I stumbled into burlesque without any grand goal in mind. I knew I wanted to create art and explore dance. There weren’t any hopes of becoming the next Dita von Teese, the next Burlesque Hall of Fame winner, international stardom, or the Queen of anything. In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t have those ambitions. Namely because I’ve been doing burlesque for 8 years and it would be pretty sad to look back on that list of goals and realize I hadn’t reached any of them. Not that it’s bad to have goals. In fact, I advise my students to examine why they want to do burlesque and where they want to be 5 years from now. That’s the one downside of not going to a “burlesque school” is that you miss out on having someone else ask you the big questions. Looking back on my years in burlesque I can say that I have created works of art (some better than others) and that I have explored the realm of dance. I can also say that I’ve invested a lot of time and money. Below is a list of 10 things I wish I’d known about burlesque before I started my journey:
- People will look at you different- Friendships will be tested. Suddenly friends may look at you as “a stripper” even if your acts are all rhinestones and evening gowns. You won’t be labeled as just any old stripper. I’m not even talking a headliner stripper who is adored by both men and women. I’m not even talking about the stripper who holds a college degree and is saving up to buy her own nightclub someday. No you won’t be seen as a strong woman or a talented vixen. You’ll be seen as some sort of subhuman kind of Golem. You’ll get a scarlette letter stamped onto your forehead that says you are the lowest of the low kind of stripper. The crack addict with missing teeth, who works in seedy bars, frequented by shady men who expect $5 blow jobs. Your parents may tell you that you are wasting your life and that you are unloveable. Sadly, I hear girls recount these kinds of tales every week.
- Your work history is forever affected- Sure there are lots of things you can do to separate your stage identity from your “real life”. However, in an age of cell phone camera and social media, you can not enter this business without understanding that your work history will be changed forever. What if the only school hiring is a very religious institution? What if you want to run for Mayor in 5 years? What if you show up for work one day only to learn that your “friend” showed your performance videos to the entire management team at work? The last one happened to me and I was lucky that my employers were disinterested in my nonwork life. I did have to put up with stupid comments from colleagues for a few weeks. So often newspaper reports come out that some elementray school teacher has resigned because the school found out she used to be a stripper. Maybe your employer has no problem with your non work life, maybe you are your own boss, but make sure you are comfortable with the idea that you could find your graphic design clients or a students parents in the audience one day. Taking history into account can direct the way you begin your career (how you separate your identities, who do you tell about your stage work, what types of shows you are willing to do).
- You must be a law abiding citizen- Lured by the idea of world travel as a burlesque performer? Before you submit that festival application or book that tour, be sure to look up the local laws of the town you want to perform in. That killer merkin act won’t fly in many cities and some producers won’t hire you again if you show up with Glitter Nipples in place of pasties. Do you really want to get arrested or get a fine because you wore a G-string instead of briefs?
- Glitter never dies- It will linger for days at the very least. Your pets will be covered in glitter. Your regular street clothes will someone be infused with glitter. On ocassion I find random bits of glitter on my husband weeks after I’ve last used any glitter in the house and I’ll joke, “What stripper have you been hanging out with?” Glitter will find it’s way into your breakfast cereal. Sorry, it’s a fact.
- It will cost twice as much as you thought it would- Even if you sew your own costumes and craft your own pasties, everything starts to add up pretty fast. Those cheap feather fans you purchased now have to be repaired. That custom fishtail dress sadly will take 2-3 shows to pay off. That trim from Ebay only gets cheaper if it’s shipped from a factory overseas. Yes, you need new shoes. Damn it things just keep adding up.
- You may end up testing your allergies– I remember hearing stories about girls developing allergic reactions to spirit gum. I thought, “That will never happen to me. Hell actors have been using spirit gum to affix wigs for years, why on earth would a burlesque dancer be any different”. I was wrong. It happened to me and I can not wear spirit gum without wanting to rip my pasties off. My husband is saddened by the long list of rules that come with wanting to go anywhere near my boobs. Some artists have discovered latex allergies and allergies to other adhesives. I don’t know if experiencing number 6 can be prevented, but it’s certainly something to take into consideration.
- You will end up testing your comfort level- When I started I had zero intention of wearing pasties or a g-string. It was all about the “illusion” of nudity. You will have to figure out how comfortable you are with being in various states of undress in front of friends and strangers. Are you comfortable only if they are far away? Are you comfortable if they are within arms length? Are you comfortable with someone putting a $1 in your g-string as you Go Go dance? Are you comfortable knowing that a major newspaper photographer is in the audience and about ready to take a photo that will capture all of your flaws? That birthmark you hate. That tattoo you wish you never got. It’s all on display. Are you comfortable performing in bars, theaters, homes, or on boats? Are you comfortable constantly being judged.
- You will develop many friends and many enemies- As Dita Von Teese put it, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” Frankly, I never dreamed there would be people out there who hated me even though they hadn’t met me. People will hate you for not doing your act the way they think it should be done, for using the same song as another performer, for wearing the same color, for having a similar stage name, for being, thin, thick, short, tall, young old, black, white, successful, unsuccessful. Yeah, just know you’ll be hated on. Take comfort in knowing that you will also be loved. I never dreamed that burlesque would bring me over 1,300 friends on Facebook (separate from my Twitter followers and Facebook Fans). I can message someone who lives in another state or country and find a couch to crash on. Performers have banned together to help other performers who have been diagnosed with cancer, lost their jobs, or been victims of violence. When 1,000 strangers donate money to help an aging burlesque performer get her bills paid that’s a beautiful thing. There are many suprising moments in burlesque where you will see the best in humanity. That is what makes up for the bad so take comfort.
- You will acquire more “stuff”- I’m a minimalist. I don’t want lots of shoes and clothes. If my home burned down tomorrow, I would lose all the things so why set myself up for so much loss. Strangely enough burlesque will force you to accumulate stuff. The costume, the props, the left over trim from the costume, the tools for making the props, the shoes, and the costume bag. The more acts you have the more stuff you have. Sure you recycle costume pieces. You still have stuff. Your stuff is multiplying like a Gremlin being exposed to water. It just grows.
- You will have to make a lot of tough choices- Your fiance ask you to choose between marriage or burlesque. You parents ask you to quit performing or you will be disowned. A judge tells you that you will lose custody of your children if you do not find a “respectible” job. You had hoped to take a vacation, but your fans were damaged in transit and now you need a new pair for a big job coming up. That dream of becoming mayor may be a little harder to obtain, and even though there will be a lot of tough choices, you will survive these test. Hopefully, you will find yourself a little bit stronger at the end of each battle.
These are 10 things I wish I’d known when I started out. Can’t say I wouldn’t have embarked on this burlesque journey, but knowing these things may have saved me a little stress and a few bucks.
Here’s another great list of 10 things by Emerald Ace