Dear Lillith: Shitt Burlesque

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Lillith Grey has been lighting up the stage for over five years as a burlesque and fetish performer, musician, and emcee, and can frequently be found performing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She holds a master’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education, and is currently completing her Ph.D. in psychology. She has worked as a psychotherapist, educator, and social justice advocate, and currently teaches at a local university while working on her research. She travels extensively, teaching classes and workshops on a variety of subjects including relationships, communication, trauma, body image, sexuality and gender, and diversity issues. Lillith is also active in the Leather community, serving on the NLA-International Writing Awards committee and as a co-chair for the Women’s International LeatherFest. Visit her at www.LillithGrey.com for more information.

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Dear Lillith,

A few weeks ago, a lot of my burlesque friends shared an article on
Facebook called “The Shittiest Burlesque I’ve Ever Seen” by AlitaO’Ginn.
While most of my friends were saying “I agree,” or “She hit the nail on
the head,” I myself was thinking, “Oh crap, I hope I’m not one of those
‘shitty’ dancers.”

I’ve been doing burlesque for a little over a year now, and I feel I’ve
come a long way. But most of the girls I dance with have experience in
everything from ballet to pole dancing. I’ve taken several burlesque
classes and workshops, but most of what I do is self-taught. I don’t have
any formal dance training under my belt, and while I’m not trying to be
better than the girls in my troupe, I also don’t want to be the weakest
dancer.

I wish I had time (and money) to take all the burlesque classes in the
world. So I guess my question is, are the best burlesque dancers formally
trained in ballet, modern dance, etc.? How can I gain more confidence as a
dancer? Also, what are your thoughts on this article?

Sincerely,
Remy Dee

Dear Remy,

Wow, that’s a powerful article! Miss O’Ginnmakes a pretty strong statement about what kind of burlesque she enjoys watching – it’s clear she enjoys seeing highly talented, well-rehearsed, creative, and original performances, which is probably something all of us enjoy. It is definitely one way to approach burlesque, but not the only way. I feel saddened that her opinion was presented in a way that was demeaning and attacking, and I would venture to say you are not the only one who felt discouraged after reading it.

The article evoked quite a bit of reaction from all sides. Mat Ricardoargued on his blog that to expect perfection from an art form that requires growth and development undermines performers from the start and ignores their personal growth as an artist. Ben Walterspointed out that “mediocre” shows still thrive, suggesting audiences may be looking for something other than perfection. These articles and others provide a variety of perspectives on the matter, which I think is great. There’s not one right answer here, so participating in community dialogue can help tease out some of the nuances surrounding the article and help you come to your own answers.

In my experience both as a performer and audience member, burlesque is a powerful political statement about creative expression, willingness to share intimate space with others (shared humor and shared eroticism), and our ability to push boundaries. I don’t believe it’s only about the physical tease, as Miss O’Ginn argues it is. Regardless of how polished or perfect a performance is or isn’t, behind the “show” there is a person onstage sharing a piece of themselves in a really profound way. For me, the over-polished, flawless performance doesn’t touch me the way an authentic gift of self does, even if that gift lacks in technical expertise.For many people (perhaps most?) burlesque is art, not science. It’s an expression of spirit and vulnerability that empowers both the performer and the audience. I think that’s what audiences relate to, and I think that’s why they keep showing up, even to so-called “shitty” burlesque shows.

Miss O’Ginn commented thatwatching someone work through their self-image issues onstage is uncomfortable and embarrassing.”Not only do I disagree with publicly judging other people’s personal growth processes (no one’s forcing her to watch it), I also flatly disagree with the statement itself. We are immersed in a culture that shames our bodies at every turn, and I hate that this article has added to that shame. Honestly, watching someone who is bold enough to challenge their own fearsand be relentlessly authentic is, to me, anything but uncomfortable and embarrassing. It may not be as captivating or breathtaking as highly skilled performers, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. Intentional vulnerability is powerful.

I think it’s also important to note that many audience members have favorite performers, people they know personally or interact with via social media, and they go to shows to support those performers. Burlesque audiences, generally speaking, are not merely consumers of entertainment – they love and feel connected to the performers, and they want to see those performers for who they are. The truth is, these “shitty” shows still draw enough of a crowd to support them, so I think it’s safe to say that Miss O’Ginn doesn’t speak for the majority of audience members.

To answer your question about your own performances, I think you should look at what how you want to connect with your audience and what the purpose of your work is. There is definitely a market for the type of shows Miss O’Ginnlikes, and there’s also a market for more personal kinds of shows as well. Neither of these are inherently wrong; think Broadway compared to community theater. Each is valuable in their own way, but if you go to community theater expecting to see Broadway, yeah, you’re gonna be disappointed. Miss O’Ginn seems to know what she expects, and it’s probably good that she avoids the shows that make her feel uncomfortable. But honestly, most people who go to community burlesque know what they’re getting, and they love it.

There is one rule, however, that transcends the “type” of burlesque you do. Many years ago I was in a cabaret show choir; we performed all over the Dallas area at festivals and fairs and theaters. The week before the opening of one of our shows, the director threw her notebook across the room and shouted “I’m canceling the show!” We were literally speechless as she accused us of being lazy and more focused on rhinestones and fishnets than the quality of the show. Then she said, “if we don’t have anything to show, we’re not doing a show” and stormed out of the room. I will never forget it, and I think it was the best thing she could have done for us. So that’s the rule: if you don’t have something to show, don’t get up on a stage. Don’t get up there for the sake of being up there. You’re sharing energy with your audience, which means you have to hold up your end of the bargain. Always give it everything you’ve got.

The last thing I want to address is the presence of privilege in burlesque, which you alluded to when you mentioned not having the time or money to get the kind of training you want. I am always saddened when I see or hear performers make snide remarks about the quality of costumes performers have or the way someone looks. Many dancers have to do their own hair and get creative with thrift store finds – Swarovski and studio space are not accessible to everyone. Does that mean that performers with less time and money are inherently less valuable than performers who have more? Absolutely not! Does that mean performers with fewer resources might have to work a little harder to pull off something spectacular? Probably so, but that doesn’t make it less valuable. In some ways it may generate even more authentic creativity.

So if you want to become that high-caliber, technically skilled and savvy performer who sells out shows and leaves audiences breathless, then I would say yes, you’ll need to devote your time, money, and energy toward that end, like you would in any profession. If you are happy expressing yourself among like-minded people in your community, collaborating with others, and sharing energy with an audience that sees you for who you are, then be who you are and do what you do – that’s beautiful and valuable too.

Confidence comes from within, and your personal work will shine through your performances. Check out Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” an outstanding book about tapping into your unique creative center. She writes, “As you learn to recognize, nurture, and protect your inner artist, you will be able to move beyond pain and creative constriction.” We all experience the pain of feeling not good enough, and that has a huge impact on how we share ourselves with others. Love yourself, accept yourself, and be yourself, and let your spirit shine through your performances. That’s true art.

Warmly,

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