A Phenomenological Analysis of the State of Burlesque, by Dr. Lucky.

Required burlesque reading, courtesy of Dr. Lucky. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

“I didn’t know you still perform,” a young performer said to me at BurlyCon in 2011.  I felt a twang of sadness, that feeling of regret that comes from finally beginning to experience the consequences of choices you have made.  The truth is, I decided to move away from hustling for gigs a few years ago.  Some would call this “semi retirement,” but I never put a label on it.  There was no fanfare, no announcements on Facebook (for that would inevitably come with another proclamation about “coming out of semi-retirement” every time I stepped on a stage.)  Instead, I made a deliberate choice to think about the future:  the future of burlesque and what it has and will become, as well as my own future, including other life-long ways to be a creative being and a performance practitioner.  Tigger! has told me that he wants to die on stage, and I applaud that resolve, dedication, and clarity of vision.  But that’s probably the last place I want to be when I die.

Dr. Lucky  ©Chris K Photographer  (A Phenomenological Analysis of the State of Burlesque, by Dr. Lucky.)
Dr. Lucky ©Chris K Photographer

Close your eyes.  Imagine the most fantastic show you can possible dream.  Allow yourself the luxury to let your mind’s eye play through the film:  don’t stop when you think it’s getting to expensive, too elaborate, too extravagant or even technically impossible.  (Now open your eyes so you can continue reading this!)  Does that fantastic dream involve stripping at a stage-less dive bar in the Lower East Side with an office-turned-dressing room and patrons who may or may not care about your performance?  Or at a swanky dinner theatre where top dollar is being paid by patrons but, again, you have to change in an office-turned-dressing room while patrons judge you as they pick at their overpriced steak?  “Of course not,” you retort, “those are money gigs.  They pay the rent.  You are being rhetorical, Lucky, and a little presumptuous.  Not everyone has a PhD.  Some of us have to work.”  Of course.  But hear me out.

When are we ever going to get over letting “money gigs” rule our decisions for our artistic choices?  When is this generation of incredibly talented and beautiful artists going to stop thinking that the more Swarovski crystals they put on their dress, the better their “art”?  When are we going to stop obsessing over creating that act that will get us booked, or get us into BHOF, and instead create that which has never been seen before?  When are we going to stop obsessing over our bodies and our Facebook self promotion and start thinking about what we put our energy into?

“When are we ever going to get over letting “money gigs” rule our decisions for our artistic choices?  When is this generation of incredibly talented and beautiful artists going to stop thinking that the more Swarovski crystals they put on their dress, the better their “art”?”

Burlesque does not foster thinking about the long term.  Burlesque is all about immediate gratification, those 5 glittering minutes on stage, preparing for the next show, the next festival, the next “idea” you can’t wait to get started on.  It does not encourage planning for the future or financial security or investing or planning a family or any of the other things many of us got into a fringe expression of self to avoid in the first place.  No one I know wants to be a suit.  Of course.  But as I watch myself and my colleagues age and burlesque change, I have to ask myself:  What are we doing?

I love burlesque’s creativity, its gumption, its anything goes mind set.  I LOVE DIY.  Burlesque was once completely DIY, but this, too, is a dying part of the art as professional designers and prop makers become the norm, even for brand new performers, some of whom have their own gown designers before they’ve even stepped on stage.  This is all beyond ludicrous, but most importantly it misses the whole point of what, to me, makes burlesque interesting:  self invention, creativity, and doing everything – and I mean everything — yourself.  I love burlesque’s scrappy, “we can do this” mindset but I don’t like spaces with no or substandard dressing rooms or stages.  This may be a NYC problem, one that is inevitably related to the expense of real estate.  But throwing burlesque like spaghetti against a wall and seeing what “sticks,” even when a venue is completely an unacceptable space for live performance, does not enrich the art form.  Just because a venue wants you to do a show there does not mean you should.

“…when I see self-possessed, strong women doubting themselves, wondering why they aren’t getting booked and deciding it’s because of their costumes or their bodies or because they are not good enough, it’s time to turn the magnifying glass around.  You are not the problem.  The problem is burlesque.

