“Who are you? What is your distinct contribution? That is so valuable; whether it gets you anything, trophies, doesn’t matter… The greater your contribution to the community, the greater your expression of individuality.”
Rodney Mullen, professional skateboarder.
Every time I think about innovation in the burlesque community, I think of Trixie Little, of her use of a big balloon to blow her hair or holding a boa between her toes and working it with her legs instead of her arms. I also think of Midnite Martini‘s famous inverted stocking pull with her toes on the back of a chair. These were incredibly innovative ideas, but all they really did was take some things that everyone was already using (big balloons, hair, boas, their legs, stockings, and chairs) and combine them in new ways.
“If you do it the way they do, then it’s copying. But if you take what they do as a source of inspiration and a foundation on which to build something new that is uniquely you, then you have advanced the art form a little bit further.”
Burlesque performers look at these innovations and many of us say to ourselves, “Shit. I can never do that now because it’s her thing. I’d be stealing.” I believe it’s only stealing if you don’t contribute to it. If you do it the way they do, then it’s copying. But if you take what they do as a source of inspiration and a foundation on which to build something new that is uniquely you, then you have advanced the art form a little bit further.
A few years ago, I told Trixie about this thing that I was doing, where I wore a pair of crummy old sneakers over of a pair of fancy dress shoes, and in the act I change from a tramp to Mr. Fancypants: shoes inside shoes. I hadn’t seen anyone else do it and was very proud of myself. A few months later, I saw an act in which she took off a pair of shoes to reveal another pair of shoes! For a moment, I was like, WTF?! But then I realized that she didn’t copy me; she outdid me. Hers were high heels inside of high heels, which, pardon the pun, elevated the trick to another level. And then, as she’s wont to do, she pushed it even further by having a cigarette lighter built into the heel of the inner shoe. So she lit a cigarette with a high heel from inside of another high heel. All I was doing was kicking my shoes off. And so I can’t fault her for taking my trick because she totally bested me. Instead of being angry with her, I admire her.
As performers we have a lot of ego, especially with the seemingly increased emphasis on competition in burlesque. It seems that every new festival that pops up is a competition. I understand that for many of us, this is our career, and if we develop a signature move and everybody else starts doing it, then we lose our edge and that directly impacts our very livelihood.
However, in a meritocracy – which the burlesque community is, ideally – it’s peer respect that establishes our position in the – let’s be honest – hierarchy. The contest judges are often our peers. The producers who pay us are often our peers. And so we must respect our peers for the work that they do. Respect ourselves for the work we need to do. If we are not performing at the level we wish to be, it’s because we haven’t done the work required. Most of all, we need to respect our community.
Personally, I feel this instinctual mentality of “don’t do anything that will offend the community,” but that’s just adding negativity to negativity. Instead, positive thinking would say: “Do things that make the community proud.” Honor thy sisters and brothers. If you pioneer and innovate something and someone else uses it, you can either be offended at the damage to your ego of no longer being the only performer capable of doing your signature thing, or you can be honored that what you contributed was valuable enough to copy. You can trust that the value in what you created was that you created it. And if you feel less valuable because your uniqueness is lost, then put in the work, time, and creativity to create something else the world has never seen. In this way, we can all push our community further and advance the form of art we call burlesque.
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.