Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
In June I performed as a guest performer at the student showcase of the Pink Kitten Dance School. It was a great show, but also a really interesting experience. I have performed at many shows with at least one newcomer on the bill, and have given stage time to many at my own shows. But this was the first time I had ever performed alongside a whole group of newcomers. The wonderful women at this show were performing their first ever routine – a couple of group performances as The High Voltage Vixens (fab name!!), for which they had been training since around February. The atmosphere backstage was electric – the euphoria palpable as they returned from their first routine. They all buzzed with excitement as they chattered eagerly about wanting to do it all over again, standing around in their pasties when minutes before many had been shy about getting dressed into those costumes, and I was happy to be caught up in it all.
When I first started out I attended the very same dance school. At the time it was run by a different teacher and didn’t have a studio of it’s own. The entire setup was different, and no showcase opportunities were offered – something that I think is completely invaluable and should be offered by all teachers teaching students who have the intention of taking the stage. After a few weeks of repetitive lessons, I had learned all I was going to and decided to move on. I started to create my own routines, network and promote myself and suddenly I was performing my first ever public performance. As lovely as everyone was backstage, including performers I had idolised for some time, I was largely on my own. Looking back, I wouldn’t change this, times were different and this suited me better than anything on offer at the time. But, I will admit, it was a joy to experience, vicariously, what those students experienced the night they first performed.
We spend so much time focusing on why people choose to do burlesque, what sparked their interest, that we often skip over how huge the decision is to take the step from that interest or classes to actually performing on a stage. Whether they start this journey as an individual like myself or as a group with a nurturing dance school of supportive teachers and fellow performers, we all make that decision to take that first step onto the stage. For many that step can be bigger than even they realised. For myself, a born extrovert who enjoys being mostly naked, it didn’t feel that big at all. It wasn’t until I looked back on it afterwards that I realised the enormity of what I had done. Once you take that first step you can either keep going, or retreat. And this has nothing to do with stage fright – you either love it or you don’t, if you don’t love it then it’s time to step off. If you knew on that first step how much time and money you’d end up investing, the massive world into which you’d be entering with all it’s good and bad points, perhaps you might have chosen differently? Probably not.
Inspired by my experience backstage with the High Voltage Vixens and my own reflections on my performing life, I decided to chat with other performers about their first experiences of burlesque and how they have grown as performers. The responses I received were really eclectic and a constant reminder that our reasons and experiences are just as varied as our performances themselves.
– Contributions from Bella Rouge, MaiTai Tiger, Machete Rose, Lady Lolly Rouge, Teezy Overeazy, Penny Dreadful, Angelique Dominique, Jemima Honeypot, Violet Blaze,
Fantastic Ms Fanny, and Lilly Laudanum –
Developing an interest in the interesting:
For some, the journey into burlesque can be an emotional and inspiring story, for others almost just happenstance. For myself it was hardly even premeditated – I had seen burlesque shows and had an interest in it for many years before I decided to check out a class and see if it was for me. I sort of fell into it. For others it can be so much more.
Swindon-based performer, Bella Rouge, shared her very personal introduction to burlesque – “After my marriage ended and I lost a whole heap of confidence , I decided to turn things around and do things that I’d always wanted to do. I have always had a passion for the vintage scene, hair, makeup and clothes, and adored burlesque, but never had the guts to go ahead with it.” Attending a Bristol based workshop with Keda Breeze was the turn around Bella needed, and the start of her journey in burlesque.
Like Bella, MaiTai Tiger, one of the aforementioned High Voltage Vixens, grew an interest from vintage – “I first developed an interest in burlesque though old movies and the glamour of them and the amazing fashions from that era. After finding out about Pink Kitten dance school I plucked up the courage to apply after about a year.”
