A Note from the Editor
This is a compilation of two speeches given at BurlyCon 2011 by Kate Valentine – creator of The Va Va Voom Room (1997), a contemporary pioneer, and one of the best emcees in the business. As Miss Astrid, Kate has been honoured to host part of the BHOF weekend since 2006.
A number of people returned from BurlyCon in October and contacted me to say how moved they were by this address, and to stress how important they think it is that this speech can be read and discussed by the wider community. It is a bold, intelligent and heartfelt speech that I hope will encourage further honesty, discussion, and development.
I should make it clear that the opinions expressed in this speech are not necessarily shared by myself and 21st Century Burlesque. Some I personally agree with, others I feel merit debate, and I look forward to seeing further discussion of the key issues raised.
State of the Union Address, by Kate Valentine
“There are many things I love about burlesque. On a personal level, it has given me not only an opportunity to perform but an ability to control my performance destiny which is a great gift. Without this specific form of live cabaret entertainment, many dancers and actors are left at the mercy of auditioning, agents and casting directors. The burlesque format keeps the performer in the drivers seat. Additionally, it is great for the performer that enjoys creating their own work. One can be the author of their own stories, which is unique to burlesque.
I did not know I was a director or a producer or an emcee until I began doing it. And liking it. And becoming good at it (probably in that order). For me again personally, working as an emcee was a totally unforeseen direction and has shaped me as an artist. By working in a format that demands direct address to the audience as well as tons of improvisation, I was able to confront and discard fears I had as an actor in profound ways. I was able to embrace failure and play in my work — something absolutely essential to me creating anything worth looking at/listening to on stage.
When I became involved in burlesque I came to be surrounded by a group of women who did not define themselves by what they were not, or in direct comparison to others. I found myself in rooms of women where the conversation did not automatically devolve into the standard rhetoric of self-deprecation. What a relief! And more of a relief because it was not a political group taking a stance. It was organic — we just had so much more to talk about.
I am so grateful to the group of artists and wild people that have I come to know through burlesque. My experience has almost always been that of a supportive family, which is a rare gift.
“My goal is not just to complain, but to suggest some potential solutions to these issues and to open up a constructive line of dialogue…”
I love that the best of neo-burlesque presents a vision of female sexuality that lands distinctly outside of the white hetero-normative male gaze. It is so powerful and liberating to see women of all stripes expressing their sexuality in a fun and funny ways. I was always aware of this, even in the earliest days of the neo-burlesque movement, that it was such a relief for everyone (and that included the white hetero normative males!) to be able to explore their sexuality outside that narrow definition of what we are all supposed to find attractive.
I am also very glad that the neo-burlesque world has expanded to include not only men, but also the gender queer community. The inclusiveness of burlesque helps to side-step a sticky wicket within the form: why do women need to show their empowerment via nudity and sexuality? Does everything, including your power, need to be strained through the prism female objectification? Couldn’t it be argued that this is an Uncle Tom feminism?
Even as a fan and purveyor of burlesque I can only answer that question partially to my satisfaction, but I do think certain things within the burlesque “scene” go a long way toward a response. The first, is having men and gender queer performers. This opens up the discussion the sexuality and nudity as human expression general, not “female” this or that. Additionally, the brilliant tradition of having legend’s night at the Burlesque Hall of Fame creates a visual thesis of The Best of Burlesque: Because it shows the ultimate taboo: aging women, expressing themselves in a robust and unapologetic way. Stripping, stripped of its codifiers, such as youth and “beauty” leaves the audience to look at what burlesque is at its best, baring oneself unapologetically to the world — a true reveal.
Of course it should also be FUN. Burlesque is a confection and its sweet fluffy quality deflates under too much inspection. Burlesque then or now, did not begin as a political movement and all of its messages are best when they play as subtext, like a wink and a smile.
Then again, there are also so many things I hate about neo-burlesque. Barefoot burlesque, burletiquette, tedious full nudity that reveals your anus and inner labia. But I would like to focus here on some issues that are not merely pet peeves, but issues that I consider serious threats to the future of the form. My goal is not just to complain, but to suggest some potential solutions to these issues and to open up a constructive line of dialogue. I believe that my dedication to this art form over the last 15 plus years earns me the right to speak publicly and critically about matters which I consider to be important.
I believe that neo-burlesque is and should be an art form. It may be “low art”, but at its best it is able to make the banal sublime. It has the capacity to create joy in people, an experience essential to our human condition. The only way to preserve neo-burlesque as an art form is to create high professional standards within the genre.
There are two different arms of the current neo-burlesque world. One is the hobbyists, what I call Stitch n’ Bitch burlesque performers. They are huge fans of the genre and they got involved because they wanted to explore their sexuality, their body issues, or their love of retro clothing. They wanted to find a community of like-minded, fun, supportive party people. Then there are the career professionals. They may come from a background in theatre or dance. Most of them pursue burlesque as their full-time career or in addition to their other artistic work.
Both of these arms of the burlesque community are totally valid and extremely valuable. The problem is that they are often indistinct, or worse, the Stitch n’ Bitch performers are under the impression that they are members of the professional group. Its easy to see why this happens. These two groups are constantly existing side by side and on a seemingly equal plane. The burlesque world is a friendly and accessible place with a very D.I.Y. vibe. Additionally, as a “low art” it looks deceptively easy to do: Why, any liberated, cute gal who is willing to take off her clothes in public can do it right? In a word, no.
When I first starting doing burlesque in the ’90’s peoples response was always intrigue and interest. Now when I tell people I am a burlesque performer they say, “Oh.” “Oh”, meaning I saw one bad show and I know all I need to know about burlesque.
Take the time to become skilled and educated about the genre of neo-burlesque. I have heard burlesque schools faulted for the influx of new burlesque performers today, as if burlesque schools are creating an endless race of mutant strippers. I do not believe this to be true. The schools are responding to an interest in the genre and giving people information and techniques that they would not have if they just jumped into burlesque on their own.
Perhaps, however, the schools could put in place more structured levels from which people graduate, so they are gently discouraged from immediately entering the burlesque circuit if they are not prepared to do so. Maybe there could be some encouragement for people with different levels of interest to join different groups: there could be a group of Burly pals who could perform for each other and discuss body positive stuff. And more perhaps importantly we could form a Burlesque Guild where the professionals were given the services and protections that are afforded in some other unions.
By the way, the problem of not knowing when you are Stitch n’ Bitch definitely extends to world of teaching. Please tell me you have been working professionally for at lest 5 years before you attempt to teach something to others. And if you are teaching striptease or any form of dance, dear god, please have had some dance training yourself. If you don’t, really, what are you thinking? Are you trying to make money? Go into real estate or better yet work at a strip club. It will be much more lucrative!
“The only way to preserve neo-burlesque as an art form is to create high professional standards within the genre…”
Part of the root of the problem with neo-burlesque seems to be issues around money. Burlesque is not a get rich scheme. My belief is that as artists we have chosen to value something above money: ideals like Beauty, Transformation, and Communication with the world. We seek to have Collective Experiences with our fellow humans which resonate and give us a larger understanding of why we are here. Therefore, your first priority should be the pursuit of these ideals. You value your ideals enough to present and be presented in works of quality, works that perhaps require some financial commitment.
What you must understand is that if you do a bad show it is wrecking it for everyone, including the people you probably idolize. What do I mean when I say a bad show? Well, for starters, an emcee is not the icing on the cake of the show, its the eggs. Three performers each stripping three times is not a show. It is crap. Do you really want to be a present that the audience opens for a third time? If you cannot afford an emcee or more than three performers then, quite simply, you cannot afford to present a show.
Additionally, how it could possibly make sense to start merchandising oneself before one has a real act is beyond me. The post-Madonna world tells you that all you need is self-confidence and a little pr savvy and everything is possible. This logic says talent is smallest part of the equation for success. But think about it: you are standing alone on stage taking off your clothes. Have the self-respect to have taken a dance class and be prepared. Then and only then should you consider making a t-shirt.
On the other hand, some of the very best performers of this genre in the world will do a show for $5.00 and half a warm beer. When some random newbie stands alongside the best of us in a show it gives her and everyone like her the impression that all they need to do is “put themselves out there” and they will get gigs and make money. And they will be right. Because this is what continues to happen. And the producers (usually performers themselves) hire lesser performers because they can get them for cheaper. And the professionals want to take any gig they can because they “need the money”, yet in doing so they lower their market value.
It is terribly shortsighted to be the best thing in a show. Maybe its cute for your ego, but it does nothing for you in the end. Strive and work towards being in well produced, well constructed theatre where you are one delicious ingredient in a fantastic stew. It is hindering and possibly killing the longevity of the form for shows to contain the greatest and the most amateurish acts on the same bill. You should value yourself enough to get paid what you are worth or acknowledge with clarity that you are a novice and that your rate of pay should be less.
The problem with less than stellar work extends beyond burlesque novices. These days some highly visible burlesque performers, people who make some or most their living doing this, still cannot be bothered to put much effort into burlesque. They under-rehearse, or don’t rehearse at all, spend too much time or none focusing on their costumes, and/or create work that is insider-ish and self-referencing. Their burlesque is completely about themselves. You hear so many people backstage proclaiming themselves and their sisters to be geniuses that you would think it was a meeting of the Mensa society. A community that is supportive is one thing, one that is coddling is another. Meanwhile, take a look beyond the curtain. Your audience are slumped in their seats, rolling their eyes. They are bored. Why not take that extra leap and try to be exceptional. Burlesque is not curing cancer, but it can be transformational and transporting if done right.
When the Miss Exotic World Pageant began on the goat farm of Helendale, California it was clear what it was. It was a reunion for old strippers and the people that loved them. It was a Mecca to a quirky oasis in the desert where bikers, hookers, and Bettie Page girls from L.A. hung out under the hot sun. The Miss Exotic World pageant was a publicity stunt to entice people to the desert, as Dixie has said. It was all heart and pure camp.
The move to Las Vegas in 2006 created a lot of amazing changes for Exotic World. With Vegas came slick production values, a huge attendance, and the presence of burlesque on the International Stage. These are all huge advancements in the public awareness of burlesque. Yet one of the side effects of this shift from Helendale to Vegas is that it changed the tone of the event. Suddenly, Miss Exotic World, both the event and the title were sucked of their irony. This was, for a growing number, a real pageant with huge stakes. The people who are now involved, despite their better natures, fall quickly into the trap of un-ironic competition. I have seen tears and back biting, self-loathing and self-recrimination.
What the fuck does this have to do with burlesque? Neo-burlesque is for strong feminist women. Women who support and celebrate other women. A true pageant, an old remnant from a pre-feminist era, has no business being at the heart of our community. It is wildly self-destructive and the antithesis of everything the burlesque community stands for.
Besides which, at the center of Exotic World is a museum which needs public funding to succeed. Who is likely to take us and our art form seriously when something as antiquated as a beauty pageant is at the center of our largest function of the year? The pageant is a blight in the center of BHOF, since the realization of a museum could be our highest achievement as a genre.
My solution is to make the Burlesque Hall of Fame an actual Burlesque Hall of Fame. In the place of the pageant there would be individuals or groups that would be inducted by a board made up of all the previous Exotic World winners, as nominated by their peers. The awards would then be based not upon one performance one night, but based on a body of work. An induction into the Hall of Fame would then feel like a win not just for the individual, but for the entire genre of burlesque. I am so grateful to be a part of BHOF and to host its main event, but I would be more proud if it was something that made all the participants feel good. This change could provide something that would give everyone involved in the art form something big and beautiful to aspire towards.
“Neo-burlesque is for strong feminist women. Women who support and celebrate other women. A true pageant, an old remnant from a pre-feminist era, has no business being at the heart of our community…”
The reason why everyone was so happy this year when Miss Indigo Blue won the Miss Exotic World title was not because of her lovely performance that night, but because she deserved it: deserved the accolades and attention and respect for all of her years in service to this art form.
There is no reason why this change would prevent any of the other lovely and sparkly things that happen during the BHOF weekend to cease to exist. We could still have Legends Night. We could still have evenings of electrifying performances from both fresh faces and seasoned favorites. We would just remove the part that is out of date and an impediment to the progress of our form both from an internal and an external perspective.
