Burlesque Etiquette with Jo Weldon: Just Ask

Jo Weldon (Photo: DallasPinUp.com)
Jo Weldon (Photo: DallasPinUp.com)

We couldn’t think of anyone’s advice we’d rather take than Miss Jo “Boobs” Weldon, Founder of the New York School of Burlesque and author of The Burlesque Handbook, which is why we’re thrilled to have her as our Burlesque Etiquette contributor!  Have a question you’d like Jo to answer?  Please title your email “Etiquette- _your issue___” and send to editor [at] PinCurlMag [dot] com and we will send them right over to her!

Have you ever wanted to distribute flyers at a show, and asked the producer if it was okay and been assured it was, only to find out later that the venue was annoyed because they were also having a burlesque show that night?

Sharing resources such as venues, marketing, skills, ideas, and knowledge is an important part of community, and it can be difficult to know the difference between when you are simply taking someone’s resources and infringing on their work. Often, it’s a simple matter of putting yourself in their shoes, but on occasion you simply must ask. The examples below are intended more as food for thought than as hard and fast guidelines.

Many times, I have seen–or have been in–painful situations that could have been easily avoided by simply asking a direct question of the person(s) involved, rather than indirectly asking around (which is sometimes necessary for clarity about the question you want to ask, but is never the same as directly asking the person affected) or otherwise second-guessing how the person might respond.

Most of the time the only reason to ask is because of the relationship you hope to maintain. These are not often issues of copyright law or trademark infringement. You can follow the letter of the law rather than the intention of the law and do as you like, but that is one of the weakest defenses I know. It won’t help your relationship with a person or a community at all.

Keep in mind, you only need to ask if you value your relationship with this person and your integrity, real or perceived, within the community you share. And you must decide before asking how you will respond if you get an answer you don’t want to hear. They may be inappropriately proprietary, controlling, and egotistical, and your request may have been merely a matter of form when you knew you weren’t doing anything wrong but were just paying your respects. Know what to do if the person turns out to be an asshole, what to do if you turn out to be an asshole, and what to do if you end up feeling foolish, hurt, or terribly frustrated that you can’t do what you want without complications. Most importantly, know what to do if you get a response that, even though it wasn’t what you wanted to hear, was given from the heart. If you give them the impression that by asking you intend to honor their response, then honor it. That is the soul of integrity.


Good times to ask:

If you want to have a show in the same venue as another producer. This may be up to the venue owner, rather than the producer. The venue owner is the real authority here, and few producers have exclusives with given venues. But if you value your relationship with that producer, it may be a good idea to ask. If there are already a lot of burlesque shows with different producers there, it is probably unnecessary to ask, but the producer will still feel respected if you do ask.

If you want to use the same music as another performer. As the venue is owned by the venue owner, the music is actually owned by the people who hold the copyright, not the performer. If it’s a popular piece of music such as Night Train or Bumps N Grinds, it’s obviously fair game. But if someone you know and respect has a signature piece to that music, or has obviously invested a lot in it, and you are likely to perform in the same circles, think twice. You are by all means entitled to use it– if you are frequently going to be in the same show, do you want to be constantly negotiating who will be using “Pour Some Sugar On Me” on any given night?

If you want to use or teach a move a burlesque instructor taught you in one of your numbers or in a class you teach. It’s usually not an issue if you incorporate the move into a performance– you bought the class, and there’s not much point in taking a class if you can’t use what you learn there The the source might be recognizable to other burlesque performers and devoted fan, but how that is usually fine. As for teaching it yourself, it depends on how common the technique is. Maybe they didn’t invent the Breakfast Bump N Grind (I learned it from Bambi Jones), and you could have learned it anywhere. But you didn’t; you learned it from them. And even though it may have been around for generations before they were alive (and it also may not have been), you don’t know if their choreography breakdown, teaching technique, and terminology originated with them. Whenever I want to incorporate moves from another instructor, I ask that instructor to make sure there’s no conflict of interest, and I credit them in class. It’s not enough to just assume it will be okay credit them in class–I find out how they feel about it. I have plenty of resources to come up with other material if they are feeling sensitive or proprietary about having their material taught by someone else.

If you want to use a photo. Any photo you find on the internet is owed by someone, and if you use it without permission, you are violating their copyright. I know it’s maddening when people don’t turn in their photos when you request them, but a found photo may not even belong to that performer–it may be the property of the photographer. Yes, the internet is changing the way we understand distribution and copyright, but it’s still a matter of respect.

If you want to use forms, disclaimers, sentences, descriptions, or other business you found on a website. These things are hard to write, may have been vetted by a lawyer at the site owner’s expense, and explain the structures of their business, which was probably carefully crafted with great entrepreneurialism. Business writing doesn’t just spring out of thin air. Just because it’s not “art” doesn’t mean there’s no process of creation. And it too is copyrighted material.

If you want to create a tribute number. Your intentions are probably nothing but honorable: you want to show appreciation for this performer and let the world see what they’ve done. However, almost all performers would rather perform than have a tribute to them performed; many of them worked hard to create a distinctive number. If you are planning to tribute them, there are certainly circumstances under which a surprise tribute could be a beautiful gift; but if you’re not sure, ask. And ask them, not their friends. And ask them twice, once to bring up the subject and again later to make sure they were honest with themselves and with you in the moment.


DON’T ask:

If you could have found information is easily accessible on the website, application, etc. It’s a lot of work to put those sites together, and disrespectful to ignore their work. You may just need some human contact, or the site may be difficult to negotiate; it is okay to let them know you at least looked for the information, and acknowledge that you tried to avoid taking their time.

For an exception to rules which are essential to the operation of a given show or business. Most of the time these rules are intended to smooth out and hasten production, not just to be bossy over performers. Being low maintenance is one of the key ways to get asked back.

If you can do a version of their number (usually described as “with your own twist”) or use their signature gimmick or prop. Seriously, no. You may not know whether or not they were the first to do it, or how much it has been associated with them.  Copyright isn’t always the relevant issue. If you just want to steal the applause they get in that moment, you didn’t have a creative desire to incorporate it your way with a twist; you just want that applause. Think hard about this one.

If a person can give you free business counsel via email. Sometimes you have mentor/mentee chemistry with someone, or are just looking for hints or a link or two, and that’s cool. But if you don’t, you’re asking for hours of their time for no benefit to them.

If a person of color is okay with you doing a culturally appropriative act. There’s a ton of information on the internet about such things; you need to make your own informed decision without putting anyone in the position of representing their entire culture.

These are just a few very common examples. There are more complex situations, to be sure. If you find yourself in one, the best way to approach it is: just ask.

Want to see more of Jo’s columns? See:  Sponsorship for Beginners, Like a Boss: The Harem Trope,  Teacher/Student Dos and Don’ts, These Children That You Spit On: Established Performer to New Performer Etiquette, Stage Kitten Etiquette, Making Introductions: Emcee Etiquette,  Photos & Pasties, How to Annoy Producers, How to Annoy Performers,  I’m Just Saying, Headliner Etiquette – Part 1, Social Media Etiquette for Nearly Naked People

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