But I Am A Good Girl – Behind Burlesque

It's a short dance that either begins or ends naked to music. [...] Burlesque is an evolving term which includes an aesthetic, of sparkles and eyelashes and high heels and fancy dresses and nudity and femininity and comedy. It's also now become more and more a lifestyle. But burlesque has always been, and I believe it will always be, the lowest of the low entertainment. Because really, who are we? Just some stripper from New York City.

I will be honest with you, I was thinking of telling you about the history of burlesque when things took a turn and I ended up managing this article differently. I had the enormous pleasure to ask some questions to the outstanding burlesque professional performer Hazel Honeysuckle and with a special guest like her, this couldn’t possibly be an ordinary article. So hold on to your pasties because we are going to take a dip in a glittery ocean!

Meet The Delicate Flower

International performer on legendary stages such as the Borgata in Atlantic City and the Slipper Room in NYC, Hazel Honeysuckle is a fine gem in the classic burlesque scene. Crowned “Princess of Southern Exposure” at the Great Southern Exposure Pageant” and 1st runner-up at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival in 2015 & 2016; awarded Golden Pastie for “Most Lovable Performer” at the NY Burlesque Festival and named in the worldwide Top 50 Burlesque Performers; Hazel was also featured in the documentary “Getting Naked” and for a cameo in two must-watch TV series such as House of Cards and Orange is The New Black. She’s currently performing in the show “Absinthe” at the glorious Caesar Palace in Las Vegas

WHAT IS BURLESQUE

Good and honest question. And I would love to answer that, despite the fact that no one really knows what burlesque is. I would say it’s an art that features some dancing and performers usually take their clothes off, but really that would be a very poor definition of it. But there is something I know for sure: It was born as something people used to escape from their reality, to tickle their fantasies and to taste the thrill of taboo. 

History can come handy though. Words of burlesque have been spoken as early as the 17th century around what it is considered to be one of the highest forms of art: theatre. Coming from the Italian “burlesco” and “burla” (joke, mockery), this entertainment genre was pretty popular in the past, especially in Victorian Great Britain. Hold your horses people, I can feel your pointy finger from distance: no clothes used to be taken off at the time, or at least, not yet. British burlesque met America during the 1840s and from that moment the two took pretty different paths. Striptease merged with burlesque at the beginning of the 20th century and the focus got more and more on naked human bodies, making New York City the cradle of this very particular extravaganza. In Europe, burlesque was carried on by the French with can-can dancers at the famous Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère. Right after the pinup era, burlesque got more quiet, even if it never really disappeared, only to return in the late 90s with artists like Dita Von Teese and Dirty Martini

BURLESQUE TODAY

In the early 2000s, burlesque suddenly made a big comeback. I recall a huge revival on the topic when the movie “Burlesque” came out, with show biz stars like Christina Aguilera and Cher, everyone wanted to wear a corset and live a glamourous fairy tale in LA. Of course, there is a proper armour underneath a façade of glitter. Being a burlesque dancer means you need to be a performer in the first place, an empty stage might be very unforgiving of the shy. Then, you must be able to dance and move in order to make that stage yours for real. Not many people in my life know that before becoming a musician and many other things, I used to be a ballerina. Yeah, yeah, the one with pink ballet shoes and white ballet skirt. I was just a child (I stopped taking classes when I was 13) but the way those dance classes shaped my body and my personality is something that I will forever treasure. I probably wouldn’t know how to move when I headbang on stage today, I owe so much to all that time spent stretching muscles to put a leg behind my head almost effortlessly. 

So what does it take to build the skills you need? Hazel seems to be very specific about the “burlesque starting kit”: 

The best way to get a head start in burlesque is to educate yourself. Go to see live shows if you can (or virtual shows if you're in some kind of global pandemic)! YouTube has a wealth of burlesque performances, but remember to be very careful that you never copy another performer's costume, choreography or act concept. Read books about burlesque history, and check out Jo Weldon's Burlesque Handbook, which is widely available online. Reach out to performers who inspire you; seasoned performers may offer mentoring or act creation sessions. Take classes if you can, either in person or online. Create acts that excite and entertain YOU, and that passion will translate to the audience when you are on stage. When creating your first acts, don't feel the need to invest tons of money in the costume, you can always upgrade if the act becomes a success. Sequins are just as sparkly as rhinestones, and so much cheaper! Above all, remember that burlesque is an art form that breaks the fourth wall, and is a tease between the performer and the audience. Eye contact, facial expressions and personality will take you much further than a pile of rhinestones or a perfectly executed dance move.

Talking about sparkly without talking expensive doesn’t seem to work, does it? Ah well, being a resourceful person does not concern only the act itself, but all the things included in the fun package of Legos too. For instance, Hazel has some superb sewing skills and she manages to create some very fine pieces of clothing for her acts on a budget: 

I do create all of my own costumes, with the exception of corsets. Over the past eleven years, I have gained the sewing knowledge to create very elaborate costume pieces, and also made quite a few mistakes! I would highly suggest that any burlesque performer get themselves a sewing machine (no need to spend a lot) and learn to make basic changes to garments. Again, YouTube is your friend in teaching specific skills! This allows you to turn thrift store items into stage-worthy pieces. When it comes to feathers, there is no way around it, they are expensive. If you are on a budget, you could ask around, often performers may be looking to sell their used fans or boas. You can also save money by buying the feathers separately from the fan staves, and assembling them yourself. A great costume is very important for the success of an act, but that doesn't mean it needs to be expensive or elaborate. The costume is part of the story, part of the choreography, and needs to fit the spirit of the act. How it all comes off is the real reveal!

