It was four years ago that I first stepped onto the stage in a burlesque show. The first show I performed in I co-produced with Pink Flamingo Burlesque and Malaika Millions. I was the bandleader and guitar player. And yes, I took my clothes off on stage. I even did a shoulder-stand in my boxers while playing Harlem Nocturne on the guitar, upside-down!
These four years seemed to have passed quickly, and yet that first show feels so long ago. Since then I have played almost every role a person can in this business. I have been a producer, musician, solo boylesque performer, group dancer, composer, DJ, festival board member, lighting designer, and recently stage kitten.
I love burlesque and it’s hard for me to imagine my life without it. But I know that day could come.
“A guest in this community…”
I attended BurlyCon for the first time last year. I learned a great deal and also heard many things that got me thinking about burlesque and my place in it. In a panel discussion, Waxie Moon (a man) said something that pricked up my ears. Appreciating the joy he feels to have burlesque in his life, Waxie Moon gave a heartfelt thank you to the burlesque community and said, “I feel so grateful to be a guest in this community of women.”
When I heard that sentence my heart sank and for the rest of the day I couldn’t help from asking myself this question over and over again: Am I just a guest in this community?
The remains of that day at BurlyCon were all the more interesting to me. As I walked the hotel halls, attended the seminars, and conversed at the parties, I noticed more than ever before that I was part of a minority. I was one of only a couple men in every class I attended. I don’t know the numbers, but I would guess that BurlyCon was attended by about 95% women.
It’s not surprising. But having worked in burlesque for four years now, I forgot that I am a minority in this business. I had become so accustomed to the company of women, and I have gratefully become so accepted by the women I work with, that I forget I am different…
Burlesque should be run (mostly) by women.
I believe that burlesque should be run mostly by women. It is today, and it should probably remain that way. I am not an expert on burlesque history by any means. From what I have gleaned from others, stripping and burlesque was typically a performance done by women, but a business controlled mostly by men, primarily for the entertainment of men. The intention was different than it is today.
The neo-burlesque movement turned that on its head. Thousands of talented and creative women have taken control of this art form and business and made it new again. The perspective has changed, focusing more on the art of burlesque performance, rather than the titillation of stripping. Many have infused the art with counter-culture attitudes and political statements about beauty, body image, popular culture, politics, sexual politics, humour, and so many other themes it would be impossible to mention them all.
“If you are a man in burlesque, you start out on a guest pass and it could be revoked at any time…”
Also, the audiences of burlesque shows today are mostly women. Based on data I’ve collected from shows I’ve produced, audiences in burlesque are at least 65% female, sometimes much higher. Our ‘Dirty Dancing Burlesque’ audience might have been as high as 80% female.
It’s important that burlesque today remains primarily in the control of women or the art form could change drastically. Certainly the politics of it would change.
And yet, here I am, a heterosexual man who has dedicated a huge part of his life to burlesque. So where do I fit in?
One man’s contribution
When I heard Waxie Moon thank everyone for having him as a guest in this community, I asked myself, “am I just here on a guest pass?” and my first reaction was: “Hell no! I belong here!”
I feel that I offer a unique perspective to burlesque that might not be expressed on stage by anyone else, and part of that unique perspective comes from being a heterosexual man.
When I wrote the ‘Blue and His Guitars’ solo boylesque, I wanted to show Vancouver that a man can do a straight-up sexy striptease without it being tongue-in-cheek, without poking fun at men or men’s bodies, and without it having to be “just for a laugh.”
I find that much of boylesque today aims at humour, which I love, and this is not a criticism of that! I have helped to create and performed in many of these humorous acts myself, and I love them dearly.
But I felt that something was missing in Vancouver boylesque. I wanted to show heterosexual, masculine sex appeal without it having to be funny. That was my statement. I know many people got it because they told me so and I am grateful for that.
I mention this as an example because my concept and performance comes directly from my experience of being a man. But of course I have done so many other things in burlesque.
Along with Shaboobie Boobarella and Johnny Bongo and our ‘Pink Flamingo Burlesque’ shows, I feel very proud to have brought live-music back to burlesque in Vancouver. And I am thrilled to see other live music groups start since then and find great success.
I feel fortunate that the shows I have produced have been so successful. ‘Beatles Burlesque’ and ‘Dirty Dancing Burlesque’ were my dreams, my vision, and my passions. This has been one of the best years of my life because of the success of these shows and because I got to work with so many talented and wonderful people who performed and contributed.
I know that these shows and the live music could have been produced and performed entirely by women. But I also know that I bring my experience, my heart, my passion to these shows, and that experience, that heart, that passion, is very much a man’s.
My Guest Pass
With all that I have accomplished, I still can’t help but feel now that I am here in burlesque on a guest pass, because my permission to be in shows, on stage, and especially backstage, could be revoked at any moment. That’s frightening to me because I love burlesque so much. But as Mama Fortuna reminded me, “Whenever you have women taking their clothes off on stage, sexual politics are involved.”
I would say to any man who is new to this art form, who wants to perform in shows, produce shows, or play any part in this business: If you are a man in burlesque, you start out on a guest pass and it could be revoked at any time. This is especially true if people don’t know you, because if they don’t know you, they don’t know if they can trust you.
I have been in burlesque for long enough now that most people know me except for some new performers. I feel that my guest pass is pretty solid. Maybe I have even been upgraded to ‘full member’ by some. I would like that.
But I know that the decision isn’t mine to make. It’s a collective agreement from a community, and that community is, and should be, mostly women.
I feel nervous to publish this article. I hope that I haven’t offended anyone. I am not an expert on anything other than my own experience, and even then I know that I can misinterpret my own life and change my mind often. I would like to hear your thoughts on this, so please leave your comments below or contact me directly.
P.S. I thank Connie Lingus, Mama Fortuna and Voodoo Pixie for their insightful thoughts on this subject which helped me immensely to write this article. And I thank Waxie Moon for getting me thinking about it all.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.