Five Technological Innovations That Shaped Neo-Burlesque

The heyday of burlesque was cultivated in simpler times, when the 4-martini lunch ruled, computers were giant hulking beasts that only the government owned, and phones took forever to dial 9 and were connected to a wall.

As the burlesque revival has grown since the late ‘90s, it’s been fundamentally shaped by the technological innovations that our generation has access to. Today, we can pick a concept, do a keyword search on iTunes, order the costume on eBay, promote the new act on Twitter, videotape the performance from our phone and then post in on Facebook – in less than a week’s time.

That said, having the tools to create an act readily available at one’s fingertips does not mean a great act will magically appear – as always, the execution is what makes it pop; it was true then, and it’s true now.

And though we relish the instant accessibility of a live webcast show or a fruitful Google search, great burlesque pieces don’t happen instantly: many performers spend weeks and months developing their new routines…but not having to walk three miles uphill in a snowstorm to get your rhinestones certainly makes things easier for us.

Here are five wonderful technological advancements that have shaped the revival as we know it, and helped us create better burlesque.

The Internet

Thanks, Al Gore! Truly, burlesque owes its rebirth to the Internet. It’s no coincidence that the neo-burlesque began to flourish when the World Wide Web became widely accessible. Suddenly, folks who were doing this thing found a way to connect with other folks who were also doing the same thing. Some folks didn’t even know others were doing this thing, and suddenly, we decided to all get together and all do this same thing together! Hello, revival!

Alan Parowski, one of the founders of Teaseorama – arguably the primary catalyst of the current burlesque revival – wrote the following in a memorial piece about emcee Eddie Dane who passed away earlier this year:

“(Eddie) formed a Yahoo group dedicated to Burlesque — it was the first major Burlesque Online Group ever, and began to connect the characters that would go on to form the core of the coming explosion that would be known as The New Burlesque Movement.

It was because of this Yahoo Group that Tease-O-Rama became a reality and became the Burlesque Gathering of the Tribes down in New Orleans. It was that group that allowed us to connect those first 25 acts of the New Burlesque Revival and get them on the stage in one place and at one time and show all of us that even as misfits and outcasts we weren’t alone.”

In those fledgling years, many performers were creating burlesque in a vacuum, not realizing others were doing the same thing all over the country. Because of the Teaseorama and Miss Exotic World Yahoo groups, connections were made and burlesque gatherings formed, and those glittering bricks paved the road to where we are today.

Also: thank you, Internet, for bringing forth burlesque e-commerce! Thanks to sites like etsy and eBay, dancers who aren’t great seamstresses can find and order custom-made pieces online, and crafty pasty-makers can vend their wares to performers far and wide. Plus, you can get a bloody severed arm overnighted to you when your local supplier runs out.

And finally, the Internet is first and foremost a vast source of information – we use it constantly when researching our costumes and props, from figuring out the best airbrush for bodypaint, to teaching oneself how to weld metal pasties, to ensuring historical accuracy when recreating a Victorian gown. Oh, Internet: though you are so often prone to so much fail – let us not overlook all of the win.

MP3s

I was actually having a conversation the other day about how hard it was to find good burlesque music before iTunes – how I had to actually get in my car and drive to a music store and preview the music, or just buy it and hope it didn’t suck. Then I laughed at myself for sounding like an old fart. But man, it’s true – when iTunes came along, it was like: “I can find all this crazy shit, preview it, and then download it instantly? Fuck yeah!”

I absolutely love what iTunes and other mp3 sites have done for expanding the horizons of burlesque musical choices. If you’re a big ol’ music nerd like me, you can use it to find really obscure and interesting music that fits your theme with a simple keyword search. If you want to find something new or just get inspired, plug some Sonny Lester into your burlesque station on Pandora and see what pops up. If you’re a producer, you can burn the music from an entire show onto one disc.

Thanks to mp3 players, performers can listen to their music backstage before they go on, to get into character and refresh their choreography. Not to mention – if you space and forget your music (happens to the best of us) hopefully the sound guy has a cord to plug your iPod into the system and save your butt. More than once I have thanked Steve Jobs for just this – may his brilliant mind rest in peace.