I love the idea of burlesque but not necessarily what it may (or has) become.  It’s all rhinestones and boned corsets and feather fans that cost at least a month’s rent, while performers bend over backwards (literally) or suck off producers (sometimes literally) to get booked for a free gig in a shitty bar.  This is “making it.”  I don’t want one single part of that.  I still love performing, and I will continue to do so, as well as produce shows, teach burlesque, and think and write about it.  I am not throwing in the towel on burlesque as a whole; I’m just more selective these days.  For when I see self-possessed, strong women doubting themselves, wondering why they aren’t getting booked and deciding it’s because of their costumes or their bodies or because they are not good enough, it’s time to turn the magnifying glass around.  You are not the problem.  The problem is burlesque.

Dr. Lucky.  ©Ves Pitts  (A Phenomenological Analysis of the State of Burlesque, by Dr. Lucky)
Dr. Lucky. ©Ves Pitts

For those of us going on 15 or 20 plus years of performing in burlesque and nightclubs, I doubt any one of us ever thought this subculture would blow up into an international phenomenon.  We did it as a lark, we did it because it was an extension of what we did at home (playing dress up, being an exhibitionist, acting out, etc.), we did it because we were railing against the system.  (Remember the ad campaigns for The Gap in the 1990s?  Remember those commercials featuring stone-faced, still beautiful young people dressed exactly the same as one another, Gap’s not-so-subtle brainwashing us into conformity?  I think burlesque was responding to that.  “I was born in the ‘90s,” you whine.  Well, fuck you.  Go look it up.  And get back to me in 20 years when you are old, too.)  It is exciting to be a part of this movement which has become hugely popular, and incredible to see what people come up with when they are given the broad parameters of burlesque possibility.  And, of course, there are many people who have successfully turned their fun time into a full-time career.

I completely agree with most of what Kate Valentine wrote in her “State of the Union” Address, except for her division between “professionals” and “amateurs.”  This seems to want to differentiate between talent levels, and it has become clear the more I travel that there are plenty of “amateurs” who do burlesque full time, and many amazing, talented performers who don’t do it full time.  This might be because they don’t sit on social media all day every day blowing smoke up their own asses.  Or they may have other careers – perhaps by necessity or perhaps by choice – and though they may be “professional” compared to the newbie turned “full time” Kitten Le New, technically they are a “hobbyist.”  [Note to self:  check to see if this name is real before posting!  I personally don’t know or have anything against Kitten Le New].

“I don’t want to spend my life hustling to get on stage for a few minutes.  I want to imagine another way, another way to be a creative and artistic human being, a way to celebrate the body and free expression and glamorous excess.”

No one should have to apologize for having a meaningful career that limits them from constantly hustling or endlessly updating social media, the two necessarily requirements for all “professional” burlesque performers.  Because burlesque is inherently an amateur art form (which doesn’t mean there aren’t professional performers and that it doesn’t take great skill, practice, and talent to get there), it will always have a constant influx of new talent that both invigorates and waters down the quality.  (Please note:  This will not be your standard “newbie” bash, for everyone was a newbie once.  Besides, if you discourage new performers, the art will not grow.)

In most other art forms you have to learn it before you do it.  Burlesque has no such apprenticeship program –the “stage kitten” is a temporary position, not a true training ground.  New and old performers vie for the few performance spots there are, or produce their own shows so that they can get more stage time.  And then their time is divided, much like the performer who has a day job, whether rewarding or obligatory, and therefore by definition, there are no full-time, professional burlesque performers.  Full time performers are also producers, agents, designers, choreographers, teachers, etc.

I don’t want to spend my life hustling to get on stage for a few minutes.  I want to imagine another way, another way to be a creative and artistic human being, a way to celebrate the body and free expression and glamorous excess.  This has required spending some physical and mental energy on thinking about the future, what such an artistic production could look like, and how to possibly get there.  And this future-looking methodology contradicts the very ontology of burlesque.  Burlesque fosters a love of the short term attention span.  Burlesque is in and of the moment.

“No one should have to apologize for having a meaningful career that limits them from constantly hustling or endlessly updating social media, the two necessarily requirements for all “professional” burlesque performers.”

