First Published Tuesday, 15 January 2013 on my blog Emerald Ace: Adrift in the World of Burlesque
I am now just over two weeks away from beginning the six week burlesque course I will be teaching, www.nottinghamburlesquelessons.weebly.com (plug, plug). In the run up to the class I thought I'd write a couple of blog posts with my teacher hat on and share a few pearls of my (dubious) wisdom.
In my first blog in this series I thought I would look at ten things I wish I had known (or that some wise burlesque mama-bear had told me) when I started out as a shiny new performer. This list is a relatively personal one for me, and it is by no means exhaustive but I'd love it if experienced performers would use the comments to tell me about other things they wish they had know when they started out, and for newer performers to tell me about the things they wish they knew about now (assuming you know what they are!).
So, shimmying straight in with the list:
This one might sound obvious but you'd be amazed at how little burlesque I had seen when I first started! Between coming up with concepts, choreographing routines, creating costumes and trying to get booked I didn't watch nearly as much burlesque as I probably should have in those early days. It's useful, though, to watch as much burlesque as you can (live for preference, but if time and budget don't permit, then Youtube is your friend). By watching other performers you become familiar with the tropes, clichés and standards of the genre, the different sub-styles (such as showgirl, comedic, gorelesque, etc), costuming tricks, how performers work an audience and all sorts of other vital nuggets. It stops your work becoming too generic because once you know the standards, you'll get a feel for where you can play with them, and it also gives you and insight into how many different way a basic idea can be interpreted.
Watching other performers is invaluable, I didn't do it enough when I first started out and I feel it slowed my progress to becoming a more well-rounded performer.
When I first started out performing I would always look at photographs after a performance and think how plain I looked, especially alongside the other burlesquers. I came from a background of amateur dramatics so I knew that makeup was important for the stage, but it never really dawned on me how much slap you need to trowel on for your look to be striking in burlesque.
This picture is a shot of me performing at the Pitty Patt Club back when I was a newbie performer. As you can see, under the stage lights it looks like I am wearing makeup, but perhaps only about as much as someone might normally wear to a daytime engagement such as work or a lunch. In the photo, it looks reasonable enough, but imagine what the people at the back of the room can see! Probably not much.
For the stage, especially for burlesque, as an exaggerated, over-the-top kind of art form you could probably benefit from wearing a little more so that the audience can read your facial cues clearly (and that you look good in photos!).
Now as a stage performer, I wear a LOT more makeup. In fact, I probably wear a lot more than many performers out there. Stage makeup has become something of a passion of mine! So I'm not suggesting you have to wear as much makeup as I do, and of course, you need to ensure that the makeup you wear is appropriate to your character, but the important thing is to highlight the areas that will help you express emotion and character.
You may also choose to contour or use other stage makeup tricks to help change your face to fit a certain character. In the picture to the right (me performing as young Baba Yaga at the Blue Room Burlesque, 2011) I chose to contour my cheeks as I have quite a flat face and I pictured this character having sharp cheekbones. Also, when wearing a wig I tend to shade a little at the temples to make the join between the head and the wig more natural looking. I have also found that when wearing wigs (especially ones in bright colours or big shapes), wearing a little more makeup can stop it looking like the wig is 'wearing you'.
This was something I learned very quickly but it is still a pet peeve for me now when I see it in new performers. If your music finishes when your act does, it looks complete and professional. If your performance finishes before the song does, it leaves the audience with questions such as, 'Did she get the timing wrong?' or 'Is there more to come?'. I have seen dozens upon dozens of newer performers conclude an act part way through a song, or sometimes even part way through a verse or chorus! It never looks great. This leaves you with two options, you either need to build an act that lasts the entire length of the song you are working to, or you need to edit it to fit your act
I am a big fan of using mixed tracks, so I pretty much always edit my music to fit what I'm doing. There are some very easy editing programmes out there, or you could pay someone to edit your music for you if you need something more complex. Even if you just want the music to fade out, it is much more professional to edit the fade into your track than to ask the DJ to do it blind on the night of the performance.
In this picture of me, performing an early incarnation of my first ever solo act, Emerald's Cupcake (back in 2006) you can clearly see that customising my costume items had never occurred to me. Apart from my hat (it was meant to be a big cherry) and my pasties, both of which I made myself, everything was shop bought and not customised. It didn't even cross my mind that I needed to do it.