The secret problem with this otherwise completely inspired plan, is that we have to find a way for this version BHOF 2.0 to be financially viable. Will people donate to the museum if their donation is not taken in the form of a MEW application fee? Will people travel and perform at MEW if there is not the carrot of winning a trophy at the end? I truly hope so, but it is our job as a community to present alternatives to the board of BHOF and create our future together.
One solution might be offering BHOF scholarships to shining new members of the community. Or work opportunities to the inductees. If there was a pledge from the major schools and troupes nationally or even internationally to book the inductees for tour and teaching gigs on their induction year, maybe this could prove a good incentive to continued attendance and financial support of BHOF. I realize I am placing a lot of work at the feet of the schools of burlesque but with great power comes great responsibility, as they say in Spiderman comics.
There are many ways of being involved in burlesque. Let the very last one be performing on stage for money. See shows, Take a class, write about burlesque, perform in workshops for your friends. There is only one good reason to be working professionally as a burlesque artist: because you have talent and ability to entertain an audience and a deep desire to do that.“
Please feel free to leave a response or comment in the section below…
It’s very simple: How to Apologize. Step 1. Say you are sorry without deflection & defensiveness 2. LISTEN to what people are saying, maybe you have something to learn from them. 3. Mention your commitment to not to letting it happen again. Thank them for bringing it to your attention. It’s Very Simple. Watch this video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8xJXKYL8pU
I just feel that Burlesque is an awesome art. I have always loved that form of entertainment which burlesque offer as far as the sexiness without being trashy, the colorful costumes, the fun and excitement. It’s not stripping although in some cases there is very little clothes being worn but it’s very tasteful. I just love it and I do not care what anyone has to say bad about it. There is far too many other things that can be bashed like our crooked politicians, but they dare not go after them. It’s easier to attack the Burlesque industry. You cowards!
I dont know who wrote this personally, but I thought some points were spot on:
Bullying may attempt to discourage less competition among performers, but it also alienates potential venues, producers, agents, festival programmers, directors, etc, who would want to stay far away from this kind of bs/nonsense.
Well, I wrote a long comment and just deleted it, realizing, that the people who need to read what we have to say the most, will probably not be reading this at all.
They are too busy gluing together an act for this months theme show, in which everyone simply acts out the words to a song.
The historical observer in me thinks we’re gonna see a dip in public interest over the next 2 years, and it will weed out a lot of people. I’m not ashamed to say that it might include me, when I hit my 7th year burlesque anniversary.
I am choosing to be aware of when I may hit my plateau and can’t push myself any further in burlesque, and I will bow out gracefully; because I refuse to add to the amount of crap out there.
To Clarify: 3 burlesque dancers each doing 3 numbers in a show does not make for a good night of theatre. This is because it reinforces the redundancies in the form. A burlesque striptease usually tells a story in under 5 minutes in which the punch line is a reveal of flesh. If you have done one number, then a second, and then a third it is a bit like a present being opened for a third time. No matter how great you are, the audience knows your punch line. Your impact dwindles. While the pleasure of burlesque number is usually the journey not the destination, it is not doing yourself as a performer, the audience of the genre of burlesque any favors to construct a show in this way. If you are making shows like this I believe it is either because you are trying to make as much money as you can at the expense of your audience or you have misunderstood this to be the standard way shows are presented. We can make better shows than this! Variety shows with variety! I love my fellow performers, but I also care very much about the audience and the genre as a whole.
By the way, I am a woman — not in any position of power — presenting my critical opinions, possible solutions, and calling for dialogue. I have stated my opinions publicly because I was asked to and because I care. This has absolutely nothing to do with patriarchy. Via wiki: “Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination.”
(continued) Regarding the comment in this speech about burlesque dancers performing with no MC is like being ‘a present unwrapped in front of an audience for the third time’. Does anyone think this comment comes across as mean-spirited, and going out of one’s way to be a put-down? Elsewhere in the speech it notes: burlesque has an inherent ‘beauty and an ability to transform and communicate’, but then, ‘without an MC it’s nothing, just a pretty package, that gets repetitive after the first time’? Ouch!
Having an MC is a choice when producing one kind of show, but it may not be everyone’s choice because there are many kinds of shows and so many kinds of events that to start making templates is perhaps not the best use of time. I like to think of shows as a case-by-case scenario. Each situation is unique, or at least, it makes it more fun to think of it that way.
You say MC’s are the eggs. Some people are vegan and want to work with jazz musicians or indie bands instead of MC’s. The band leader makes a great host. Different style of show.
The speech also states that one needs at least 3 or more performers per show plus an MC ($$wise that means approximately between 250 and 1000 dollars) or else they have no business putting on a show. I feel that what is in other people’s wallets or on the drafting boards, is none of anyone else’s business.
I’ve seen two burlesque performers entertain audiences of up to 200 people or more, regularly. They danced, played music and told jokes. I’ve seen one dancer and a DJ do a great job of entertaining guests at memorable events. I’ve seen a go go dancer (dynamic ones) and a VJ who can seamlessly thread an evening of entertainment together just fine.
I feel personally that it’s the job of the ‘pros’ to demonstrate graciously how they can reinvent, adapt, be flexible, etc within an ever changing movement, not their job to force newbies to conform to pre-existing conventions.
Also, I would be more careful when you call your peer’s (or people in the audience) work “crap”, sounds disrespectful and crass.
After reading this, I felt that there are a few areas where this person is over-stepping boundaries. Being asked to speak as a guest of honor does not mean it’s an opportunity to (as Scotty said) to “appropriate the patriarchy”. The title “State of the Union”, comes off as a bit obnoxious and gratuitous. Then after realizing people didn’t necessarily like it, she comments, writing off her own title as “random” and “just a joke”. “Did I say ‘state of the union’? I just mean “lets talk about our winkies”. Really, it’s a bit reckless, especially after a speech that hammers down point after point, about taking oneself seriously and the importance of professionalism.
Raising the bar in professionalism and having standards for high quality goes without saying in any art or industry. So in that sense, these topics are not “controversial”. It’s the leaps in logic within that speech that sound controversial and not in a good way.
There’s been something sticking in my side about BHoF for a long time, and I really feel like you hit the nail on the head here, Kate.
I have been in the business almost ten years. I have had some dance training, but I never feel like it’s enough. That said, I really do feel like I am on that very thin line of professional and hobbyist. I still keep a day job, but most of my life and extra cash is spent planning shows, costumes, numbers, writing scripts, writing articles, or planning for the next burlesque club meeting. I feel that I contribute a lot to my community, It is my hope, that my contributions mean that there will be less and less shows where there is one or two acts that made it worth the cost of admission.
There is that back biting and competativeness that sits in the dark corner of every community, I agree. I think that this suggestion of making the hall of fame about more than one performance gives me chills and a huge sense of pride. I think that it would instill a need to contribute to the community rather than spend all of your time looking at you and how you can win that next crown.
I think that competition is important, I do, it makes us strive to take it to the next level, but I believe that the hall of fame should hold its people to a different standard because it feels as though it has lost its focus. The focus that should be on the legends, the community, and the amazing people who have made the genre what it is today.
Thank you so much for your words, Kate. They were incredibly inspirational!
I think we would gain a lot to look at out sisters in the bellydance community. They probably have twice as many festivals, events, and gatherings a year as the bq community. They are predominately a community of hobbyist, and that does not mean there aren’t many brilliant dancers.
Where they differ from us is their primary focus is on technique as opposed to performance. There are hours of technique building and rehearsal involved before getting on stage.
I think respect for training is where the obstacles to burlesque becoming a viable part of the entertainment industry lie. Too many out of balance shows. Maybe it should be always be low art. If so then we’re all only going to do it till we can’t afford to anymore.
whoa bad editing 🙂 but this link is what I was talking about in reference to ppl thinking pageant ladies are unintelligent
*I think she did it because she cares ALOT.
*It’s really long
*thought it was abit tacky to denounce newbies and hobbyists in that way at Burlycon- a place full of hobbyists and newbies; maybe that was the point.
*I think she did have some valid points
*I think valid points were lost on me at points due to tone (ever heard of a compliment sandwich? jesus…)
*I AM A WEIRDO. THERE AREN’T THAT MANY WEIRDOS IN THE WORLD. I THINK THE FIRST RULE OF BEING A WEIRDO IS TO SUPPORT OTHER WEIRDOS.
*Don’t coddle weaker performers but being constructive in your criticism is so important. Just ask them to work harder, or help them, or don’t book them and tell them why but don’t ask them to give up.
*Work hard and make sure you are not producing shit is something I definitely, definitely agree with!!
*Being open for constructive criticism= yes
*I like the idea of a professional guild or union. Something for people to aspire to and a bottom line for what pros get paid. Good luck organizing that.
*I get the concern behind the using the word pageant. Even if its not applicable to BHOF, there are general assumptions about pageants that pageant girls are judged on beauty first. Also that if you participate in them, you aren’t intelligent. This and this sort of thing kind of support that thinking. However, is this just another case of women hating other women? I was a small town pageant queen- and in my opinion it was a really great experience because the emphasis was more on how you can help your community and become a better and more well rounded person in general. I think the gown part was worth 50 points out of 1000. Could we either change the event to be called Burlesque Olympics? Still have competition and opportunity to see greatness rewarded! Maybe have categories? Classic, Performance Art, Comedy? Or just repurpose the word pageant into becoming the kind of thing we want to see. Like Indigo has been doing!!! YOU ARE DOING AN AWESOME JOB INDIGO!!! DON’T STOP!!!!!!!!
*Its good to see dialogue happening regardless.
Not everyone starts out as a hobbyist….when I was figuring out how to make a pastie I was in my 15th year as a stripper…btw someone mentioned everyone being a ‘hobbyist’ in 2003. Nope…I & more people I knew were making their living solely from BQ then than now (less saturation) But Gods know I’ve taken day jobs to make ends meet after I left the titty bars.
Brava. As a career burlesque performer, director, producer, and choreographer, I applaud just about every single word in this essay. I have similar feelings about the pageantry of today’s greater burlesque community, and also similar feelings about the art vs. the money. So, thank you for this. Maybe I should go ahead and produce that burlesque pageant parody show I’ve always wanted to do. 😉
Okay, here’s what I find problematic:
1. How would you define ‘know the performers’? Being aware of them as a performer, being an acquaintance, being a professional peer, being a ‘friend’ (which can also mean a number of things), seeing them perform once or twice? etc.
2. Is it realistic that a judge who has the necessary knowledge and experience will not have heard of or come into some form of contact with some of the competitors??
3. Are you saying that the judges were swayed or chose to be swayed by prior contact or relationship, be that personal or professional? Are you telling us and them that you feel they were not capable of judging on the set criteria and what they saw, regardless of prior relationships – even though Robbie has already said that none of Indigo’s close friends were judges, AND they have to declare any significant prior professional or social relationships before the pageant? Do you know any of the judges? Do you presume to know why they made their decisions and on what basis?
4. Would you like to contest the results of previous years because the judges may have ‘known’ some of the competitors? Or is it just this year’s result that didn’t come out the way you wanted?
In years past it always seemed that Thursday and Sunday nights were the nights you could miss if you couldn’t do 4 nights,, but you would NEVER miss Friday or Saturday. Thursday and Sunday seemed to be for fillers or leftovers, for the performers not quite ready for Saturday. They mixed it up this year, they spread the superstars around. Looking at the lineup, there was no way I was going to miss Thursday! There was no way I was going to miss Sunday! That was smart, I thought that was great. That’s also great for the take at the bar. That should be continued.
I had to acknowledge that great move.
@Robbie from Delia Darrow
I would love to know that I am wrong, and if so would love to take back my words.
But I feel it’s very valid to challenge the MEW/BHOF producers to have judges who do not know the performers (with as many people as there are whispering these opinions).
On a positive note ,,, I’ve seen the event only improve and get better every year. 2011 was the best year yet, it went very smoothly and felt very organized (despite all that PLAZA drama). It was switched up this year, and I love how Michelle Frankie produced Sunday night. Every night was great !!! It was such an exciting weekend with so many incredible performers from all over the world, it floors me that people make it from New Zealand, Australia, and Japan ( more). I personally want the event to be THE ONE,, THE TOP OF THE PYRAMID,, THE MECCA OF BURLESQUE EVENTS. To me that’s what it’s always been, and I want that to continue! Because I love this event so much,,, it kills me to hear the words favoritism nepotism as much as I have since June. That’s why I brought this up,,, it’s the one obstacle between it and perfection.