I remember getting an email booking inquiry in the early 2000s from a producer asking if I would do one act for 50 bucks.  At the time, I had been performing maybe for 5 years.  I turned him down, thinking 50 bucks wasn’t enough for me to get into drag.  Now, performers are clamoring for those $50 gigs.  We have not gotten a raise in over a decade.  In fact, pay has gone down.  And still there are those willing to take those gigs, or have to take those gigs because they don’t have “day jobs.”  (Though, if you see my argument above, all performers are, by definition, part time performers.)  I do not blame those performers who, at all costs, want to get on stage.  I blame the art form, an art form that has become over focused on appearance and self promotion.  (This, of course, could be said of actors or musicians or models, or practically any other art form that capitalizes on the body as its primary tool.  But what makes burlesque different is to see it change so radically in its life span.)

Dr. Lucky.  ©Don Spiro  (A Phenomenological Analysis of the State of Burlesque, by Dr. Lucky)
Dr. Lucky. ©Don Spiro

This relates to one of the philosophical and practical “problems” with burlesque:  it capitalizes on and depends on glamour and excess while in the real lives of its performers, most are struggling to survive.  They take the subway home from gigs because they can’t afford a cab while their giant bags are filled with beautiful gowns that cost 4 digits.  As Guy Debord would put it, it’s a society based on the spectacle.  But not all that glitters is gold.

In the end, I don’t know whether burlesque can support itself, or if it will self implode, collapsing into itself like a black hole.  So when I think about the future, I don’t necessarily think about burlesque fulfilling all my creative visions or filling my wallet with cash.  It’s too fickle, too much like a teenager, too willing to change its mind on a whim.  In the meantime, I enjoy the ride, and appreciate all the beautiful creatures and beautiful creations that abound.  I’ve gotten to travel, headline and host festivals, talk to students and reporters about my perspective and experience.  It indeed is a glorious fantasy world.  But its grounding in reality is not its forte, though, admittedly, I would never want it to be.  It will be interesting to see what the future holds.  Because some of us showgirls are looking to the future.

P.S.  Dr. Lucky is available for bookings, hosting, and lectures at doctorofburlesque@yahoo.com.  See more at www.doctorofburlesque.com.

20 Comments
  1. To comment on Joy Vice’s comment: “…..can also make aspiring performers like myself feel disheartened and defeated before we even get the chance to begin.” I agree and I think this is worth mentioning. I’ve read a lot of performers insist that things like doing a martini glass act or one with a merry go round horse, or balloons is considered “off limits” because it’s someone’s act etc… belonging to xyz person. I love that performers work so hard to protect each other and at the same time in reality, since a lot of this artform is based on recreating characters that have been there through the test of time, or that come from old hollywood or old circus acts and icons, I am not sure that it helps burlesque overall for people to police each other in this way.

    Great that people are encouraged to push their creativity, but for people who like to stick with the classical props outfits, characters, etc….. what about this: if one burlesque artist is in one city does their act with 1000s moustaches or whatever, and another burlesque performer is in another city doing their act of 1000 moustaches it really should be ok. Maybe the two of them can do an act of 2000 moustaches together for double the price sometime. Is it true that a newbie is not allowed to do a martini glass number, because Dita can not be in two places at the same time.

    With all due respect to the ones out there who were the first performers that we saw doing some of these acts, their numbers were inspired by and sometimes outright copies of ‘classics’ though very well executed. I am not trying to downplay anyone’s role. I’m just saying there is more to the story. How many white performers were credited with their “signature style” to the dismay of the Harlem dancers who trained them. Much of vaudeville was from Yiddish theater, though I could name over 60 burlesque performers, I can’t count more than three jewish burlesque dancers offhand. I think there is room still for a lot of growth in this art. Hypocracy doesn’t help anyone. Throwing in the towel isn’t necessary either.

  2. I agree with this article, and it has brought up a lot of thoughts and a few questions

    1. This may be a question for burlesque historians and those who are well versed in nightlife entertainment (including both straight and gay): but has burlesque ever gone away? Circus arts never went away, drag performance never went away to come back, it’s been a constant. Though, there does seem to be an extra supply and demand for burlesque at certain moments in history, again these are just questions.