Some performers come to burlesque because of an interest in another form of dance or even sports. For Bristol-based funny girl Machete Rose it was a continuation of a sport she no longer took part in – “I was drawn to burlesque because it captured so many things that I already love – performance, dancing, dressing up and having fun! I spent a big part of my teenage life learning routines as a synchronised swimmer so after I’d finished, there was a big performance gap in my life. I think this is what prompted me to work further on acts to continue getting the buzz on stage.” For the charming Lady Lolly Rouge it was a replacement for former life in dancing – “I first stumbled across Burlesque whilst studying for my MA degree at DeMontfort University in Leicester. I wanted to join a society that would maintain my dance background but be something a little bit different. It was the first year of the ‘Demon Belles Burlesque Society’ (Which was the first Burlesque Society in the UK), so it was something exciting and new for us all.”
Of course, I’m not the only extrovert out there. Lolly continues – “We had a great time putting on shows, doing workshops and dressing up for photo shoots. I’d performed from a young age and had always loved being the centre of attention, (often making my family watch my Spice Girl dances), so couldn’t wait to get on the stage. Some of the girls were nervous about taking their clothes off in front of an audience but after the buzz of the first show it’s fair to say we were all hooked!”
For some it is a way of making friends in a new town with a shared interest. When Teezy Overeazy made the move from Ireland to Wales she “didn’t know anybody and needed to make friends, fast. I wanted to do dance but didn’t know what type. I found a one off burlesque classic fan dance class with Missy Malone and decided to go along and see if it was for me before deciding to pay for a full 6 week burlesque course.”
Glamour and creativity are two of the most cited reasons that many have come to burlesque, and this is still an aspect that runs through people’s burlesque lives although usually on the surface! Of the types of people attracted to burlesque, they often gravitate to each end of the scale of extrovert and introvert – those who were born to be a spectacle, and those who want to bring out their hidden inner diva.
The first time:
The first time we perform stays with us throughout our careers, no matter how much we grow and evolve as performers and personas. My own first performance was memorable for me for many reasons, not least because I was sharing the bill with Missy Malone, someone who I greatly admire. Teezy Overeazy understands the excitement that comes with this – “I remember thinking ‘my friends in the audience are seeing my boobs!’ and ‘OMG I’m on the same bill as Diva Hollywood and Glorian Gray!’”
Also memorable are the technical issues that can arise regardless of whether it is your first or hundredth performance. For me the sound setup was unbalanced and so although the audience could hear it just fine, I couldn’t hear my track anytime the audience clapped and cheered! Thankfully, I had rehearsed the hell out of that act (an early version of my signature routine – Too Hot To Hula), and could have done it with my eyes closed. The experience was important to me, both the performance itself, but also the show, backstage and the audience – it all informed the performer I’ve continued to grow into.
Certainly, my music issues are not the only problems performers have had in their first performance, not that we would let it put us off at all – if anything it teaches us early an important lesson in performing – how to carry it off when something goes wrong.
Penny Dreadful confides that her debut performance was harder work than she had expected – “My debut performance was a bit of a nightmare. Problems started to emerge, when I arrived at the venue (which had been changed…I hadn’t been informed of this, I only noticed when checking the event on facebook.) The organiser was late arriving, very late! Then she informed me that every other performer had dropped out- the alarm bells were starting to ring. The venue had been changed from a lovely bistro bar in the city center to a grotty pool hall hidden behind a car park. A dressing room and full length mirror had been promised, but now we had to make do with changing in the toilets, miles away from the ‘stage’. No one had bought tickets, and all of a sudden the event was free entry and altogether had an air of unprofessionalism about it.” Having to learn quickly that sometimes we all end up working with a bad promoter, Penny made the most of it – “Despite all that I had an amazing debut, my friends turned out to wish me good luck and whooped, hollered and cheered all the way through my performance. All my nerves vanished and I had the time of my life. I remember the unbelievable confidence it filled me with that night.”