I’m challenging the producers to pick judges who do not know the performers.
Or have another title to win,,,
BURLESQUE HALL OF FAME GOODWILL EMBASSADOR.
@ Dame CuchiFrita
“My favorite saying that I learned in fucking art school : ” YOU CAN FOOL THE AUDIENCE BUT YOU CAN NOT FOOL THE PLAYERS”.”
Yeah but if the players don’t say anything about it, what’s the difference?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had conversations with performers about [performer X] who just wasn’t that good and really, she means well, but let’s be honest she doesn’t do much on the stage. It’s fine to say that over a coffee but don’t think of broadcasting that or, worse, saying that to [performer X] herself.
And would it matter given the wave of praise she gets on Facebook whenever she performs?
There should be standards and if the schools and academies aren’t going to help establish them, then maybe it’s time to stop thinking of them as higher education and more like kindergarten: everyone graduates, which is cool, but it only marks the first step of a lot of work.
“That is what happened in June” in your opinion. You can’t state that as fact. I really take exception to that accusation. And I think you do the judges a great disservice. They were chosen for a reason, they don’t all have a close personal relationship with Indigo. In fact I don’t think any of them did. So get your facts straight.
I think it was extremely hard to judge this year. A number of people I spoke to agreed that noone really seemed to completely walk away with it and have that extra something on the night (that Roxi glowed with when she came out for her farewell performance). So I respect the judges even more for deciding on it in a short, pressured amount of time. That said, Indigo’s performance was polished and her long experience showed through, when some of the new, more untested acts submitted lacked something (such is the risk you take when competing with a new act).
And I should add that “many many people” were also thrilled and uplifted by the outcome. I’m tired of this unsporting, graceless grumbling by a minority.
Sorry to go a little off topic but it really irritates me when people presume to know better and state assumptions as fact.
The Miss Exotic World event is still a competition because of the jury process . Each performer must be juried into the 4 night event . I’m happy for this,,, I’m spending alot of money to fly myself across the country, get a hotel etc ( as most of us are ), for this event . I’m spending that money happily,,, I want to see the best of the best performers, I’m trusting the producers to present me with the best of the best performers,,, I love it ! I’ve seen my share of bad burlesque, and I don’t want to see anymore. My point is that competition must remain part of it , and it’s a competition before the event begins,,,
As for the Saturday night competition,, this should remain a competition also. The Miss Exotic World title should go to the most exciting/dynamic/best performer of the evening . What a downer it would be for us to know that the title won’t go the evenings best performer, it will go to a less exciting performer who is very devoted to the BHOF museum & organization. That’s what happened in June 2011, MANY MANY people feel this way. Please let us trust that the best, most exciting performer will win Saturday night . If not,,,we’re all less excited about it, less excited to spend our money to get ourselves there ( IT’S JUST A BIG DOWNER ). After this June (2011), I feel the judges should not be people who would be friends with the performers. May the words favoritism or nepotism never be used when talking about Miss Exotic World, Burlesque Hall Of Fame .
Still looking forward to June 2012, hope it won’t be a let down.
This is an amazing insightful state of the union address. I’ve seen a town taken over by amateur nights that pass themselves off as shows. I’ve also seen the perform for each other syndrom in shows, instead of entertaining your audience (imagine that?!). Some people still seek to bring the vintage genre to life, not participate in cat fighting childish girl against girl behavior. I was disheartened by that, but still desired to continue producing. I have written about this article on my blog because it struck me so. I live in Vegas now and look forward to getting involved in the Burlesque Hall of Fame soon. It seems’pay to perform’ has taken over burlesque in the form of competitions and pageants, a lot like rock n’ roll. But, as a previous performer I never could bring myself to pay to perform.
Bad art is easy, great art is hard but GREAT BAD ART is truly a gift that is rare and hard to come by. Burlesque is truly about making the bad so great . Its about achieving a level of understanding on what it means to fuck with an established concept. An artist has to go through some process to achieve that great badness. For that to happen to the newbies its called accidental LUCK.
Think about it …in the 90’s all those great bad acts did not come out of nowhere…it was a reaction towards the established genres. That is why it was honest.
So lets move on two decades later and see what we can do to move the artform forward. The basis is still the old fashioned respect, humility and dedication to the craft, once you understand it then you can fuck with it all you want.
My favorite saying that I learned in fucking art school : ” YOU CAN FOOL THE AUDIENCE BUT YOU CAN NOT FOOL THE PLAYERS”.
So choose your path, stick to it. If you want to fool the audience you better do it damn well and make lots of money while you are at it.
First of all I would like to thank Kate for bringing up this dialogue. And I would like to thank everyone for participating. It’s wonderful to be part of a community that actually wants to debate and discuss and improve.
I am a professional vocalist and vocal instructor, as well as a burlesque artist. I grew up doing both piano and voice competitively, and am no stranger to putting in thousands of hours into my crafts.
I have been performing since I was very, very small, but I have been doing burlesque for just under three years now. I consider myself “newish” to burlesque. I strive to learn and educate myself and be educated by the incredible talent that surrounds me in Vancouver. We are fortunate here to have two fabulous schools of burlesque and places to take lessons- Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society and The Vancouver Burlesque Centre.
Hm. How to say what I want to say!
I feel that competition is a positive thing. When I see someone kick ass in a competition I think “That’s so fabulous that they are kicking so much ass. I would like to kick that much ass too!”. I don’t think “I f*cking hate that b*tch for kicking ass! That should have been me!”. I find competition inspiring, but I don’t place a be all end all importance on the end result. I mean, isn’t going to the BHoF mostly about well, going and being a part of it? Not a sparkly tiara? Don’t get me wrong, rhinestones are f*cking great, but anyone who gets invited to perform in that show has an invisible tiara on their heads that they may not know about.
I think that since this is an inclusive, DIY community, not all of us have had experience with competition, and competition is stressful. It can bring out the worst in people who are focused solely on the title and tiara as opposed to the fact that “Hey. I was invited to share the stage with legends. Huzzah!”
I don’t know enough about the way the BHoF is run to comment on how it should be run, but it would be cool to see more involvement from the winners in the doings of the museum. Again, that is my uneducated thought, but hey, there you go.
Now- the whole professional versus “stich n bitch” thing…
I feel that some people have taken this as a “good versus bad” kinda argument, even though Kate clearly stated “Both of these arms of the burlesque community are totally valid and extremely valuable”.
It’s not about good versus bad, in my opinion. It’s about honesty.
Did you just form a new troupe? Are you marketing yourself as “The hottest new troupe to hit the scene”? Maybe that’s not the most honest thing you could say.
Are you producing a show for the first time? Have you called it “The best show since…”? Maybe not so good of an idea.
Is the lineup in your show a mix mash of professionals and amateurs? How about alluding to the fact that there will be variety in the show?
Does it drive me nuts that I struggle to charge $15 admission for a show of 12 people (including a full jazz band) that rehearse twice a week together, and then I see people charging the same amount (and maybe just barely getting paid) for a show of people who do burlesque when they please, and not as part of their career? Yep. It does. I’m not going to lie. But do I think those shows shouldn’t happen? Not at all. I think all of these kinds of shows are necessary to our art form. Some of the worst performers I have enjoyed watching because well, sometimes things are so bad they are awesome. Would I hire them…no.
Does it hurt burlesque? Hm. Yes? Kinda?
Here’s my reasoning on that- if someone were to say to me “I saw a burlesque show once, I didn’t like it, it was bad, I don’t like burlesque” I would probably just laugh. If someone picked up a cd of random music and said “this is bad. I hate music!” I would have the same reaction. It’s not my responsibility to make the audience use their brains, short of what I can do to them while I’m on stage. If they are the kind of people to make those sorts of statements, well, then they don’t come to my show and I’m cool with that. I’m not going to win every battle, and that’s one battle I can’t be bothered with. So it hurts in that the kind of people who make blanket statements and snap judgements based on one experience won’t want to come out to another show… but that doesn’t hurt me.
There is a lot of bad music out there. LOTS. Does it make people hate music more? I don’t think so. I think audiences and the public are just starting to get used to the idea of burlesque as a thing to stay, so they are in the growing stages just as much as we are.
I would be interested in the idea of schools of burlesque having grades. Kinda. Touchy subject. Maybe giving out certificates for completing certain tasks? Kinda like being in girl guides or scouts? Intern with a Mentor task! Volunteer in a show task! Volunteer as part of your local festival (or nearby) task! Help organize a show for a Legend task! I think goals are good. They keep us striving. But not everyone is going to do it, because not everyone cares as much as “we” do, right? I mean, I wish all my piano students would practice an hour a day, and I wish that people would stop using an acoustic guitar to try to pick up chicks and express how sad they are, but hey, wishful thinking.
Pardon my unorganized thoughts. It’s a laaaarge can of worms to digest. But… if the unprofessional performers make my job harder… bring it. I’m ready. There aren’t enough jobs to go around, and that’s a fact. The true talents won’t be left behind. Our artform is growing and evolving, and it will be clear who is professional and who is not. We just must be patient while our audience learns. And in the meantime, keep kicking major ass and keep communicating about how to kick more ass!
Those are my thoughts for now. I’m sure I’ll have more sometime soon. Yay thinking.
I wish so much I had been able to be at Burlycon to hear this… I will say that I was truly excited, honored and giddy to perform this year at BHOF, however I was just as much relieved to not be in the debut competition. I don’t like what competitions do to people (myself included). I support BHOF being a weekend showcasing fantastic performers and leaving the “crowning” to people who are inducted into the Hall of Fame for a career’s worth of hard work and talent. That’s how it works in sports, right?
@ The Lady Aye
Exactly. The reaction is “How dare YOU tell me what I am” when it really should be self-started: “Hey, I’m a beginner at this!”
@ Madame E
Agreed. Approaching burlesque without a sense of what has come before is kind of reckless. I felt I had a bit of leeway when I went in as there wasn’t much known about boylesque, but I did what I could to read up during and after.
And another question about some of these schools: How many of them fail their students? How many have standards to live up to before they tell their students they can perform?
Just a thought.
Neo-burlesque is definitely an art form, and one that seems to gain respect more and more each year. I agree that people in this marvelous world must maintain high professional standards in order to preserve this art form. I also believe that burlesque schools are invaluable to the new generation of performers, but I worry about how many new “schools” are popping up, and what gives the teachers the authority to show the way to the newbies. Anyone can put a sign outside their door and call themselves a burlesque “teacher.” Are they teaching the history of burlesque as well as technique? Like Satan’s Angel says, “do their students know the origin of the term, ‘g-string’?” And yes, please, have some dance training under your belt! That goes for performers as well as teachers.
I have seen too many performers stand stock-still, do a skit, and take off their clothes, without adding one dance step to the mix. Please! When I started out, in 1970, we had to be able to dance before we could strip. And we were professionals — no day jobs for us. Not a lot of women were willing to take their clothes off on stage for a living, so we worked hard. Every night.
Over the years, I studies various forms of dance to improve my performance — from bellydance to hip hop — and I’m happy for the experience.
Rehearsal is so damned important. I want my hip to shake at the moment the drummer hits his high hat, or my bra to drop right in time with the music. I am performing the music for my audience, and that won’t happen if I don’t know my music and I don’t rehearse.
I don’t agree with doing away with the pageant aspect of BHOF. I believe the awards are based on each performer’s body of work for that year. The pettiness and backbiting would continue, I’m afraid, given human nature, whether there was a competition or not. But I have been backstage at BHOF also, when love and sisterhood prevailed. I do believe that past winners should form a board to support the Hall of Fame.
Other weekends do not hand out prizes for the “best of” but that’s part of what makes BHOF unique and exciting.
So I agree with Miss Astrid on many levels, but find fault with other points she has made. I do want to thank you, Miss Astrid, for opening up this lively and inspiring dialogue.
Now I’m going to go rehearse my 60-year-old body for next week’s show.
I don’t see any evidence to support the idea that there will be any sort of league enforcement. I would, however, like to see the bar set a little higher. Not as a blockade, but as a basic minimum of expectation.
The audience is not your therapist, you shouldn’t get a medal just for showing up. That’s not the same as you shouldn’t even get a shot at it or you can’t get better. It is, however, a more grown-up approach than you’re all winners all the time.
