed on camera about confidence and how it relates to my personal stripping experience, but the answer is not easily encapsulated into a short reply. Was I confident prior to this journey, or did burlesque give it a boost?

I began my burlesque education in 2008, and fell in love with my mentor’s mission statement: to celebrate women in their unique forms, showcasing what real bodies look like, and that every woman is sexy. Her goal continues to resonate with me 5 ½ years later, and she built a brand true to her word. I feel fortunate to be a part of such a body-positive group of performers, who love and support one another as well as counsel students on building confidence for the stage.

“Ha, I guess there’s someone for everyone, right?” My student’s nervous, half-hearted joke made me think. It was her first recital, and she attempted to explain her source of confidence for the night. The insinuation was “Yes I will show my body, because although not everyone will find me to be sexy, someone out there might.” Therein lies a huge issue of marrying our confidence to being desired. Confidence and desirability are not mutually inclusive. Underneath the student’s beautiful costume, her heart sought external acceptance. She was unaware of the untapped source of self-acceptance and pride that stems from a stage debut.

A younger me could’ve related to her. The pick-ups, the practiced smiles, the flirtation with a college crush over an evening would have me soaring high. I would know the truth: I am sexy, and here’s your proof. By contrast, the nights devoid of such attention would plunge me into doubt,  paired with negative self-talk overtaking all reasonable thought. As a result, I tried harder to make myself fit into what I thought others found sexy, because I only felt good in the moment of validation.

If we spend our lives seeking the special brand of physical validation rather than nurturing it from within, how will we ever get what we truly want? Solely asking for external acceptance invites in the subjective perceptions of the world around you. The world will push and pull and some will want A and the others X, and you are C. We are all real women, and there should be no standard that sets forth an exclusive definition of female. This notion will never fade as long as we continue to follow it. I hope one day we can move past what physical attributes we have versus what we don’t, and the first step is refusing to hold ourselves to it any longer.

Burlesque did not give me confidence. I did not take the stage and wake up the next morning with a profound sense of love and acceptance of myself and my body. I, too, was there in the beginning: ruffled panties on with brick of doubt settled in my gut. Even in the safe haven of a practice setting, I let insecurity creep in. I chose to focus on comments about another’s “perfect burlesque body” and gentle teasing about my small bum nestled between narrow hips. It was exactly because I allowed myself to believe that to be the best, to succeed, to have this person desire ME as a performer, I should pour myself into the mold they cast.

What I wanted was to make them want me, but I’m not an elegant mix of plush curves, soft hips and large breasts.

“You’re too skinny, I liked you better with more meat on your bones.” Two years later, I can vividly recall this statement slamming into my mind head-on. I felt accomplished for leaving behind 40 pounds of misery. The big change was a source of pride, but to another, it was a sharp contrast to their metric of attractiveness. I waited for the approval I thought I needed.

It never came.

The dark cloud of insecurity was not banished by a lightning strike epiphany. I wish it were different, but there is no fast cure, only time. Burlesque did not make me confident, but through the medium of burlesque I discovered how to be confident. The first step was accepting myself before I ask any audience to. Of course we want the them to love us, want us, cheer for us, but we cannot expect to receive it until we give it to ourselves. Loving yourself is a hard skill to master and not a subject widely taught.

Kill the negative self-talk. It only hinders growth. Often, it is such a deeply ingrained habit, we don’t realize when it happens. This article gives great simple tips on how to begin the process of retraining your thought processes. The technique is used in the field of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and is a great tool to help incite change in many people suffering from negative thought patterns and behaviors. I use my mentor’s words: “Would you hurl the same ugly words at your friends that you do yourself?” I let go of waiting around for others to give me the boost. I paid attention to the positive and began dismantling the core of destructive thinking.

Breaking this nasty habit is a daily challenge for so many of us. I don’t believe any performer, great or small, is excluded from this at some time or another. Pinpoint how dangerous internal monologue blooms in your mind. Engage in activities that make you feel good about yourself: volunteering, exercise, dance--anything to fuel the budding confidence. Lastly, and most challenging: accept not everyone will love you, your performance style, or feel attracted to your form, but it won’t matter because you will love and accept yourself. Confidence will pour out of you on stage and will leave a lasting mark on your audience.

Nudity is vulnerability. We spend ours lives dressing our bodies to highlight and to hide. We are up for ultimate judgement naked, and often vulnerability, the absolute honesty, can be terrifying for newcomers. While all of this happens, we should be oozing with pride, unabashed with our brazen, honest nakedness. Harness vulnerability, transform it into a source of power. Someone whom I admire greatly once advised me to never lose sight of my authentic voice. Power is stepping onstage, ready to face a dark sea of faceless people, and tell your story, present your body in your authentic voice. In our daily lives, we don’t get this chance to control public perception. On stage, it’s your turn to show them how who you are and how you love yourself, and why they should too.