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On Being a Burlesque Performer

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A huge part of me is an old soul. I love 1950s fashion, particularly pin-ups themes composed of ruby red tones, gleaming black and glittering gold. In the back of my mind, I’ve always been curious about burlesque, where the pin-up style has a significant presence. In our chaotic tech-infused world, I’m nostalgic for simpler times.

I remembered going to the Anza Club–a local joint–in Vancouver and seeing Crystal Precious, a burlesque performer who graced the stage that night. I distinctly remember her confident energy and voluptuous frame. If she could exert an electrifying presence being comfortable in a bigger body, then sign me up. 

I googled “Burlesque Classes Vancouver” and found a group called The Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society which offered an 8-week course in burlesque. It consisted of weekly three-hour classes, one private lesson a week with an instructor, and a recital at the end of the course where friends, family and community members could attend. The commitment seemed reasonable, and I wanted to meet new people.

Photo by Luke Besley on Unsplash

So what is Burlesque, exactly?

I had a surface-level naive impression of burlesque before enrolled in the class. I pictured women in pin-up costumes with bright makeup who stripped, but not completely. We were strippers in the conceptual –but not literal– sense. At the end of an act, burlesque performers still had their nipples and private parts covered. Also, it’s easy to lump us all as dancers, but not all burlesque performers have dance backgrounds–many of us come from theatre.

Wikipedia defines burlesque as “a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery.” 

Since its’ origins– which began around the 1800s– it has evolved into a multi-faceted art form. Dita Von Teese– probably the most popular performer of our day– and her neo-burlesque image is part of just one of burlesque’s sub-genres (for the record, anyone who can thrash in swan-like finesse inside a giant martini glass is an elegant bad ass).

Types of Burlesque

There are nerd-lesque performers who perform acts inspired by Star Wars and Harry Potter. There is a huge gore-lesque arm in the industry, consisting of bloody acts–these are especially popular close to Halloween. And I also witnessed acts that made strong political statements. I myself created an act on the suicidal thoughts of war veterans. Not exactly funny, but it deeply spoke to an audience. 

Some of you may have watched the movie Burlesque, with Cher and Christina Aguilera as the leading actresses. It’s a poor depiction of this sultry form of performance art–perhaps only showing a teeny-weeny (so to speak, because of their tiny, white bodies) part of burlesque. It is not only limited to cabaret influences. What the community offers is beyond superficial Hollywood assumptions, in addition to being LGBTQ+ friendly and accepting of all body types. In short, Wikipedia’s definition was probably accurate when burlesque began, but it’s gotten way more diverse since then.

Still, burlesque entailed baring your body to an audience, usually full of strangers. What’s important to note is I actually didn’t mind my body. I didn’t hate it as much as many women who struggle with self-esteem and weight issues (their daily internal dialogue can be unimaginable). Sure it was ‘just fine’, but I wasn’t comfortable in it. I wanted to love my body. And it was one reason I took up burlesque. 

When I officially enrolled and became a member of the glitterati, I met the most wonderful women. They ranged from a spunky pair of nineteen-year-olds, who would go on to become my co-creative soul sisters, to a woman in her early forties that kept performing despite society’s disdain for older women going up and getting naked on stage. Fuck the mainstream’s obsession with youth, we say. I also encountered a host of connectors, promoters and venue owners. It was a tight-knit community.

Burlesque and Creativity

But what is it about burlesque that nourished my creativity? After all, this is what this blog is about. 

Telling a Story Through an Act or Dance

I had to put my narrative skills into practice. Burlesque is about telling a story. What was the act about? My first solo depicted a librarian with a sugar addiction. How I unfolded the act entailed her interacting with sugar like how someone would use drugs. My big reveal was pouring a long line of sugary pixie sticks just above my breasts and snorting it like someone was doing a line of cocaine. While it’s nice to just move your body, a narrative is important to keep the audience engaged. Seventy percent of burlesque audiences are actually composed of women–they’re not just there for the sexy costumes. They’re there to see what bodies can do and how to use them to tell stories. 