@ Lady Aye:
“I don’t understand WHY people are so anti-standards? DIY or not, we only get better at things when someone’s honest with us.”
See Bella B’s response for a perfect example of why not.
When we talk standards, there’s this assumption that it’s going to be coming from an external source (a licensing board) and that it is a label that is going to stick with you _forever_, announced in Christopher Lee’s stentorian voice: “Thou’rt a HOBBYIST!!!!!” and a crack of thunder.
The truth is these standards need to be descriptive, not prescriptive. They need to be carried as lightly as a first year student in college being called a freshman. Or go back to the minor league baseball example: You’re playing a Class A (lower level) game, which is impressive to make it that far. You want to get up to Class AA or the Majors? You’ve got to bust your ass and you can make it. Hell, it’s easier here because you don’t have rank upon rank of coaches and agents circling like vultures to trade you if you fall below expectations.
And no matter where your talents lie, no matter what skills you brought along, be sure to have fun! Bring your A-game, regardless of how it compares to Dita Von Teese or Indigo Blue or Tempest Storm, and have a blast!
“History seriously does matter.”
Absolutely. I don’t think anyone reading this would argue the point or say that the time has come to disregard all that has come before in favor of something else. That would be like chucking out Shakespeare because he’s old and we don’t talk like that anymore anyway.
But that doesn’t mean that there’s only history and emulation thereof. There needs to be evolution and analysis to figure out what comes next. Otherwise the art (any art!) becomes stagnant. Shakespeare was great but to limit ourselves to his work would mean denying everything that came after. How dull. How stifling.
A month or two ago I shot a performer who did a fan dance with fans made of shredded trash bags. The change in material made for a change in the way it behaved which made for some really interesting new moves to compensate for all that. I love a good fan dance but damn me if I wasn’t fascinated by what she did on the stage.
Here is my personal interpretation on the professional vs hobbyist : I believe behind every great art lies an enormous amount of dedication and HUMILITY in learning the craft. Pure and simple. Bad art or good art, or whether its art at all, is a matter of intention. I personally regard performance as a service rather than a selfish act to boost the ego.
I don’t have any issues on whatever terms that is used whether its hobbyist or profession, good art comes from everywhere : from the pros, the newbies, the experienced and the less seasoned…if the intent exposes truth and sincerety.
So why are we all getting our panties in a twist when it is our duty to ask ourselves everytime we get on that stage whether producing or performing …Am I giving something worthy for the audience to enjoy ???
I ask this question EVERY single time I am about to perform…like everyone else I have good days and many more bad days. On those bad days I have a feelings of regret for not giving the audience what they deserved and subject them to something less than Fierce . You have the options of giving them 5 mins they will never forget or taking 5 mins away that they will never get back. That is a HUGE responsibilty . Burlesque is no different. so think about that before you put yourself on stage next time.
It should have been signed as ‘Kate Valentine’. That is our oversight, not Kate’s. It has been corrected.
I’d like to thank the blog editor for shining a light on what is indeed the biggest problem that burlesque faces today: unapologetic elitism. This essay will live on forever as a shining example of it. In the four years I’ve done this (good thing I don’t teach) I’ve never read anything like it. Let me get this straight:
–“I’ve been around for longer than you have, so I’m qualified to tell you what is wrong! And not only that, I have IDEAS! But I will leave it to others who have less important things to do to execute!”
This doesn’t read as “state of the union”. This is classic Old Timer’s Syndrome and In-Group-Out-Group Bias. It should be retitled “Kate Valentine’s You Kids Get Off My Lawn” speech. Did you have to walk uphill both ways through the desert in order to perform?
By the way, it’s from Kate Valentine but not from “Miss Astrid”, yet it’s still signed “Miss Astrid”. Whoops.
End of my bitching. I’ll go back to stitching. After all, it’s my hobby.
No one asked for it, but since I’m opinionated, I’ll give you my $0.02 anyway: As a new performer, I felt a bit dissed by Kate’s words. While I don’t think she intended to do so, by describing only two types of burlesque performers, she set up a kind of Pros vs. Hobbyists mentality. As I see it, there is a whole continuum of the burlesque community from the girl who puts on some sparkly underwear and rips it off without regard to character or choreography, to the pros who travel the world making their living, who have elaborate costumes and amazing production values. And just like there are painters who show in the finest galleries, there are hobbyists who paint hearts on wooden boxes with phrases like “I Love My Country Home” and sell them at craft fairs. Are they both to everyone’s taste? Hell no. Would everyone describe them both as artists? No. But they both try to be the best at their work and they both deserve respect. And they both probably call themselves artists. Let’s face it, Keith Haring didn’t get to decide whether Thomas Kincade was a “real” artist or not. A person who buys a painting from one may not buy a painting from the other and that’s just fine. There *IS* room for all of us under the burlesque tent simply because so much is a matter of taste and artistic sensibility and that’s incredibly subjective.
So here’s what I’m left with: At first I was kinda angry with Kate, but then I realized I was putting a lot of stock on my value as an entertainer on the word of someone I don’t know, and who doesn’t know me and has never seen me perform. That’s just crazy. So call me a “hobbyist” or “amateur” or “Stitch’n’Bitcher” because it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of my performance besides me and my audience. To paraphrase a phrase coined at Burlycon, “I’m awesome. And I’m also great in bed.”
Thanks for getting us talking, Kate.
This was a great article to read, and an even better response forum to browse. It definitely takes guts to stick your crimson toes on the ledge and voice an opinion like this knowing the waves of criticism to follow, so bravo m’dear. On the other hand, I definitely enoyed Scotty the Blue Bunny’s take. Well spoken, with just the right amount of sass and sparkle. May everyone continue creating from the depths of their swarovski covered hearts, and not worry what the gal next you is doing. No one is the best when they begin, we’re all lil’ wobbly bambi-legged burlesquers at the start. Support the so called “hobby-bobbies” and “full timers” alike, I admire ANY man or woman who has the courage to step foot on stage. Art is subjective, we all enjoy different stuff, and there certainly is room for everyone.
To throw a spanner in the works…. with comments about history not being relevant anymore (although perhaps in context of defining standards) and the passing of some Legends this year, should we possibly be thinking and talking more about how we can make the best use of our Living Legends, existing inductees to the Burlesque Hall of Fame and Sassy Lassy honourees rather than squabbling about labels for ourselves? *ducks as everyone throws their pointy pasties at her* No, I’m being serious. These women (and men we are yet to discover) paved the way for us. They’ve lived through cut throat business decisions and having to hide their professions etc. We don’t know how flipping easy we have it. As was shown by Velvet Ice and Ellion Ness at BurlyCon this year (and the legends master classes at BhoF etc) we can learn an INCREDIBLE amount from them, and we have no idea when they might be taken from us. History seriously does matter.
Putting aside the BHoF element for a moment (and frankly, I have no truck with that either way); I don’t understand WHY people are so anti-standards? DIY or not, we only get better at things when someone’s honest with us.
Hell, I’ve had fellow sideshow performers send me home in TEARS with their criticism, and you know what? I’m a better, stronger, more confident for it. DIY is NOT everyone gets a medal day. You can be supportive and critical.
I complained once about ‘change’ in a very important organization I am a part of. I was put in my place by a peer in a way that will stick with me forever. Today I would like to translate this conversation to all of you as it pertains to Burlesque: “Burlesque has been changing since the day it began. It will continue to change, but will you take it, or leave it? Can you accept Burlesque and your role in Burlesque even with it’s changes?” Chew on that for a minute or years. Whatever it takes.
I’m amazed at the connection that I see in this art and community. For an over a hundred year art it’s incredible how much we know each other, we communicate, we influence each other, and we OWN this art. I don’t know of another art or subculture so vast yet so connected at the same time. Please cherish this. It is very special. The very existence of the Burlesque Hall Of Fame is something we cannot lose sight of. Our legends are currently representing several generations and so are the neo burlesque performers. Supporting this collection of history and our reunions, pageants or no pageants, only further validates the Art of Burlesque. I believe that Jennie Lee would be thrilled to see the level of attendance at BHOF, Festivals, and BurlyCon. It’s our legacy to continue that sense of community and to be ambassadors for our art. It’s also the responsibility for each and every one of us to preserve our history. Be your own historian. Please be proactive in documenting your time in burlesque. Keep in mind that while the Legends are currently telling their stories and signing autographs, you Titans will eventually be sitting on that side of the table yourselves.
I’d like to switch gears a bit and touch on the need for professional standards. This is not the only place I have seen a line drawn between professional and other. I can positively tell you that there are more layers than that because I personally represent a different layer than those two. I am not going to go deeper into this conversation because so many have already made such great points. Do I feel strongly that professional standards benefit our art? Yes! Watching a well executed, well costumed performance by a talented burlesquer makes for a very inspiring and enjoyable experience for both the audience and the performer. Knowingly turning out a crappy product is selfish and damaging to burlesque because the fans and your peers are both watching and affected. Burlesque is an intimate and passionate experience for the performer and the audience that can be enjoyed at all levels. Gypsy Rose Lee touted herself a “No Talent Talent”, because in her start in show business she was never good enough to be the star. Like Kate points out, Gypsy found Burlesque and controlled her own performance destiny. Own your place in Burlesque…past, present, and future.
Thank you 21st century Burlesque for creating a home base for the American burly scene to communicate. I love this dialogue that is happening.
Now I do agree with certain things in Kate Valentine’s speech but, I feel like a lot of it alienates our community completely. Other than that, I will keep my direct opinions to myself. I am far too passionate about the art form to even try and rally my thoughts on all this publicly, but I will say this….
I Second what Scotty said, now on with the show kids! Lets go! Lets go! lets go!
Pardon me as I do a bit of run & gun here, touching on a few points that stand out to me:
“How do you tell someone “I do not enjoy watching you create art.” That’s a fucking tough one in a DIY community. Personally, I don’t tell people that. I just don’t book them in my shows.”
There’s the risk Kate was talking about: tell them. I know a number of performers who would love to get booked for shows but don’t hear anything from producers. Consequently they have no idea whether it’s just that the show is full up for that month (or week or…), if it’s something they said wrong (were they not supposed to send an e-mail?) or if it’s that they don’t have the chops. When do you tell them? That they ask is usually the invitation for that conversation. Then be blunt and own the criticism while you make sure that it isn’t personal: “I admire your energy, you love the art but I think that your acts are…”. Otherwise all they hear is silence from the producers and applause from an audience that may be too polite to say anything contrary.
@ Honey Lawless:
“Decrying the schools for creating bad art is no different than protesting in front of a “Color me Mine” paint your own pottery studio.”
But people who go paint their pottery don’t then take their coffee mug to a nearby art gallery and insist that they’re ready for a showing and that first piece will sell for $XXX.
Part of the problem with the schools is that the class dues also pays for a supportive audience of friends and friends of friends who will never say anything bad about what they saw. At least, not to the performer’s faces. I’ve heard plenty of muttering at some of the Academy recitals I shot (and muttered myself!) but none of it ever made it to the performers because that’s not the point of the class or the recital. That’s the first taste, the first attempt at stepping off the high dive board and there’s a lot of leeway at play. But the gloves never come off and each time that weak performer takes the stage, there’s a surplus of applause (which reaffirms their place on the stage) and not a lot of constructive feedback (which may make them rethink their motivations).
@ Deadpan Dolly:
“Does a bad comic turn you away from comedy? What about someone who forgets their lines. Would you never see a play again?”
Depends on what I know about the performance in question. Seeing a bad stand-up comic now that I’ve seen and heard and read a lot is kind of frustrating but not that big a deal. But if my first taste of stand-up (after hearing how great and hilarious and oh you’ll laugh so hard!) is dull or offensive, I might not. And than you figure what the ticket cost and, well… if I spent $35 to see some blowhard come in and rant about how women are dumb and politics are noise and pizza is funny food when I expected insightful commentary, I might consider that a waste of a night.
@ Sammich the Tramp:
“There is a time and a place for tribute and re-creation, but the art form has to be allowed to grow and evolve and the artists shouldn’t be the ones that are the most terrified to push for it and allow it to happen.”
I’ve been taken of late with wondering if we’ll ever see the arrival of burlesque’s Martha Graham and I can’t help but think that if she (or he) were to crop up one year or another, the response would be “It’s really good… but is it REALLY burlesque?”
