A Note from the Editor
This is a compilation of two speeches given at BurlyCon 2011 by Kate Valentine – creator of The Va Va Voom Room (1997), a contemporary pioneer, and one of the best emcees in the business. As Miss Astrid, Kate has been honoured to host part of the BHOF weekend since 2006.
A number of people returned from BurlyCon in October and contacted me to say how moved they were by this address, and to stress how important they think it is that this speech can be read and discussed by the wider community. It is a bold, intelligent and heartfelt speech that I hope will encourage further honesty, discussion, and development.
I should make it clear that the opinions expressed in this speech are not necessarily shared by myself and 21st Century Burlesque. Some I personally agree with, others I feel merit debate, and I look forward to seeing further discussion of the key issues raised.
“There are many things I love about burlesque. On a personal level, it has given me not only an opportunity to perform but an ability to control my performance destiny which is a great gift. Without this specific form of live cabaret entertainment, many dancers and actors are left at the mercy of auditioning, agents and casting directors. The burlesque format keeps the performer in the drivers seat. Additionally, it is great for the performer that enjoys creating their own work. One can be the author of their own stories, which is unique to burlesque.
I did not know I was a director or a producer or an emcee until I began doing it. And liking it. And becoming good at it (probably in that order). For me again personally, working as an emcee was a totally unforeseen direction and has shaped me as an artist. By working in a format that demands direct address to the audience as well as tons of improvisation, I was able to confront and discard fears I had as an actor in profound ways. I was able to embrace failure and play in my work — something absolutely essential to me creating anything worth looking at/listening to on stage.
When I became involved in burlesque I came to be surrounded by a group of women who did not define themselves by what they were not, or in direct comparison to others. I found myself in rooms of women where the conversation did not automatically devolve into the standard rhetoric of self-deprecation. What a relief! And more of a relief because it was not a political group taking a stance. It was organic — we just had so much more to talk about.
I am so grateful to the group of artists and wild people that have I come to know through burlesque. My experience has almost always been that of a supportive family, which is a rare gift.
I love that the best of neo-burlesque presents a vision of female sexuality that lands distinctly outside of the white hetero-normative male gaze. It is so powerful and liberating to see women of all stripes expressing their sexuality in a fun and funny ways. I was always aware of this, even in the earliest days of the neo-burlesque movement, that it was such a relief for everyone (and that included the white hetero normative males!) to be able to explore their sexuality outside that narrow definition of what we are all supposed to find attractive.
I am also very glad that the neo-burlesque world has expanded to include not only men, but also the gender queer community. The inclusiveness of burlesque helps to side-step a sticky wicket within the form: why do women need to show their empowerment via nudity and sexuality? Does everything, including your power, need to be strained through the prism female objectification? Couldn’t it be argued that this is an Uncle Tom feminism?
Even as a fan and purveyor of burlesque I can only answer that question partially to my satisfaction, but I do think certain things within the burlesque “scene” go a long way toward a response. The first, is having men and gender queer performers. This opens up the discussion the sexuality and nudity as human expression general, not “female” this or that. Additionally, the brilliant tradition of having legend’s night at the Burlesque Hall of Fame creates a visual thesis of The Best of Burlesque: Because it shows the ultimate taboo: aging women, expressing themselves in a robust and unapologetic way. Stripping, stripped of its codifiers, such as youth and “beauty” leaves the audience to look at what burlesque is at its best, baring oneself unapologetically to the world — a true reveal.
Of course it should also be FUN. Burlesque is a confection and its sweet fluffy quality deflates under too much inspection. Burlesque then or now, did not begin as a political movement and all of its messages are best when they play as subtext, like a wink and a smile.
Then again, there are also so many things I hate about neo-burlesque. Barefoot burlesque, burletiquette, tedious full nudity that reveals your anus and inner labia. But I would like to focus here on some issues that are not merely pet peeves, but issues that I consider serious threats to the future of the form. My goal is not just to complain, but to suggest some potential solutions to these issues and to open up a constructive line of dialogue. I believe that my dedication to this art form over the last 15 plus years earns me the right to speak publicly and critically about matters which I consider to be important.
I believe that neo-burlesque is and should be an art form. It may be “low art”, but at its best it is able to make the banal sublime. It has the capacity to create joy in people, an experience essential to our human condition. The only way to preserve neo-burlesque as an art form is to create high professional standards within the genre.
