Standards Shmandards: Who gets to say what’s “bad” burlesque, anyway?

Lately, I have read rants, threads and articles (here’s one) written by performers and non-performers alike decrying the fact that not all burlesque is created with the same standards. “Bad burlesque is bringing down the whole scene,” they cry. “We need to create standards for who can perform burlesque and what they can do!”

Aside from the logistical impossibility of enforcing any kind of arbitrary standards, could the burlesque scene at large really agree on one set of standards to follow? And, more importantly, should it?

Gratuitous photo to break up all this serious text! Bombshell Betty and the Burlesqueteers in the Hubba Hubba Revue at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco.

A few articles have come out very recently bemoaning the preponderance of the “shittest” burlesque and boring or mediocre burlesque, advising people to “do it well or don’t do it at all.” What these authors don’t acknowledge is that when they rant about  “good burlesque” and “bad burlesque,” what they’re really talking about is “burlesque I like” and “burlesque I don’t like.” How  arrogant and unrealistic for these authors to think that the whole world of burlesque should be standardized according to their tastes! “You can put on as many sparkles and Swarovskis as you like, but if you don’t know how to move or be sexy then I’m afraid you’ll just bore me.” [Emphasis is mine.] So you’re bored, so what? Maybe the person standing next to you is enthralled. It’s not about you. Go get a drink or powder your nose and wait three minutes for the next act and try to find some perspective.

I know that there is burlesque I like to watch and burlesque I don’t like to watch. There is burlesque I like to perform and burlesque I don’t like to perform. I also know that my personal standards have nothing to do with the preferences of other performers or of audiences in general. Everyone has their own criteria for judging an act or a show, and I think that’s important to keep in mind.

This article makes a very interesting and valid point that part of the appeal of burlesque for some of the audience is its aspirational quality. Audience members can watch the performers and envision themselves doing similar acts on stage, so it is inspiring and empowering for the audience members who are not used to thinking that they could be sexy. A number of my students have told me that they decided to take classes and perform burlesque because they went to a show and one of the performers had the exact same body type – and she was so sexy! And the audience loved her! So my student thought, “If she can do it, I can do it,” and she did!

Scarlett Black at the Elbo Room in SF

So while the aspirational element is there, I disagree that audience members will make the effort to get dolled up and pay a cover to go to a show because they want to see “mediocre” performances so that they can feel smarter or more talented than the people on stage. Who would want to waste their time and money like that? Burlesque audiences – like any audiences – go to shows to be entertained. What these articles neglect is that the preferences of burlesque audiences are as varied as the performances offered.

For example, I produce student shows, and they are promoted as such. Some people don’t go to them for that reason. Others say that these student shows are their favorite burlesque shows and only go to my shows, because they love the playfully creative and experimental acts and the atmosphere of joy and fun they know they’ll find at my shows more than they enjoy the level of polish they’ll find at some other more highly-produced shows. Other people are looking for something else entirely and go to other shows, or like a wide variety and go to all the shows, or don’t go to burlesque shows at all.

Lezzie McFaggerson and Vadge O’Fonor with ostriches at the Elbo Room in SF!

As a performer, I have personally been called a genius and been told that I “give burlesque a bad name.” I think I’m rather somewhere in between those two extremes, but this is another good demonstration of how much of burlesque is in the eye of the beholder.

The fact that there are a wide variety of shows and styles is good for the burlesque community, and it’s one of my favorite things about burlesque. It’s fascinating to see each performer’s interpretations of the art form, and I know that I (as well as much of my audience) would be bored to tears and simply drop burlesque altogether if it became homogenized and predictable, as would be the case with enforced standards.

I was thrilled to read this article about Trixie Little, a New York based performer whose style I personally admire (I’m partial to performers who combine glamour and polish with quirky humor and surprise). Here’s my favorite part:

I am continuously working on a handful of ‘NYC gig acts’ that fit on tiny stages, don’t take up a lot of space and are mostly improv. These are the acts I typically chose from when I’m ready to take an act up to the next level. When they are ready  for the polishing stage, the first thing I do is take my starter costume to Garo Sparo to remake professionally. Then I start setting the choreography and moments so it’s not improv any more.  But the improv part is an awesome part of my process because I’m a character actor more than a dancer, so I get to learn what the juicy moments are this way.

It was a relief to finally read some acknowledgement that different venues and productions require different levels of polish. Of course you wouldn’t perform the same act in the same way at your local dive bar and at an international burlesque convention! This seems so elementary to me, but this is the first time I’ve seen this acknowledged publicly within the burlesque scene.

And guess what? None of this is earth-shattering news! Think of any art form, and there are artists you like and artists you don’t. Some people like art house movies. Others think they’re pretentious and lame and prefer Hollywood blockbusters. Should there be standards that make only one of these film styles possible? No! There’s a market for each of them. How is burlesque any different? Why do people seem to be so personally offended by the existence of burlesque that they don’t like?