@ RiRi SinCyr
“This doesn’t fall into “pro” or “hobbyist” categories for me – but more like TIME SERVED.”
I knew another burlesque fan who really loved minor league baseball and made point to go to as many games as he could. He broke the local scene down as he would minor league ball: Troupe X was Triple-A, troupe Q was Double-A and so on. It wasn’t that it wasn’t all enjoyable but you went to different shows with different standards. I’ve kind of taken that to heart.
I can enjoy a beginner (or a “hobbyist”) as much as I can enjoy someone who’s been around for years. Maybe even more if the beginner brings something new to the stage while the veteran is doing the same act the same way at the same tempo like a Disney animatronic. That’s more important to setting standards than anything else.
Thank you Scotty The Blue Bunny and Sparkly Devil for your comments! I couldn’t agree more with you! And thank you, oh thank you Kate Valentine for finally solving my intro problem! You see, I could never really decide how to have the MC introduce and describe my clumsy, untrained, ninth grade dropout self to the audience. Nothing felt quite right. But now, thanks to you, it finally dawned on me! From now on, I will be known as the “Militant Hobbyist and an Unabashed Amateur”!!!
“What burlesque was in the ’50’s or in the ’90’s is of relatively little importance and the standards then cannot apply to now.”
I specifically like this quote and it’s an argument I hear often from burlesquers. “In those days we did it like this.” Imagine applying that to other art forms, “in the 1910’s we made movies like this, in the 1860’s music was done like this, in the 1700’s we only did theater this way…etc.” If that were the case all of those art forms would have eventually died out. It’s important for artists to re-invent the wheel, re-define art forms, and push their peers to get better, not just try to re-create the original way of doing something. There is a time and a place for tribute and re-creation, but the art form has to be allowed to grow and evolve and the artists shouldn’t be the ones that are the most terrified to push for it and allow it to happen.
If I said that they shouldn’t produce before they’ve been performing for two years, I didn’t mean exactly that, because I don’t think it’s my place to tell adults, who may have extensive performance and producing experience and training about which I may not know, what they should and shouldn’t do. I try not to tell newer performers what they should or shouldn’t do, but only about some of the responses they can expect when they do certain things. And as you can see, the responses are inconsistent. I do feel like it would be irresponsible for me to not to let them know when I know those reactions are out there. I feel like that’s my place.
With all due respect to your experience, status, and writing, your “few sentences removed for clarity” included directly stating that the competition “is a cancer”. If removing that wording is necessary for clarity, it would have been much better to do so *before* reading it to a roomful of people. I too welcome dialog and discourse without personal attacks, so I hope you’ll understand that as a person who volunteers literally hundreds of hours a year to the BHOF, reading “is a cancer” felt like a personal attack.
I didn’t make the named list of people who contributed insightful and non-attacking discussion, but I’ll get over it. I felt it of utmost importance to clarify the actual nature of the competition, as well as explain that the landscape changed not *because* of the BHOF, but alongside it.
The “hall of fame” dialog has already been open for some time. The rub is this, which is not unique to the burlesque world: ideas are easy; the devil is in the execution.
To that end, I invite you, or anyone else with strong beliefs about this, to formulate an actual plan for how to do this– implementation; dissemination of information; org structure; and how to adapt funding efforts and weekend budget costs when it all changes– and submit all of that to the BHOF. Believe me, they would absolutely LOVE to receive this.
One of the other classes at BurlyCon was a discussion about $$, presented/taught by Jo Weldon. She brought up some very valid points about the money question in her discussion but one really stuck out in my mind: that we, unlike the traditional strip club circuit, do not have any formalized “circuit” for performers who want to travel and perform. I’m not saying we need one, but how interesting would it be for our national (and international) community to come together to create formal relationships and opportunities for performers?
Jo also made a few statements that probably hurt some of the newer performers in that room – one of which was that if you have been performing for less than 2 years that you should NOT be producing shows. It didn’t come across as hurtful or holier-than-thou from the infamous Jo Weldon, but rather as a suggestion or piece of advice to budding performers and producers.
I was honored to be given the opportunity to do a peer review at BurlyCon – and it was an enlightening experience on many levels. In the end, I find myself really sifting deeply through the feedback I received on my piece. Part of this is because some of it is quite redundant (yes, I do need to sequin my bra – didn’t I say it was an act in progress??). The other reason is because I find myself really focusing on the feedback I received from performers that I actually consider to be my “peers”. This doesn’t fall into “pro” or “hobbyist” categories for me – but more like TIME SERVED. I have been performing for over 7 years (with a break for grad school in the middle), and I am also one of those that has a profession outside of burlesque that is in no way related to burlesque. Burlesque is my outlet, my passion, my hobby – but something that I give 150% to
This article and the responses have been very insightful to read. I’ve encountered many discussions about these exact points in article #1 in many states/communities here in the Midwest. As someone who is currently making the leap to full-time dancer/actor/teacher a lot of these points really hit home. I consider myself a professional entertainer, maybe I’m not in the top ranks of burlesque performers, but like Kate said “When I personally think of a professional performer I do not really think of someone who only does burlesque. So few people make a living solely on burlesque. (and only one person in the world makes a really good living at it!) So I suppose I think of people for whom burlesque is one arm of their performance career who are also musicians, or actors, or dancers, or whatever.”
Even in the past 3 short years that I’ve been involved in burlesque I’ve noticed a definite influx of new performers, some of whom are amazing, and some of whom should not be getting paid to be in the same show as other established acts, or who aren’t ready to perform at all. How do 100+ performers in one city come to an agreement on what the going rate should be at tiered levels? Do I think I’m worth xxx amount of money? Absolutely! Are there shows in my community that pay xxx amount of money? Rarely. Do we not perform for less than we’re worth and run the risk of doing a show here and there every now and then? I’m a firm believer in quality over quantity, but how does one grow/learn/try new things if most of the performance opportunities in your area only pay enough to take a cab home if you don’t take those shows for fear of “undercutting” or selling yourself short?
Scotty The Blue Bunny – it’s arguments like these that fuel my artistic fires and give me a much needed pointed-toe in the arse.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the tornado of ‘business sense’ and ‘professionality’ that one forgets simply how to create good art. It’s easy to loose one’s drive, passion and excitement in amongst feeling a need to draft contracts and exude opinions in order to assert a position on the scene ladder. It’s very easy to let one’s fear direct one’s PR – I know, it’s one of my own weaknesses.
But I don’t need all of that. I purposefully gave professionalism up so that I could pursue being passionate again. Professionalism, for me, turned out to be nothing but jostling amongst other ‘professionals’, elbowing for stage time and screaming for attention from producers and fans. I don’t want to do that anymore. It’s not becoming. I’d rather be a fucking beautiful wall flower that, perhaps, only a couple of passers by notice in the background than to join the throngs of ‘professionals’ again.
I wrote this article for BurlyCon because I was asked as a guest of honor there this year. I decided that if I was going to speak about burlesque I was going to speak unabashedly and share my experience and opinions, even if controversial. Since then more people were interested in hearing it which is why, thanks to Hollie-Mae, it is before you in the pages of 21st Century Burlesque. As I hope I have made clear these are my opinions stated in order to start what I believe is a much needed dialogue about the future of the form. What burlesque was in the ’50’s or in the ’90’s is of relatively little importance and the standards then cannot apply to now. I do not pretend that I have all the answers, nor that things are black and white.
I should clarify that these are exactly the words I spoke at BurlyCon with the exception of a couple of sentences changed for clarity. These are also the words of Kate Valentine and not my character Miss Astrid, which as those of you who know me personally can attest, is a different experience.
The title “State of the Union” was tongue and cheek and random, so if that feels too authoritarian please disregard. [This story is hereby re-titled, “Inside Natures Purse: I Have One, Do You?”]
I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has participated in this conversation, particularly Syndi Devereaux, Foxxy Tann and Sparkly Devil. People have been quite eloquent and brought up excellent points and for the most part been very civil and not resorted to personal attacks — Thank you!
A few points for clarity.
When I personally think of a professional performer I do not really think of someone who only does burlesque. So few people make a living solely on burlesque. (and only one person in the world makes a really good living at it!) So I suppose I think of people for whom burlesque is one arm of their performance career who are also musicians, or actors, or dancers, or whatever. I would *never * define what makes someone a professional artist based on financials. Livings must be made however they do. I would base it on: will you be on stage in 15 years? Do you possess skills which make you desirable to work with and a pleasure to watch on stage? If the word burlesque did not exist would you still be on stage somewhere somehow? At the end, the terms Pro and Hobbyist (or whatever term you don’t despise) are largely self-defined. I do not think Pro=Good and Hobbyist=Bad. I see these as groups with different priorities and expectations.
I don’t want to discourage anyone, but I also don’t think its “mean” to suggest standards. Standards do not airbrush everyone’s’ bikini area and turn everyone into a Stepford Stripper. I have seen very high standards and low standards coexisting in every city, country, and town that I have been to that has burlesque shows.
I am not implying that anyone strive towards perfection. Perfection is a false goal and totally destructive to art. Many people I know and respect counsel people to strive for failure, to aim to suck, myself included. It is critical to give yourself permission to fail and to laugh at yourself. But to be clear: the aim is not to “suck’ in my opinion, it is to risk. It is in *risking* that really really, exciting things happen. I think we could, as a group, take the risk to make burlesque a stronger art force to be reckoned with. To me that means increasing our honesty with ourselves and others, empowering one another, and redefining what it means to be a burlesquer in the 21st century.
I am so thrilled to see some dialog going. I for one am not a trained dancer and don’t even see dance as the essential part of what I do on stage. I am a performance artist and intrinsically that means I will use my body, but if I knew that burlesque was limited to dance I probably would have not gotten involved. When I saw World Famous *BOB* put a condom on a banana I didn’t think “what a great dancer?!” I thought “powerful and fun statement on safe sex!”
What about producers/performers/teachers who save their scruples to make sure that the heartbeat of this movement (regular performances) can take place? Red Hots Burlesque is twice weekly and the only weekly show in our current city, SF. We have performers of all levels and experiences, from all different backgrounds, they are all sizes and colors and shapes. Although no performer ever performs for a warm beer and everyone is paid, it is not anything someone can make a living off of. We have worked hard to be sure to fly talent, legends and highly respected performers out for them to perform and teach our still very uneducated community. These performers change in the storage closet that is our dressing room, same as new performers, and dance in the same dive bar. My true understanding of burlesque history is for it to be accessible to
the lower classes or the “every day” person. The cover remains low and the art underground.
This address, although a great starting point, leaves out so much. I’m glad to see folks chiming in.
I have never been to BHOF except to visit the museum and it was closed when I got there. And a huge part of the reason I opt to keep the home-fires burning on that weekend is the competition as outlined as above. Instead, I work hard to make sure my local live performance community (that is in constant peril because of problems with venue, economic, interest, supersaturation ect) thrives and grows. Everyone should always strive for better.
I am not a stamp-collector, 50’s retro-apron collector, vinyl aficionado or cigar enthusiast. I do not “stitch n’ bitch,” nor do I put on a retro outfit and call that burlesque. I am an artist, just like you. I coexist with you and sometimes, people even like my art more than the “pro,” who just performed on stage.
I hone my craft: I rehearse diligently, I care about all the elements that make up my performance including image and costume, I treat my performance professionally and I give it my all, even after doing this for years. I show up on time, music in hand, with clear direction to the producers/stage managers I work with. And I still wish I had the time, youth, and working knee to be at the top of my game as a dancer, but burlesque allows for me to include all those professional elements I learned as a paid “professional” dancer and allows for me to stretch in a way dance would never allow. While I would love to consistently share the stage with individuals who I (bold and underlined for dramatical effect) consider brilliant at all times, I also recognize that some would say that even our most talented performers are not artists at all. We are “low art” and I would venture to guess that is one super strong magnet that attracted most of us to burlesque. The passion I have for burlesque comes from the lack of constraint I feel. Dance, for me, was rigid. I was told how to look from head to toe and how to move. It would be a shame if burlesque became that kind of rigid. I don’t miss the open calls and auditions, the critiques on my hair and weight, and ultimately the lack of community I have now. I am the “reject/outsider/villain” Scotty so eloquently describes. I left that world and found something better.
