BurlyCon – Past, Present and Future.

I really can’t say enough about BurlyCon. I feel positively gleeful with excitement every time I think about it, or see a new announcement. Of all the things Indigo Blue has contributed to burlesque, BurlyCon is a precious, ingenious gift, for which she has my admiration and the gratitude of the burlesque community.

Shanghai Pearl addresses an attentive class at BurlyCon 2010
Shanghai Pearl addresses an attentive class at BurlyCon 2010

For anyone who isn’t aware of this fantastic annual event yet, BurlyCon is “a community-oriented professional growth and educational convention for burlesque performers, fans, and aficionados … packed with thought-provoking, skill-building and transformative educational and community-building opportunities.” 

With learning, discussion, socialising and fun to be enjoyed in equal measure, but with no shows or performances in the evening, this is a unique event in the burlesque calendar that I think everyone should make the effort to attend. The list of contributors, instructors and speakers is simply incredible – dedicated beginners can mix with and learn from the titans of the industry, and make important, rewarding new friendships with wonderful, like-minded people.

At the end of last year, shortly after another successful BurlyCon, I talked to Indigo about its conception, and her hopes for the future…

I first met you about four or five years ago now at Tease-O-Rama, and I sat in on your classes each year. Do you think that other high profile events and festivals should hold similar daytime activities – that they do not provide enough opportunities for education, community feedback and discussion?

I love that other festivals are focused on performance and shows.  BurlyCon is a true convention, completely dedicated to education, community building, and social connections without the looming pressure of ‘showtime!’, which makes it unique from performance-based festivals.

Would you say that, overall, BurlyCon is aimed at performers who have been performing for a certain amount of time and possess a certain level of skill and experience, or are newcomers and amateur performers equally able to benefit from participation?

BurlyCon offers classes applicable to someone who is just beginning their burlesque journey, as well as classes geared towards seasoned professional entertainers.  The breadth and depth of courses is part of what has made BurlyCon so accessible and exciting.  We strongly value interspersing seasoned and newer performers throughout the weekend, it does a tremendous amount to build connections.

It appears to be a very deliberate decision not to have any ‘show’ or performances over the weekend. Were you very keen to avoid the pressure and/or preparation leading up to a performance that might interfere with enjoying the educational and social opporutnities on offer?

We felt strongly that there are already so many amazing performance festivals around the country (and now around the world!), that it would be ‘fun’ to do something like that in Seattle – but it wouldn’t address the needs of the community.  The decision to focus on education and community was very intentional. This is the burlesque community’s professional development event!  It is our chance to discuss the issues we never have time to discuss backstage.  And, it is the opportunity to talk, laugh, socialize, and dance with each other!

Michelle L'amour teaches the art of fan dancing...
Michelle L'amour teaches the art of fan dancing...

Are there any ‘demonstrative’ performances?

In the first year, we had ‘Scene Studies’ in which we paired up newer performers with a team of more seasoned performers for feedback on works-in-progress.  Last year, Trixie Little and The Evil Hate Monkey brought a wonderful peer-based Act Review format to the Con, in which performers show their act in progress to a whole room full of other performers. Then, everyone contributes their ideas and feedback. This was so popular and useful that we are again holding Act Reviews each night of BurlyCon – almost everyone attends!

Do you feel you have achieved a format that you are completely happy with at this stage? Are there things you would particularly like to add or adapt, or are you happy to let it evolve as it will, or to let the participants create their own collective flow and focus each year?

Each year the event continues to evolve.  This year we have had an overwhelming growth in attendance – and next year we are moving to a much bigger space that is more appropriate to the convention’s size.  We will continue to have fun social events, and a wide variety of movement, theater, costuming, business, and history classes.  I am hoping that we can add a track of presentations and lectures by academics studying burlesque, and I think it would be amazing to incorporate the explosion of films on burlesque into the weekend.

When you teach, are there particular performance aspects or attitudes that you prioritise and encourage?