Angelique Dominique had her own issues – “My first performance was at Annabel’s Cabaret and Discotheque on June the 7th 2012; it was the Kitty’s Dolls Burlesque, Dolly Delights ‘The Royal Jubblies’ showcase! I was attempting a sort of ‘show girl’ style fan dance to ‘In My Pocket’ by The Cat Empire. It was far from perfect; it was a little messy, my costume was a tad makeshift, I performed barefoot because my heels were too high and my tassel fell off at the end (thank god for my feathery friends shielding me!). But my lasting memory of the night was the love and support that was given to me by the girls backstage.” Angelique also raises the importance support backstage can have – “Everyone that night knew it was my first time and they helped me so much. In particular my friend Miss Sam Buca, who gave me so many hints and tips, held my hand backstage and didn’t leave my side until I was off the stage and finished. I am eternally grateful to her and everybody else who’s taken me under their wing. I’m very lucky to be part of such a lovely burlesque community!”
Jemima Honeypot, another member of the High Voltage Vixens, echoes the sentiment – “I remember few things about the night, it went so quick, the maniacal grin on my face as I was performing and nothing went wrong, the roar of the crowd as each item of clothing came off and the exhilaration when we came off stage the joy and freedom we all felt! Before the show we were very modest – we were all wandering around in our pasties afterwards too keyed up to care!! The other part of the night that stands out to me was Tiger Tiger, It was amazing to meet someone new who had been on the Bristol Burlesque scene for a while, the encouragement before the show and her support when we came off was brilliant.” MaiTai Tiger confirms this “On the night of the showcase it helped to have performers new and experienced to talk to and help with the performance nerves and just to talk to which made me aware of how close and helpful the wider burlesque community is and how lucky I am to now be apart of it. It has helped to have a great teacher (Pink Kitten’s Poppy Von Tarte) to lead me into the world of burlesque that has made the whole experience fun, confidence building and really enjoyable.”
Despite the excitement, nerves in one way or another can also play their part. Brighton based performer, Violet Blaze comments – “I did a burlesque course with Missy Fatale, and the graduation ceremony was held at Proud Cabaret, must have been at least 200 people there… maybe more actually. I was put at the end of a line up of 18 other girls, with Missy closing the show. So that was pretty nerve racking being the one to go before my teacher! I hardly spoke backstage. This is still the case when I do big shows like competitions etc, I really try to focus all my energy on my performance.” She also mentioned an additional aspect to her debut that some performers may be able to identify with – the presence of family members who might not totally approve – “My mother was in the audience, even though I asked her not to come as she wouldn’t enjoy it. (I was right.. she didn’t). It took her a long time to get used to the idea, it wasn’t until I won Burlesque Idol that she really saw that this was a new career path for me and is now incredibly proud.. which means more to me than any crown I receive.”
Although there are many reasons to remember your debut, most performers talk of the feeling it gave them. Whether a rush, a sense of accomplishment, or just sheer excitement, there is a thrill to any kind of performance, but perhaps because we expose so much of ourselves in burlesque (literally and figuratively), it feels so much more expansive than can often be put into words.
Lady Lolly Rouge explains that the feeling of her first performance has always stayed with her – “My first performance was at the Demon Belles first Christmas show in Dec 2007. Our troupe routine was to some Christmas song where we undressed Santa (our leader Cindy Minx) down to her tassels. Our costumes were very basic and nothing really matched except for our tassels that we had made at one of our workshops. But with that said I just remember feeling a part of something very special where we all came together, different shapes, sizes and shyness levels and united in entertaining the crowd. A lot has changed since that first performance; marriage, kids, life, etc. But the feeling it gives me every time I come off stage is still very much the same.”
Other lasting feelings? Bella Rouge says of her first performance, a double act “It was so well received the crowd loved it and the applause did not stop! I was asked back onto the stage to do an improvised solo performance! My lasting memory is of how easy it was to do it, I was ever so nervous and lots of the people at the festival I knew, so it was ace watching all their faces, and all of the comments I got afterwards. I still love that!” Machete Rose – “I think the lasting feeling was the liberation of finding a physical platform from which I could explore the crazy narratives and themes that exist inside my head whilst nurturing my love of fancy dress and dance.” Violet Blaze – “I had never heard rapturous applause like that in my life. That was when I knew I had to do it again. Straight away Little Lady Luscious booked me for her upcoming show the next month… and I was on my way. That memory will last a lifetime.”
