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On ‘The Burlesque Community’

On ‘The Burlesque Community’

The idea of being part of a Burlesque Community is a loaded concept, embraced and scorned in equal measure. But if you take nothing else away from this post, please grasp this single truth: community does not always mean harmony.


On the Burlesque Community - Holli-Mae Johnson


We are united by common interests, skills and locations, but like any other large group of otherwise diverse people, we bring a variety of temperaments, vices, motivations, insecurities, past traumas, tolerance levels, and degrees of mental and emotional stability to the table.

When we all get along, magical things can happen, but to expect or require no disagreement, no conflict, none of the less desirable and convenient aspects of human nature, will inevitably lead to disappointment and disillusion.

Definition of Community


My Burlesque Community

All of us – with varying degrees of desperation – want to belong, to be heard, to be loved, to be successful. We never really leave the school playground, and the child we were still crouches inside us. The top dog; the whipping boy; the head cheerleader; the outcast; the quiet loner making quiet, steady progress; the non-conformist; the dreamer; the straight A; the clown; the weirdo. As adults we just play in a bigger playground with bigger dreams and bigger kids.

For many of you, I know that becoming a part of the burlesque scene was a chance to choose your family, to finally belong somewhere and do what you love. It certainly changed my life.The playground wasn’t kind to me, and I’ve spent most of my thirty years battling with health problems, PTSD and crippling self doubt. But for the past ten years I have had passion and purpose as a documenter of burlesque.

I had the dream start, welcomed and inspired by people like Jo Weldon, Michelle L’amour, Indigo Blue, Dirty Martini and Catherine D’Lish. Highly skilled, incredibly generous, awe-inspiringly hard working women who shimmied their way into my heart and shared their world with me. This was a time before the concept of a global burlesque community really existed. Tease-O-Rama provided a space for the pockets of contemporary enthusiasts scattered across the US and overseas to meet, greet and share their gifts.

It was a special time and I love talking to people about those early days of the contemporary revival, but I always resisted the illusion that we were all a happy, harmonious family with a single, uniting goal. There were bad apples then and there are bad apples now, in a global scene which has grown to a size some of us never imagined. And most of the bad apples, I quickly grew to discover, weren’t ‘bad people’ at their core, but just getting on with the hand life dealt them the best way they could.  However much people confided in me as a trusted documenter, I always reminded myself that there was so much more going on behind closed doors that could make good people make bad decisions.


Burlesque legend Judith Stein leads Darlinda Just Darlinda, Roxi D'Lite and others in a pool conga at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2015. ©Don Spiro
Burlesque legend Judith Stein leads Darlinda Just Darlinda, Roxi D’Lite and others in a pool conga at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2015. ©Don Spiro


The Social Media Head F*ck

In 2015, social media has a stranglehold on modern life, and for the burlesque community it can give with one hand and snatch away with the other. There are Facebook groups where people can share information and post warnings, mentor and advise fledgling performers, sell their wares, rally for a cause, celebrate triumphs and lend support during tough times.

At the same time, we witness tortured outbursts which should never have been made public, demonisation, misrepresentation, knee-jerk pack reactions, local feuds, breathtaking selfishness, passive-aggressive statuses, outrage and accusations. But our world is in no way unique. It is simply a microcosm of society at large. I’ve seen the same resentment, insincerity, quarrels and betrayal at my day job, at drama school, amongst writers, in families, in offices and churches. Importantly, I witness just as much kindness, generosity, empathy, cooperation and support in the same communities.

The problem with social media is that it is so effective at skewing our perspective. Negative and scandalous posts dominate the top of our feeds, attracting more views, comments and reaction than the posts which celebrate the good in our community. Over time, it makes it easy to feel that there is more negativity in our scene than positivity. I find it particularly maddening when supposed injustices are exaggerated or entirely created in an attempt to garner sympathy and attention as a promotional exercise, usually accompanied by pleas for a ‘better community’ even as they contribute to its disintegration.


The Ruby Revue embrace Midnite Martini as she is crowned Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2014. ©Don Spiro
The Ruby Revue embrace Midnite Martini as she is crowned Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2014. ©Don Spiro


Managing Burlesque Community Expectations

To newcomers looking to perform, and perhaps particularly to those of you who have expressed a desire to improve your self esteem/self-image and make new friends: the burlesque scene is not a universally inclusive, comforting safe haven where you can spend your days high-fiving other ‘empowered’ women and singing Kumbaya around a warm, cosy campfire toasting rhinestone covered marshmallows.

You will meet some incredible people, but you will also meet unpleasant, draining people, and even the incredible people will sometimes let you down because they are human beings with the same limits, weaknesses and pressures as everyone else.

For many of the people you will look to for encouragement, friendship and support, burlesque is a business. A saturated, highly competitive way to make a living which is constantly derided and misrepresented.

If people don’t have the time to share everything they know, answer all your messages, create choreography for you, provide free therapy, create a spot for you in a professional production, help you pick a name and send you a comprehensive list of suppliers, it doesn’t mean you’re up against a cold, unwelcoming community. You are in a professional environment just like any other workplace you’ve experienced. Yes, there are mentors, teachers and social networks where you can find likeminded people, but the majority of performers are self-employed, juggling a number of jobs, wearing numerous hats, and trying to pay the bills.

Burlesque is not Disneyland. You won’t pass through the gates to find a row of smiling, dancing princesses waiting to hug you and pose for you and guide you through a fairytale world. It’s more like a sparkly, E6000-scented high school, filled with the same class clowns, cool kids, seemingly perfect seniors, attention seekers, weirdos, outcasts and shit-stirrers you encountered the first time around. Except they’re naked. And largely awesome. But flawed, human and hella busy.


Sewing a rainbow with 10,000 hand-sewn sequins. © Tiitta Räsänen
The Helsinki Burlesque Festival team sewing a rainbow with 10,000 hand-sewn sequins. © Tiitta Räsänen


Reclaiming the Burlesque Community

We can all play a part in getting all the good stuff back to the top of the feed.

  • If you storm in after a bad day at work or a tough show, consider curling up somewhere comforting for a period of quiet reflection rather than dashing straight for the keyboard to let off steam.
  • If you come across an exchange online which is probably none of your business, consider what you will be adding to it by commenting, and if that comment is serving you more than others.
  • If your fanpage hasn’t grown for a few days, don’t immediately resort to a sympathy-stirring click bait post when you could share something uplifting, funny or inspiring.
  • And if you feel jaded or drained by all the apparent negativity on your screen, take a minute to rub that pinch of salt between your fingers and consider what might be going on behind the scenes to make an individual lash out or seek attention.
  • Or, go and chat to your fellow newbie friends about the awesome costumes you are making, or dip back into Jo Weldon’s Burlesque Handbook, or re-watch your favourite burlesque videos.

Failing that, just switch the damn thing off and go and do something that makes you feel good with people who make you feel good. You’re not obliged to sit there all night and absorb the bullshit, participate actively or passively in the latest public spat, or let your self-worth live and die on the actions of others.


The London cabaret community gather in Soho Square Gardens before setting out on their journey to Madame Jojos. ©Holli-Mae Johnson/21st Century Burlesque
The London cabaret community gather in Soho Square Gardens before setting out on their protest vigil to Madame Jojos. ©Holli-Mae Johnson/21st Century Burlesque


The burlesque community is what we make it, and with a little more thoughtfulness, awareness and personal responsibility, so much of the everyday griping could be eradicated. But it will never disappear entirely, and the sooner we adjust our expectations of ‘community’ the sooner we can make use of all that freed up time and energy and make the world that bit more awesome. And naked.

Holli-Mae Johnson

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