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THE BUSINESS OF BURLESQUE: defining ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ in our art form.

THE BUSINESS OF BURLESQUE: defining ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ in our art form.

THE BUSINESS OF BURLESQUE: defining ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ in our art form.

by Penny Starr Jr.

This post is coming, in part, from two articles written recently about burlesque. The first is the ‘State of the (Burlesque) Union Address’ from last year’s BurlyCon, as given by Miss Astrid, producer of the long-running Va Va Voom Room (LA, NY, SF), Velvet Hammer alum, and emcee for, among other events, the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame pageant.


And the other is a tiered system proposed by Chicago impresario, Red Hot Annie of Vaudezilla Productions, producer of the Windy City Burlesque Fest, to determine the levels of performers and their skill sets, and subsequent rates of pay.


These two articles have opened a conversation about what determines a ‘professional’ burlesque dancer versus a ‘hobbyist’. And it has very little to do with money…

Penny Starr Jr. (©PhotoJenInc.)
Penny Starr Jr. (©PhotoJenInc.)

Some people have taken issue with the word ‘hobbyist’. Perhaps ‘amateur’ is the better choice. But no matter the word, we should be looking at the overriding characteristic that defines a ‘non-professional’ versus a ‘professional’. In my long and varied career as a burlesque dancer, I have seen a performer sew one strand of beaded fringe on her bra in the dressing room before the show and call that a ‘costume’, witness another barge into the dressing room and announce to any and all how she didn’t rehearse her act since she performed it four months ago, another sported hairy armpits in front of an audience of 1200 people. (PS—if you don’t shave for 1200 people, when do you shave?)

I would hope the previous statements would make you all shudder and genuinely feel sorry for the audience that had to sit through those performances. I would hope you are not reading this and saying, “So I didn’t rehearse – I had a late shift” or, “I didn’t have time to add any rhinestones” or, “they’ll never see my hairy legs through the fishnets”. Because when it comes down to it, the audience doesn’t care if you had a final, worked a late shift, or had to help Tommy with his science project. They entered in to a contract with you – they paid you to provide quality entertainment. That quality, by the way, is not based on your pay scale, the size of the show, or the price of the cover. And that’s the first definition of a ‘professional’ – someone who performs for twelve people with the same quality and energy as one hundred people.

That level of care goes back to the very inception of constructing a burlesque act. Let me ask you a question: How fully realized do you think you can make a ‘professional’ act in two weeks? Conceivably, if you were an accomplished dancer and spent hours studying one or more dance disciplines, you’d have the skills to build a choreography. If you had taken sewing classes, you could easily construct and embellish the costume that helps tell the story of your act. If you were accomplished at make-up and hair, you could devise a visage for your performance. If you had performance chops from years of performing, you’d have the ability to know how to anticipate the audience’s reaction. Add into those great many ‘ifs’ the rest of your life – like earning a living, spending time with loved ones, eating, sleeping, and rehearsing – not to mention the financial resources available to fund a new act, and it looks to me like it would take longer than two weeks to make an act worth seeing. Second definition of ‘professional’ is someone who spends the time collecting the skills needed to continue doing their art.

But just being an amazing performer is only part of your ‘job’ as a burlesque dancer. Do you have a facebook page with some snapshots? Or a website with your own url, with expert photos and video? Are you as interested as gathering a fan base as buying body glitter? Are you tweeting about your next appearance? Do you even have a Twitter account? If not, why not? Aren’t you proud of the work you are putting into your performance? Psyched to promote the shows you star in? A ‘professional’ understands that tickets need to be sold.

Whew! With all that, it sounds like a full time job!

Well, it is.

And that is the definition of a ‘professional’.

After spending three years making the documentary, ‘The Velvet Hammer Burlesque’, it was no wonder that Penny decided to pick up the mantle held by her grandmother, Philadelphia burlesque dancer, Penny Starr. Or, as Penny Starr Jr. puts it, ”You can only live with the circus for so long before you want to join!” (She and Penny, Sr. have performed the first and only grandmother/granddaughter striptease act.) One year later, in 2004, Penny Starr, Jr. became First Runner-Up at the annual Miss Exotic World (Burlesque Hall of Fame) burlesque pageant.