To learn and grow as performers we must always keep moving forward, and sometimes looking back is a great way to inspire this momentum. To see how far you have come already is often great motivation. It can be satisfying to realise you have identified an area for improvement and worked on it. For me, that was often timing – I found myself rushing the first part of my act and getting ahead of my music. One of the ways I found to counter this is that now many of my acts start slowly, including my reworked Too Hot To Hula – I take time to walk on stage and connect with the audience rather than rushing into the routine.
Angelique Dominique shares this aspect of performance – “My dancing has got a lot better; I’ve learned not to rush so much and to enjoy the audience!” And as with most performers she started with some more commonplace ideas whilst growing into her own style – “When I first started, I experimented with a lot of generic ideas to a lot of very typical music to help explore my creativity. I’ve retired a lot of them now but since then I’ve started to come up with routines that are a lot more refined and true to my style.”
Developing a personal style and character is, quite understandably, the thing performers identified most when looking back on their time as a performer. Machete Rose explains “I’ve definitely zoned in on Machete’s character and have felt braver to trust in my ideas and bring them to the stage. It seems every act just gets more and more outlandish! Death is a big theme for my acts as I find it such an emotive and rich subject to work with. At first it was more to have a different ‘punchline’ ending but now I like to play with strong themes and burlesque technique so it engages the audience on different levels. I hope that as I move forward, I continue to be drawn to topics that have a strong sense of light and dark so that I’m able to push how I interact with both the intellectual and visual aesthetics of a piece. I want people to think ‘I did NOT see that coming!’ ha ha!”
Lolly comments “Working with Andrea Philips at T&A Burlesque, has taught me just how important your facial expression is in conveying your story to an audience. Another major change for me is that I now look into the audience instead of over them because I like to feel a connection with them. I love it most when someone is looking a bit grumpy, I tend to send my hip thrusts in their direction.”
Readers may know from my previous blogs that empowerment was never a factor for me in performing. I’ve never lacked in confidence, and burlesque was purely a creative pursuit. Even so, I admit that regardless, it has increased my confidence in many aspects of my life – the difference between the things I used to not say out loud that I now do. I’ve never been a nervous person, and I only really get nervous before performing when it is a new routine. In my real and working life there are sometimes occasions where I might have gotten nervous in the past, but now? I tend to find myself thinking ‘why is this making me nervous? Surely nothing can be nerve-racking after taking clothes off in public?’. It is especially in body image that many burlesquers report an increased confidence.
Teazy agrees “I have become more confident in my body image, I know I’m no supermodel but I also know I don’t need to be in order to be sensual and sexy with my body.”
But this is a two way street. Personally, I’ve put on weight since I first started performing and it took me a while to make my peace with that – that peace came the day I realised that I liked cake more than being skinny so I just needed to get over it, and work that shit on stage! Despite burlesque being a body confident industry in theory, it isn’t always that way for everyone.
Penny Dreadful confides “Sadly I feel less confident as a performer nearly a year on, struggling with my weight means I feel less sexy, less confident and less motivated.” She also raises the point of whether burlesque can realistically make a career, and how that can dampen the spirits – “Alongside this I’m yet to meet someone who can call burlesque their full time job, and as I look towards graduating and starting a career I feel less and less able to continue with burlesque as anything more than a hobby. Although I would love to do what I love for money (something which is yet to happen) I have not found a way to make this possible.”
On a lighter note, most performers I was in contact with had a positive outlook and exciting plans for the future. Lolly enthused “I am now privileged to pass on the support I received to the ladies at T&A Burlesque in Weston and also to the Pin Up UK contestants where I am an ambassador for the UK competition. In the future I hope to meet more fabulous people and to just keep developing as a performer. Burlesque has been a way for me to be creative with costuming, make up, music and choreography. I can’t say that rhinestones and pretty sparkly things don’t dominate my mind most of the day. I admit it, I am a rhinestone addict! It has been an art form where I can be what I create, an alter ego where I have complete control of entertaining an audience. For that time on stage I am not a mother, I am nobody’s wife, sister, daughter. I am Lady Lolly Rouge.”
