Friday, May 3, 2013

Identity in Burlesque

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while because I wouldn’t be here if others didn’t talk about race, gender, and sexuality in burlesque.  In fact, the stereotypes I knew would have to deal with probably kept me more from pursuing the art than my insecurities about my body (though the two are related).  After I learned about queerlesque and found burlesque dancers who directly addressed the issue of race, I decided that I could use what I learned to break stereotypes.  To put it simply, burlesque needs more Asian, genderqueer, grey-asexual dancers, dammit!

If you find yourself asking why is this important, let me introduce you to two wonderfully written articles about identity.  The first, “Race and Burlesque: The curious case of the performer of colour”, addresses the stereotypes and discrimination that minorities still face today.  The interviews that follow the article are also worth checking out.  The second article, “Queerlesque, WTF?”, explains what queer is and why a safe space for those who identify as such is needed in the world of burlesque.  Reading both articles made me decide to write about how identity has played a role in shaping how I approach burlesque.

Let’s start with the most outwardly apparent aspect of my identity: race.  I’m Taiwanese-American, and it’s not really influenced how I’ve been treated in the burlesque community so far.  It’s a breath of fresh air since I deal with microaggressions and really bad Asian jokes all the damn time– from my own friends too!  Despite not having to deal with that in burlesque, there’s the phantom of the Dragon Lady and naughty Asian school girl stereotypes looming over my head.  These fantasies lead to a dehumanization of Asian women.  When guys (and sometimes girls) hit on me for being a “hot Asian (with boobs)”, they’re not interested in who I really am– they’re interested in a particular set of traits that I happen to embody.  Because of this, I did not want to sexualize myself in any manner for a very long time, but a part of me still wanted to be sexy.  The non-sexual Model Minority stereotype was just as hurtful.  I started to come across Asian burlesque dancers of all styles: Noel Toy, Tura Satana, Calamity Chang, Shanghai Pearl, Stella Chuu, Di'Lovely to name a few.  I realized that they were subverting the fantasy by simply being themselves.  Sometimes they fit the nerdy image, and sometimes they look like they could be a Dragon Lady.  However, they write their own narratives; they make the fantasy their own.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do in crafting my stage persona.  Defying expectations is no problem since I want my punk rock side to come out.  The bigger challenge is navigating how to honor my heritage without falling back into the stereotypes (i.e. how do I strip out of a qipao without feeling like I’m insulting my culture?).  There will be a lot of thinking and learning before I completely figure things out, but I’m thankful to have some good role models.

To clarify, my attempts to desexualize myself have nothing to do with my grey-asexuality.  It’s hard to explain why I identify as grey-a without getting into the dirty details, but basically I don’t experience sexual attraction save for a couple of exceptions.  My curiosity about sex stems from not really understanding why people desire it so much, and I think that’s why burlesque intrigued me in the first place.  I never thought I would be “good” at it because I have zero understanding of seduction.  I also felt like I was betraying my orientation by pretending I was a "regular" sexual being.

Then I realized that sexy does not equal sexual.  If anything, being uninterested in sex while doing suggestive moves made me the ultimate tease.  Overcoming that mental hurdle has helped me become a bit more comfortable with the moves and with revealing my body.  I still have trouble getting the seductive facial expressions right, but I’m learning how to reinterpreting the intent to something I understand better (even if I have to end up pretending to mind control someone).

Lastly, gender is a complicated topic because I was being caught up in seeing it as a binary for so long.  While I’m okay with being referred to as a girl, it’s not completely me and that’s where the genderqueer comes in.  I often compare myself to a prepubescent boy who has discovered drag.  I like the glitter and femininity, but once I get home, I want to slip back into my baggy jeans and T-shirts from the boys’ section and not shave for the rest of the week.  My intense hatred for shaving was actually a specific deterrent for getting naked because I couldn’t understand why girls had to be hairless and was shamed for my choice many times.  I know of one dancer who doesn’t shave, and I hope I can one day have the same courage to rock my all-natural look.

When Lillith Grey started the Academy of Queerlesque, I immediately wanted to sign up.  A tiny part of me did wonder if I wasn’t queer enough because I do appear to be a cisgendered, heterosexual female.  However, there’s more than what meets the eye though, and burlesque for me personally is about stripping away those fa├žades and presumptions.  On top of that, the Academy’s site included asexuality in the acronym (LGBTQIA).  That was the reassurance I needed since the inclusion of asexuality in the queer community has met some opposition.  The safe space created in the classes gave me the confidence to sign up for the Burlesque Group class, which would be performing at the Panty Raid queer variety show.  I’m very excited to make my stage debut this Friday; it’s a lot sooner than expected, but I was made to feel comfortable enough to take the plunge.