There are two different arms of the current neo-burlesque world. One is the hobbyists, what I call Stitch n’ Bitch burlesque performers. They are huge fans of the genre and they got involved because they wanted to explore their sexuality, their body issues, or their love of retro clothing. They wanted to find a community of like-minded, fun, supportive party people. Then there are the career professionals. They may come from a background in theatre or dance. Most of them pursue burlesque as their full-time career or in addition to their other artistic work.
Both of these arms of the burlesque community are totally valid and extremely valuable. The problem is that they are often indistinct, or worse, the Stitch n’ Bitch performers are under the impression that they are members of the professional group. Its easy to see why this happens. These two groups are constantly existing side by side and on a seemingly equal plane. The burlesque world is a friendly and accessible place with a very D.I.Y. vibe. Additionally, as a “low art” it looks deceptively easy to do: Why, any liberated, cute gal who is willing to take off her clothes in public can do it right? In a word, no.
When I first starting doing burlesque in the ’90′s peoples response was always intrigue and interest. Now when I tell people I am a burlesque performer they say, “Oh.” “Oh”, meaning I saw one bad show and I know all I need to know about burlesque.
Take the time to become skilled and educated about the genre of neo-burlesque. I have heard burlesque schools faulted for the influx of new burlesque performers today, as if burlesque schools are creating an endless race of mutant strippers. I do not believe this to be true. The schools are responding to an interest in the genre and giving people information and techniques that they would not have if they just jumped into burlesque on their own.
Perhaps, however, the schools could put in place more structured levels from which people graduate, so they are gently discouraged from immediately entering the burlesque circuit if they are not prepared to do so. Maybe there could be some encouragement for people with different levels of interest to join different groups: there could be a group of Burly pals who could perform for each other and discuss body positive stuff. And more perhaps importantly we could form a Burlesque Guild where the professionals were given the services and protections that are afforded in some other unions.
By the way, the problem of not knowing when you are Stitch n’ Bitch definitely extends to world of teaching. Please tell me you have been working professionally for at lest 5 years before you attempt to teach something to others. And if you are teaching striptease or any form of dance, dear god, please have had some dance training yourself. If you don’t, really, what are you thinking? Are you trying to make money? Go into real estate or better yet work at a strip club. It will be much more lucrative!
Part of the root of the problem with neo-burlesque seems to be issues around money. Burlesque is not a get rich scheme. My belief is that as artists we have chosen to value something above money: ideals like Beauty, Transformation, and Communication with the world. We seek to have Collective Experiences with our fellow humans which resonate and give us a larger understanding of why we are here. Therefore, your first priority should be the pursuit of these ideals. You value your ideals enough to present and be presented in works of quality, works that perhaps require some financial commitment.
What you must understand is that if you do a bad show it is wrecking it for everyone, including the people you probably idolize. What do I mean when I say a bad show? Well, for starters, an emcee is not the icing on the cake of the show, its the eggs. Three performers each stripping three times is not a show. It is crap. Do you really want to be a present that the audience opens for a third time? If you cannot afford an emcee or more than three performers then, quite simply, you cannot afford to present a show.
Additionally, how it could possibly make sense to start merchandising oneself before one has a real act is beyond me. The post-Madonna world tells you that all you need is self-confidence and a little pr savvy and everything is possible. This logic says talent is smallest part of the equation for success. But think about it: you are standing alone on stage taking off your clothes. Have the self-respect to have taken a dance class and be prepared. Then and only then should you consider making a t-shirt.
On the other hand, some of the very best performers of this genre in the world will do a show for $5.00 and half a warm beer. When some random newbie stands alongside the best of us in a show it gives her and everyone like her the impression that all they need to do is “put themselves out there” and they will get gigs and make money. And they will be right. Because this is what continues to happen. And the producers (usually performers themselves) hire lesser performers because they can get them for cheaper. And the professionals want to take any gig they can because they “need the money”, yet in doing so they lower their market value.
It is terribly shortsighted to be the best thing in a show. Maybe its cute for your ego, but it does nothing for you in the end. Strive and work towards being in well produced, well constructed theatre where you are one delicious ingredient in a fantastic stew. It is hindering and possibly killing the longevity of the form for shows to contain the greatest and the most amateurish acts on the same bill. You should value yourself enough to get paid what you are worth or acknowledge with clarity that you are a novice and that your rate of pay should be less.
