Burlesque: The State of Things
21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene…
When I was asked by the editor of this illustrious publication to write a piece about the state of burlesque, I hesitated. My twelve years in the industry have witnessed huge changes and they are not all ones I feel positive about. I wondered if I was alone in feeling some things had gone awry, and I thought the best way to find out was to run a survey and ask.
Attitudes towards civilisation tend to fall into one of two camps – life, we believe, is getting better and better with scientific advances and increased wealth improving human experience, or they are declining, with moral standards, attitudes and human behaviour dragging us into the mud.
The results of the survey we ran about the current state of burlesque and its future fell into the same pattern, with respondents either enthusiastic or disenfranchised.
Over 93% of those who completed the survey were performers, and they came from across the globe, with the UK, USA, Australia, South Africa and Europe represented.
They ranged from less than a year in the industry to eighteen, and as you might expect, enthusiasm tended to colour the responses of those new to the industry, while the more experienced offered more realistic and even negative responses.
The questions were open and short to encourage a range of answers, starting with:
‘How would you define burlesque?’
I was genuinely surprised by the diversity here, and one respondent even said, ‘it’s virtually indefinable’!
With responses ranging from, ‘The art of the striptease. Fun and sassy’, to ‘A queer feminist performance art that uses for instance dancing, acting, singing, satire and usually some sort of strip tease to challenge norms about beauty, sexuality and gender’, and then to ‘The root of modern burlesque lies in the art of striptease, there is no getting around that, but thanks to the efforts of performers from all corners of the earth and walks of life we have a theatrical art form that has become a formidable force in the entertainment world’, what was apparent is that there is virtually no consensus about what burlesque is, or what it means.
What does this say about our industry? I could posit that it suggests a grass-roots arts movement that has welcomed in different elements and recruits participants from diverse walks of life, or it could suggest that we are not clear about our history (both original and neo movements), the provenance of our conventions, or our relationship to other performance disciplines.
I wonder if, as an industry, we need to do a better job of making information about our history available.
Of course, anyone can do burlesque – it’s open access. Take a class, or don’t, get up on stage and you too can perform for a paying audience. There is no requirement for you to have studied the form in any depth, and again, this could be viewed as both a positive thing and to the detriment of the art form.
Personally, I’ve always thought you need to know the rules to break the rules, that truly understanding conventions gives insight into how they could be broken, and as someone who has always seen burlesque as subversive, satirical and intimately connected to other artforms (especially high art forms such as opera, theatre and classical dance), and to the society in which it is performed, I wonder if, as an industry, we need to do a better job of making information about our history available.
The next question in the survey was designed to make respondents reflect on what they had just written.
‘What is burlesque’s role?’ asked what burlesque does.
Having just said what burlesque is to them, these answers offered insight into how they perceived burlesque functions in a broader context.
Again, the answers ranged wildly, with many stating it was there to entertain, some saying it was there to empower women and some saying it was there to challenge beauty norms, but there were some notable responses that surprised me including:
‘To show the world that modesty, confidence and technique is much sexier than today’s blatant profanities.’
‘To inspire and to make a safe place for performers.’
‘A creative outlet for people and a way of escapism.’
‘I use it chiefly as a form or drama/arts/dance movement therapy.’
The first quote above surprised me for its ‘modesty’ message – the idea that burlesque is genteel where modern femininity and striptease are coarse – not least because there is an element of shaming other practitioners there. But the other quotes above were just three of many responses that saw a form of public entertainment existing for the purpose and benefit of the performer alone. This sentiment came up elsewhere in the survey and struck me as hugely significant for the future of our industry.
If burlesque exists to provide a platform for people to publicly process their ‘stuff’, then its future can only lie in a business model based on teaching and amateur showcases – why would an audience pay to witness your therapy? It’s an attitude I have encountered before, and I wonder if it is symptomatic of our accessibility, the discourse of empowerment we have promoted, and the use of social media for networking.
We look inwards at ourselves, we talk to other practitioners online, and our focus is on getting on stages and performing our work. In London, fees have declined massively in ten years, with many producers opting for a door-split model to mitigate their risk. It suggests a lack of confidence in the ability to draw an audience, and I have had many conversations with notable producers about declining audiences.
If burlesque exists to provide a platform for people to publicly process their ‘stuff’, then its future can only lie in a business model based on teaching and amateur showcases – why would an audience pay to witness your therapy?
Reading these responses to the question ‘What is burlesque’s role?’ makes me ask whether it is time we started putting the audience first all the time, seeing them as central to our success and longevity. I wonder too if better delineation between professional and amateur performers is needed – doing something for a living and doing it for your own pleasure generate very different needs. Being more mindful of this could help us diversify our platforms and have a more meaningful dialogue with audiences.