Bella comments – “I have found my style, vintage, comedic! I have tried again to do a more showgirl, sexy, sultry routine and I can’t! I can stop smiling, I am all about the facial expressions! I have toned costumes down, more of a vintage theme to them. I have moved from the under bust corset to the girdle and soon I hope to get down to just pants and get my belly out! I unfortunately had to take time out due to a broken ankle just as I was getting more established and booking up gigs every weekend, it has been hard getting back on the scene because of this. This is what I hope to change! I have had the pleasure of working alongside some amazing performers and continue to give newcomers to the opportunity to perform at our regular Bands & Burlesque show.”
Teazy ends that she now has a “much greater knowledge and less naivety about the burlesque scene then when I first started out. I realise it’s not just feathers and rhinestones, and that it’s bloody hard work.” Something that it is good to realise from the outset! Violet adds “I can only hope that I continue to develop and make my acts the best they possibly can be. I am forever criticizing myself and my costumes, so I am always trying to make it better. The moment you think your routines needs no more work is the moment you should stop. I don’t want that moment to come.”
Of all the stories that have come from the contributors, two stood out so as to include them in whole. Fantastic Ms Fanny has probably one of the most interest first time burlesque stories going, and such an eloquent way of telling it –
My first time…
We were sitting on the sofa watching ‘From Dusk til Dawn’; I was drinking warm beer and he was rolling a…hang on, wrong first time. For a start no one gave me a round of applause afterwards, which in hindsight would have made it marginally more enjoyable….anyway…
My name is Fanny and I am a clown. I don’t wear a red nose, or silly shoes, and I very rarely throw cream pies at people’s faces (and certainly never for the enjoyment of the general public) and yet I am a genuine, bona fide clown.
In my first year of university I studied clowning in the style of Lecoq for 6 months, and fell in love with the idea of playing the fool. I tried my very hardest, and pulled out all the stops to make audiences wet their proverbial pants at the mere sight of me. Unfortunately I was very, very bad at it. No one laughed at me. Not so much as a pity wee. I was despondent – how was I ever going to get a regular spot on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, marry Bill Bailey and bear his furry offspring if I couldn’t even get a bunch of stoned theatre students to laugh at me?
In true first year student spirit, I decided it was all my lecturer’s fault and pretended the whole fiasco had never happened. Life continued, I spent a term hugging trees and froclicking in straw bales (got a very good grade for that, Devon girls know how to roll in hay)and pushed clowning to the back of my mind.
Flash forward 12 months. I had recently been dumped, and gone through the inevitable associated binge drinking, weight loss and piercing frenzy. I started working at a cabaret club where I met a bunch of beautiful (and admittedly rather skinny) ladies who were, in fact, burlesque dancers. They wore beautiful costumes and had impeccable make-up and hair, and generally looked the mutt’s nadgers, and I decided that I definitely wanted to be a bit more like them, and a bit less like me. So I got myself a corset, and a pair of gloves, and a big bottle of gin, and wrote my dissertation proposal about how I was going to turn myself into a burlesque dancer, but in a really, y’know, academic way. Emphasis on the academic, and only a little bit of tit. Promise.
Due to my amazing powers of writing super-awesome words that make people think I know what I’m talking about, I got the go ahead to go off and learn the art of the tease, and write all about it in my dissertation portfolio. ‘Excellent’, I thought. ‘Really brilliant. Yeah. Erm….so what do I do now then…..? Well obviously I’m going to have another gin, and then I should probably go and get some pretty pictures taken of me looking really pretty in pretty stuff. That should cover the first chapter.’
So that’s what I did. Only when I got in front of the camera I found it very difficult to feel really pretty in pretty stuff. I didn’t feel remotely pretty in my corset or gloves or high heels, due in large part to the fact that they made me feel like a stuffed piggy that had been strategically posed for comedy value. And actually, what I really wanted to do was pull silly faces, and jiggle my wobbly parts, and wear my pants on my head. So that’s what I did. And like a chorus of angels from the heavens, the gift of laughter arrived in my satin and fishnet clad lap. Finally, someone was laughing at me. Huzzah!