Digital Video & YouTube

True story: I found an old VHS copy of a burlesque performance of mine and started cracking up. Good riddance – those clunky VHS tapes and exorbitantly expensive cameras had totally crappy quality. Thanks to digital video cameras, capturing footage of your act has never been so easy and accessible. A lot of performers hate watching themselves on video, but it’s one of the most vital learning tools we have.

And, once you’ve found that elusive video of your act that’s taken from a flattering angle and doesn’t include a royal fuckup – tada! Now you can post it on Youtube and share it with the world!

Youtube is a tremendous resource for our community, enabling us to see what are burlesque sisters are doing all over the world, and easily share our acts with our friends from afar. Putting your act out there does open it up to intellectual theft – which isn’t a super common occurrence in burlesque, but it does happen. However, the widespread availability of video also makes it a lot easier to bust the rare head-to-toe copycat. Let’s not throw out the dancing baby meme with the bathwater.

Unfortunately, a lot of burlesque videos are getting zapped these days, either due to the titty police or the copyright cops. All you burlesquers should go check out StripCheez.com, a video sharing site owned and operated by burlesque performers. Your video will never get flagged and you can peruse dozens of other performer’s videos for education, inspiration, and something fun to do when you’re bored at work.

The Social Media Explosion

Those pivotal Yahoo Groups were the first forms of burlesque social media, long before the buzz phrase “social media” existed. Yahoo Groups and listervs begat Tribe, which begat Friendster, which begat Myspace, which self-imploded in glitter gifs and shitty UI while Facebook and Twitter sprang from its ashes. Plus, there’s Tumblr, Flickr, our own individual URLs, blogs, and…well, we won’t talk about G+ because we all have stage names so G+ hates us.

All of these forums serve to connect burlesque community, both to each other and to our audiences. And they’ve fundamentally changed the way we promote our shows; many a burlesque producer has begun to question whether physical flyers are even worth the expense of printing anymore (which is an entirely different debate I won’t get into).

Our social media connects us to performers around the globe, so that we may laugh, commiserate and learn from them; it helps us promote our shows, and gives us a platform to share our work and express our opinions to a huge audience – you probably came to this here blog because you clicked a link on Facebook or Twitter.

Social media creates and promotes discussion — but it is also a beast of its own, littered with problems, pitfalls, and counter-productive anonymous fuckery. We so often forget that even though it feels it’s just us talking, the whole world could be (and probably is) watching. And because social media has branched off into so many different forums, it leads to fractured conversations and a sense of being completely overwhelmed by information. Whereas once the Yahoo Groups were the online hub of the burlesque community, there’s so much conversation happening everywhere, it’s easy to miss important information and commentary either because you can’t see it, or because it’s simply being drowned out.

Love it, hate it – or like most of us, a little bit of both – you can’t deny that social media is now integrally woven into the fabric of modern burlesque,. In addition to your costumes, your choreography and your creativity, how you manage your social media is a critical element of being a successful performer.

Smart Phones

Take everything discussed above, and then cram it into a sleek little device that you can rhinestone? This, my friends, is a burlesque performer’s lifeblood! I seriously don’t know what I’d do without my phone – I can text, call and email my fellow performers and producers, deal with “show day” last minute requests and hurdles, I can Facebook and Tweet from backstage, post a cute photo of another performer’s costume, give it to my husband so he can video my act because I forgot the Flip cam, and use the GPS to get me to my gig on time when my directionally impaired ass inevitably gets lost. Sure, Smart Phones contribute to car accidents, decreased socializing capabilities, drunk dialing your ex and maybe brain cancer — but you can pry that motherfucker out of my cold, dead, glitter-dusted hands.

These are just some of the many ways in which technology has impacted our little artform that’s not so little anymore. Everything discussed above is a tool – and all tools can be used well, or poorly. But what I love so much about all of these innovations is that they open doors: they give us the ability to create interesting, compelling and unique burlesque – and to then share it with the world.

And for that I am truly thankful.

