As this is my first post as the “Burlesque Blogger” for Asiance Magazine, I want to first explain what “burlesque” is for those who may not be familiar with the term. The word “burlesque” originated as a verb describing an act or gesture that parodies or ridicules something. As a noun it describes a literary, theatrical or musical work that attempts to create a caricature of something. For example, according to the dictionary, one may say, “She struck a ridiculous pose that burlesqued her own vanity” or “the funniest burlesque of opera”. The word has a long history dating back to the 1700s but it was during the Victorian Era that “burlesque” fully presented itself theatrically as a mockery of the upper class. Only the upper class could afford to attend opera and theater which were largely seen as “high art”. As a reaction to the closed class system, the lower class created vaudeville theater shows that often mocked and parodied the upper class attire, diction, and affectations – “burlesque” was born. In the US, American burlesque became popularized from 1920-1960s as a theater experience with extravagant production such as lighting, prop design, live music, elaborate costumes, in other words, THE works! This was a time before “strip clubs” as we know them now existed. And the “tease” still existed in “striptease”. It wasn’t just women appearing on stage already naked and hustling the customers for money in their g-strings. I am partially romanticizing the old days of striptease, because when you talk to any of the legends (such as Bourbon Street staples Rita Alexander, Bambi Brooks, or Tammi True from the Carousel Club, the striptease venue owned by Jack Ruby in Dallas, Texas), they will tell you that what they were doing WAS stripping and they too had to hustle in their way for their times.
My family knows that I am a burlesque performer and producer of several shows in NYC. My Mom have attended several of my shows including “Beatles Burlesque” and most recently she attended a show in Dallas, Texas when I was on my way back to NYC from performing in the 3rd Annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival. She is incredibly supportive even if she thinks this is a “hobby”, and she is always the first person to give me a big hug when I come off stage. But she still has misconceptions that I believe most people have as well. I will address the top four myths normal people such as my mom have about burlesque.
We Strip, Therefore We Have No Other Option
Every performer I know has another job besides burlesque. Some juggle several jobs. Some are art models, dance teachers, choreographers, bartenders, costume and millinery designers, vet assistants, pin-up models, and even web designers like myself. Unlike your usual classic textbook “sad stripper” story, a large percentage of burlesque performers have college degrees and have several other careers in conjunction to performing on stage. I have not met anyone who was so melodramatically driven into stripping. We do it by choice.
We Do “More” Than Perform
This one is just ridiculous but sadly some people believe so. I have never been accosted this way after a performance, but many performers have told me stories where inappropriate requests or insinuations have been made. Chalk it up to occupational hazards which I’ve blogged about more extensively here. Luckily, this rarely happens and when it does it is usually in places where people aren’t familiar with the tradition of burlesque theater, or it happens at a private party. As a producer, I am very direct when working with a new venue and especially if I am booking for a private party. I will describe to the promoters what burlesque is: “Not strippers. Not escorts. No hanky panky.” For example, a promoter once requested girls with “big boobs” which I in turn asked if they would just rather book stripper-strippers instead of burlesquers in rhinestoned corsets, garter belts, feather headpieces, satin elbow gloves, etc. I also added that in burlesque there is more tolerance of many body types. It is more welcoming to bodies that are not defined by the athletic, cosmetically altered stripper aesthetic that became popularized in the 80s.
We Pick Up Men (or Women) at Our Shows
This was something my dear mother has asked me at a show. She noticed that one of the performers was getting chummy with a male audience so she leaned in closer to me and quietly asked, “Is she going to sleep with that man?” I said I didn’t know. How could I know? Everyone is an adult and free to make up his or her own mind about their sex lives. If the performer wanted to take someone home, she could do that anywhere. But I knew what my mom was really asking. Does burlesque make you more promiscuous? I’m no sociologist so I can’t make any “claims” here, but does wearing lipstick make you more promiscuous? Does online dating? I’m sure there are performers who have slept with someone they met at a show just as I’m sure there are performers who have never picked up anyone at a show. I enjoy meeting my fans and I am grateful for their support in attending my shows. Without them, there is no show, and there is no Calamity Chang. And although I am selling seduction and sex, that does not mean I am sexually interested in every freaking person. It’s a job and it’s a business brand I am building. It’s hard for the older generation like my mom to understand. Her generation of Chinese immigrants was concerned first and foremost with providing for their family, assimilating into a new culture, and surviving. Ideas such as “female empowerment”, “being in touch with your sexuality”, and “self expression“ were luxuries they couldn’t afford. If I had become a “Women’s Studies” major at Cornell University, I am sure all the Chang family living AND dead would be rolling over in their graves. So naturally, all this burlesquing, finding expression through acceptance of one’s body, confidence building from the outside to the inside is just plain unfathomable.
We Make a lot of Money
How I wish this were a truth and not a myth! Even though burlesque is becoming more mainstream since Christina Aquilera’s movie and the popularity of the biggest burlesque star out there now – Dita von Tease, we are not rich by any measure. Strippers in strip clubs make a hundred times more than we do in one night. We get paid by acts and in some venues we split the tips. The base pay ranges from city to city, producer to producer, venue arrangement to venue arrangement, but as far as I’ve experienced, I’ve never made more than $300-500 a night and that was on an exceptional night performing out of town. Dita von Tease probably makes the most in our field, but for the rest of us, it’s still a hustle, which is why we all have other jobs because burlesque costumes are expensive. Real corsets cost around $300 plus the rhinestones add up very quickly if you are a purist and only use Swarovski crystals. Not to mention how difficult it is to travel with our big props such as giant feather fans, headpieces, etc. So why do we do it? Because it is our passion. It is exhilarating to awaken the glamour and seduction inside you and inspire others to transcend the monotony of modern life and day-to-day problems and to be transported to a moment of magic, wonderment, and beauty.
If burlesque is becoming more intriguing to you, I highly recommend watching the best documentary out there (in my opinion) called “A Wink and a Smile” – available on Instant Watch too! It’s superbly written, edited, and touching. For a great book to read on the burlesque lifestyle and tips on some basic moves, I recommend Jo Weldon’s book “The Burlesque Handbook” available on Amazon. Jo is a dear friend and the founding schoolmistress of The School of Burlesque in NY where I got my start. To see some clips of my burlesque performances, check out my “After Dark” routine and my promotional reel which will give you an overall idea of my style.