    2. The internet does magnify it’s presence all over the world. And this may make it easier to get work in some cases and a harder to get work in other cases. That will probably change again and we dont know if for the better or worse. But I wouldn’t say that burlesque is going to disappear whether it be a classic form of it, or a more edgy form of it.

    3. Admirers of the art form were taught, in a large part, from the internet, to put more effort into their costumes, and so they did. They were also told that they should put more effort into their concepts, and they did that too. So the problem is actually, that the supply is greater than the demand? Would be a shame if that meant that people abandon the art form, burlesquers are not quitters.

  3. Hi! I’m a jazz musician and songwriter, not involved at all with burlesque, but I recognize everything you’re talking about here, and I thank you for this essay! I just have this to add:

    To “create that which has never been seen before,” how right and true. And hopeless, I feel, having just read the section in The Power of Habit where Charles DuHigg describes how the record company (if we still call them that) figures out the formula for a hit in this or that genre, and how the radio stations monitor listeners radios (did we know they can do that?) to see who switches stations, and when. Guess when! As soon as they hear something unfamiliar. We’re on a downward spiral.

  4. Gnarla, I could not have said it better myself. Thank you! Dr Lucky THANK you for asking the tough questions!

  5. Maybe the future of burlesque is what you, Dr. Lucky, bring to it – moving, breathing, beautiful raw expression of whatever the hell you want. I studied with you 6 years ago, and I’m pretty sure I’m from the same class as Ms. Jones up there. Performing in that little bar on the Lower East Side will forever remain one of my favourite moments. I know I got to learn from one of the greats.

  6. I came across your blog on Facebook and I want you to know how much it touched me. I have been in burlesque for about 4 years now performing in Montreal Quebec. I have grown, I have gained friends, confidence and fans, but at the same time I doubt myself and bum myself out when I see some gals glamming it up on stage when I can barely afford to make a new costume after my 40 hour week.

    I drive to Montreal 3 times a month, twice to rehearse and once to perform, each way being just a bit over an hour, making 6 hours of just travelling… We do get paid, but once my gas gets paid and maybe the one cup of tea i grab that money is gone.

    I am not complaining, I enjoy burlesque, enjoy the girls that come to see me and say how I was their favorite and make them love their body and want to be more like me, it touches me and makes me want to keep going. But at the same time, it is tiring, and being a part time burlesque performer money is tight and I feel sometimes I can’t keep going.

    Sometimes it is all worth it, and I hear a song and it makes my day and I spend every second in the car driving to and from work listening to that song thinking of a routine, singing along, shimmying and shaking my breasts while at red lights and winking to the car in front of me…

    But then there are days when I wonder if I am doing enough? Am I really that good, though I don’t get to afford good costumes or high end props when do I know it is time to hang up my pasties? 2 Sundays a month I lose from driving to Montreal and a Saturday night a month for a show. Though I have just turned 30 and not “old” by any standards I wonder if maybe I should re-think my part time career…

    After reading your blog I felt a bit more at ease, I felt a bit more proud thinking you would love to see my bags of fabric and sticks of hot glue I have, and to see me in my car shaking it to some old rockabilly song. I am one of those old school girls who enjoy crafting and sewing for me, sure a seamstress would be great but I can’t afford one and it would seriously take the fun out of the process…

    So though I don’t know exactly what my burlesque future will be, I am not trying to go out there and make it in the burlesque world, I know I am not up to BHOF standards though this makes me sad to think it (I love to dream) but I do enjoy performing along Blue Light Burlesque Troupe and hope to someday meet you…

    Many kisses,

    Red Rocket

  7. Almost six years ago I entered a warm small space where I learned the history and journey of burlesque from your glorious self and Jo Weldon. I was ready to create perform explore by the end of the class. I felt I had discovered a new outlet for creating and performing. Over the years I slowly got tired of the hustling the rhinestones the Facebook pimping and slowly feeling like my DIY eccentric ideas were not enough. Thank you for this article. Thank you for letting me feel like my homemade dinosaur head for a burlesque number is as awesome as I thought it was until I saw the master crafted robot head made by a master electrician (which I am clearly in awe and envious of). I felt like I was at a disadvantage with a 9-5 job and only a certain amount of time to contribute to my art. I now feel somehow lacking in my own artistic ideas and am hoping that just like in other artistic avenues it is just a current lull.

