Is there a crisis in burlesque?

Today I found out about two more established UK performers who have given up burlesque. Both of these were talented, creative and quirky ladies who worked hard and brought a lot to the stage. And they aren’t the only ones; this year we have already lost more than one long-time performer, and there are rumblings from several others about not feeling it as much, any more; myself included.

Others have written thoughtful pieces on giving up and/or the reasons for feeling less than happy with burlesque, Millie Dollar, Tiger Tiger,  Ivy Wilde, Dr Lucky, and there were a few commonalities between these writings;

– It’s not what it used to be: people seem to miss the camaraderie and support of the days when burlesque was newer and more personal.

– The competitiveness, reduced fees and reduced opportunities of an over-saturated scene.

– Personal life vs performing life clashes or imbalances

– The privileging of bling, glitz and looks over creativity, DIY and experimental performance (although the two, of course, are not necessarily mutually exclusive!)

While these things may or may not be new problems for burlesque, what gets me wondering is why performers are choosing to step away rather than fight to change what they would like to see change? I can’t answer for anyone but myself, so here is what I currently feel about burlesque and why I am thinking about stepping back.

Burlesque, at the moment, just isn’t the burlesque I started performing for. While there are still people pushing the envelope, the humour, the oddball fun, the random creativity, the “do whatever the flip you want and see what happens”-ness of it has diminished, from my perspective. Of course, you can still do these things, but its not where the money or the prestige is. I am seeing increased admiration (from performers, promoters and audience) of stereotypical beauty, expensive sparkling costumes, and increased amounts of newcomers who aspire to that kind of performance. And while there is still ample room for quirky, character or story-based acts, it is rarer to see these acts at the top of a bill.

Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, per se, but for me, that isn’t what burlesque should be exclusively or even mainly about. Burlesque should be diverse and subversive and grassroots as well as polished, expensive and celebrating a particular aesthetic. There should be similar amounts of people coming into burlesque who want to be comediennes, clowns, weirdos, experimental artists, story tellers, genderfuckers and boundary pushers, as want to be Swarovski-bedecked queens of burlesque, the next Dita Von Teeses.

So, fight for it, some people say. Make the burlesque you want to be. And I get this, its an admirable sentiment. But to be brutally honest, I don’t know whether that is a fight I want to have. I’m knackered.  And if the experimental side of burlesque is to survive and flourish, it will be led by performers far more talented and creative than me.

So is burlesque in crisis? Is it changing for the worse? I don’t know. Perhaps this is the just the way burlesque is growing, changing, developing. Things can’t stay the same forever. As we get more and more “professional” level shows, the stakes get higher, the pressure increases, and those who can’t make the grade, don’t. But it bothers me when brilliant performers say to me things like:

“I realised if I wanted to get anywhere in burlesque, really, I would have to start doing classic”

“Lots of people weren’t interested in what I did because I wasn’t as beautiful as the other girl I was with, and I was too weird.”

But then we look at the people who are particularly up-and-coming, and we see a fierce, bizarre dancer, a Dita-a-like sylph, a comedienne and circus performer, a showgirl of ample proportions, a bump n grinder, a gender-fucking show boy, so maybe things aren’t always how they seem. That variety is still there, in many ways. I know there are brilliant performers representing all sides of the burlesque coin, and while I yearn for the weird, the crazy, the hilarious and the queer to be as enticing to newcomers as the glamorous, there is still so much life left in the old girl Burlesque, yet.  It will be interesting to see where we go next.


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