Betty Q: The Radical Grand Dame of Polish Burlesque
Betty Q has never been one to shrink from a challenge. Even as we talk, she’s in the endocrinology ward of a women’s hospital in Warsaw, Poland. She’s there for some routine tests, but she knows she can’t pass up the opportunity she has while inside.
Betty is surrounded by women. So, mask in hand, she goes door to door in her ward collecting signatures on a petition. The petition demands that Poland’s parliament reviews the incredibly strict anti-abortion laws they introduced last October. The laws triggered the largest protests Poland has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union over thirty years ago.
‘At first I was really scared about going to talk to these other women; I didn’t know what they would say, or if they’d be supportive,’ Betty says. ‘But when I went next door, the women all signed the petition and encouraged me to keep collecting signatures there. It was inspiring and encouraging during a difficult time.’
Betty knows difficult times. Before Covid-19 struck at the arts, she already had unique hurdles to jump to found a burlesque industry in Poland.
Betty’s Burlesque Beginning
Betty’s background is in theatre and education, and she has a Master’s degree in Pedagogy from Warsaw University. Betty performed in amateur theatre groups from a young age, which endowed her with self-confidence, storytelling ability, and stage presence. Betty would go on to learn and teach belly dance in Warsaw.
Her journey to burlesque was very DIY, in a country with absolutely no burlesque schools, performers or clubs. Betty was watching belly dance videos on YouTube for research when an algorithm suggested videos from the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Some of the first performers she saw were Anna Fur Laxis, Coco Lectric, and Ms Tickle.
After viewing the videos countless times, Betty knew she had found something important and wanted to share this art with her peers. With six years of experience teaching belly dance and theatre, Betty began to teach burlesque in Warsaw. It was the first class of its kind in the country, incorporating her background in music therapy, sexuality and feminism.
She debuted in 2010 with an act she describes as ‘cheesy, pinup, but at its core very feminist!’. In the act, Betty’s hands were busy baking a cake, so she invited men in the audience to undress her, but only at her exact instruction.
‘Even though I wasn’t completely aware of it, I knew subconsciously that I was completely in control,’ Betty says. ‘I’m really proud of it now, even though I haven’t done it in years. It was very subversive!’
Betty Finds Her People
Around the time of her burlesque debut, Betty hit another hurdle. Betty is what a lot of people in the Polish Jewish community refer to as a ‘New Jew’. This means a Jewish person who came to their identity later in life, or during the late 20th Century onwards.
Antisemitism has always been rife in Poland. After a wave of institutional antisemitism in the 1960s, it was common for Polish Jews not to publicly identify as such. Jews would instead say they had ‘Jewish roots’. This could mean any one of their relatives was Jewish, but that they themselves were not.
Betty always knew she had ‘Jewish roots’. When she was a teenager, her mother discovered a small but flourishing Jewish community in Warsaw they were both eager to be a part of. Betty fully immersed herself into the community, which led to friendships, jobs, connections, and a sense of belonging.
However, when she made her burlesque debut the Jewish community was not fully supportive. It was disappointing to Betty, as she felt that the wisdom and traditions from Judaism had influenced her burlesque, adding degrees of depth and narrative to her acts that wouldn’t have existed without it.
‘When I found that marginalised group, it led to discovering more – my queer community, feminist community, so many others. This is really where my activist roots started,’ Betty explains.
But this sense of rejection would not last long. When Betty began to produce larger scale shows, another side of the Jewish community would rally to support her.
Community and Censorship
Betty finds agency not only from the alternative Jewish community in Poland, but also the wider artistic community.
When the Instytut Książki (Book Institute Poland) asked Wioletta Grzegorzewska to write a guide to promote Polish cultural figures, Betty was included alongside Donald Tusk (then President of the EU council) and Anja Rubik (international model and sex ed activist), among others.
The government refused to publish the guide as was, requesting that Betty, Tusk, and Rubik be removed.
‘I was just proud to be censored in the same group as Donald Tusk!’ says Betty.
The artist refused to censor her guide, publicised the censorship on social media, and gave Betty her full support.
Madame Q Wows Warsaw
Producing shows has come hand in hand with performing for Betty, as one of the only performers in Poland. She realised it would be easier to bring in foreign talent, expose the Polish burlesque industry to a wider range of burlesque, and host more educational opportunities for the industry. This meant opening her own venue was essential.
In November 2017, Madame Q opened: a speakeasy burlesque bar in the heart of Warsaw that runs shows every weekend. Betty co-runs Madame Q with Madame Méduse, originally one of Betty’s students and now a consummate performer in her own right.
As the only exclusively burlesque venue in the city, Betty has a dedicated team and audience. Before Covid, Madame Q had sell-out shows every weekend. She had plans for a mutual aid fund for performers in Poland.
Pandemic Panic and Protests
The Covid-19 pandemic changed a lot for Betty, as it did for everyone in the arts industry. On top of the huge financial loss that Madame Q suffered, and the emotional loss of performing, 2020 was a tumultuous year for women and the LGBTQ+ community in Poland.
The governing Law and Order (PiS in Polish) party has imposed some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Polish history. They are also famous for supporting ‘LGBTQ+ free’ zones around the country. Betty has been on the front lines of protests against these horrendous laws.
‘I am personally affected by all of these laws, so I am personally involved. I was at the protests, of course. My health was affected. I hurt my ankle when I had to run away from the police with my mother. I wondered, how can this happen? In the 21st Century? But I always hope that it’s something I will remember and be proud of when I am old.’
The Birth of Craftivism
With further lockdowns and stricter laws against protests, Betty has had to find more creative ways to be an activist. Last spring she started giving some small embroidery workshops through a Jewish leadership organisation.
She found that embroidery allowed women to connect with each other socially, emotionally, and politically. She taught simple embroidery techniques, but also how to use them to convey political messages. Betty went on to offer these workshops to members of the burlesque industry around Europe, who have organised mutual aid, further craft workshops, and social connections. Betty calls it Craftivism.
Surviving and Striving
I ask Betty if she has any important burlesque goals, long or short term. Her first answer is, ‘Surviving?’
But Betty hasn’t just been surviving. Despite the pandemic, Betty still collects signatures on the government petition to change strict abortion laws. She directs audiences to where and how women in Poland can have safe access to abortions. She continues to provide Polish performers with burlesque education and performance opportunities. And she maintains a space in Warsaw for Polish burlesque to flourish.
Betty Q profiled by Lolita Va Voom.