Here’s another perspective from Mat Ricardo:

And you know what? I’ve seen this happen before. A long time ago, when my circuit wasn’t cabaret clubs, but was street theatre. There was a time when the established performers felt a little threatened by the influx of new performers. In response, some rules were discussed that would favour the old guard – make it easier for them to get better show times, stuff like that. The rationale was that because the younger performers didn’t have such good shows, they shouldn’t get the lucrative lunchtime slots. It was ugly, transparent and nasty. And you know what happened? The young performers went elsewhere and spread the word that the Covent Garden performers were cliquey, unwelcoming bullies. And they were right. The scene stagnated and the level of quality of the shows dropped. It harmed everyone.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s commendable and wonderful that so many performers are taking burlesque out of the low-brow dive bar and bringing it into the realm of high art. I love that. Burlesque is about exaggerations and extremes, so it is fitting that both extremes are represented. There is room for Dita Von Teese and her high level of visual spectacle, and there is room for DIY burlesque at the local dive bar. As long as there is an audience that wants to see it, there is room in burlesque for every interpretation and permutation.

And I love that, don’t you?

So what can you do if you see a lot of what you consider to be “bad” burlesque, and you’d like to help raise the bar for burlesque in your area?

The answer is not (as has been suggested) for more experienced and highly trained performers to go out of their way to critique the “inferior” performers. Constructive criticism that has not been requested is not going to be heard the way you want it to be heard. It’s not going to make performers whose style you don’t like suddenly decide they want to be more like you. It’s just going to make you look bitchy.

Now, criticism that is requested is another story altogether, but it’s still important that you deliver it properly if you want it to be heard. Red Velvet wrote a great article on how to give good feedback, which I recommend reading. My two main tips for giving feedback are:

1) Make sure the target of your feedback has requested your feedback.
2) Learn how to give a feedback sandwich.

Red Velvet and Lezzie McFaggerson at the Elbo Room in SF.

If you are serious about wanting to raise the bar for burlesque in your area, and not just wanting to verbally slap your unworthy competitors for daring to perform (even though you think they suck) and daring to be successful (perhaps even more successful than you? How dare!?!),  one good way to set up a situation that will make this kind of feedback welcome would be to organize and participate in peer review workshops in your area.

Not willing to expend this kind of energy to help your competitors? Then it doesn’t seem to me that you’re really interested in helping the burlesque community in general, and you’re really only concerned with promoting your own interests. Which is fine, just acknowledge it and stop pretending to be altruistic when you verbally slam the newbies (or whoever it is you don’t like).

Here’s a reality check: No one is going to stop performing because you don’t like them. So why not help them improve and make the scene better for everyone rather than complaining and wishing people would wither in the face of your scorn and blow away? Because I guarantee you they won’t.

If you don’t want to be associated with the “bad” or “mediocre” burlesque at your local bar, it’s up to you to differentiate your act or your show. It’s not up to the burlesquers you don’t like to tell their audience that you’re somehow superior. Their audience might not agree. It’s up to you to show your audience that they should want to get up off of their couches and spend their time and money to indulge in an evening out with you, rather than at the bar down the street, or worse – sitting home hitting the refresh button on Facebook!

Cherry Chapstick at the Elbo Room in SF.

If you don’t like that show producers are hiring what you consider “inferior” performers, and you don’t want to perform in the same shows with them, don’t. Create your own show and hire only the performers you think are the best, and see what happens.

Because really, if you’re a top-notch, highly professional performer or producer, and you can’t compete with the “amateur hour” at your local dive bar, guess what? Quite frankly… you’re doing it wrong! Get out there and get some basic marketing skills and set yourself up as something different. Make it happen! No one’s going to do it for you.

And if you’re doing well, have a big following and successful shows, what are you so worried about?

The long and the short of it is that we’re all in the entertainment business. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to entertain everyone at any time or anyone all the time. So we just have to do the best we can, always strive to improve, and hopefully… live and let live. I believe that diversity and variety are strengths within our community and that the more we embrace them, the stronger our art will be.

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13 Comments

Filed under Burlesque

13 responses to “Standards Shmandards: Who gets to say what’s “bad” burlesque, anyway?

  1. destrudowoman

    Well said, Betty! I’ve said the same thing about creative writing, visual arts, etc… there’s room for everyone at the Banquet of Creativity! Bombs-Away!

  2. Its interesting to see the parallels of this topic alongside most avant-guard, modern artistic movements of their day. The impressionists were largely dismissed as being “insignificant” and not conforming to the art standards at the time. Modern dance, Rock and Roll, especially Punk Rock, all were critiqued as being outside the taste standards of the day. As a former punk rock musician and long-time SF theater performer, I find that the new forms of burlesque that are emerging offer a new vision and are revitalizing an old art form with 21st century creativity, uniqueness, nerve and talent. The gritty, in-your-face, self-abandon of many of Bombshell-Betty Field’s students are heralding a new ilk of burlesque performer which oftentimes elevate their burlesque to performance art… another art form that has been largely critiqued, btw! Thanks to all the amazing Burlesqueteers who are willing to risk setting aside the safety of smoke and mirrors and show us something deeply moving and real!

  3. Sindee Rose

    Well said Betty! People need to lighten up and enjoy Burlesque for what it is, the creativity and effort that each performer exudes!