My burlesque reality has included being disappointed by a “professional” and being inspired by a newbie. We all begin from somewhere. And even though I cringe when I see a burlesque “dancer” attempt to find rhythm, I can’t help but think of Bettie Page, who only accidently moved to the beat, but we loved her just the same.
To me, burlesque is special because you get to share the stage with those who have been around for decades and those who are just starting. The DIY behind it allows for me to be impressed by a newbie with amazing costuming skills who is still learning the craft of performing. Are we forgetting the origins of burlesque, because defining “professional” burlesque seems to be contrary to the roots of our beloved art form. I strive to live the Webster’s Dictionary definition of our art, I test limits and push buttons and create production pieces with the veterans and newest members of our show and I get to celebrate all the various incarnations of talent. I have a chorus.
And why are we even concerned with the lowest common denominator? We see bad art all the time. It happens in every artistic circle. And even when we see guilds and unions, we still see crappy artists and crappy pay scale. Ask any working theater actor/actress. Most of my acting friends make far less than I do, but just like me, they keep doing it because it’s what they love. Shoot, there is shitty art schools, theater classes and yes, even dance classes. I have even walked out on a few of them. Decrying the schools for creating bad art is no different than protesting in front of a “Color me Mine” paint your own pottery studio.
Art, for me, is all about a freedom of expression. Some people will love what I am trying to “say” and some will walk out and say it’s crap. So it goes. The neo-burlesque movement gave me a place to find the kind of artist I want to be, I may not be the kind of artist you like, but that’s the beauty of all of this. We don’t have to like one another’s art.
So don’t liken me to a stamp-collector. I do not collect anything, I make the same art as you and there are plenty out there who want to add my art to their collections.
@ Scotty the Blue Bunny and Foxy Tan!:THANK YOU!!! The points both of you make are soooo needed, (and hilarious)! Bring back the chorus baby! and by thaty I do not mean, creating “The Pussy Cat Dolls”. The amount of amazing creative potential that can be realised by newbies, and those with some performance experience/training behind them working TOGETHER, is what is so fan-fucking-tastic about this type of theater. The most common complaint I have heard from audience members and some performers, is the selfish, egotistical aspect of so much of the performances that are in abundance now, that turns audiences and new performers away.
In addition to this incredible piece, another area of concern is over saturation of shows produced by newer performers trying to jump on because they “want to” without regard for consequence, community and those who came before them.
As DYI and community minded as I am, Ive earned my position after a decade of performing and producing dhows, most notably Co producing the Toronto festival. Ive done hundreds of shows on burlesque stage, on my own dime, and supported troupes, festivals and the like for years.
I do my act full time, and my livelihood relies of supply and demand.
A competitive market is essential, but a show every 3 days with the same performers at every one, produced by a different performer and…wait for it… without any money to back it up if it flops is absurd and destructive.
I know of people producing shows with less then 20 appearances under their belt. Ive seen others show quality skyrocket yet the attendances dwindle due to over saturation, and bad performances at other events. A recent event with international stars drew less then a local event would 3 years ago, due solely on newbies producing shows too close and not coming out to other events because “they cant afford it”. I’ve experienced having to pick up the pieces after venues banning burlesque due to newbies poorly run shows and unprofessional attitude and demands with the club.
I’ve held a monthly for 6 years that allowed new artists to come and perform, get experience and learn from established acts. It allowed them the space to get their kicks and make mistakes. The shows were well attended and built on community involvement and support. The low door cost admission also allowed leeway for the audience accepting that a few acts were going to be a little rough, but that they could be seeing tomorrows stars.
I left the big shows for the established acts.
It kept the newer artists in a hiarchy position and allowed them to grow in a supportive but not coddling environment. It showed what we built over 10 years and I hoped the performers would respect that, our protocol and unwritten rules.
Many got it in their heads to duplicate and run their own events, and in doing so became “leaders” with only a year experience on stage.
It’s almost like there is an entitlement issue, and theirs no longer the punk rock DYI attitude that the original platform was built. Supportive of one another because we had no one else. We were outsiders and built our own scene out of a fire that no one but ourselves stoked.
Burlesque is not only an artform but also a business, and without an audience there is no money, no good rates and no growth. If the audience doesn’t feel justified in their purchase, they don’t come back, no matter who you put on stage to try and fix it.
The saying one bad apple is often very true, but what is the solution? I cannot not allow people to perform, book shows etc… All I can do is run the highest quality program possible (recently Ive been bringing in NYC artists every month. there is no sacrifice to a newbie producing a shoestring show, but those shows can destroy the audience for those who have invested for a decade and have alot to lose and cant just walk away.
1. People say “Oh.” when you say burlesque because they know what it is. You might as well have just told them you play guitar in a band. It’s really nothing personal. I think the real question is: How do you perform for an educated audience? People know what burlesque is.
2. It’s not the job of the Artist to chart the arc of the movement. Historians, fans, and the media do that. Artists make art, they don’t plan out nostalgia. I don’t know if Picasso gave a flap about the preservation of painting, but I do know he wanted to be the best painter ever and cared about his art.
4. The Burlesque Hall of Fame is not the center of the community. There are a myriad of centers.
3. People in burlesque who have formal training in dance/music/acting are rejects/outsiders/villains of those disciplines, or they just gave up and quit only to joyously reinvent themselves on the ever-accessible burlesque stage. Believe me – I’m not going to name names, but we wouldn’t have the pros we have if study and nostalgia where imperative. Booze and exhibitionism were the major muses uh-huh. Nobody had to tearily choose between stripping or a national tour of Lion King. There are a few people who push musical/dance skills to the fore of their display, but for the most a dance background means pretty feet, nice legs and long arms.
4. Get Over Yourself Doing Burlesque in a Major City. The truth is there are many vibrant scenes and collectives with genius contributors who are happy to do local shows across the nation. They are easy targets to dismiss as amateur and hobbyist. We have bigger fish to fry than ourselves. You just have to love your co-stars because that’s how it is. Or stay home.
5. I’m a snarky bitch homo queen as much as any one-eyed “German” dom, but in this case – gossip and backstabbing are definitely better and more enjoyable than decrees. It almost sounds like this speech speaks on behalf of some secret society of self-appointed illuminati in the judgement seat. I prefer the old-fashioned way of snickering behind peoples backs. Just do what you do and be sure of it. Gossip with your friends and leave the rest to their own devices and smile. The cream always rises to the top.
5. Sometimes you do a show for $5 and half a warm beer because it is in your best interest to be agreeable, and hospitable.
6. It’s great to suck, and even after you’ve been great for a while – well, that’s when you can really bomb. Go for that. Strive to suck. Try to be the worst performer in the show. As an “old timer” there are geniuses “the scene” will never know and many of the geniuses they do know SUCKED 10 years ago. We had this grace period of burlesque being underground that kids today don’t have. We had a shadow time to work it out. As a newbie with any balls at all you better believe you should hit the stage with a logo, website, t-shirt and paypal account ready to go! Have an ego. Be an asshole. Get out there and take it. Steal the scene! This is showbiz (Hi Murray!). Don’t be fooled. Everyone around you is a self-taught independent artist.
7. Having been in wonderful productions I absolutely agree to go for the production – but really, venues will steal your soul before they have a working spotlight and a sound system that won’t cut out. The majority of people perform for a cut at bars. And that’s the way it is.
7b. While it’s obvious I’m fighting for the everyday performer, education never hurts. Even I took a few semesters of ballet as an adult. Wait. You couldn’t tell? It never hurts to educate yourself – but education is not a predisposition to talent.
8. Talk about appropriating the partriarchy – we can’t have a competitive pageant, but we can have a State of the Union adress? Radical. It’s time we had a Wiccan Pussy Manifesto.
9. Longevity, persistance, and force of personality can make you great as any technical skill. Approaching the stage from the street is a viable a training as any sunday afternoon barre class.
10. Rock on.
On the topic of professional standards, I feel like we, as a community, are in a tight spot. Because I see great value in burlesque’s DIY qualities and believe the soul will be sucked from this art if we all go super legit, all become so called “professionals”. Part of what is great about burlesque is that it is a political act and does speak to personal empowerment and therapy. For one, if those aspects were not a part of this art form, many of today’s “professionals” never would have become involved in the first place. Additionally, if burlesque stops being about social change, personal empowerment and therapy… you get the Pussy Cat Dolls, guys. Lets not fucking kid ourselves here. I have no interest in taking the DIY out of burlesque. But that means I have to accept the existence of a lot of shitty shows, and a lot of people who are horrible performers but think they are gods gift to a stage. And to me, that isn’t really a problem. Because I don’t care what the mainstream thinks of burlesque and I don’t care about that dude who saw one shitty show and will never see another. I have that luxury because a) I have a full time career that is as much a part of my passion and identity as burlesque and b)I live in Seattle where enough people do know what good burlesque is to support multiple shows a week. The mainstream can think this art form is total crap and I can still have everything I want in burlesque. I have no desire whatsoever to make burlesque my profession or career. But I understand that others do. I also think that my IDEAL is to have a community that is DIY, politically powerful, and doesn’t suck. So how do we do with that? I think the issue of critique and honest feedback has been coming up over and over lately. How do you tell someone “I do not enjoy watching you create art.” That’s a fucking tough one in a DIY community. Personally, I don’t tell people that. I just don’t book them in my shows. I’d love to hear more from others about whether they give that feedback and how.
“crowning the best of the best of a modern feminist art form that spans all sorts of sizes, shapes, colors, and styles”
Really? Because looking at this year’s pictures of the MEW competitors, I didn’t see but one sort of “size and shape.” Not much color either.
Word up on the money talk though. In belly dance they call it “undercutting” – agreeing to work for free or peanuts so the restaurant guy will hire you instead of the girl with more experience and thousands more invested in her costumes and classes who also costs more money. It’s frowned on. You get caught doing it and good luck finding other dancers who will work with you in the future. If only burlesque would get it together to take the same hard line. But in burlesque these days, not only does everybody want to be a performer, but a producer too. And it’s not just the “hobbyists” to blame there.
“The quality of their work should ultimately be what stands up in the end.”
On this point we are in total agreement!
I do think the terms are problematic and prone to misinterpretation, as illustrated by people identifying with them in different ways (being a pro about stuff, vs. performing full-time)
I also dislike labels in general – and I think those shades of gray are one of the reasons why it’s near impossible to label so much of burlesque (and part of the reason why I was drawn to it in the first place)
I couldn’t agree more with Sparkly Devil and thank her for putting it so well.
In a perfect world we would recognise that there are many different types of burlesquers – ones who’ve come through different performing backgrounds (actors, dancers, circus performers etc), ones who’ve performed for decades, ones who’ve performed for a couple of years but bring decades of experience from other fields, ones who have only been interested in a short time but have spent night and day devouring every piece of info./performance they can, ones who make a living from it, ones who do it full-time and scrape by, ones who could be full-time but want to earn extra money to invest in props/costumes so choose to work, ones who love maiding and never want to perform, ones who’d love to be full-time but can’t afford to without a day job, ones who are devoted to their day jobs AND burlesque, ones who’ve only just heard of burlesque etc etc – I doubt if we surveyed everyone who reads this we’d be able to categorise every different type…..so why bother? Why do we need labels? As can be seen here, don’t labels just divide us when we should be uniting to show the world how flipping special this art of burlesque is and how wonderfully supportive this community can be? Shouldn’t we spend more time talking about all the millions of things that are right about burlesque and encouraging each other to be the best we can and less time trying to pigeon-hole ourselves and fellow performers?
I totally accept there are issues such as being ‘qualified’ to teach burlesque or the thorny issues of payment but surely these can be discussed without strengthening divides?
I know I’m a naive old fool, but I bloody love burlesque and it’s given me the family I always dreamt of and I really wish we could work together on a burlesque world domination plan as one great big melting pot.
Also- I’m certainly not trying to be dismissive. Just a stripper trying to understand over here.
I agree with you whole heartedly about there being many shades of grey in this community. I think I didn’t get my previous point across as well as I wanted to. I was commenting on the use of the words “professional” and “”hobbyist, not about whether they are the only terms to be used, because yes- there are as many shades as there are performers in this community.
I don’t think any type of performer is more relevant because of how much money they bring in annually or how much time they spend. I think that there are many different ways to be a part of this community and be a loving contributor. The quality of their work should ultimately be what stands up in the end.