She has performed and/or instructed at a number of legendary venues, shows and festivals, including the Va Va Voom Room, Starshine Burlesque, Margaret Cho’s ‘The Sensuous Woman’, the Slipper Room NYC, Tease-o-Rama, BHoF, BurlyCon and the New York Burlesque Festival.

In addition to dancing and performing, Penny is the founder of the All-Star Burlesque Classes, and produces and directs the Princess Farhana line of belly dance and burlesque instructional DVDs. A centerfold and columnist, Penny has also consulted on such shows as ‘Chuck’ (including a cameo as a bachelor party stripper), ‘Castle’, and has recently taught tassel twirling to the cast of ‘Water for Elephants’.

View Comments (15)
  • Thank you Penny! I love all this dialogue happening in our community.
    I’m sorry I bring up stripping so often, but you hit a special chord in your commentary above about something that always bugged me in stripping.
    When I stripped over a decade ago, I made it a point to perform just as hard for the one or two men in the room during a slow period than I did when I performed for a packed house – they paid a cover to see us dance; and I would give them a great stage performance. Other strippers wouldn’t take their top off or even show any interest if there weren’t enough men in the club and especially if no one came to the stage to tip. I used to think that was lazy and rude, since the men who did show up paid a cover for a stage performance. I’m fairly certain I was doing some form of burlesque as I stripped, since I had “acts” and regulars would request these acts; and your viewpoint just proves how I found the perfect home in Burlesque.

  • I Have to say I guess this really relates to all entertaining jobs ,,,what ever it is Burlesque ,,Strip tease ,,,,Prostitution,,,, There is always someone that wants to just make a quick dollar ,,,,or there are those that really do like there job ,,,, There isnt Many but there is still a few,,

  • I do not agree in the slightest about the body hair thing. I find pressuring people in maintaining this standard of preening only serves to push one idea of femininity above all others. It is a form of body shaming I.e. if you don’t shave you are disgusting and undesirable. I know a lot of burly girls who don’t shave and this does not detract from their amazing acts in the slightest.

    An otherwise sound article. Enjoyed reading it.

    Iskra Valentine

  • I guess you can sum up a professional in one phrase: Give a damn! Oh, and don’t be an asshole. So, two phrases. I concur with both.

    About the body hair issue, I think it’s a ‘give a damn’ moment. There is not shaving because you resist the dominant hegemony about body hair in American culture, and there’s not shaving because you’re lazy or it’s “just a bar show” or whatever. They’re both statements about you as a performer, but the second one violates the ‘give a damn’ principle.

  • Beautiful & Concise!
    This is such a great year for burlesque. I love all the conversations going around!
    My troupe mate exHOTic Other stopped shaving her left armpit by mistake one day and has kept it going. I love how people freak out on it. Its a beauty standard challenge.

  • What a charming and concise description of what it takes to be a ‘professional’ in any kind of performance, Penny! I find it helpful to remember the standards to which other performers (dancers, comedians, singers, magicians, circus performers, etc) are held to. And, to remember that they work hard to earn their respect and their audience and that we should do the same. Audiences are earned through a daily physical and mental commitment to one’s art. The stage is not a place for ‘amateurs’ in any other performance genre that I know of. Perhaps this is something positive that sets Burlesque apart because it is more inclusive… but, perhaps also it is unfair to our audiences and to ‘professional’ burlesquers. I guess I agree with Miss Astrid on this one. I think mentorship is a key ingredient here. ‘Professional’ burlesquers can really help increase the integrity of shows by putting the time in to guide committed ‘amateurs’. Stage time is a really important part of learning, but polishing an act is a prerequisite even to this. Something I’ve had to learn the hard way.
    Thank you Bonbon Bombay ( for being my mentor.
    Thank you Penny for everything you do.

  • I agree with a lot of this. I don’t know how I feel about the shaving comment, some people just don’t shave, and my experience has been that it’s super dark in most venues so who saw your hairy ass legs? I’m sorry, I’m constantly arguing about shaving, been auguring about it since I was 11 years old.

  • Agree with most of that except the body hair comments. Not everyone views being shaven in the same way- it is optional, not required, for a woman to shave.

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