  4. Thank you for your insights, Betty! I think we all have room to grow and improve as performers, otherwise we would stagnate and no one would want to watch what we do. When I look at the work of the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, often considered a genius of dance, I see growth, change, maturation of the work. In her youth she frequently danced to poetry and many complained about her style or her dress or her lack of shoes (shocking at the time). Yet, others enjoyed her performances and gave her opportunities. Without those opportunities and experiences she could not have grown into the amazing performer she came to be. Throughout her life she managed to evoke controversy in her performances and her life. How boring if we failed to evoke controversy or we failed to be different.

  5. I LOVE this post and your sentiment! There is absolutely an audience for all kinds of burlesque. Personally, I think the community would grow and be stronger if individuals discovered their personal strengths and were PROUD of the differences! These differences between shows, acts, or styles are niches that together make burlesque so appealing to a growing audience. I think if we take steps toward awareness, honesty and pride of ourselves & our own work–not whatever the fuck anyone else is doing–our individual strengths will help burlesque to remain lucrative and legit. Thank you for writing this.

    • I’m glad you liked this post, Wham!Bam!Pam! I completely agree with you. If every burlesque show was the same, there would be a very small audience and burlesque would be a dead art form. I love that there is so much room for experimentation and pushing the envelope!

  6. FBD

    Very interesting article! As a big fan of punk rock, noise music, and shitshows categorically, I am not going to defend traditional art on the basis of it’s “tradition” alone. If you’re going to get on stage in front of a paying audience, and perform something that is subversive, controversial, unorthodox, or simply a general clusterfuck held together by scotch tape and alcohol, I’m all for it (Gravy Train, hello!)… but that sort of performance relies heavily on a “I’m not here for you, I’m here for me” kind of attitude. And you gotta take it the whole nine yards. As both your article and the critique you link to mention, a fair number of dancers get into burlesque as a way of gaining confidence and a positive image of their bodies. Even if that’s what brought a dancer to the stage, it’s not what brings an audience to a theatre; you will be exposed to critics and assholes, and the traditional art crowd isn’t fond of A-for-effort sugar coating. But that’s fine! Haters walking out is part of the magic! Much like experimentation in music and fine art, not all experiments work, but without a gritty, avante-garde fringe new ideas wouldn’t surface at all.

    • Thanks for commenting, FBD! As a teacher, I actually don’t encourage a “I’m not here for you, I’m here for me” attitude in my performers. I train my students to express what they want to express while *always* keeping their audience in mind, thinking of their reactions, making sure what they’re saying is clear. As a producer, those are standards I hold my students to when they perform in my shows. I don’t expect other producers to have the same standards, and that’s the main point I’m making here.

      What I see happening in these articles (as well as rants all over the internet) is performers and producers deciding they don’t like certain shows and performers and deciding that something should be done to stop the creation and performance of burlesque they don’t like. From my perspective, if someone doesn’t like my show, they’re not my audience. Since they’re not my audience and won’t be going to my shows anyway, their opinion about my show is completely irrelevant. Just as my opinions about other shows should be completely irrelevant to those producers. I don’t believe art should be created by social consensus. Art is created as an expression of an artist to their audience, and everyone else can bugger off and worry about their own art.

      It’s true that a lot of performers get into burlesque as a way of working through their body issues. I fail to see how that makes their expression any less artistic or valid than someone who got into it for other reasons. If the audience is entertained, the audience is entertained, and no one really knows what the performer’s motivation for getting into show business was, do they? I find that improved confidence and body image is often a happy side effect of burlesque performance, but it usually doesn’t shape the performance itself unless the dancer is making a statement about body image through the performance piece. That happens sometimes, but these performers are more than just their bodies and have SO much more to express through this art than issues about their body size!

    • tigervonclaus

      LOL…scotch tape and alcohol…love your style.

  7. tigervonclaus

    When I saw the headline I went “There’s no such thing as bad burlesque!!” I missed some kerfuffle somewheres I guess but, this is great Betty…you are in fact, THE BOMB! When I got in, it was all sheer joy and camaraderie. I suppose as the so-called scene grew, it lead to segmenting or fracturing, and competition and therefore a certain ‘claws out’ thing? (ha.) Or maybe the ‘bad’ comments come from some dumb dudes. Well, yeah, I’m shaking it for the room — not just you. (When did like every other person on the internet become ComicStoreGuy…ie; so judgey. ‘Worst. Movie. Ever.’) As an audience member I suppose there’ve been times I didn’t ‘get’ an act but I always, always think: “Good for her!” Well, whatevs, we’re all a work in progress. 😉

  8. I love that you’ve written about this. It is silly to complain about levels of talent. I decided recently that I wanted to write about burlesque performances, show reviews. Your essay has given me a perspective that had previously eluded me: the interesting thing about new and amateur burlesque performers is the creativity that goes into forming their scenes/dances.
    Thanks for the insight.

  9. Incredibly insightful, and can be applied to many different areas in life, especially the “feedback sandwich” 😉

  10. Yay!

    Bravo, a great antidote to all the elitists.

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