Putting a Costume Together

I’d always been insecure about my sewing skills, mostly because I have wide fingers and couldn’t for the life of me stick a thread into a needle hole. Commissioning a costume can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars and I–like many artists in the community–couldn’t afford it. So we had to get creative and make our own.

A huge store called Dressew became our go-to place to find fabrics, buttons, self-adhesive tapes and anything you would need to put a costume together. And here’s the extra challenge for burlesquers: when you’re putting a costume together, you need to find ways to take it off. So you’re figuring out where to place buttons, determine if a prop will fit into that corset, or whether the dress you’re creating actually does correspond with the theme of your act. Are the colours off? Is the style appropriate? What if it sends a different message?

Yes, I freaked out about the costumes–it was probably one of the most stressful components of creating an act for me. But on the other side, once I drew back and surveyed what I created, I felt proud. It wasn’t Oscar-winner-worthy, but it was my work.

Solo versus Troupes in Burlesque

Many creatives thrive in solitude. It’s where we can hear our intuition and delve into whatever material we’re conjuring. But there is so much value in working with others. My background in the performing arts didn’t extend beyond basic classes in high school so joining a troupe filled a lot of knowledge gaps for me. They had skills I didn’t, and I was able to provide value in my own way. I’ll admit there are definitely drawbacks because conflict is inevitable. But when everyone is on the same wavelength, the results can be magical. 

Practice Practice, and then Practice some more

An act requires a lot of preparation. You need to get to know your costume so come performance time, you can take it off with clean technique. I had a colleague in the community who used feathers and her big reveal was really hard to pull off mechanically. She told me she was in the studio doing reruns for days before her act’s debut. It can take forever. But let me tell you, once you’ve nailed how to slide off that corset, the sense of accomplishment gives you such great confidence and will prompt you to ask: what else can I do? 

Is it Worth Pursuing Burlesque?

When I started burlesque I was simply curious about trying a new creative outlet. Then I met people who were doing it for a living and explored it as an option for a career change. But the more I did it, the more I realized it wasn’t quite for me.

Pin-up. Burlesque
Photo by geralt

To begin with, there isn’t that much money in burlesque because it’s not mainstream performing art. I like that it isn’t commodified, but the downside to that is it doesn’t generate many opportunities. Many performers have side hustles to pay bills, and unless you were top in the industry like Dita, doing it full-time was not impossible, but unlikely to generate a full-time income. Many performers taught classes and workshops, worked other jobs, or had their own businesses like commissioning costumes.

Second, I had gotten what I needed out of it, which was meeting other creative people and learning to love my body a little more. Also, while I considered myself a feminist, the glitterati had pushed and challenged my assumptions about many issues such as forms of discrimination, cultural appropriation, and various feminist views I hadn’t encountered. The lessons were learned, and I felt it was time to move on.

Third, I realized that the socializing aspect of burlesque wasn’t really my scene. I’m fairly extroverted, but after a show, I usually want to go home to unwind by watching television and eating ice-cream. When you’re trying to make it in the scene, it’s important to circulate and– for the lack of a better word–network.

Final Thoughts

I still follow the burlesque community on social media, keeping tabs on the many performers I met during this phase of my life. Some of the women in my class have evolved into staggeringly skilled professionals whom I’ve come to admire. I have deep respect for the glitterati and the courage they possess every time they get up on stage. Because it’s terrifying–especially if you are insecure in your mind and/or body.

When I browse through city event sections, my eyes linger when I see an ad for a burlesque show, and I make it a point to attend if my schedule allows. 

Will I ever go back to it? Maybe. I never discount it. Perhaps I’ll take a pole-dancing class if I want to shake up my exercise routine, or if a chair workshop is on offer somewhere. 

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