We all fall into ruts. We get booked consistently, put on a good local show, but we don’t get challenged. And then we see that out of town performer, or go to a festival and see the next level. And I don’t know about you guys, but there are a handful of performers that have always made me want to run home and work on my burlesque (Dirty Martini, Tigger!, Lux LaCroix, Kellita, Erochica Bamboo, Lulu Lollipop, Stage-Door Johnnies, to name a few). Why, in fact, I just saw Russel Bruner and left a snail trail of worship on him because he did a move I had only seen Ray Bolger do in The Great Ziegfeld.
Here’s a hypothetical I ask myself of each new act: If I sat in the audience, paid the $15 ticket price and watched my act, would I feel I got my money’s worth?
Sometimes we plateau and don’t know how to find inspiration or how to hone our skills; especially if we are not near hot-beds of burlesque shows and classes. Well, here is a list – very similar to the homework I give my students between the Advanced and Solo levels – to help guide you. Some of it may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
1. GET INTO A DANCE CLASS
I’m sure people are tired of hearing me preach this, but I’m not going to stop until I see some technique on our stages. Since burlesque is not a dance technique but a performing art, any dance discipline will be useful to you on stage.
2. SEE OTHER BURLESQUE SHOWS
This is twofold: Nothing is sadder than seeing a newbie performer doing an act or gimmick that an established performer has been doing for years. Yes, we are all dealing with archetypes (the nurse, the housewife, Josephine Baker, Bride of Frankenstein), but how will you know that yours will stand out from the pack if you don’t know what comprises the pack? Also, when you see a performer you like, analyze what is it about that performer you respond to – is their costume? Their concepts? Their movement?
3. SEE SHOWS OTHER THAN BURLESQUE
Including, but not limited to, operas, plays, circuses, gallery openings, museum exhibits, movies, dance concerts, drag shows, amusement parks and live music. Inspiration can come from anywhere. I have seen interesting dance combinations in clowns at the circus, stage presence from bass players, and costume ideas from carnival rides.
4. WATCH YOUR FAVORITE DANCE SEQUENCES (MOVIES, MUSIC VIDEOS) WITHOUT THE VOLUME
If you truly want to break down movement into something you can achieve, watch it without the sound. This way you will not be caught up in the emotion of the music.
5. WATCH STAND-UP COMEDIANS, STREET PERFORMERS OR CHILDREN’S THEATER FOR TECHNIQUES ON HOW TO WORK AN AUDIENCE
These performers often deal with audiences that are drunk, uninterested and literally acting like four year olds – all types that you as a burlesque performer might have to deal with in a crowded bar venue.
6. READ A BOOK
There are plenty of books on burlesque, burlesque dancers, vaudeville, theater, musicals, choreographers, costume designers. Know something of the history of your art form. You should know who the Minsky brothers were, why we have to wear pasties, and for which acts Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr were famous.
7. READ THE SPRING AND FALL FASHION ISSUES OF FASHION MAGAZINES
If haute couture isn’t comprised of the concepts of burlesque costuming – over the top, exaggerated, use of color and humor – then nothing is.
8. MEET WITH A MAKE-UP ARTIST/TAKE A SEWING CLASS
I can always tell a newbie when during the curtain call, they look no better than a secretary at the Christmas party, and they are wearing off-the-rack underwear. You may want to start collecting make-up inspiration from magazines or screen grabs from the internet. Then, to find a make-up artist, look up local photographers/pin-up models and see if they have any recommendations. For sewing classes, many community colleges will offer sewing or costuming for theater, which will use similar techniques. Once you know how to make a garment (versus being forced to work an existing garment), you’ll free yourself up to use different kinds of materials and colors.
9. GET FEEDBACK FROM FRIENDS AND PERFORMERS YOU ADMIRE
Workshop your act by getting feedback before you take it to the stage by contacting people whose opinions you trust. They may tell you things about your act that you are too close to see, but they may also tell you that there are parts of your act that you thought weren’t working are indeed fine.
10. LISTEN TO NEW MUSIC OUTLETS
I can highly recommend online radio stations like Pandora.com (type in a song and it will make a radio station of similar music) or my personal favorite Luxuriamusic.com (which plays everything from the twenties to mid-seventies). You can also join a music service like EMusic.com – a cheaper version of iTunes. I have a $20 a month subscription which often forces me to pick music I may not be familiar with, but have been pleasantly surprised. They have no less than twenty-eight albums of circus music available! (I own at least three.)
And I’m turning it up to 11…
11. ASK FOR HELP
I have asked for costuming help from Venus de Mille, choreography help from Princess Farhana – heck, even Kitten de Ville taught me how to pin-curl my hair. Most performers will be willing to answer a quick question on the phone, through e-mail. (Do not ask while someone is getting ready in the dressing room before a show – that is their prep time you’ll be invading.) If you need in-depth advice, see if you can book their time. Can’t afford a private lesson? Maybe you can barter with them on something they need help with. I have yet to meet a burlesque performer that wasn’t juggling a day job and their career and could use a little help with promotion, cleaning their studio, bringing them an iced cappuccino…
To sum up, to bring it all home, to put a fine point on it: STRIVE!
After spending three years making the documentary, ‘The Velvet Hammer Burlesque’, it was no wonder that Penny decided to pick up the mantle held by her grandmother, Philadelphia burlesque dancer, Penny Starr. Or, as Penny Starr Jr. puts it, ”You can only live with the circus for so long before you want to join!” (She and Penny, Sr. have performed the first and only grandmother/granddaughter striptease act.) One year later, in 2004, Penny Starr, Jr. became First Runner-Up at the annual Miss Exotic World (Burlesque Hall of Fame) burlesque pageant.
She has performed and/or instructed at a number of legendary venues, shows and festivals, including the Va Va Voom Room, Starshine Burlesque, Margaret Cho’s ‘The Sensuous Woman’, the Slipper Room NYC, Tease-o-Rama, BHoF, BurlyCon and the New York Burlesque Festival.
In addition to dancing and performing, Penny is the founder of the All-Star Burlesque Classes, and produces and directs the Princess Farhana line of belly dance and burlesque instructional DVDs. A centerfold and columnist, Penny has also consulted on such shows as ‘Chuck’ (including a cameo as a bachelor party stripper), ‘Castle’, and has recently taught tassel twirling to the cast of ‘Water for Elephants’.