Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Burlesque, Teaching and Why I have decided to wade in

Dears,
Firstly, two blogs in one week! I know, it's a rare and unusual occurrence!

I have been performing burlesque for almost seven years, and in that time I can't think of an issue that has been discussed more frequently, and caused more difference of opinion than the question of who should (and perhaps more importantly, who shouldn't) teach burlesque. The teaching question is a bit of a biggie because the teachers of today create the performers of tomorrow and new performers are, in many ways, the lifeblood of our artform. When newcomers are taught well they bring a flood of new ideas, enthusiasm and freshness to the burlesque palette; when they are taught poorly we end up with a glut of identikit, uninspired performers who then feel disillusioned and pushed out by the burlesque scene when they don't find bookings easily.  Or worse, cheeky promoters put on shows entirely peopled by unpaid, inexperienced newcomers who cannot find work elsewhere and audiences come away feeling this is the the be all and end all of what the genre can offer, closing off potential audience members to the rest of the industry. So, teaching really is a bit of a biggie indeed.

If you look at the different viewpoints in our burlesque community there are many differing views on who should teach. Many agree you should be an experienced performer, some feel you should be a formally trained teacher, some people think dance training is beneficial. Some contingents have argued that only performers who work internationally and consistently in headline spots should teach while others feel that if you have taken and completed a burlesque class yourself you are now qualified to pass on what you know. Alongside this, many gyms and dance classes now offer burlesque lessons taught by fitness instructors who have never performed, taken a class or even seen a burlesque performance (and that film doesn't count!). However, some would counter that these classes are not aimed at aspiring performers, more for those seeking fitness and fun.

In this blog I want to talk about teaching aspiring performers, as I feel that hen party classes, burlesque themed fitness classes and lessons that are clearly marketed as just-for-fun do not necessarily have the same impact on our industry that the training of our successors clearly does, and therefore, the credentials of those who teach them are (arguably) less of an issue.

In the past, when the teaching debate has arisen, occasionally the idea of accreditation of teachers or qualifications in burlesque has come up. You can see why it might; in other performance disciplines such as playing a music instrument, dance and drama learners take exams and once they reach a certain level they can take teaching exams. If they pass, they can teach. So why not burlesque? I think it would be difficult to do a similar thing in burlesque for one big reason. The skills you need to play a violin or dance ballet en pointe are standardised in a way that burlesque is not. Some burlesque performers dance, some don't and even those who do won't all be dancing using standardised steps or techniques. Some performers make narrative acts, others plan to create a moment or simply an aesthetic statement. Some burlesquers aim to entertain with a musical performance, others to entrance with a sensual striptease, still more to amuse through comedy or visual gags. And that's just the tip of the iceberg! With performers each bringing their own skill sets from hula hooping to mime to trained animals to pain and endurance shows, how could we ever standardise burlesque down to its fundamentals?

I think one of the reasons that burlesquers, by necessity, must each do their own thing (as Gypsy told us 'You Gotta Get A Gimmick'!) is because of burlesque's short form nature. You need a tap dancer, followed by a stripping axe thrower, followed by someone who plays the trumpet in their act to stop what I have heard one respected promoter refer to as 'the dreaded fan-dance-to-bumps-and-grinds pile up'. All aspiring performers cannot learn the same skills, routines and approaches because that would make the shows samey and boring, and this would eventually lose all of us our audience.

So there are no fundamentals that can be taught for burlesque? Well, I thought so when I first examined this question, but I, like many others was thinking in terms of dance. Burlesque has no fundamental steps or moves. It may have standards we have all seen and know; the Dita-esque over the back shoulder stocking removal, the feather fans used behind the head to make a clam shell shape, the walk-walk-walk and pose, walk-walk and pose. But these are not the fundamentals of burlesque the theatrical genre, we are back in the hen party class if that's what we teach as the bare bones of burlesque. While there is no harm in performers using any of these well known burlesque tropes at any time, they don't make burlesque what it is. If they were missing from an act, it would still be a good burlesque act, if it was good (so to speak).

