You know the joke, right? Q: What’s the difference between a burlesque dancer and a stripper? A: A stripper makes money.
Of all the things in the world, why do Burlesque? Sometimes, I’ll get an idea of some historic or cultural icon I’d like to see on stage. Other times a song really makes me feel something and I want to create a performance to it. Perhaps, there is a statement I’d like to make. There could be a joke to tell. Burlesque, after all, does have historical roots in satire. Mostly, I revel in the adrenaline filled rush from dancing, while creatively, teasingly taking my clothes off on stage. I enjoy providing the audience with entertainment that can bring their minds away from ‘real life’. Now that I’ve started writing, I’m pretty sure I don’t even have the proper language to explain that onstage feeling. Other creatives will know what I mean.
The girly side of me revels in the costumes, crystals, feathers and glitter. Ironically, when I first learned in the BGB Broad Squad Institute that many performers make their own costumes, I felt like I would faint. Domestic nor designer am I. However, the universe stepped in. A friend moving to Europe gifted me her sewing machine and glue gun. I started to experiment. Now, I have to stop myself from going into fabric and trim shops. New York City’s garment district is a new addiction. I LOVE the creativity of figuring out how the pieces will come off and building them to suit. Attaching crystals is soothing to my soul like meditation. Thank goodness, because it can take hours.
Research. The nerd in me loves doing research for a piece. I created a Josephine Baker number. I was determined NOT to have it involve a banana skirt. Quite the opposite, I wear a tuxedo and top hat. It is actually the most serious, political and dramatic pieces in my burlesque repertoire. I gave myself the challenge of creating a piece that depended more on acting than sexy dancing. Currently, I am researching Ms. Nina Mae McKinney (left). She is the first African-American movie star. She paved the path for even the likes of Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. Burlesque is a polished, shiny creation. Who would have guessed I’d use my Master’s Degree in Educational Theatre like this?
Now, stripping… It was the easiest hard thing. I say that because it is not ‘easy’ work. I was looking for work that would earn a livable wage, allow me to keep days open and allow much flexibility in scheduling. Please e-mail me with other options for work that provide all these elements. There is no story telling. The job is a sales job. Story telling or a teasing strip with elaborately planned costuming is not important. Seduction and sales is. The product is sexual fantasy, attention and dances. How clothes come off as a stripper doesn’t require thought or planning in the same way it does in burlesque. The mindset of a successful stripper has to be entrepreneurial. Strippers are independent contractors who pay rent in the form of house fees for use of the strip club to sell their product. Yes, strippers pay the club to work. Sales is work. I laugh when people say stripping is ‘easy’ money. They have visions of some mythical stripper goddess that shows up, fills the purse with $1000 each night, then leaves. Anyone who has done sales knows how many no’s one has to go through to close a sale.
How strippers and burlesque dancers are compensated is starkly different. The compensation is negotiated before the burlesque performer ever hits the stage. In some shows burlesque dancers work for a split of the door. Depending on the producer’s following that can be as low as $20 – $50. In my area, I hear burlesque dancers call the producers who pay $100 – $150 the ‘high paying shows’. My stripper mind can’t help but giggle at that. $150 would have been a DISMAL night of earning when I was stripping regularly. I’ve come across many burlesque dancers that have full-time jobs. For them burlesque is a creative outlet. In my area, it is not uncommon for ‘full-time burlesque dancers’ to sometimes do 2-3 shows in one night as many days of the week as is possible to earn a living.
I’ve come across strippers who do burlesque on the side, “because burlesque just doesn’t pay that much”. Quietly, I’ve even come across successful burlesque dancers who supplement their burlesque careers with stripping. Stripping is quite capable of being a stand alone career from day one. Yet, stripping carries a negative stigma that burlesque does not. Though to some people anything involving a woman taking off her clothes in public is viewed negatively, Burlesque is classy in the eyes of many.
For the onlooker, stripping is a more raw and explicit sexual experience than burlesque. However, to the working stripper, I’d venture to say very little of it is sexual. It is, quite bluntly, sales. There is constant negotiation, up selling and add ons (such as VIP Rooms, bottle sales and tips). There are times where I’d be engaged in conversation with a potential customer and keeping my peripheral vision keenly aware of the floor in case a regular or more lucrative looking prospect arrives. There is none of this worry in burlesque. The pay is negotiated or known before one arrives. One shows up to give a polished, rehearsed performance. Stripping did not take rehearsal. It took knowing how men are wired and getting an understanding of why the man you are talking to came into the club.
Burlesque and stripping are sisters but not twins. One strips when doing burlesque. One can even choose to be referred to as a stripper if one dances burlesque. The way in which strippers in strip clubs are compensated make it very different from burlesque. The historical and performance elements of burlesque make it very different from stripping. Burlesque is an on stage performance piece. Strippers are independent contractors who must “always be selling” the fantasy of their flirty attention to the customers. I could do a burlesque show and never engage with the audience one-on-one if I choose. Both I find liberating. I found stripping financially liberating. I find burlesque creatively liberating. In a world that shames women for being in any way sexual, I think they create affirming and useful outlets for women to choose to wield sexual energy on their own terms. Yes, yes, yes – there are situations where stripping can be far from empowering. That other side of it has been documented ad nauseam in the media so there is no need for me to cover that here. Besides, ’tis a blog and I am speaking from my own experiences.
Please feel free to discuss and leave comments below…
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.