As I sit here, as I often do after reading my books and autobiographies about success and successful people, all I really want to share is: GET THEE TO A MENTOR!
When I began burlesque six years ago I had forgotten what it was like to have a mentor, as my previous mentor had been in high school by the name of Scott Brown and he was most likely the most influential teacher (and my vocal jazz teacher) I have ever had. I had forgotten because I got all tied up in the glitz and glam of the whole thing, and not the bones and blood of it.
As I grew as a performer in my very baby-burlesquer days (I’m still a baby – well maybe a toddler), I was lucky, very lucky, to be surrounded by my troupes (Sinner Saint and Burning Hearts respectively), and with them and my peers we all grew and progressed. However, it wasn’t until I had left my second troupe, Sinner Saint Burlesque (you can check them out here – they give a fun fun show!) to figure out some things about myself as a performer that I realized that I really needed a mentor in order to do the things I had planned.
For a couple years prior to this departure from my troupe (and if you have the chance to be in a troupe, I think you should try it out) I always had this aching feeling that I was always trying to catch up, or fit in. Of course, my experience is my own, and because of my journey through life I found myself a 6’1″, mixed skin performer worrying about how to be like my tinier, more caucasian counterparts.
In many ways my troupe involvement was double sided: it was both an environment that bred wanting to conform (group acts and group act costumes) and wanting to stick out in solo acts. Being 6’1″ and of a different skin color (but especially being so tall) made the first impossible and the second relatively easy, if not always for the right reasons (everyone has a tough night). After leaving the troupe I realized that I forgot a couple more reasons why troupe environment wasn’t for me in the end-one of which being my perfectionist competitive character and unwillingness to bend in my beliefs at the time. Amongst some other stuff.
So in the aftermath of being without a troupe and floating in the glittery burlesque ether marinating on what’s next, I finally realized that I needed a mentor…
Now, I firmly believe that you need a mentor who you absolutely look up to and trust their opinions. I also believe that they should also have a similar aesthetic to you, frame of mind and way of communicating. You have to know that this person is a better performer than you. Maybe this might not be the case always, but they have lots of things for you to learn. Also, I think this mentor should be really willing to help you, to love, to share and teach. This last one is important.
Also, learn the difference between jealousy and envy before approaching a mentor. Envy helps you to grow, jealousy will swallow you whole. I think people can tell the difference between the two, especially when they are being approached, not necessarily when approaching a person.
Some mentors you pay, and some you trade with. Maybe you help them with their projects in exchange for them reviewing an act. I do think that when looking for a mentor, keep your eyes out for unlikely suspects, for those who might have seemed unattainable or too busy. Open a dialogue with them and be able to be honest with yourself, with them and to them. Always. A ride with a mentor is often unexpected – there’s not always a lot of structure in it, you know? If you want structure, take specific classes.
“Find that person who will tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are. Who will give you feedback. Who will tell you that there’s spinach in your teeth and that your g-string is ill fitting. That you might not want to bend over that way … it’s hard. And you don’t always want to know. And yes – you might cry.”
I had an interesting conversation with a couple of ladies during BurlyCon this fall about mentors, and what we affectionately call ‘finding your Simon’ Your ‘Simon’ is Simon Cowell. Yes, from American Idol. If you didn’t think that he was 90% spot on, you need not continue on this journey with me. I’m not sure if you should go on reading if we don’t see eye to eye on this one.
Find that person who will tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are. Who will give you feedback. Who will tell you that there’s spinach in your teeth and that your g-string is ill fitting. That you might not want to bend over that way. This will require that you really want to know this shit. And it’s hard. And you don’t always want to know. And yes – you might cry.
I know from personal experience that it’s not easy to get a mentor. I asked three performers for mentorship and two never answered and one declined. Do not do what I did and take it personally. Some people don’t want to mentor. Some are too busy. Some might not think that they have anything to offer you, and some might not want to offer you jack shit. Though this is a community, there is still competition. Be aware of that. You want your mentor to see something in you and want to help you find it in yourself. They know that they might have the tools to help you, and they want to see you succeed.
You find mentors by attending shows, festivals and classes. Find an appropriate teacher! Just because someone says that they are a teacher, does not mean they are. I like to look at the ‘Legends in the Making’ ‘s choices of teachers they have in their classes, and teachers like Miss Indigo Blue, World Famous *BOB*, Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon, and Michelle L’amour. They all have well known schools/classes and curriculums. They’ve traveled the world and entertained thousands of people in their careers. These are the types of performers you want to check out for classes and mentorship. There are more where they came from – like butterflies, all wonderful and different. Do your research.
Now, I don’t think that it’s necessary to find a mentor or your ‘Simon’ if you are only interested in being a hobbyist. If burlesque is just this thing you do and you like doing it and fuck what other people say and if they find you entertaining, “good on them” – then good on you. We are different in that way. I am talking to those people who are constantly striving to be better entertainers, even if it means that one day they find out that this line of entertainment isn’t really for them. That maybe they should just be an exotic dancer in strip clubs, performing modern dance or strange performance art pieces involving nothing more than a tampon and a bottle of ketchup. I think there’s space for all of these things, and all these things can be awesome.
I am talking about going on a long, never ending walk with yourself down the path of being an ‘entertainer’. It’s long, sometimes lonely, sometimes awesome, but constantly evolving and passionate (if not always in the positive way). A mentor can only help with this walk. You need one, in my opinion. A sounding board is awesome (also in my opinion) in a land of glitter where everyone tells you that you were beautiful on stage, no matter if you totally sucked.
Being mentored for me has helped me unlock more of the joy in my performing and fuels my never ending quest to find better ways to be more entertaining and unique. Through movement, costuming and simple conversations with my mentors I feel like I am doing a better, more efficient job at learning to be a strong entertainer. And I am always aware that there is ALWAYS more to do and to learn. Always. I am never done.
I found out that mentors can come in all different shapes and sizes. Maybe they don’t exactly do what you do, but they know their shit, and you know they are right. They have done more than you. They have seen more than you. Also, they will maybe come only for a moment when you need them, and then you are off on your path only to meet another a year later. Maybe you’re lucky and have many. But please don’t forget to cultivate these relationships, constantly ask yourself if your relationship is serving you in some way (better yet, both of you), because all of this should come out of love. Love of the craft.
I might not always have the mentors that I have, the students that I have or the peers that I have. But I know that I am learning a ton from each group, and without my relationships with my mentors over my burlesque career I would not be as focused as I am now about being a better performer. And today, I thank them for that…