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Is it a Nod or a Steal: On Imitation, Flattery, and Keeping Up With the Burly-Joneses

Pic for Algorithm! Photo: David Lawrence Byrd

A very introspective White guy who loved making up quotes once said "Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation." I think about this quote a lot when I write, dance, or create anything.

This girl from Little Mix wore a knock-off version of Pamela Anderson's 1999 MTV VMA's look and totally gave no credit, so a whole generation of teenyboppers thinks she originated it. BOOOOOOOO

For instance, I've loved writing horror stories ever since I was a kid. I would often take things I saw on television or real life, and turn it into my own frightening tale. Once I "discovered" Stephen King's Carrie, I thought I had found the Holy Grail! I remember rushing to my word processor (remember those?) and banging out my own little version of Carrie about a teenaged telekinetically-violent Black girl who moves to an isolated rural town with awful (soon to be murdered) high school classmates. When I read my story now, I laugh because it is clearly a Stephen King rip-off. I even named my main character Carrie!

I start off with this quote and my own little anecdote about plagiarism because I think it's normal for all artists to do this. I think it's normal to see something, be inspired by it, and then try to run with it and add your own flair. I think this is human nature! To some extent, we are all social creatures who live and work together. It's inevitable that we may cross wires sometimes and share ideas. This is all a part of the human experience. Most of the art that we see and consume was inspired by other art.

On the flip side, artistic output is naturally and intrinsically tied to the artist who created it. Sometimes we create things and pieces that are so special to who we are, that it would be hard to imagine anyone else taking it and "running with it". The idea could even be offensive! Recently, I was listening to a Stephen King audiobook where he admitted that the character Carrie was based off a real girl that he knew in high school. I had no idea that Carrie was an actual person when I created Rip-Off Carrie... but then again, how would I know? I was stealing someone else's idea, and therein lies the problem. When you steal other people's shit, you may not even know where they originator got it from.

I see this in all art forms, but it becomes even messier in burlesque. I hear about it all the time. You may see someone do a dance move that you thought you just made up. You may see someone wearing the same exact costume as yours, even though you got yours custom-made. You may see someone working the crowd the same exact same way as you, maybe even to the same music. Hell, sometimes newer performers will even use your same name!

As someone with an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of burlesque (lots of us performers are this way), it is sometimes very, very easy for me to spot influences. And here's where I get a little controversial: it doesn't always bother me! The reason is because my main passion is classic burlesque -- I'm talking evening gowns, boas, feathers, triangle bras, panel skirts, tassel twirling, the works. It actually fills me with pride to have the standard parade-and-peel or straight strip or shake dancing routines down pat, and I don't think it's possible to "steal" classic burlesque moves. Oh, did you just see someone else bend down and let their hair fall over their face before slowly pushing it back? Sorry to break the bad news, but that's no one's signature move except maybe Tempest Storm, and maybe even someone else before her. Oh, did you just see someone stick feathers on their hips and head and then dance around all sexy? Yep, they've been doing that for over a hundred years and then some - Dorothy Dandridge used to work that look like nobody's business. Thinking about being territorial over a drop-split? There's evidence of Tarza Young doing that back in 1949. Think vibrating your body or twerking is something brand new that no one has ever seen? Watch this video of Consuela Harris twerking it out for a hatin' ass crowd in 1938.

When we do these tried-and-true moves and costumes, I consider this a nod to those who came before us and it makes me feel proud almost to the point of tears. This is why I love to shake dance -- it connects me to my ancestors and I actually thrive off of doing the same moves they once did. I study them all the time, add my own flair, and I think of myself as continuing the legacy of amazing shake dancers who came before me.

BUT. And this is a big but. It really grinds my gears when I see people actively steal from modern performers without a *clue* as to where it comes from, and then not give any attribution to those modern performers because they KNOW they stole the concept from someone who is actively performing. AND THEN, these same Thieving Performers will say "Oh, you know, I made this dance up" or "Oh yeah, this costume, I just came up with it on my own." It's very easy to spot the thieves because they NEVER feel comfortable citing their sources or giving props and nods where those nods are due. We are all inspired by something or someone, and those of us with heavy knowledge of burlesque can spot your inspirations without you saying a word.

As newer performers, we totally owe it to the classic burlesque and neo-burlesque legends and icons who came before us to just simply and publicly say thanks for the inspo. It's okay if we pull inspiration from them -- that's probably part of why they performed! So they could touch other people's souls.

If we as newer performers just snatch ideas and themes and concepts from other modern performers, we will continue to create a toxic breeding ground for petty competition and soulless art. We will hinder our own industry progress, because truly innovative artists will start hiding their art from Thieving Performers who only strive for empty attention and gig dates.

I'm not saying I'm the most innovative performer in the world (I'm not) or the most out-of-the-box thinker (I ain't), but I do see this issue come up a lot in burlesque. As someone who is constantly inspired by other burlesquers, I have a little rule: don't ever run out and create an act right after you saw another modern performer's amazing act (ESPECIALLY online and not in person), just because you feel competitive or like you need to keep up with the Joneses. Let their act sink into your mind and body. Think about the root of your inspiration from their act -- was it the colors? The music? The movement? And once you have that down, give it even more time! Journal about it, tap into your subconscious, and find out what those colors, music, movement, etc. mean to YOU -- your own memories, your own trauma, happiness, sex, love, anger, WHATEVER the case may be. By this time, *your* act should look very, very different from the act you saw. The inspiration is still there, sure -- but if you find yourself wanting to use the same music, the same costume, the same colors, the same hair, the same movement... well, honey, it sounds like you're a Thieving Performer.

We're all so, so different. There's never a need for all of us to look and dance the same. Even when we do those classic moves, we all do them so differently! I liken burlesque to sex -- it's all the same, really (friction, moisture, skin, lips, fingertips, y'know). But for a multitude of reasons, it sure doesn't feel the same with everyone, am I right?!

Let burlesque be the same way. Yeah, we may have the same end goal (orgasms!!) but we can get there by different paths. I think the burlesque industry will thrive in unimaginable ways if we all toss aside our fear and competitiveness, and just focus on growing TOGETHER. If you've ever been inspired by another performer, tell them TODAY! It may be the first time they've ever received recognition, because we are all we got.

Until next time and always with love,


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1 comentario

Silver Persinger
Silver Persinger
04 nov 2021

You have influenced me in several ways, Bebe. Thank you.

This is was a cool take on intellectual property without mentioning the words even once. It's a big deal in many fields. There's also the contemporary cultural aesthetic of remix culture. Regardless of copyrights, laws, and ethics folks feel they have an inalienable right to take and use whatever they want in their own work, often without attribution.

I take pride in my source material and am happy to share it where I can. In many fields, people cannot easily offer a list of citations. Many times, one's influences may not even be recognized by the individual, much less acknowledged.

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