My article on BHOF in Penthouse

My article covering last year’s Burlesque Hall of Fame is running in the May issue of Penthouse, which is on stands now.

(Note: this is my original version, not the shorter edit that appeared in the print edition)

It’s the middle of an oppressively hot afternoon in Old Vegas, and the wilted, shabbily dressed tourists seem to be melting right down into Fremont Street Experience. This tarnished and worn section of Sin City is either charmingly retro, or strictly for the buffet & respirator crowd, depending on your view.

As heat-weary vacationers slowly trudge along in seemingly slow motion, suddenly a burst of color flashes through the concrete and neon and rivets everyone’s attention. It’s a trio of women in retro swimsuits and wedge heels, clutching brightly colored parasols that match the twinkling flowers nestled into their pin-curls. They giggle and chatter as they merrily bounce along, looking just like a set of bomber girls who stepped right off a B52 wing – except for the multitude of tattoos, piercings and flaming magenta and orange hair dye.

And this is just the beginning. For the next four days, a virtual army of neo pinups and burlesque performers will flock to the holy Mecca of retro striptease culture, the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend in Las Vegas.

Every year, hundreds of performers and fans of the current burlesque revival make a pilgrimage to the holiest of events amongst tassel twirlers, which has grown exponentially since its inception on a dusty goat ranch two decades ago.

A burlesque museum was always the dream Jennie Lee, a stripper from the 1950s who began her modest collection her home, a rundown ranch in Helendale, California, smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert. She died in 1990 from breast cancer, and her friend and fellow stripper Dixie Evans (known in her day as the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque) took over the ranch and collection, and christened it The Exotic World Burlesque Museum.

Dixie, ever the savvy business lady, knew she needed press to draw attention to the museum, so in 1990 she founded the first ever Miss Exotic World burlesque competition. The majority of the participants were retired burlesque strippers from the 60s and 70s, with occasional appearances by modern “feature” performers from the current stripclub scene.

For a decade, the Miss Exotic World pageant quietly chugged along as a quaint, desert-side attraction, attended mostly by local bikers and reporters from the local rags.

And then the young women of the burlesque revival began trickling in. Suddenly, it wasn’t just vintage vixens and Hell’s Angels out there in the dust; an entirely new generation of young women began trekking to Exotic World seeking a shot at the crown, and a chance to spend face time with the founding forewomen of burlesque.

Now christened the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the pageant moved to Las Vegas in 2005 in search of a bigger, brighter, splashier homebase for the little show that could, which has now blossomed into the biggest and most prestigious burlesque event in the word. In addition to the Saturday night competition for the title of Miss Exotic World, there are classes, seminars, photo outings, and pool parties.

And on this Thursday afternoon, the fun is just starting, as the biggest and brightest burlesque stars from around the globe land in Sin City and prepare to embark on the world’s most glamorous 4-day binge of pasties, Swarovskis and hard liquor.

At the Golden Nugget, I sit poolside with a bucket of beer and a bunch of showgirls in bikinis with names like Nasty, Gigi, Roxi, Dirty, and Clams. Even in Las Vegas, the burlesque performers still draw a crowd of stares.

Splashing around the pool while balancing beers in our cleavage, we entertain our poolside compatriots by smashing our breasts and asses against the see-through glass walls of the pool, like an aquarium tank full of booze-guzzling Showgirl Fish.

Several hours later, I wake up in my hotel room, face first in a pile of glitter, with a sunburn, and headache, and my bikini draped over the lampshade.

And it’s only Thursday…

But Burlesque Hall of Fame isn’t just one huge glitter-binge set in America’s Playground with the biggest names in burlesque; what sets this weekend apart from the many other burlesque conventions that have sprung up over the years is the intense focus on the living legends of burlesque, the precious few dancers from yesteryear who still are around to entertain us with a story or two.

Friday night is the Legends Showcase, one of the most emotional and thrilling events of the weekend, in which a handful of the legends well into their 60s and 70s dust of their pasties and perform for a packed audience of screaming fans.

Toni Elling, who came out of 40 years of retirement to perform, says that before she discovered the Burlesque Hall of Fame, she was “not in a good place. I was down on myself and feeling quite useless.”

