Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
Roulette Rose of Austin, Texas shares her thoughts on identity and persona in Burlesque, both on stage and off
After writing a little rant about the transformation of my burlesque identity, I was asked to write further about some points that I had touched on. I will preface here that although there are many kinds of performers who are involved in burlesque productions, my experience only allows me to write this from the viewpoint of a dancer, but it is possible that the discussion may be parallel for other kinds of performers. Perhaps you also have experienced transformations in your own burlesque identity, or you have questioned how far you will take that identity.
At this point in time, I feel far from my original concept of what it means to be a burlesque dancer, and I would like to share my experience since it has become important for me to identify as a burlesque dancer most of the time, and mostly to myself more than anyone else.
My original rant mentioned that when I perform, I am being myself 100%. I am not playing a role or a character, I am not playing burlesque dancer, I am not trying to re-create an image or act from a previous time period; but I am being myself- performing a strip tease act. This is important to me to distinguish because when I first started performing burlesque, this was not the understanding that I had of what I was doing.
Before I dive into discussing burlesque identity through my own experience, I would like to share a little about myself. Six years ago, while living in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, I was inspired to look into being a burlesque dancer after a short attempt at being a stripper on the infamous Bourbon Street. When I first started performing burlesque, no one set out to tell me how or what to do to be a burlesque dancer. I had some old burlesque books and videos to gather inspiration from thanks to the troupe that I joined, but when it came to my own burlesque persona, it was all up to me.
As I dived in- I decided to create a fictional character behind the name I chose, without knowing that while it was ok for me to do that, it was not necessary. There were no schools of burlesque, no videos, no guidebooks, and no classes in my neck of the woods. It was all up to me to produce something that I would perform in the troupe’s next show.
I used my middle name and daydreams of vintage Las Vegas casino’s to create the name Roulette Rose, which was at first a fictional rockabilly inspired character with a wilder fictional personality and background then the person I was on a daily basis. Although I was a fan of rockabilly music and all of the vintage crap that one associates with it, while newer acquaintances thought that I was a rockabilly girl, I didn’t perceive my identity as anything other than a cultural mutt.
But something in the air made me feel like this was the way to go for my new persona and that all of the music and costuming needed to reflect this. I am not sure why this compulsion arose so matter-of-factly, other than I quickly saw the family ties between burlesque, pin-up fashion, vintage design and the rockabilly scene. In fact, it is quite humorous to me now, and I see the same grasp for rockabilly and vintage inspired style in many new performers, but that is probably how they learned about burlesque in the first place, so I don’t blame them.
The situation that prompted me to analyze and write an online rant about my identity as a burlesque dancer, came from being asked a question that is often asked to me, by folks who are unfamiliar with burlesque. Someone recently asked me if I had a character or a different persona that I am known for in burlesque. While answering her, I realized the extent of the transformation of my burlesque identity since I first created a fictional character and concept behind my burlesque persona and acts.
In my six years of performing, my identity as a burlesque dancer has always been one that I wrestled with. I have often worried about my longevity and success as a performer due to my initiation of non-burlesque goals and endeavors; but equally unnerving was a fear that changing my identity (to be in sync with how I was naturally changing in my daily life) would also hinder my burlesque career to some degree, or sticking to my burlesque identity could hinder my other careers. I wondered if I was going to hit a glass ceiling if I did not do certain things: maintain a certain look, promote myself in a certain scene, or perform a certain style of burlesque. I was always worried or wondering if something that I did or didn’t do would affect my image: would I be too “neo”, too “classic”, too punk, not rockabilly enough, were my acts with hip hop music going to shun the rocker fans and old folks, was I too safe, too risque, to weird, too tame, too wild? Should I have pin-up style photos, should I allow my tits on Facebook, etc…
Roulette Rose & Nona Narcisse at New Orleans’ Slow Burn Burlesque. Video by Zach Holmes
Somewhere around my third year of performing, I decided to break out of the mold I had cast for myself, because the passion and motivation behind my newer ideas were too strong to deny. This was when I started letting myself be quirkier, a little grandiose, and quite the opposite of rockabilly! This happens to be more inline with the person that I am off stage. Over the last few years, as I let my own natural character come to the forefront of my acts and aesthetic, I have realized that the feelings I had after performing went from being a few minutes of “fun”, to actually being a long-lasting source of personal joy.
Then, there were changes that I made to my physical appearance that made me wonder. I went from having Bettie Page hair to short hair, pink, purple, black, brown, ginger, you name it. And I worried- how would anyone recognize me? Was my new image (pick one) going to affect my acceptance into shows that catered to a certain style? I was told that I was ineligible to audition for a production when I first wanted to become a burlesque dancer, because of the few tattoos that I had at the time were already disqualifying me from having “the look” desired for that style of production, so who is to say that something similar wasn’t going to happen due to my “look” in other ways.