I would go on about corsets and boas forever, but you also know I like to scratch the surface and uncover some of the problems of this industry which is indeed included in the Pandora’s box of sex jobs. I am very proud I have been standing in favour of sex workers for a year now, battling against discrimination and rigid wings of feminism and burlesque dancers make no exception to the list of workers who are not accepted for what they do for a living. Hazel says:

Burlesque will always be battling social norms, and will never be a universally appealing art form. That is part of its magic. Modern burlesque can be a message of empowerment to not just women but all genders, and a normalization of sexuality as a universal right, not to be hidden away in shame. I am not an academic or expert in modern feminism but I am proud to be a part of a community that works to amplify the voices of women and sex workers. In many ways, there are fewer barriers to performing burlesque than ever, although this varies widely depending on where you live. But there is so much strength in community, and we should reach out to each other for support, especially in 2020 when we are all physically so far apart.

A very positive message the one Hazel sends, yet, one of those candies with a sour centre that says “we can be sweet but don’t even bother trying to destroy our community”. I love it, it’s empowering and it screams freedom. As I told Hazel, the more I look into stories of burlesque dancers, the more I realise most of them got into this form of art by chance. One minute they have a 9 to 5 job and the next they have a sort of epiphany, change their life completely and jump on a stage to perform. It really looks like burlesque is the giant hammer you can use to smash the chessboard you have been moving in the whole time: 

This was definitely the case for me. After college, I worked as a graphic designer for years in New York City, and it was during that time that I happened to see a burlesque show, and just fell in love with the women on stage who were glamorous and funny and completely in charge. I took an introductory series at Jo Weldon's NY School of Burlesque and participated in their student showcase in December 2009. My intention was to just have some fun and get out there once, but afterwards, I was hooked! It became a hobby, which quickly consumed my life, and after three years I quit my day job to perform full-time. For me definitely, I was addicted to the burlesque stage and the audiences. Every burlesque performer is completely unique, especially since so many of us are amateur performers, we each have a different set of skills, aesthetic, and goals for our performances. I think that focus on individuality is what makes the modern burlesque scene so rich and prolific.

THE FUTURE OF BURLESQUE

Skills. I really do believe our life is determined by the things we are able and unable to do. Relating to burlesque, we are witnessing the creation of hybrid acts, like Hazel’s breathtakingly amazing act called “BOOBS”. I can’t help it, it’s brilliant from the beginning until the very end, but what you should focus on is the fact that here Hazel sings the song while she moves and strips with a confidence that’s hard to find. I couldn’t just not tell her how enjoyable her act is so she gave me some further details about it: 

Oh, thank you so much! I am very happy with how my "Boobs" number turned out. I had always loved singing but was always terrified to sing in front of an audience, so I challenged myself to create a singing burlesque act. My first act was Mary Poppins' "Spoonful of Sugar", which was so fun that I decided to work on something with a more universal appeal. I came across the work of Ruth Wallis, a popular cabaret singer from the 1940s and 1950s. Her hit song "Boobs" was perfect for the burlesque stage and is actually also very popular with drag queens as well. I decided to update a few of the lyrics (with the help of Shelly Watson, who was also my voice coach), and hired musician Chris Johnson to record a backing track for me. For the costume I wanted to hint at a vintage circus look and a showgirl-style headdress and came up with the idea of an LED array programmed to the music, to add something new and unique. The headdress LED array was made by Starknaked Industries and displays the word "BOOBS" during each chorus of the song.

It really looks like having a range of different skills can make a difference in art nowadays and this just might be the future of any art, an endless evolution that brings in some traits of what it touches. Will that be the only way to stand out?

Most burlesque performers are multi-talented, and in fact, it is quite an advantage in an art form where artists produce their own acts, including costumes, music, props, and choreography. This is of course in addition to the business side of things, since we also need to be our own manager, publicist, and bookkeeper! As the scene has grown during the past few decades, having a multi-discipline set of talents can be so helpful in setting yourself apart from the crowd. I've seen acts that include circus skills, sideshow skills, singing, magic, even playing an instrument! Innovation has always been a key element in succeeding as a burlesque performer, and still is today!

Burlesque is one of the most inclusive arts you will ever find. All shapes and sizes are welcome, all you need to have is the guts to jump on a stage and take that time as yours and yours only. Being a former ballerina I can assure you there aren’t many inclusive places in the entertainment business; take the ballet for instance: your body has to be in a certain way and you can choose to starve yourself and surely faint after five minutes or you can accept the fact either you’re a boobless skinny broomstick or maybe ballet will only make your life a misery. I used to love that, I still do and I still put on my ballet shoes sometimes (I still got some moves you know) but having big breasts made me look a little weird while trussed up in a white shiny synthetic bodysuit. No regrets for sure, but when I met rock n’ roll and became a bass player things turned out to be way more satisfying and I no longer felt out of place. I also met burlesque myself later, but let me just say it wasn’t easy to practice as the closest company was 80km away from me and oh yeah, I was underage at the time. I never stopped being interested in it though, even now, when all I hear is “blah blah discrimination, blah blah bully, blah blah plus size”. I get it. It’s never easy to feel uncomfortable in life, but we need to react some point with some actual clever thesis instead of shallow opinions.

Burlesque is just one fantastic example of how you can say no to a million prejudices while having fun and putting yourself to test every single time you do it. Nobody forces you to perform on a stage nor to give up everything else in your life, but I would like to show you how this world is a real community made of people who didn’t like to be put in a generic waste bin. We are what we are and I dare whoever to cross a sea of rhinestones to take that away from us.

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