Hmm.  With respect to techniques, as a teacher I love to see students fully committing to their ideas and pushing themselves to the outer reaches of expression.  I invite them to be willing to be ridiculous, outlandish, cartoonish, and excessive. Through this they often find a richer range and are better able to get their ideas across while connecting with the audience.  Most of them are sick of me telling them to ‘look up!’ and ‘breathe through your mouth!’.

“This is the burlesque community’s professional development event!  It is our chance to discuss the issues we never have time to discuss backstage.  And, it is the opportunity to talk, laugh, socialize, and dance with each other!”

What do you have in mind when you accept or invite certain performers to instruct and advise at BurlyCon?

We look for instructors who are vibrantly involved in the burlesque community, who have knowledge and expertise to share, and who are bringing material that attendees are eager to learn.  Personally, I feel it’s important to have instructors at BurlyCon who are actively connected to the growing national and international scene – especially those who make a point of taking the pilgrimage to the Burlesque Hall of Fame for Exotic World Weekend.  I believe that the Exotic World Weekend gathering is the most important link between the classic era of burlesque and our own contemporary scene. Because more of the living legends of burlesque attend that event than any other event, it is a unique opportunity to be in the presence of our history while crafting our future.

What do you want the attendees to understand and come away with, above all?

Personally, I hope that each attendee comes away from BurlyCon with deeper/wider connections to their community, a stronger sense of artistic and/or professional vision, and knowledge of their strengths and areas for improvement.  And, of course, a set of delightful and satisfying memories!

Are you planning any other conventions or similar events in the future? Do you envisage a Burlycon ‘franchise’ of sorts, perhaps, or have you considered holding the convention in a different location/s?

We are in discussions now about where and when our expansion will occur!  There has been tremendous interest overseas and on the East Coast of the US.  If we do hold the convention somewhere else, I vote for a tropical beachside location, and I will teach a hands-on workshop on Effective Sunscreen Application.

Hair, makeup and costume workshops are also available at BurlyCon.
Hair, makeup and costume workshops are also available at BurlyCon.

I also asked Jo Weldon, Indigo’s co-curator, what she feels BurlyCon can offer the community.

BurlyCon is clearly something that Indigo feels the community needs and can benefit from, alongside other high profile shows and performance-focussed events on the annual calendar. What do you feel makes it especially unique and beneficial for those who attend?

The intention of BurlyCon is different than any other event. It’s intended to build community, not to raise funds or make anybody famous.

Are there any specific areas of knowledge and/or aspects of performance that you feel are not taught or discussed thoroughly or widely enough? Are there things that you find consistently weak or absent in many current performances?

We are interested in structuring BurlyCon with various tracks – for instance, one for dance, one for theatricality, one for costume, one for academia, etc. Schools have to survive financially and have to teach what they can sell to some extent, although they are also in the position of saying what there is to learn. At BurlyCon people are really interested in conversations, which is not so much the case in classes. We all struggle with issues of authority when it comes to something as personal as burlesque.

It’s tough to decide who should teach, an issue about which I did a presentation at BurlyCon 2010. I think of myself and my students as peers seeking inspiration and resources and venues for our art, and my classes as workshops at which we’re all sharing information, but at some point I do have to say things I know that they don’t know. At BurlyCon in many classes  the attendees are very likely to engage in conversation with the instructor, who is there more as a facilitator than as an expert.

The class list for BurlyCon 2011, which takes place on October 20 – 23rd, has already been published, and there is an exciting variety to choose from – the hard part will be deciding which ones! Visit the link below for all the information you need, and to book your place.

BurlyCon Seattle 2011

Holli-Mae Johnson
Holli-Mae Johnson

Burlesque Hall of Fame / Miss Exotic World Judge, 2011 Holli-Mae Johnson is the founder and editor of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, a pioneering publication created nine years ago to unite, document and celebrate the global burlesque community. Holli is actively involved in the burlesque community on a day to day basis and is privately consulted by performers and producers at every level for promotion, critique, recommendations and encouragement. As a documenter and critic, she has seen countless burlesque and variety performances from across the world and provides an intimate perspective and insight into the lives and careers of burlesque’s greatest pioneers, performers and personalities.

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