While struggling with this, I had an epiphany: reflecting on my roots in outlaw country, punk rock and hardcore music- personal heroes like Willie Nelson, Mike Ness, Sick of it All, Madball….tough motherfuckers who didn’t bend for anybody- their guiding light was to stay true to themselves, and I decided that that was the only way for me as well. I didn’t want to lose out on opportunities, but I had to go forward with being myself and doing what I wanted to do, even if it meant giving up gigs (which it ultimately did).
Eventually, I used this determination to start a production company with a burlesque cohort of mine, and our goal was to make it a priority to promote productions and dancers with an alternative look and performance style, like ours. I took the fluctuation in identity, and the identity that was denied an opportunity, and I held it high. Very quickly, we were very satisfied with the results.
However, getting deeper within the identity of being a burlesque dancer, I questioned if I should meld the two worlds further, perhaps through my name: should I change my stage name to include my first name, or should I start using my burlesque name as my regular name (at the day job, on paper, etc…). My stage name already includes my middle name, and I decided that I had already come too far to make this kind of change, so I had eventually decided to just bring more attention to my middle name while off stage, and just leave it at that.
In contrast to the ethics I had established for myself, omitting the character concept, and adopting the 100%-me-approach, I noticed something funny in the burlesque world around me.
What I saw was happening throughout each era of social networking: I was seeing more and more “status updates” and posts made by burlesque dancers who were putting a glamourized spin on the topics that they wrote about. This was weird to me, since I know that 99% of dancers out there have to build their careers from the ground up.
The ground up starts in a friendly (and unfriendly) neighborhood bar, and there ain’t no glamour about changing in the beer closet with 6 other women and their suitcases. For the other 1%- I’ve seen the clubs that they had their first year of shows in and I’ve seen the videos of their costume malfunctions- I know that the beginnings are humble, and rock-n-roll at best.
Now I know that we all participate in the game of “smoke and mirrors”, but when it came to some of my peers online writings as opposed to stage presence…I felt uncomfortable. Probably because I had already decided that putting the real me into my acts, also meant putting the real me into my marketing and public dialogue. This attempt by some dancers at replicating the glamour surrounding the dancers from yester-year was a reminder to me that all is not what it seems even within the inside-world of burlesque and that I am going to have to pave my own way.
I got to see the results of my decision on my burlesque identity once I graduated from college and could start traveling again. I finally had the chance to be out in the national scene as a solo performer. This proved to me that my strength is not in the identity that might be perceived of my burlesque persona, but it was in me being myself and putting in the work. In less than a year’s time, I was accepted into two festivals and I booked a solo tour for myself. As silly as it sounds- I did it with multiple hair colors, hair styles, and a wide variety of performances from rockabilly-inspired to hip hop booty-bounces, and from romantic dedication acts to sideshow quirkiness.
I recognize that there is definitely a need for some dancers to straddle identities and to designate when one identity is awake and the other is resting. While I feel that it is important as a human to own an identity and to feel like there are peers or family that you can identify with, I also respect that some women have chosen to keep their burlesque identities separate from their daily lives. I am no stranger to juggling multiple careers or projects, and it is one’s own prerogative as to how to juggle being a burlesque dancer with other aspects of their lives.
At this point in my life, by default, I identify as a burlesque dancer despite not being able to perform 100% of the time, due to relocating, non-burlesque endeavors, and personal struggles. I feel eternally rooted and bonded to the identity, the spirit, and the community of burlesque due to the time, effort, and human connections that I have made through out my burlesque career.
Most importantly, what I have decided for myself, is that I grew as a performer when I threw away the concept of being a character other than what I truly am inside. What you see on stage is the real deal. This means that when I am onstage, I am performing real things about myself: passions, desires, daydreams, quirks, musical taste, dance style, etc.
Perhaps you have wrestled with some identity questions throughout your time spent performing burlesque. I am curious to know what other dancers have considered in regards to their identities both on and off stage and I would love to hear from you either in a comment or via email.
If I can recommend one thing that I discovered through these last few years, it is that I threw away the concept of being a character other than myself. As I mentioned above, being “me” while performing burlesque, has brought me great joy that lasts days after performing. That same joy overflows into other parts of my life, and lets me know that I have made the right decisions for myself all along.
Roulette Rose first established her burlesque roots in New Orleans, LA, but she currently lives in Austin, TX. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology- with a Cultural focus, from the University of New Orleans, through which she has explored concepts of identity in cultures around the world. She also considers herself a music nerd and a wine geek.