    You always made me feel like what I thought and created was what mattered and I’m so happy that’s what you are still stating. As someone who is still semi performing but can’t do the social media slash keeping up with the Joneses (pun intended) I want to say thank you!

    Sapphire Jones

  8. Thank you, Lucky! You have no idea how much of a relief it was to read an essay written by a performer that I greatly admire, pretty much summing up all of my fears and concerns as an aspiring burlesque performer. To me, this essay read as being unapologetic in its criticism without being resentful or disdainful. If anything, it came across as TOUGH LOVE. You actually put to words exactly why I’m so hesitant to really try to jump into burlesque: why invest my time, energy, and hard-earned (albeit limited) money, if all that effort will never be shared, even in the smallest venues. I worry that what I have to offer will never be up to par with those who can afford to have their costumes custom made by a designer. Unfortunately, most performers who are “in demand” in this area of performing, while still being inspiring and exhilarating, can also make aspiring performers like myself feel disheartened and defeated before we even get the chance to begin. However, what I enjoyed most about the essay was how, despite your criticisms, you so eloquently put to words why the art of burlesque makes me so excited.

  9. God, and to think I thought of getting into this as a hobby. I wasn’t going to quit my day job over it…. But it just seems pointless. Shame too, as I have a lot to offer a a performer…

    Now I see why so-called burlesque “artists” are performing in strip clubs under the title of “feature entertainer”… They are more posh than gigs at a regular dive bar and provide a real stage and dressing rooms.

    There lies the future of burlesque: Confined to sleazy strip joints with local blue-collar philistines for an audience. Everyone, learn how to work that greasy stripper pole! It might be a staple in your next act.

  10. gnarla – I couldn’t agree more,most burlesque acts do not evolve into writing plays, musicals, starting punk bands, performance art, comedy troupes because as much as burlesque encourages a bold, empowering experience it also encourages performers to strive for the instant audience approval rather than taking risks and going for something that forces their talents to evolve.

  11. Thank you for “getting it”! I am also sometimes asked if I still perform because I am not appearing cheap or free on the regular at the local stage less dive bar or spending lots of money on festivals to “get my name out there”. Instead I am investing in growing as a performer, investing in my art, and only accepting gigs that give me a return on my investment! I am fortunate to be in the position for focus on manifesting my artistic vision from conception to completion. Thank you for this intelligent, well written article!

  12. I think this is a good article and I love talking to Dr Lucky, now you should get all the differences from a Legend and how we used to work and made a living at this fabulous world of burlesque, I raised my 2 children doing this for years. It brings on a whole new meaning. Also should enlighten those that are thinking of doing this for a future, Tiffany Carter

  13. Couldn’t agree more. Have hung up my tassels this year because I was tired, upset, frustrated and saddened by constantly trying to push the boundaries and constantly being put back in my box. Burlesque needs to allow performers make mistakes, take chances and make bold statements. I can’t be a part of that. I read this right in the middle of a performance crisis and it was very, very helpful. Thank you.

  14. This…just about made me tear up. For the past 2 years, I’ve been going through a sort of “who am I?” in regards to burlesque.

    See, I started in burlesque 6 years ago…I’d never taken a class, but one night at a show I was regularly helping, I decided “I want to try this!” and I was given the stage. I came up with an act and that was it. I fell in love. I performed in that show regularly for a year as well as others that would book me. I could barely sew, but I built costumes and props after work most nights and had many burns from hot glue guns consistently

    2 years after I began, I decided I wanted to start my own show. And I did, I didn’t want things to be too glitzy (apparently I did ‘grunge burlesque’ quite well…ie. ripped fishnets and not so average burlesque costumes) and wanted it to be fun and open to that girl saying “they look like they have a ton of fun! I want to try this!”
    It started off slow, but we had fun. My co-emcee and I had a good line of banter each night (we rambled sometimes, but sometimes it was needed). Then, the show got big! This, was awesome! We were attracting a regularly large audience, we were booking outside our regular venues, and on certain shows we were pulling in a large amount of money.
    With this came the egos…I realize, as a producer, not everyone would agree with me. however, there were some outright screaming matches at meetings.