So I looked at my own experience as a recently qualified drama teacher. I started thinking about what makes live theatrical performance good in general and I found there were three areas that really stuck out as important and that could be taught - because I had been teaching them to my own students. And when I thought about it, they started to feel like the fundamentals of not just good performance, but also of good burlesque performance. If any of them were missing, your burlesque act would be missing something. So here are my three fundamentals of good burlesque:

Characterisation (or persona) - Many burlesque performers work with a specific character (Edward Scissor Hands, Kurt Cobain, Elizabeth Bennett) or with a character type (nurse, panda, anthropomorphised cake) but those that don't use discrete characters for different acts still come on stage as somebody other than their day to day selves (unless their day to day self is really, really full on!), they must have an onstage persona. For burlesque performance to be strong learners have to be able to create a character, learn how to express that character in how they move, the expressions they use, the music they select, the costume and props they select etc, and they also have to practice sustaining this and not slipping out of character and showing us a flash of their day to day self.

Narrative or Concept - Not all performers work in a narrative style but you still need a strong idea or concept of what you're going to do. It should be well thought out, personal, original. Or if the concept itself is a standard or well worn idea, learners must find a way to make it new again, to make it their own, to put their own personal spin on it. If the concept (or narrative starting point) is 'Housewife' there are a thousand directions you could take that narrative in and learner burlesquers can be encouraged to explore past the first idea. In drama teaching, I would never allow my students to use their first narrative or concept idea without first encouraging them to explore some alternatives because the first idea often comes from your comfort zone or the familiar. It's only by exploring what else you could do with a concept that you can figure out if your first idea was the best one, and the only way to produce something original.

Relationship with the audience - Bizarrely enough, I think this is something that is sometimes forgotten in burlesque teaching. Burlesque is an interesting form because there is not usually a fourth wall, and if there is, that is usually a conscious decision by the performer (and creates a whole different relationship between performer and audience). In drama teaching, when I was working on plays with my learners, sometimes I had to remind them to stop mugging to the audience at, for example, a particularly funny moment. But then when we ran a variety unit it was a different story because that fourth wall dissolves, the audience are there in the room with you and there's no getting away from it. Burlesque performers, in general are working to, for and in response to the audience. Or at least they should be. I have seen many, otherwise strong newcomer performers perform their routine as though they are performing to a video camera or an empty room, but the greatest, most popular burlesque performers know how to make their audience feel involved and included, they know how to work the room and draw people in, and I believe that can be taught as a performance skill.

So these are my big three burlesque fundamentals, common to all good burlesque. Sure, there are other things that are important like being good at whatever skill sets you are bringing to your acts (dance, singing, comedy, hula hooping) but in a group class, unless you want all your learners to come out the same those are not really areas you can focus on so closely.

I have done some research and, in my area at least, I have not found anyone teaching burlesque in this way (apologies if you are out there and I have just not found you), teaching holistic performance and creativity skills, specifically geared to burlesque performers, that they can then take away and use in their future performing lives. So I have decided that I will throw my hat into the ring and give it a go. As I discussed above, there will be some people who think I don't have the ideal credentials to teach, and there will be others who think I am in the right position to do so. I'm not claiming to be the best performer out there, and I'm not claiming to have all the answers, I can't teach learners to dance, or throw knives or rollerskate in their acts, but I can help them unlock their individual creativity and skills in the areas I have just discussed. I am approaching this with integrity and a genuine desire to see learners become creative, individual performers with the tools they need to create personal burlesque acts for as long as they wish to perform.

Teach a woman a burlesque routine and she'll burlesque today, teach her how to create her own burlesque routines and she'll burlesque forever.

With that said, if you are a new or aspiring burlesque performer who would like to take my class please visit my burlesque lessons website, Drama Queens Burlesque.

Til next time
X
Emerald


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