Six months later I stood in front of a room full of my peers, academic tutors and a few stragglers who had gotten lost during their campus tour, and performed my first, official burlesque striptease. To the tune of ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ by Doris Day I took off nearly all of my clothes, leaving nothing but some pants, sparkly tassels and my now signature bowler hat (the only remaining sign of my early clowning failure). But the best part was to come. After performing my routine, during which people laughed so much I felt certain there would be at least one embarrassing puddle to clear up afterwards, I took my bow, picked up my notes and gave a 15 minute lecture on the academic nature of my performance. In my pants, and with considerably more tit that I could ever have imagined.
My first burlesque time was the first time I had ever felt that I was genuinely really good at something, and quite sensibly, I decided that was probably something worth sticking with for a while. Five years later and I am still in love with clowning, only now I call it something else. Burlesque opened the door to one of the most enjoyable aspects of my life – making people laugh. My acts have come a long way since I stood in front of the Assistant Dean of my university and explained why I like getting naked for strangers, and once I nailed funny I was finally able to start thinking about all the other pretty, sexy stuff that had once seemed so unrealistic. I discovered that funny can also be sexy, and that people like it when you pull comedy props out of your underpants, and that they really like it when you wear oversized moustaches. Most of all I discovered that I really like being me, both onstage and off. And especially when I make people wet their pants.
Lilly Laudanum is Wales’s go to girl! Promoter, costumier and headline performer with a strong performance background – she shared with me her journey into burlesque –
Lilly’s Hysterical History
I was first interested in burlesque after working with my cousin’s group Circus Delerius in the early 90s. But I didn’t know exactly what it was back then! Circus Delerius were a group of mime artists who met whilst being trained by Jacquez LeCoq in Paris (just like to say, I’ve never been trained by LeCoq, my work with them was a speaking character role, and basically ushering the audience about!). My cousin did an amazing, disturbing and grotesque parody of Mr Punch, which is in the style of traditional burlesque. I also was a fan of Derek Jarman and his film Jubilee in particular, it’s Jordan’s punk ‘burlesque’ portrayal of Britannia that shaped my teenage years (embarrassingly I thought I was her!). So when I got into modern burlesque just before I moved to Wales, I recognised certain aspects. As an actress in London but ‘very resting’ actress in Wales, I was looking for a creative outlet and burlesque was it!
As with most performers first burlesque stage experience, mine was with a group put together for a Lollipop Lounge show in 2009. We learned the routine from Claire the producer that night (highly NOT recommended!). Yes, that night changed my life. I met DeeDee who I went on to perform with as part of the Bay Belles (and she’s played a huge part in Bluestocking Lounge, compering the shows, running classes). Yes, it was nerve-wracking but the excitement was worth it. It was also a memorable experience for a very wrong reason – someone had smashed a wine glass on the stage and I trod in an inch long shard of glass. I carried on the performance though, but looked at the stage after, which was smeared with blood. Thank goodness for Missy Malone and her first aid and antiseptic!
Top tips! If you are going to hit the stage, never EVER make up a routine on the day. Have a very polished and rehearsed routine. And make sure someone sweeps the stage in between performers.
I have always performed in the character style (and those of a mostly hideous or historical persuasion) so the characters I create are an extension of my interests. When I first started performing with the Bay Belles, we did go for a few ‘dance-based, showgirl-style’ numbers but as we got more honest with ourselves and realised that burlesque isn’t about ‘dance’ or high heels, our acts reflected that – we went from some rather generic playing card sparkly number to portraying Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. You can see the evolution.
And finally, three things I have learned since I first hit the stage:
Burlesque isn’t about how high your heels are. If you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them on stage. You will look like a fool. Wear a heel height (if you are wearing heels, that is) that you are comfortable in and wear them to practise.
To Entertain. If you don’t entertain the audience, or make eye contact with them, you shouldn’t be on a stage.
To love what you do, to be true to yourself (if you’re not a dancer, don’t dance!) and to make your act an extension of yourself.