    Then, I heard badmouthing from regulars of any newbies in the show. Which really bothered me as some of them, were in that spot only a year previously. I started doubting my own talents and abilities. I had a lot of night’s crying about it. It was a form I loved so much, but was making me utterly miserable. That’s when I decided…I had to end my show.

    I’m sure some of my old performers may read this, and if that’s the case. so be it.

    I moved to a different country…people think that’s why the show ended. in truth, it was going to end whether I stayed stateside or not. With it…I ended my stage persona as well.

    Currently, I am itching to perform…but I’ve had to completely destroy the old self and am working right now at creating something, I hope, is completely. I don’t know that I’ll ever go back to the “tease” form in burlesque, but I’ll find a way to perform again. 😉

  15. I think you’ve just written everything that has been in my mind for the past year! I had a breakdown last year over trying to figure out what the next move is – I’ve been in the biz for 9 years and am going to be 40 this year. Age shouldn’t matter but we’d be ignoring the obvious that it actually does and I don’t want to be eeking an existence in burlesque in the next decade of my life. I’ve started playwriting and trying to figure out where is the next outlet for my creativity. However, even with the breakdown, I’m still performing because I don’t have any other way of making the rent at the moment.
    Thank you so much for this article. It’s made me realise I’m absolutely not the only one thinking along those lines and I really hope that if I ever come back to NY (for a holiday) I can buy you a drink. Best of luck with everything.
    Crimson xxx

  16. burlesque is going to collapse if it doesn’t change. Its been around (in its newest incarnation) for awhile now and has had its dips into mainstream culture, every major city has its troupes and a large amount of mid sized cites have one as well. And of all those shows, they are exactly the same. Blindfold any audience member, take them to a show, and afterwards ask them what city they were in and they wouldn’t know because there is no defining cultural or social or stylistic methods or statements of any of these shows. All these shows follow a strict system of rules and derivatives of those rules. 1st rule: its a variety show with an emcee, acts, and a dj. Secondary rules: is the show kitschy, ironic, or pop? Does it emphasize dance or comedy? Sultry, tongue in cheek, or a blend of the two? The only stretching most burlesque shows have done in their effort to be creative is to explore irony with themed shows or acts; ‘Star Wars Burlesque’, ‘Napoleon Dynamite Burlesque’, ‘Video Game Burlesque’, and etcetera. Irony and novelly wear off quick. Don’t defend my criticism with “burlesque is empowering”, “burlesque is for everyone”, “burlesque is satire”; because yes, you’re right, that has been established so why did everyone stop there? Why isn’t the culture moving forward? I see this nation wide group of amazing and powerful women who are braver than any one out there, they will take their clothes off on stage for a complete group of strangers and they will OWN it. So why has it stopped at 2 five minute acts per variety show? Why aren’t groups of these women getting together and writing plays, musicals, starting bands, performance art, comedy troupes with that same level of fearlessness? Why does your burlesque has to involve taking off shoes, stockings, gloves, corset, bra, panty to lady is a tramp? Why not a monologue as you tear off your clothes, why not as you sing in front of your punk band, why not while two characters interact and bump into each other and play and fight and love? Bikini Kill, The Riot Grrrl Movement, Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Wendy O Williams, hell even Rockbitch or Genitorturers; all great and fearless groups or people that started out not knowing how to play an instrument or perform and had roots in stripping or modeling or some part of the sex industry that went on to become powerhouses on stage presenting a unique and singular vision of performance and art. I would love to see burlesque take such daring steps and stop following the rules. And the best part is, you can take risks and still call it burlesque! Just some ramblings here but the whole variety show format has become quite boring and there are too many people doing the exact same thing; I just don’t find burlesque shows fun or exciting to watch anymore because that initial shock, awe, and pride at these women doing these daring things has not been built upon; there hasn’t been a second step, all these shows aren’t evolving into performance art collectives, factories, bands, whatever; they’re just doing it until they get bored or realize they aren’t gonna make any money at it.

  17. Thank you! I’m only a 7 year vet in this glamorous world but have in the last year been asking myself many of these questions. I love the stage but for how long in this avenue? I really loved the article. thank you! XO, G

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