A large part of burlesque, however, is showmanship, and having an exciting costume is part of it. There's nothing worse that removing an outer costume layer only to hear a voice in the audience remark 'I've got that bra' (which happened to me, while performing this act!). Customising costume items need not be expensive and you don't have to be a whizz at sewing either, I know many performers who swear by a hot glue gun! And by using ribbon, sequins, beads, lace, crystals or even more unorthodox items (I have seen rubber gloves, cuddly toys and badges to name a few), or by dying items or cutting and re-making them you can make your costume items really express you character, and give the audience something exciting to look at. You can also think about changing clasps, closures and fastenings, as well as how garments come off, to help you create a smoother striptease.
I remember how nervous I was when I first started performing, especially when I first broke out from the troupe I started in and began working solo. I got really worried that people wouldn't like my performances and wouldn't like me. Then, a more experienced, wiser performer reminded me that burlesque audiences (in the main) come to have a great time, to be entertained and to have fun. They want your performance to be good and they're rooting for you. Burlesque audiences, for me, have been for the most part, the most generous, upbeat, welcoming audiences I have ever performed to, and any lone negative voices get lost in the crowd. Nerves are healthy but as long as you offer the audience your best, they will treat you kindly.
When I first started performing I felt that there were particular expectations about what sort of music I should be performing to. In my mind I thought Rockabilly, 50s rock n roll, Swing, Big Band and at a push a Charleston would be acceptable, with perhaps metal or rock music if you were creating acts for a neo-burlesque or alternative themed event. This can be rather limiting and it can lead to lots of performers doing routines to the same few songs. The 'Take it off - Striptease Classics' album is one that most burlesquers have in their collection and I would say that a large amount of us have used a track from it at one point or another.
While there's nothing wrong with using a standard, especially if you really make it your own, you shouldn't feel restricted to only use this sort of music. You can use music from any genre you like, from any era and from any source; just pick something that inspires you and that you won't get sick of. And you don't have to stop there, you can perform to dialogue, sound recordings, silence - anything! Don't believe me? If you've never seen it before, check out this video of Nasty Canasta performing her Car Alarm Fan Dance.
One of the things that threw me when I was new, and that still throws me now if I let it, is watching what other performers are getting up to and making comparisons. It's easy to get downhearted when it feels like other performers are putting out an exciting new act every week, or that everyone is picking up great gigs except you. It's important though to remember that everyone feels like they are lagging behind sometimes, even that person you really look up to. Online especially, a lot of performers will promote themselves by talking about their gigs, their new projects and their achievements but remember this is only half the story. You aren't seeing all their hard work, their frustrations and disappointments and the times when real life gets in the way. Just try to keep going at your own pace and things will come together. If you get too caught up with keeping up with what everyone else is doing you'll take all the fun out of creating and performing burlesque.
If you look at the most successful performers in burlesque they all have strong, distinctive on-stage identities and performance styles and this is important even for newer performers. In my early days of performance I fussed about whether something 'fit' what I thought was 'burlesque' style, whether that be sounds, visuals or movement. The problem with this is that it makes for a lot of fairly generic burlesque. Burlesque gets really exciting when performers begin to shape the genre to fit them, when they follow their skills and passions and create something personal. When I first started experimenting with the genre and how I could make it my own a little more I did receive a voice of dissent from an audience member who stated 'That's not burlesque, Dita von Teese wouldn't do that' and I felt a little deflated, but then I had dozens of people tell me how much they enjoyed my take on the form. People will enjoy your take on burlesque too, so learn the rules and conventions of the genre and then learn how to break them, or at least give them a little bend here and there!
It might sound daft, but when I first started performing I would think nothing of leaving the stage as soon as my music finished and my final pose was over. When I watch early videos of myself back I can see how odd that looks. After your performance has finished, take a moment to enjoy your audience. Look out over the crowd and take a bow, curtsy or wave, or do something in character if you like. Either way, acknowledge your applause and enjoy it. It will make your performance look more complete and finished, the audience will feel acknowledged and it gives you a moment to drink in the rewards of your hard work.
So these are ten things I wish I had known when I was a new performer. I hope you've found them interesting. Now I'd love to hear what you wish you had known when you were new (or now, if you're new now). Please add your own thoughts to the comments section below.
Until the next time,