UPDATE: I failed to mention, you can catch Bella Blue at tonight’s “November Rain” show at the AllWays Lounge, featuring performances by Nikki LeVillain, Charlotte Treuse, Miss Monarch M, Nona Narcisse, and of course Bella Blue.
EDITOR’S NOTE: New Orleans burlesque producer and performer Bella Blue is, if nothing else, a body in motion. She runs the New Orleans School of Burlesque, she produces tons of local shows (“Whiskey & Rhinestones,” “The Dirty Dime Peepshow,” “Blue Book Cabaret” and more), and she literally travels the world promoting and performing. So I thought it would be instructive to ask her to come up with her own “Top 5” list of things she learned from her most recent sojourn: BurlyCon, held Nov. 12-15 in Seattle and one of the largest gatherings in the nation. Here’s what she came away with:
It is late on Tuesday evening and I am just getting my bearings following not just a red-eye flight but an annual convention that takes place in Seattle (well, Sea-Tac) called BurlyCon. What is it? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a four-day convention dedicated to all things burlesque.
It is said that the first-ever burlesque festival took place on a goat farm in the desert in Helendale, Calif. Known then as Miss Exotic World (today know as Burlesque Hall of Fame), the festival was started by the late, great Dixie Evans. She has become the official/unofficial mother in the preservation of burlesque history. You could call her on the phone and she would personally give you a tour of her museum.
(Related: How New Orleans’ thriving burlesque scene prepares for its next act)
Nowadays, for every state you have at least one burlesque festival. For every country across the world, even more. However, BurlyCon is the only festival of its kind (that I know of). These four days are focused on nothing else but education and community. It started in 2008 with just about 60 attendees, and it is estimated that there were at least 600 in attendance this year. (The final numbers aren’t in yet.)
With the growing interest in burlesque as an art form, a hobby and a career; I believe that a convention of this kind is necessary. Burlesque is one of the only types of performance that you don’t actually have to acquire any formal training prior to performing in front of a live, human audience. With the growing amount of shows and performers, that means that there are a lot of people taking the stage who have no idea what they are doing.
I know. We all started somewhere. I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what I was doing when I started — but, I didn’t know about BurlyCon then. And if I had, you bet your G-string that I would have figured out how to get there! But now there’s burlesque classes and schools all over the country. There is no reason to take a stage with zero information or training.
This year at BurlyCon, the majority of my classes were filled with students who had been performing for three years or less or had never even taken the stage yet. I had the honor of being asked to teach four classes and moderate one panel discussion. I could choose anything I wanted to teach and choose whichever topic I wanted for the panel discussion, although they were very interested in teaching and talking about issues that were learned from the situation with Lucky Pierre’s in March of 2015. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just Google it).
My partner and I arrived in Seattle last Thursday and hit the ground running. Between teaching classes, taking classes, catching up with friends, making new friends, our exhausted bodies landed back in New Orleans at 8 a.m. on Monday morning. I feel refreshed, inspired and excited to bring this back to the New Orleans scene. When approached by David Lee Simmons to write a piece on BurlyCon, he asked for a list. This really excited me because I do love a good list!
So, without further adieu, here are the top 5 things I learned from BurlyCon 2015…
- The bodies of burlesque are widely diverse — This year I saw so many beautiful people representing burlesque from their state. I assume that perhaps to an outsider, they would assume that this con would be mostly female-bodied people. This year — more than I’ve seen in my four years of going — I saw all types of people, from non-gender-conforming to trans people to cis males and females. There were people there who came because they clearly felt a sense of acceptance within this community. Some were not even performers but just supporters and admirers of burlesque. They were welcomed just as much as the people who take to the stages night after night, weekend after weekend.
- Our industry is full of knowledge seekers — They are open to listen and discuss the issues that are important to each other, not just themselves. From the pressures of the social beauty standards and how they affect burlesque to incorporating tango moves into your choreography. (This is actually how diverse the classes are at BurlyCon.) It makes me excited to think that people are going back to their cities and bringing new classes to their communities as well as taking more classes themselves. Conventions like this really spark a lot of inspiration.
- Here’s where the hard truths come out — With an industry that is so spread out and so many shows happening across the country (and the world), that also means that the quality suffers. I have yet to find the balance or the answers in how a community can exist with such a wide spectrum of involvement from the people in it. How do you balance the “Burlesque is for everyone!” mentality with the “I do this for a living and take it very seriously!” mentality? I honestly don’t know. This year, I saw fewer veterans of burlesque than I had seen in previous years. I saw way more faces that I had never seen before, and, after watching some of the acts brought to the nightly peer reviews, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the future of the industry based on the performances I had seen.
- Spending time listening to a burlesque legend is never time wasted — If at any point, you are at a convention where a burlesque legend is there, I advise you to seek them out and have a chat with them. They love answering your questions and talking about what it was like “back then.” They are full of information and give full meaning to the phrase “No fucks to give.” They are unapologetically honest and straight up.
- As serious as I personally take burlesque as my career, I do have to remember that at the end of the day, it’s not that serious — While we were in Seattle, the attacks on Paris (and other areas of the world) took place. While we were safe in our hotel and had the privilege of attending this convention, there was so much going on outside our bubble. I felt really conflicted about enjoying my time there and I know a lot of other people in attendance were feeling the same struggle. But, at the same time, it was a reminder that getting worked up over “good burlesque” vs. “bad burlesque” and proper technique of showgirl poses maybe really aren’t that important all the time. What is important is that this art form is alive and well. Right now. For me, it made me grateful for the chance to live another day to take the stage and entertain the world in it’s time if need.