This is only a glimpse of how my identity has shaped my burlesque journey and ultimately my stage persona.  I feel like my struggles with the issues of race, sexuality, and gender have been both an internal one and a much larger battle.  I hope that the conversations continue and that there are more individuals, troupes, and productions that challenge the norms.  Whenever I come across a dancer I can relate to, whether it’s because they’re Asian or they challenge traditional gender expressions, I get really excited.  I’m hoping that I could do that for someone in the future.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Auditions and Anniversary

Originally published March 22, 2013 on Dieselpunks After Dark

When I got into extreme sports, I started seeing places all around me that would be a good obstacle to tackle on Rollerblades or a jump for my bicycle.  I never acquired the skill to do most of my imagined stunts, but even now, I still think about how cool it’d be to ride my skateboard off a ledge.  After the Dallas Burlesque Festival, I started to get the same increased level of inspiration with burlesque.  I’d develop the concept for an act during work, or a song would suddenly make me want to bump and grind.  A fire had been lit under me, and I was ready to continue to progress as a burlesque student.

First, I stopped making excuses for not moving up from the beginner’s class.  Yes, the bus schedule was a bit inconvenient, but there was a way for me to get home without having to walk in the dark.  I needed the challenge of combos and choreography– I wanted it.  Next, I decided to be more proactive in continuing my stage kitten career.  I made plans to audition for the Ruby Revue, and once the Clever Girl Cabaret site went live, I asked them whether they needed any for their new show.

By JD Morgan Photography
I was a little confused about what a stage kitten audition would entail.  The call, which was directed at anyone looking to be a part of the Ruby Revue, instructed us to have a piece prepared and come dress up.  After much deliberation, I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to come up with a mini routine.  I still wasn’t sure that I needed to do it, but when I saw everyone else performing something at the auditions, I had to give it a go.  I was panicking though because I didn’t have the songs I needed on my iPod and I had forgotten my back-up CD in the rush out of the door (I need to learn that make-up still takes me much longer than expected and to not do shopping the morning of).  Fortunately, Renee Holiday let me borrow her music, which included something I had been practicing to.  I was so nervous that I forgot some of the moves, but the producers, Ginger Valentine and Missy Lisa, seemed pleased by my efforts.  Although I could’ve done better in terms of preparation and execution, I was proud of myself for taking a chance.

Since I knew I would be dressed up for the audition, I scheduled a photoshoot with my friend Jonathan Morgan afterward.  I had these neon pink-and-black socks that were nixed for a potential burlesque/pin-up outfit, but I really liked them with my pink bottoms and black bra.  The whole look embodied my quirkiness, which I would probably play up in a stage persona.  Jon also had me do more delicate, feminine shots to compliment the fascinator I bought from Dallas Pin Up.  Those were less me, but it's good to practice versatility.  The shoot was fun though I learned I still have a long ways to go in being more aware of my face and body.  I’ll get practice in dance class.

A few days after the auditions, I found out that I got the part of a stage kitten.  To add a cherry on top, the Ruby Room studio also deemed me their Student of the Month.  While I’ve been trying to not let compliments build my self-esteem, the recognition only fueled my desire to keep working on my nascent burlesque career.

As a side project, I had volunteered to do a panel on the History of Burlesque at All-con.  I’d done a similar presentation for a dieselpunk meeting, but this time I would only have an hour.  I also asked Black Mariah to join me.  Despite the late start and some stalling for time, the presentation went really well.  There were many attendees, and Black Mariah complimented my “straight man”, Power Point approach to presenting with wild stories of burlesque legends and humorous commentary.  We both got positive feedback the days following the convention, and I would love to work with her again so look out for the panel again at All-con 2014.

By JD Morgan Photography
As for the Clever Girl Cabaret stage kitten roles, they were already filled.  I was perfectly fine with that since a part of me missed photographing performances.  It’s another way I feel I can contribute.  My involvement in the community had given me the courage to network, something I still loathed to do in other aspects of my life.  All the friendly people I’ve encountered have really helped me come out of my shell even if I still feel shy at times.

Yesterday was my one year anniversary with the Ruby Room.  I’m amazed at how far I’ve progressed as a burlesque student and as a person who is working to be more confident and independent.  I’m trying not to rush myself or get caught up in the idealism of a new world.  There will be rejection, critics, and other unpleasant things.  For now, I’ll continue to work on self-improvement outside of burlesque and do more research on issues within the community.  Just as I didn’t exactly know where signing up for burlesque classes would take me, I remain open to many possibilities for the future.  Doors have been opened, and I’m becoming more confident about marching straight through them.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Stage Kitten Initiation at the Dallas Burlesque Festival

Originally published  March 6, 2013 on Dieselpunks After Dark

Before I embarked on my mission to be naked more, I thought being a stage kitten was a possibility for me.  The outfits would be as revealing as some of the skimpy cosplays I wanted to do, and in college, I helped our theatre group keep track of where props went.  My lack of experience with heels, make-up, and generally being sexy would make the role challenging.  However, with my new resolution to get more involved in burlesque, I decided to answer the call for stage kitten applicants for the Dallas Burlesque Festival.