I think a problem is perhaps how people are treating the word “hobbyist”. Obviously the word seems to rub. And if people are offended by it, that should be discussed, for sure. Personally, I think of a hobby as something that people spend hours upon hours being passionate about and working on. For instance, my grandfather collected stamps, AVIDLY. He spent hours documenting, researching and trying to find better, more unique stamps. It was a serious hobby. He was passionate. I don’t see a big difference between what some performers are doing in the community and how my grandfather approached his hobby, or how my dad approached being an exercise instructor and personal trainer for the last 30 years. I suppose maybe because I call myself neither and don’t let other’s label of my “career” limit me, I’m a good candidate to try to understand where others are coming from before I use the term describing someone else.
In my previous post I was only trying to point out that in many ways Miss Astrid is working within the confines of what Professional and Hobbyist means by definition. Maybe these are not the right terms for this community; it certainly sounds like it’s not.
“A person not doing this for a living, but still has fun doing it has burlesque as a hobby.”
A hobby is something like collecting stamps, or working out. Calling someone who has spent hours of time, research and devotion to their craft a “hobbyist” is dismissive, and yes, semantics do matter. A performer is not somehow more important or relevant because burlesque is their sole source of income. Conversely, just because you have a career beyond burlesque doesn’t mean you can’t be considered a professional. Again: my point being — up until VERY recently in the neo-revival, hardly any performers could scrape a living out doing just burlesque. This concept of a “professional” in terms of burlesque being there sole source of income is barely 5 years old, max.
Furthermore, you cannot simply divide the community into two separate categories like hobbyist and pro. There are far too many shades of gray in between. Quite frankly, whether a performer is burlesque full-time or part-time is 1) no one’s business and 2) often not even relevant to the what is being presented on stage.
I agree a lot with this artical, as well as some of the responses too it. I really feel like there is a lot of frank discussion that has finially been brought out of the open. Some things people might not want to hear; but very much need to be said.
I personally wouldent label myself as anything spicifically. Even though I have had years of professional dance training, Have been actively performing Burlesque for over 7 years, I Own and Direct a Troope, I produce countless shows in my city (As well as perform away) and Burlesque is easily my biggest passion.
I also have a full time career as a Consultant; of which I worked hard to receive education for.
I have the utmost respect for the woman and men that can truly make it there Full-time job, I love them all for what they do and I live vicariously through them because that is something which is acheivable only in my dreams. But even though I can’t dedicate everything, what I do dedicate is true, honourable and 100% just as important.
Thanks for being honest, and keep up the great work inspiring others to do the same! <3
If not “amateur” and “professional” can we talk about the majors and the minors? The Main Cast and the Not Ready For Prime Time Players? It’s not about dismissing a newcomer for not being on par with Jo Boobs or Michele L’Amour, it’s about their abilities to perform. Because if nothing else, I think that the burlesque needs some standards.
My credentials: I’ve shot the Seattle scene for over six years, watched it for eight and was the first boylesque graduate of Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque and performed steadily for about a year and a half. After that, I was the Academy’s photographer for four years. I’ve seen the scene from a lot of angles.
When people ask me which burlesque shows to check out, they tend to lump all of them together, from the annual Land of the Sweets spectacle to the first post-Academy show held in the back of a bar by the latest class of grads from the Academy. They don’t really have the familiarity with the scene to parse out the difference. Hell, sometimes I hear them complain that the big shows are too expensive “is there anything cheaper?”
What then? Tell them that there are some folks “in the minors” who are really good value for the money. Maybe propose that some of those “minors” are right on the cusp of moving up in the ranks.
Because everyone started out as a newbie, regardless of previous performance history. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s something kind of odd about a scene where everyone is brilliant and everyone is fantastic and everyone believes they’re above average.
Maybe it’s time to re-scale that perspective. Time to be critical and accept that there can be different levels of skill and that’s fine.
I want to write more on this, but the boss… well… 🙂
Hobby: 1. An activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.
The antonym of “hobby” is “Profession”.
I am wondering why are people getting so up in arms about that word? If people are treating you poorly because they consider you a “hobbyist”, and themselves more “professional” maybe a conversation should be had about that. A person not doing this for a living, but still has fun doing it has burlesque as a hobby. If someone is treating you badly because they don’t think you’re as good as them, address that. Even if the word “hobbyist” isn’t in it, they’d still behave that way to you. Nix the person, the word isn’t the issue.
I do agree with Sparkly that just because you are only doing burlesque that you should be labeled professional. There are some that just got lucky-and they’re not very good. It happens. However, the standard definition of professional is that it’s your occupation or you are considered an expert or at the top in your field. For burlesque, I would think this means that you’re working in big shows, maybe touring, headlining perhaps, doing festivals, and treating yourself as a business. At least these are things I think might be a good place to start, though I feel how tenuous that is.
What other word should be used then? There’s always going to be a term or a way of explaining those who are doing this for a vocation, traveling, touring, headlining, constantly creating, rehearsing, researching, competing, etc., and those who might do some of these things only in their free time. If “amateur”, “stitch and bitch” and “hobbyist” are out, what can we use that isn’t so controversial? The word professional will always be there, do we use “not a professional”?
I am also really glad to see discussion happening here, even if some of it stings; it’s vital to the growth of our community.
Like Tempest, I also despise the term “hobbyist.” Both “hobbyist” and “stitch & bitch” sound like condescending insults, and we as a community are above that. Just because burlesque is your only job, it does not make you a professional – and vice versa. I have been referred to as a “hobbyist” for the mere fact that I have a career other than performing, one that I exceed at and gives me fulfillment in ways that burlesque does not. This does not diminish my ability to create compelling, unique and entertaining burlesque. Even if this isn’t what you, Astrid, meant by “professional” – some performers do firmly believe this, and it’s a nasty little undercurrent in the scene that is beginning to fester resentment on all ends.
Furthermore, about 7 years ago in the desert, weren’t we all hobbyists and stitch & bitchers? The community as we know it today was founded on a DIY aesthetic, with accountants and teachers and insurance adjusters bent over their kitchen tables, sewing tassels onto their panties as a way to sparkle up their evenings. How many of us were “professional” burlesque performers in 2003? It is because of all the “hobbyist” performers who helped build the neo-revival that you even have the possibility of working as a fulltime burlesque performer today.
I also think it’s reckless to cast the blame of the modern competition-based community all on the shoulders of BHOF – when there are several other large competition based events in the US and beyond. Should BHOF suddenly eliminate the title of Reigning Queen of Burlesque, do you honestly think those others would follow suit? And even without a crown to compete for, there are still always more applicants than spots, so there will always been hurt feelings. And judging art will always be subjective, whether it’s vying for a slot on stage or a crown & title.
I look forward to seeing the discussion that ensues. The burlesque movement is going through massive growing pains, and it’s good to see us discussing the nitty gritty of the challenges that we are all facing.
I had an interesting conversation last night with a successful comedian who was telling me how much she hates burlesque, and while I obviously don’t hate it, I had to concede a lot of her points were dead on. Here in an eloquent nutshell, Miss Astrid reiterates a lot of the same points that make the whole scene such a turn off to outsiders.
Learn it, know it, love: just cause it doesn’t say “burlesque performer” on your taxes doesn’t give you leave to be lazy; just ’cause you rhinestone it, doesn’t mean it’s golden; not everyone’s a genius, not every show is “awesome”; become a recognized performer before you become a teacher; female empowerment means more than picking out your own outfit.
The woman has ONE EYE and she NEVER misses a trick! 😉
I am a new Burlesque Promoter/Producer in Jackson, MS. I always appreciate the insight from persons with experience in the field. I thank you Ms Astrid for “loading my gun” with all of the right kinds of thinking to be good in this industry.
I was also in the room to hear the State of the Union address in Seattle. It was a beautiful thing to hear someone voice a lot of the opinions that I hold as well. But, as always, the devil is in the details. The newer performers feel that there aren’t enough places for them to perform and perfect their craft and the pros feel like they don’t get to work because no one can afford them. Touchy subject, money, ain’t it? It seems to me that money is at the root of all of this. There used to be an avenue for new performers to tread upon on their way to the top – The Chorus! We don’t have a chorus anymore! We can’t afford one now can we? We can’t afford the choreographer that is ultimately needed to make a beautiful chorus work the way it is supposed to. We can’t pay people to rehearse group numbers the way that they used to. It is a lot easier to work in front of your mirror by yourself after work than rent a studio, hire a choreographer and then build costumes for everyone etc. I also think that this is an essential element that has been missing from all burlesque “extravaganzas”. How can it be an extravaganza when it is solo after solo on a bare stage with mediocre lights? The chorus was an essential element of the burlesque show, it was the icing, the thing that put the extra in extravaganza! And more importantly it provided those newer performers time to perfect their craft at the feet of the finest of performers and choreographers while still performing. Which is what we are all working towards right? Performing and bringing an art form that makes so many people so damn happy to the forefront of the theatrical world, because that is what burlesque is in the end, theatre. It is ALL theatre! This model worked in the past and really only went away with the advent of the motion picture industry, but damn it ain’t it worth a try?
I was expecting not to agree with everything said here (but still to totally respect the points of view because sitting in on Miss Astrid’s introduction to compereing class she struck me as a woman of serious wisdom along with her mountains of experience) but surprisingly I did. I’m someone who knows I will never be a professional because I’ve started way too late and don’t have any relevant training in my youth – but that doesn’t stop me wanting to act professionally in everything I do with my burlesque. I am constantly researching, striving to learn from the very best, taking knowledge from other performing/costuming/prop building fields etc. Burlesque is my life. In short, although I recognise that I’m not going to be a professional and I recognise that I shouldn’t kid myself, I REALLY REALLY hate the divide. I SERIOUSLY HATE the term hobbyist. It just sounds like I’m playing with this and could get bored with it any day now. The reason I love BurlyCon is it’s one of the places you don’t see the divide, the ‘them and us’ you see in other places (particularly some forums) – we all know that we’re there to learn and that life should always be a learning process. I just wish sometimes that the divide wasn’t so big and that there could be recognition that there are lots of ‘hobbyists’ (grrr spit spit) out here that want to be the very best they can, are willing to put in the work, that want to be part of the movement to spread the love and knowledge of this wonderful art form.
Totally agree with the thoughts about BHoF weekend in theory….would love to see more people recognised for the immense work they do to raise and spread our art, I am concerned though that without the competition element performers outside the USA would find it less appealing to aim to perform at the weekend (it is a HUGE expense to fly and stay in USA, especially in the current economic climate….let along construct acts and fly props etc).
This is a typically self-interested response. Low standards and a ‘that will do’ attitude DOES affect burlesque, especially at a time when it is being judged and assessed by the mainstream, and still developing. Comedy and theatre are already accepted and established.
Why on earth would you glorify and encourage ‘mediocre’?? This attitude baffles me.
I’m new to the burlesque community… about three years performing. I have minimal background in theatre and dance, but have taken classes including burlesque, dance, improv and clowning to improve my technique, skills and mostly, to get inspired.
I guess you would label me a “stitch-n-bitch” performer. I’ve heard that term before and find it somewhat demoralizing, but it won’t stop me from performing. There are limited opportunities to perform in my area. I’m not in a position to travel or quit my full-time day job for burlesque. I do what I can with the assets and resources I have at this time. I’m enjoying myself immensely and have found burlesque to be a priceless source of confidence, ideas and creative expression. I don’t strive to be a headliner, but conduct myself professionally and like to support performers at all skill levels in my community.
I don’t believe that a bad burlesque performance brings down the whole community. In fact, I would venture to say that most burlesque performance isn’t stellar. This is exactly what I love about it!! The imperfection, the surprises, the improvisation. Does a bad comic turn you away from comedy? What about someone who forgets their lines. Would you never see a play again? If perfection is your thing, go see what you feel personifies that.
The really fantastic thing about great burlesque is that it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It can go from subtle to completely intense in a just a moment. You can’t see it on a video, which is why I try to see as many live performances as possible.
So I say… rise up mediocre and hobbyist burlesque performers!!! Don’t give up. We can’t all be great performers, but we have our place in this world to inspire, make someone laugh and give those who have more talent something to talk about.