The problem with less than stellar work extends beyond burlesque novices. These days some highly visible burlesque performers, people who make some or most their living doing this, still cannot be bothered to put much effort into burlesque. They under-rehearse, or don’t rehearse at all, spend too much time or none focusing on their costumes, and/or create work that is insider-ish and self-referencing. Their burlesque is completely about themselves. You hear so many people backstage proclaiming themselves and their sisters to be geniuses that you would think it was a meeting of the Mensa society. A community that is supportive is one thing, one that is coddling is another. Meanwhile, take a look beyond the curtain. Your audience are slumped in their seats, rolling their eyes. They are bored. Why not take that extra leap and try to be exceptional. Burlesque is not curing cancer, but it can be transformational and transporting if done right.
When the Miss Exotic World Pageant began on the goat farm of Helendale, California it was clear what it was. It was a reunion for old strippers and the people that loved them. It was a Mecca to a quirky oasis in the desert where bikers, hookers, and Bettie Page girls from L.A. hung out under the hot sun. The Miss Exotic World pageant was a publicity stunt to entice people to the desert, as Dixie has said. It was all heart and pure camp.
The move to Las Vegas in 2006 created a lot of amazing changes for Exotic World. With Vegas came slick production values, a huge attendance, and the presence of burlesque on the International Stage. These are all huge advancements in the public awareness of burlesque. Yet one of the side effects of this shift from Helendale to Vegas is that it changed the tone of the event. Suddenly, Miss Exotic World, both the event and the title were sucked of their irony. This was, for a growing number, a real pageant with huge stakes. The people who are now involved, despite their better natures, fall quickly into the trap of un-ironic competition. I have seen tears and back biting, self-loathing and self-recrimination.
What the fuck does this have to do with burlesque? Neo-burlesque is for strong feminist women. Women who support and celebrate other women. A true pageant, an old remnant from a pre-feminist era, has no business being at the heart of our community. It is wildly self-destructive and the antithesis of everything the burlesque community stands for.
Besides which, at the center of Exotic World is a museum which needs public funding to succeed. Who is likely to take us and our art form seriously when something as antiquated as a beauty pageant is at the center of our largest function of the year? The pageant is a blight in the center of BHOF, since the realization of a museum could be our highest achievement as a genre.
My solution is to make the Burlesque Hall of Fame an actual Burlesque Hall of Fame. In the place of the pageant there would be individuals or groups that would be inducted by a board made up of all the previous Exotic World winners, as nominated by their peers. The awards would then be based not upon one performance one night, but based on a body of work. An induction into the Hall of Fame would then feel like a win not just for the individual, but for the entire genre of burlesque. I am so grateful to be a part of BHOF and to host its main event, but I would be more proud if it was something that made all the participants feel good. This change could provide something that would give everyone involved in the art form something big and beautiful to aspire towards.
The reason why everyone was so happy this year when Miss Indigo Blue won the Miss Exotic World title was not because of her lovely performance that night, but because she deserved it: deserved the accolades and attention and respect for all of her years in service to this art form.
There is no reason why this change would prevent any of the other lovely and sparkly things that happen during the BHOF weekend to cease to exist. We could still have Legends Night. We could still have evenings of electrifying performances from both fresh faces and seasoned favorites. We would just remove the part that is out of date and an impediment to the progress of our form both from an internal and an external perspective.
The secret problem with this otherwise completely inspired plan, is that we have to find a way for this version BHOF 2.0 to be financially viable. Will people donate to the museum if their donation is not taken in the form of a MEW application fee? Will people travel and perform at MEW if there is not the carrot of winning a trophy at the end? I truly hope so, but it is our job as a community to present alternatives to the board of BHOF and create our future together.
One solution might be offering BHOF scholarships to shining new members of the community. Or work opportunities to the inductees. If there was a pledge from the major schools and troupes nationally or even internationally to book the inductees for tour and teaching gigs on their induction year, maybe this could prove a good incentive to continued attendance and financial support of BHOF. I realize I am placing a lot of work at the feet of the schools of burlesque but with great power comes great responsibility, as they say in Spiderman comics.
There are many ways of being involved in burlesque. Let the very last one be performing on stage for money. See shows, Take a class, write about burlesque, perform in workshops for your friends. There is only one good reason to be working professionally as a burlesque artist: because you have talent and ability to entertain an audience and a deep desire to do that.“
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