Bill of N Street Photography had kindly offered his services to provide photos for would-be kittens to submit, and Bella Eden helped organize the schedule and did our hair and make-up.  The majority of my experiences with modeling and acting sexy involve playing a character so I learned several things about pin-up modeling and my own sexy side:

By N Street Photography. 
MUAH: Bella Eden
1. Less is more in terms of wardrobe.  I was glad to have brought many outfits, including lingerie (that didn’t really match but looked okay together).
2. More is better in terms of make-up.  It’s especially true with eyeliner on single eyelids.
3. Being cheap doesn’t work for false eyelashes.
4. You don’t need a fancy hairstyle.  Just a flower will suffice.
5. A headshot and a full body shot don’t have to be boring.  Yes, they want to see your face and body, but you also have to let your personality shine through.

Despite loving the great photos, I didn’t have much confidence in getting the part.  The Dallas Burlesque Festival brings in a large amount of talent, and I had no experience.  You can bet that I was extremely surprised and thrilled to have been chosen.  Lesson #6: don’t doubt yourself.

That wasn’t the end of my obstacles though.  Being without a car, I didn’t have much choice but to put off shopping for the right kind of heels until the morning of my first kitten gig.  I was kicking myself for not being more of a girly girl.  We got everything in the nick of time, and there I was in the House of Blues dressing room.  I was changing next to Bettina May, talking cosplay with Black Mariah, and devouring cheese with a bunch of the girls.  Before the show began, Missy Lisa grabbed a few of us kittens to help sell merchandise.  My job had me behind the merchandise table, which was a good starting place given my anxiety with approaching people.  It was nerve-wracking to be the first person seen by incoming audience members, but I was able to switch into business mode.  The fact that I was in my underwear with fishnets and a corset barely registered in my mind.  Just as things were getting busy, Jes, the usual merch guy, appeared, and I moved onto (candy) cigarette girl duties.  I was still apprehensive about approaching people, but I was able to sell a few things and I even got my picture taken.

Lesson #7 came after the show: bring something nice to change into.  Since kittens were supposed to arrive with hair and make-up done, I came in clothes I could easily slip out of.  Needless to say, they weren’t very glamorous or even cute, but at least I had a DBF tank top, which, according to Tana the Tattooed Lady, made my boobs look great.  Lesson #8: compliments on your body can be a good thing.  When I came home, I discovered glitter on the top of my breasts.  I had no idea where it came from, but I considered it a sign that I was officially part of the burlesque world.

Sunday I felt less shy backstage.  A part of me still fangirled inside with being in the presence of Di’Lovely (the little girl in me always gets excited for Asians doing burlesque because it makes me feel like what I’m working towards is more achievable).  There was another exciting moment when legend Tammi True walked in.  While determining how much time she had to get ready, she revealed that dancers back in the golden age of burlesque would perform 15-20 minute sets.

Janie Slash, Lyric Laveau, and Carmen St. Cloud backstage
I was so nervous about missing an article of clothing or tripping on-stage, but we worked out a plan for pick up and set-up before each act to make things go smoothly.  Lesson #9: don’t panic if you stumble or can’t find something (or the stairs feel wobbly), your fellow kittens and the other dancers will help out.  Seeing performances from a kitten’s point of view was very interesting, and I’m not just talking about the side view.  Because you’re focused on what gets tossed where, you start noticing little details of the dancer’s costume and movements.

After the show, StrOker Ace gave us copies of The Berlesker, a literary journal featuring work by members of the community.  It was a reminder of how many intelligent, multi-talented individuals are involved with burlesque.  I decided that I would try to come up with something to submit for the next issue. 

me with Angi B. Lovely
My attempt to be dressier with a button-up and nice jeans still fell short of the dress code of red carpet glam.  Lesson #10: “Awards Dinner” means super fancy. . . but when you’re a chronic underdresser, a cool shirt will do.  The most important lesson perhaps is to be yourself, and that’s what burlesque celebrates in an exaggerated, sexy, glitter-filled way.  Once I stopped worrying about looking silly, I felt more comfortable chatting and snapping a few photos.  In addition to all the lessons I took home with me on the road to being a Dallas Burlesque Festival stage kitten, I now have a lot of great memories and new friends, and now more than ever, I want to increase my involvement in this wonderful community.