January 11, 2013

Burlesque Classic Strip Tease Ruse

I have several friends who are burlesque performers.  I have never been into burlesque myself, and have, in fact, had quite an aversion to it.  I chalked that aversion up to being expected to pay to watch unseasoned performers clumsily prance around, a problem rife in the burlesque world as well as the bellydance world, with which I am more familiar (too many performers in the wrong venues--that is, billing themselves as professional before achieving the talent to merit that claim). In the spirit of open-mindedness and challenging myself, I'm diving into the deep end by taking a Burlesque 101 class, trying to learn more about the genre and why I have such strong opinions about it.

I've only had one class so far, but have already learned a couple things.
1.  This genre is accessible.  You don't have to have much talent to bump, grind, or shimmy, and really you can be successful with a simple walk.  Which explains why so many people seem to love it, from the performers' perspective.  I'm glad they're having fun. (Please don't make me watch you until you have built up some talent in your presentation, however simple it may be.)

2.  This point is more of an exploration of a thought I had after watching a Classic Strip Tease by a woman considered to be one of the best, as one of our homework videos. Watching it alone, I was bored bored bored. She bored me with 8 minutes worth of the same, overdone, unimaginative, stock movements (knees cocking, hair flipping, shoulder shimmy, arm up overhead in Ta-Da presentation) as she undressed.  She infused zero character into the act.  She gave me no reason to care about her act, so I didn't.  I was shocked that I was the only one in my class of 10 people who felt this way.  The only point one woman raised that I could agree with, is that (at least) she had musicality.  (Please don't make me watch you do something to music if you haven't yet mastered musicality.  This should be a baseline, not something to be lauded in a performing art).  Upon further reflection, this is what I have determined:
I find the ‘classic strip tease' to be desperate.  I can’t imagine another reason that someone would perform one (desperate for attention, desperate for validation, etc) and I can’t imagine another reason that someone would truly enjoy it (so desperate for intimacy that watching a stranger on stage undress somehow makes sense to the audience member, or so desperate to be validated in their own sexiness that somehow they can project what they perceive as confidence onto someone that they wish they could be like).  Two people having sex has the potential to be most intimate experience possible—and it’s the hint of this intimacy which makes things genuinely sexy.   The ‘classic strip tease’ in the setting of a burlesque performance lacks intimacy, though.  It’s a feigned pre-sexual staged experience which is ultimately the exact opposite of intimate:  the ‘classic strip tease’  is shallow, empty, unfulfilling.  It’s gauche, no matter how dressed up in elegant clothing, jewels, lingerie, coiffed hair it may be, and offers nothing of substance.  (Which, perhaps, is why they call it a tease.)  And if that’s the case (that it’s a shallow, empty, unfulfilling display), I don’t understand the whoops and hollers, the cheering and whistling from the audience.  The entire scene including performer and audience members seems so sad to me.  It seems like the appropriate response would not be cheers, but crestfallenness, beaten-down-edness, pity, sadness.  To realize how desperate all these people are is so sad.  I’m saddened by the desperation of humanity.  I’m disgusted by humanity’s impatience to cave to that desperation (performing a classic strip when there are other burlesque options, cheering at a classic strip) instead of working toward something meaningful, deep, rich, truly intimate, and therefore truly sexy (if that's what you're after).
That’s why I prefer the other type of burlesque (what’s it called, again?), where the point is to challenge/spoof/mock/make-a-joke.  Whether or not the performer actually delivers, at least there’s a platform for true, authentic content. 
Even within this sort of burlesque, though, I still think too many people end up relying on the (false) crutch of blatant sexual appeal.  It’s a ruse, and I’m sad that people have the wool pulled so far over their eyes not to recognize it when it stares them in the face.  It’s such a cowardly, lazy crutch to use; it takes advantage (in the worst sense of the word) of the desperation of your audience, knowing that you can hook them simply by feigning sexiness, and also indicates that you don’t believe you have enough substance in your act to let it carry itself.  What an embarrassment to find oneself won over as an audience member by that cheap trick, confusing visible flesh and codified flirtation with intimacy and authentic sexiness.  
I'm not condemning the strip tease entirely--I think if you have enough self awareness as a performer to realize you're playing on your audience's weaknesses, then the honest, mature place for you to strip is in a stripper bar.  If you're clear that you're a desperate person who wants to see some flesh, then have at it at a stripper bar!   What I have a problem with is the self-delusion and denial of the desperation. If you're not self-deluded, then you will embrace the moniker "Stripper" instead of  "Burlesque Artist" when you do a 'classic strip tease'.  If you are not desperate, and you tell stories while taking off your clothes, okay, then maybe you're a "Burlesque Artist".  

I am taking this class and writing this post as an effort in self-discovery.  Therefore, I welcome any comments or challenges you may have to share.  


Cari said...

There is a group (I'm NOT calling them a 'troupe' as that implies talent) that opens for a funk music group called Here Come the Mummies when they come to town. The Mummies are great. The dancers...are fucking terrible. Out of two shows that I've seen them, only 1 dancer was worth watching. The others did the predictable removal of gloves, lots of walking to and fro, unpracticed fumbling removal of layer after layer of 'underthings'. They each have on two bras, two panties, a waist cincher, a bustle made of feather boas, and tons of makeup. And they've all picked some boring jazz-ish song (a la Hey Big Spender). The only interesting one chose a fast tempo song, wore cowgirl outfit complete with chaps, and actually SMILED!!! She seemed to be having fun, which made us have fun. Trust me, there weren't many 'whoop's with the others because they were boring. But this girl seemed to enjoy herself while the rest seemed to think they were hot and the audience would be remiss not to watch them. I'm not impressed.

MJ said...

The Hubba Hubba Revue in Oakland puts on a fun cabaret/burlesque show weekly. One of my favorite performers is a pole dancer called Kara Nova: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygcrUmVvuHY (start it at 1:00).

There used to a be a place called Forty Deuce in Los Angeles with the most incredible burlesque dancers as well, classic shimmy/fringe/pasties but also super duper athletic--they stripped, hung from the plumbing pipes in the ceiling, and did flips in a specially constructed bead curtain, all with a live, three-piece band that was incorporated into the show. The 40 Deuce girls/band only perform sporadically now, but here's a page containing a kinda cheesy and sweaty, but otherwise evocative, video of what they did: http://www.emagascene.com/weblog/onthescene/2010/11/burlesque_is_back_on_the_scene.html. Wish I could find a video of a whole show, because it's mesmerizing and impressive. And hot.