But after attending her first weekend, she was overwhelmed by the love and support she received from women young enough to be her grandchildren. Now, she says she has “renewed energy and look upon myself differently. I feel I have things to do and have found people who really care about me and I am more content than I have been in years. I have renewed confidence and love myself again.”

The young performers also hold a similar reverance for the weekend. Nadine Dubois of Lili’s Burlesque Revue in Minnesota has attended the event with her troupe every year for the past 7 years.

“We feel it is akin to going to the ‘promised land’ for our art form,” Dubois says. “Not only do we grow as performers every time by being inspired by both the legends and modern performers of burlesque, we look forward to spending time with those same performers, as they are like family to us. It is truly a magical gathering.”

Magical indeed, given the epic amount of female nudity you get to enjoy both onstage and off during those four days. Although the event is steeped in female bonding, there’s eye candy a plenty for the numerous menfolk to enjoy.

Jim “Roz” Rosnack, producer of Lunatic Fringe Burlesque Co. from Austin, says “these girls bring something to the table that has been missing for a long time: the art of the tease, glamour, seduction and sometimes even silliness, which to me is very sexy.”

Rosnack says the “something for everyone” appeal of burlesque accounts for why it’s equally popular amongst both men and women (and especially couples).

“Its something to take your lady to for a great romantic and fun date. She can put stockings on, a pretty hat and retro dress, and not hang out in some rock and roll bar all night with loud bands and obnoxious drunks. She can drink martinis and watch shows reminiscent of the Ziegfeld Follies with all the props and dressing. The men are happy, the women are happy, it’s the best Friday night date available and its it every city in North America.”

Mig Ponce, part of the event’s production team, echoes the appreciation of the major production value that comes with burlesque performances at this level.

“I really love that they put effort into putting on an amazing, dazzling performance,” Ponce says. “This really packs a WOW factor that you can’t find anywhere else.”

Indeed, the production values were through the roof, with the biggest and most elaborate props and sets in the history of the Saturday night competition.

Perhaps most stunning of all is the giant cigar prop, belonging to Roxi Dlite of Windsor, Ontario. The tiny raven haired beauty cast aside her sparkling purple corset dress, and wearing nothing more than a few strategically placed rhinestones, she climbed atop the massive, smoldering Freudian homage and whipped the audience into a heart-palpitating frenzy.

The running joke this year: what CAN’T you rhinestone? The many performances brought forth Swarovski-studded shopping cart, folding chair, and yes, even toilet seats. Trust: if you leave anything sitting still for longer than 5 minutes, some burlesque perfomer will grab her E-6000 and rhinestone the fuck out of it.

As the competition winds to a close, the audience is breathless from the innovation of the acts, from Ms. Tickle‘s breakaway fans that turn into massive, angel-like wings, to Nasty Canasta‘s tribute to the Portrait of Dorian Grey – as she strips out her clothes, they appear on a digital “painting” of her nude body that hangs above the stage.

The final moment arrives: the newest Reigning Queen of Burlesque is Roxi Dlite; overjoyed and slightly tipsy, she bounds onto the stage carrying an entire bottle of vodka with her, and forces the retiring queen, Kalani Kokonuts, to do a shot with her on stage.

In addition to being the first Canadian to win the title, Dlite’s crowning is significant because she works as club stripper for her “day job.”

The stripping vs. burlesque debate has been flogged to death over the years within the community, the resulting discussions a mix of burlesquers who are supportive, and those who mistakenly think they are somehow morally superior to club workers. Roxi Dlite hopes to use her crowning as a way to bridge the gap between the two communities.

“My personal goal is to try and educate the dancers that I work with in the strip clubs,” says Dlite. “I want to show them that there is a history and an art form to what they are doing. I also feel quite strongly that it’s important for the burlesque community to be more supportive of modern striptease because it’s just a modern day version of burlesque, it is still an art form. The modern stripteasers are just as talented and just as passionate about their art form as the burlesque community is.”

Spoken like a true queen, indeed.

–Sparkly Devil
Penthouse Magazine, May 2011