This leads neatly into the answers to the next question: ‘If you could change one thing about burlesque, what would it be?’
The responses to this question largely fell into four categories. The first, summed up by the comment ‘To not be seen equal to a stripper’, or, as another respondent put it, ‘The misconception that Burlesque is another sleazy form of stripping. It’s so not that and so much more. Burlesque is classy, elegant, and I feel like a lady every time I go on stage.’
The distancing of burlesque from traditional strip work or sex work was a notable theme, with many people mentioning a ‘stigma’.
As a sex-positive feminist, I will admit these comments bother me because they are centred in other people’s perception of what we do, and a view that there is a right way and a wrong way to present female sexuality for the consumption of an audience. But they clearly exist within our industry and perhaps underline the need to know and understand where the neo-burlesque industry came from, and that pioneers such as Lydia Thompson were considered deeply lewd and unfeminine in their day.
The second category was summed up by these two comments:
‘I wish it was less cis-normative’ and ‘Political correctness. It completely goes against what burlesque actually is.’
Identity politics, social justice, diversity, however you wish to frame the issue, was the most divisive category of comments, with some respondents wanting burlesque to focus exclusively on ‘non-traditional bodies’ (their words), and others feeling strongly that these issues have hijacked burlesque and dominate online spaces.
These comments segued into the third category, best summed up by this comment:
‘I’d like to see less keyboard police hanging people out for public attack because one opinion doesn’t align with the collective.’
Online behaviour, cliques, bullying and ‘tearing each other down’ was the largest category of comment for this question. That should be a wake-up call for us – more than any other issue, most respondents would change the online culture of burlesque. How we treat each other on a day-to-day basis, both face to face and online is essentially what creates our community, and the working conditions we operate in.
There is no doubt we need to do better, and while we may all support open discussion about issues that affect us, whether it be predatory behaviour, prejudice, or corrupt practices, the way in which we have been dealing with those issues, with online witch hunts, bullying, trolling, virtue signalling and with our silence, have created a culture in which many people feel actively unsafe, and many more feel disenfranchised.
How we treat each other on a day-to-day basis, both face to face and online is essentially what creates our community, and the working conditions we operate in.
While many of our relationships with people in the industry are personal, the majority are professional, but social media often gives us a false sense of how well we know someone, and remembering this should temper our responses. Sadly, this has not been the case for some time now and it is to the detriment of all of us and our industry.
The final category of comment for this question centred around working conditions and included pay rates: ‘A union or standardized pay rates across regions’; quality of castings: ‘Performers need to be judged on talent, not just on how ‘brave’ or ‘supportive’ they are’; and audience: ‘The audience would primarily be drawn from outside burlesque rather than from within it.’
These comments were in the minority, again suggesting our focus as an industry is less on the business and more on our own personal gain, however we calculate that.
At the end of the day, burlesque schools are businesses and burlesque shows are commercial enterprises; they both need to make money to remain viable. They need to be attractive to customers, clear in communicating their offering to the marketplace, and deliver a quality product or service to satisfy customers and keep them coming back. More focus here might help mitigate some of the other issues raised. It would certainly ensure we had work.
The last question in the survey asked, ‘What is burlesque’s future?’
Unsurprisingly, the same tensions expressed themselves in respondents’ answers as for the other questions. What was most surprising to me was that the future envisioned was often very disconnected from the present discussed in previous questions. A sense that the future isn’t the result of present actions pervaded and is something for us to reflect on as an industry.
Notable too was the optimism of newer performers, where the more experienced offered comments such as:
‘I think burlesque is in the process of imploding due to overcrowding, undercharging, and the scene’s increased alignment with the SJW movement.’
Many respondents spoke of burlesque becoming more mainstream and attracting bigger fees and bigger audiences, while others spoke of it becoming more specialised:
‘I see it getting queerer and challenging norms through performance.’
But the love respondents had for burlesque came through these answers more strongly than elsewhere in the survey:
‘To continue to push the envelope of performance art while honouring the roots and history of this art form.’
‘Burlesque is dance and storytelling at its sexiest. The sky is the limit with new acts, gorgeous costumes and talented dancers. I long to see this art form grow to where performers are awarded prizes and trophies for their achievements.’
Reading the surveys was fascinating, and I sincerely thank everyone who completed it. The experience has left me feeling that we have some significant issues to address in our industry if it is to survive until this magazine’s 20th anniversary, but that it is populated with performers, producers, photographers, stage managers, costume designers, and teachers who are passionate, committed and driven.
No one knows what the future of burlesque will be, but the actions of every one of us every day will create it. If I could wish for one thing, it would be that we decentre, consider the wider industry, our role and most importantly, our audiences, as we set about creating that future.
Burlesque: The State of Things written by Puss, our hardworking researcher.
21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.