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Defining Burlesque Success

A few weeks ago, I saw a question in a burlesque group on Facebook that really got me thinking. A new performer asked "What is a successful burlesque dancer?"

Putting a spell on the audience at one of my most "successful" gigs to date, Original Burlesque Bingo (The House of Knyle edition) in Los Angeles, January 2019 (Tim Hunter Photography)

I was really interested in different perspectives on the definition of "burlesque success," so I posed the same question to my Facebook friends. The answers were varied and insightful; people mentioned bookings, payments, extravagant costuming, and onstage talent as potential measurements of success. But there was a common thread throughout all the responses: success is in the eye of the beholder. (You can read the full thread from Facebook here, if you're interested.)

I imagine for a new artist struggling to define their goals, this is a vague and unsatisfying answer. For the new performer that posed the original question, this response failed to take into account the fact that certain artists seem to be publicly valued more by mainstream society. This is a spot-on (and kind of sad) assessment, especially when we confront the social-media-fueled image of the "booked and busy" Instagram starlet, equipped with a "perfect" body, "perfect" costumes, endless professional photo shoots, legions of devoted followers and fans, and an infinite well of funding to take them anywhere they want to go.

I am pretty fresh to the scene myself, but burlesque royal Jo Weldon said something in the Facebook thread that really stood out to me: "I can't create any art other than the art that I care about, not for love or money. And I have found I'm literally able to choose what I value, since none of it actually makes or breaks me."

That's the kicker, right there: burlesque may never pay enough for us to sell ourselves out. Jo also pointed out that things may look easy-as-pie on the outside looking in, but even those "perfect" and "mainstream" starlets have to hustle and bust their ass for countless hours to reach that level of "booked and busy". I don't wanna put words in Jo's mouth, but I think she hit the nail on the head when she stressed that none of this actually makes or breaks her. The thousand dollar costumes, the big festivals, the fancy titles - while pleasant, none of that is what burlesque is truly about, and those things rarely provide immediate financial returns.

So if we're not doing it for the love of ourselves, why the f*ck are we doing it at all?!

I took a tiny step back from burlesque this spring to focus on scoring a full-time librarian gig (which I did! Go me!), and in doing so, I inadvertently experienced an existential burlesque crisis. I got a bit of the "social anxietease" after performing in my second big festival, and this made me remember that I was incredibly anxious during my first big festival as well. I realized that nobody gives a flying f*ck about you when you're not twirling the old tassels, and is that really so bad? I mean, you're a performer after all (I tell myself) - what value do I add when I'm not performing? I also realized that it is *incredibly* easy to hemorrhage money on burlesque -- if you get wanna get swept into the costumes, the traveling, the makeup, the hair, the props, etc., you probably need to have to a way to fund it because the gigs themselves won't necessarily do it for you.

All these wheels churning in my head left me with a drastically different (and much more scarce) version of personal success than I had when I first started burlesque in 2017. Here's my 2019 shiny new definition of burlesque success:

A successful burlesque performer is a unique and independent artist who is self-sustainable (for better or worse, in terms of bookings and venues) with the freedom and platform to share their message with the world.

To me, this definition presents us with a bad-ass artist who doesn't have to rely on external validation to accomplish their goals (although it's always nice). What sets them apart is their self-sustainability - this may require innovation and adaptability on the part of the performer, but this ensures that no matter the burlesque climate, the successful performer will find new and different ways to get their art into the hands/eyes/mouths/crotches of their target audience. I didn't consider myself successful when I started in 2017, but I was: no one would book me at first, so I just started filming myself dancing in my room and posting the practice videos to Instagram. I grew my following and attracted producers, and I was able to sustain my art despite many locked doors. That is a big part of being successful. If no one will book us and we can only use social media or homemade videos, so fucking be it. DO IT ANYWAY, be successful on your own terms.

Self-sustainability is awesome, and can have a side-effect of external validation. This can still lead to even more resources and opportunities. This is where the "freedom and platform" comes into play. Once we can establish our own unique style/brand/message/art, we can then move on to ensuring that we can share it with as many people as possible. Resources can mean $$$, and I'm not gonna sugarcoat it: money can mean freedom. Freedom to splurge on that crazy costume or prop. Freedom to fly all over the world, to places you've never seen, and share your message. Opportunities can give us gigantic platforms that we've never had before and the chance to share our art with more people at once than local shows can provide us with. This isn't the definition of success; to me, it's all beneficial side effects of being amazing self-sustaining bad-ass artists. If that makes any sense.

If you've made it this far, that means you like me... you really, really like me. And I count that as a success! I have more concrete goals, of course - I have big plans that I can't quite share yet, but I hope 2020 is a breakout year for me. And it has fuck-all to do with anyone else "giving" me or "bestowing" me with anything - these are all things that I'm putting into motion all on my own. Moving forward, my definition of success truly only has to do with how I push myself forward.

Until next time,

xoxo Bebe Bardot

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