Thank you, Astrid. I can’t speak for point 2, as I haven’t been to the Vegas festival yet, but you are RIGHT ON THE MONEY about point 1, Pro vs “Stich-N-Bitch”. Bad burlesque hurts the entire genre and market, so do bad burlesque practices. Amateurs turning people off, shady producers booking anyone who’ll work for cheap, the “coddling” which produces poor performers, all are absolutely accurate assessments. Hopefully, everyone gets to read this.
I consider myself new 4 years into burlesque and I am completely aware that I have so much to learn. I agree with all of the concepts raised in this speech and am thankful for reading it. I try to challenge myself with every new routine I create from costume to choreography, constantly expanding my skills. Thank you for inspiring me to push myself even further down into the rabbit hole.
“Please tell me you have been working professionally for at lest 5 years before you attempt to teach something to others. And if you are teaching striptease or any form of dance, dear god, please have had some dance training yourself. If you don’t, really, what are you thinking?” This portion of the speech really struck a chord with me. As a prematurely retired former professional ballet dancer(due to a car accident early on in my career), and an under age stripper before that, I had always been involved in drama and performance art, and was very keen on choreography,and was thrilled to be chosen as the resident choreographer and dance mistress for a small theater company. At this time, I also began teaching at a prominent liberal arts University where I continued to teach many diverse dance and theater classes for 12 yrs. Since then, my performance and choreographic experience has grown substaintially, and diversified greatly. I gained a great deal of knowledge about the differences between the so called “high-art” (ie: those with money and government sponsored arts grants) and “low-art” dance performance, like burlesque, cabaret, drag shows and musical satire. My preference,was often for the later, for the sheer fun of it all. The lack of pretense and the inclusive vibe that was immediately evident in the Burlesque Cabaret, and Drag, realm of performance dance, was intoxicating to me, and the freedom to express what I wanted creatively was irresistible. So too, was the great opportunity to create, express, and share with performers whose dance backgrounds went from professional level to none at all.
However, my experience with the “none at all” or very little dance/performance experience/or training became one of unfortunate animosity. I had been offering workshops to performers with little or no dance training, for a very small fee (less then any of the classes I was teaching at other places at the same time, and in some cases, for free) I offered these classes, because I wanted to give something to the “just beginning” performers that would help them to create the best performances they could. Since that time, I have found that, “Burlesque” classes have been popping up all over the place, and ARE indeed, being taught by some of the very same people who had NO dance or theatrical background at all!! People I had instructed for free, were now, marketing classes and charging a whopping great fee to teach others what i spent my whole life learning, first, how to do, and then how to teach!! I was dumbstruck,hurt and saddened deeply….I was also finding that the quality of these performers was more about shameless self promotion and less focus was being put on actually producing a show that would entice and entertain an audience.
This felt like the old…”oh the arts are just mickey mouse endeavors…anyone can do them and make a buck at it too… with the correct marketing. This, unfortunately seems to be true, at least some of the time, and to the determent of the entire art form, as you pointed out.
Thank you for giving this speech. i am not an elitist snob…far from it. Part of what I loved about the burlesque community was it’s distinct LACK of pretension. Just hope the Neo- burlesque community can learn to love the idea of hard work as much as they love the fun, and not step on the toes (inadvertent as it may be) of the ones who might have spent their lives doing this, and perhaps, might have something to offer newbies, from the other side of the artistic fence.
How does one create a revolutionout of fluffy? Give it substace!
A revolution can be form by one person converting others way of thiking.
Admiting first and fore most that Burlesque has a timeless entertaiment value and educating the every day man and woman should be the first task.
This has been an interesting read. The original one I read was a bit more inflammatory; I’m glad it’s been refocused on concepts. I see a few things that I think aren’t quite on the mark.
Full disclosure: I’ve been to every Weekend since 2001; and have been on Team BHOF since 2004. I’m actually the only person who has been on the team every single year since then. That doesn’t make me cool; it makes me the single point of continuity. From some very critical decisions back at the goat farm, to the execution of a huge 4-day event (against unbelievable odds) in the present. I volunteer hundreds of hours a year for the entity that I love.
One very important thing is that it’s not a “true pageant” or a “beauty pageant”. The term “pageant” has been colloquially used for it; in fact, it’s Dixie’s term. (She herself didn’t create the museum, but she *did* create the event.) It’s NOT a “pageant” in the sense of a multi-tiered contest incorporating personality, appearance, answers to judges’ questions, and a swimsuit competition, where each level sends a representative to the higher level.
What it IS, is a *performance competition* at which the “best” performance wins (as evaluated by judges who are tasked with just that– evaluating the *performance*.) The criteria for this evaluation is made very public, and doesn’t change from application to selecting the winner. “Beauty pageants” are indeed antiquated; but a crowning the best of the best of a modern feminist art form that spans all sorts of sizes, shapes, colors, and styles? It’s apples and oranges. And, again, what Dixie created to bring attention to the art form and the collection that she took on.
The change in the nature of the event did *not* spring from the BHOF moving to Las Vegas. It had already happened, and was a result of the ballooning of the whole modern movement. The move to Las Vegas was a *sibling* result of that… *not* a cause of it. The competitiveness mentioned in the essay? That was already happening since 2004 (if not earlier), the first year there were more people wanting to perform than available time.
Of the modern-day Miss EW winners (which we can somewhat draw the line as being at 2001 to the present)– the winners in the desert were valid, and hardly “ironic”– they were the best and earned it, and retain their status to this day. Does this mean that the titles awarded in Las Vegas are not valid because they’re not “ironic”? HARDLY. For 21 years now, the competition has had the focus of crowning *the best*. And every one of our winners is considered royalty, and shines a brilliant light on our movement, our art, our still-quirky museum, and our community.
The “hall of fame” idea proposed in the essay is not new, and it’s been in varying stages of progress and discussion for several years. Ideas are easy, but the devil is in the details. To that end, we have a small army of people actively involved in directing the long-term direction of the BHOF, and we have some *really* exciting announcements coming very soon.
Personally? I think “state of the union” is a bit of a misnomer, as it leaves untouched ten thousand other topics relating to not just the BHOF, but the modern burlesque world. My own thoughts here are my own “state of the union”, and I aim to present them as matter-of-factly and laid out as clearly as possible.
I’m eager to read other thoughts on this essay; it’s certainly thought-provoking. Times change; the team changes; the nature of it all changes. Things may change a lot in the future. But as of today (November 14), the entire burlesque community knows where to go to not just celebrate our legends, raise CRITICAL funds for the BHOF’s long-term survival, and see the absolute best of worldwide burlesque, but to see a Reigning Queen of Burlesque crowned who represents the absolute pinnacle of creative and artistic burlesque performance.
A cause to celebrate and rally behind? Indeed.
I was one of the people in the room when she gave her address and I can tell you that it felt electric.
I couldn’t agree more with her ideas on work ethic and the difference between a professional and a hobbyist, about the work and dedication (and talent) it takes to be a genuine professional in this community. I often write about these things myself in my blog, Living In A Glitter Wonderland, and am in a constant conversation with my peers as well.
I would also like to see more responsibility taken on from teachers to their students. There are too many new burlesquers taking just a class and deeming themselves (because no one has indicated otherwise) ready for a big stage.
However, there are also too many “professionals” all over the nation that shouldn’t be teaching, because they themselves are not yet strong enough performers. But who’s to tell them not to teach? It is a DIY community. In reality it’s up to students to do their research when picking their teachers and to inquire for themselves as to whether they are ready or not for stage.
As for competitions, I would like to poke this as a devil’s advocate. As a person who has been a competitive musician (solo flute player, jazz singer) an athlete (soccer, track, basketball, softball), and writer (newspaper contests) when I was younger, I think that competition breeds excellence. It makes you push yourself. I *also* think competition helps you to learn how to lose. Gracefully even.:) If there is a queen, I want it to be the best queen offered up. How do we determine?
I competed in the category of Best Debut in 2010, and though I didn’t win, I had fun and didn’t freak out when I didn’t win. It’s an honor to be chosen to compete. I would have loved to have won, because of course I would have liked to have the recognized honor, but I still plan on submitting for 2012 for both a competitive and non-competitive slot (you do have the option of applying for a non-competitive spot).
Not everyone can be a winner. It’s in everything, every field, every job. No matter if there are prizes, if the competition went away, the slots given to performers for the weekend would also breed competitiveness because it’s a show that everyone wants to be a part of. If someone were to be a sore loser though, they could conceivably throw a fit in their house instead of backstage or in the rows of casino machines. Really, they should learn that the spirit of competitiveness can be helpful to all involved if they just realize that they are really only competing with themselves and the time that they have on stage to be compelling and entertaining.
Maybe a solution is to change what it means to be Queen and what you will represent should you submit to compete. In my mind you would become an ambassador of the BHOF and it’s mission of the museum. Not only should you be entertaining, but you should be able to talk about the history of burlesque, the museum and it’s goals. Just a few ideas. When I suggested something like this in the discussion that occurred at BurlyCon, I was met with a “you mean like a Miss America pageant” response from those against the entire idea of a competition. I understand where they’re coming from, but I’m playing devil’s advocate here.
Maybe another idea is to change how the event is organized, splitting the competition into multiple nights, and bringing us more legends every night, since it’s their weekend to shine and be loved on. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s feasible, and what the numbers look like in terms of making the event and promotion of the museum a success for the weekend.
Call it whatever you like-unless the weekend itself is an invitation based event and no one submits for anything, the competitiveness of the event will continue to exist. But how then do we not see the same 50 or so faces every year? Besides that, it is a competitive community. There are wayyyyy more performers and not enough shows or money to be paid a decent wage for performing. For a lot of us, we’re businesses. Businesses compete. I think of it like coffee shops on the same block. It’s a delicate balance between friendship and healthy competitiveness, in my opinion, and it might be worth it to explore that idea a bit more.
However, without submissions how would we get to see the brilliance of the performers from all over the world that we might not know about? Would we have gotten to see Catherine D’Lish? Erochica Bamboo? Immodesty Blaize? We don’t know.
I have a million more things to say about this, but I should stop, for now.
This sounds like organization in progress. There’s some stuff I can’t get with; the phrase “Uncle Tom feminism”(we have the privelege of choice–we aren’t enslaved Africans) and this pitting “professionals” vs “amatuers” (divide and conquer sucks for everyone involved.)
But there’s a lot I definitely agree with. The idea of being an ENTERTAINER first (rather than the current emphasis onburlesque as personal therapy); the idea of organizing to create a financially sustainable model of burlesque and BHoF; and that business about doing away with the competitive pageant.
I hear you on all of that. But I’m sure you’ll agree this is going to be one hell of a battle. What do legends have to say about the merits of competitive stripping? How many performers/producers are out there who are willing to step away from the mirrorlong enough to organize in a larger long range sense? How do we make burlesque a working, inclusive community when it’s current foundation is “burletiquette”,competition, conspicuous consumption and good ol’ fashioned internalized patriarchy?
It’s a tall order. And I’m curious how many folks are really willing to do the work/have those real conversations. I mean aside from the usual polite facade of too many sacharrine sweet compliments and Stepford smiles?
“Burlesque is a confection and its sweet fluffy quality deflates under too much inspection. Burlesque then or now, did not begin as a political movement and all of its messages are best when they play as subtext, like a wink and a smile.”
How does one create a revolutionout of fluffy?
I still consider my self new after 7 years, I still don’t feel confident that I play a good role in the community since past insidents. But I have always felt that the people that work hard will go far, hit at the same time those who just started seem to be lead in to promises of fame and glory. How can one change and aspire to be better? How can one learn if so often there is tongs that we fail in? Being imbraced and loved by a community is beautiful and I hope one day I can achieve such great things. Nit there has to be a way we can all get along for the sale of the art. And those of us that feel like learning all there is to know about the burlesque world can be taken under a wing and shown the rules and expectations of the world.
Every point you make is spot on. You are the best emcee I’ve ever seen. You engage the audience. You bring us into the show. You entertain and enlighten. The Legends night has long been my favorite. I am amazed at the beauty of these women and men. They inspire me to walk a little taller and smile a little bigger and just basically live my life a little less inhibited. Your suggestions for scholarships is the right direction for the show to go. I will still buy tickets, and feel as if I am cheating the system buy taking so much and giving so little. Thank you for your contribution to BHOF. You make it fun, entertaining and engaging.