Burlesque: (It’s the Tease, in Striptease)
Everything old is new again. This is a truism that’s been put down in lyrics, writings, and most likely hieroglyphs. We can look back over the decades past and see various forms of pop-culture that’s been incorporated into just about everything today. I mean, not that long ago the swing dance revival occurred, sprouting up a bunch of wingtips 30’s style flashbacks, or maybe the greaser rockabilly look. And not that long after the rockabilly (which was all about the guys and their cars), the “pinup” look for the girls came back. (well if you were to mix a 20 – 40 pinup with a tattooed lady, through in a few piercings, and then called it a day… then you’d have the modern pinup, or those in the know, a “Suicide girl”. Sexy as hell, but just say’n, not all that new).
So, taking into account that modern fads and fetishes are pulled from our history, we just have to look back in time to see what is just around the corner. Not that long ago we had vaudeville shows with jugglers and contortionists. Also thrown into the mix were burlesque dancers. Dancers that would swing a bit of hip, and spin a little tassel. Flick a little fan, and feign a little coyness… shake a little tush, and leave ‘em floored in the aisle. Over the last 10 years, many of these types of performance troupes have made a huge resurgence all over the country. Working street fairs, bars, clubs, and special venues are now hosting working class thespians, singers, dancers, contortionists, and “circus folk”, hoping to do their best to get a cheer from a willing crowd. And the burlesque performers are standing right along with them, or in some cases in front of them, looking more like a modern pinup model then they do the original dancers of days gone by.
Burlesque back then was about bringing some entertainment to the working class, a bit of puffery to the underdog. It was about making fun of the high society, and speaking directly to the poor stiff who put in his 15 hour days, was under appreciated, and who needed a distraction. And for nearly 100 years, (from the mid 1800’s through 1960), burlesque did just that in the US, and parts of Europe. Many of these shows would poke fun at politics, (anyone who’s seen cabaret would know this), spread gossip about the upper crust… but in general just have themselves a tassel spinning time! The common denominator in all the shows from Paris to Peoria was the audience. Normal middle, if not lower class people.
The U.S. saw a decline of burlesque around 1950 – 1960 when the concept of full nude dancers and the “titty bar” mentality hit the scene. Gone was the stripping with style, replaced with a brass pole and disco music. Don’t get me wrong, I like a brass pole as much as the next guy, but there’s just something about the entire production of burlesque that takes it to an entirely different level of entertainment then just a “strip club”. And I’m happy to see that those shows haven’t quite gone the way of the dodo!
Today’s modern dancer puts the tease back into striptease, and brings a little class into a profession that has a rap of… well just ass. The burlesque dancers that perform at various venues today are so unlike a stripper that I hate to even use the term strip in describing them… but one must, if one wants to get a visual.
My first true burlesque show was by mistake on my part. I went to see a band, back in 2002, and while waiting for the opener, a woman came out and did a strip tease, that was aaaalllll tease, and the strip was followed by tassels. There was a bit of hooting and “hollarin”, but for the most part, the crowd didn’t know how to respond. Since that show I’ve attended many different shows, have been lucky enough to meet a few of the dancers, and get a glimpse of what it’s like behind the glitz and the glitter… (and when I say glitter, I mean it people. Some of these woman coat themselves in the stuff! Sometimes to the point of it spraying out into the audience onto the stage, into the air… lets just say that glitter is a bitch to get off your clothes.)
Here in Portland, where there are burlesque shows running just about every night at one venue or another, I was lucky to find a club that had a modeling / sketch night. (Called Doctor Sketchy’s). The dancers would come out and strike a pose while the artists would do their thing, all the while music was playing. After a few minutes the dancers would do a bit of dancing, then strike another pose… it was fun, it was different, it was exciting, but most importantly it was a good way to spend a Monday night!
Since Dr. Sketchy’s I’ve gone to quite a few burlesque shows. I find them entertaining, and from time to time I find a photographer or model in the group that is willing to work with me on projects. Recently I was asked to do some face and body painting at an event over Mardi Gras and met a performer who was willing to sit down and talk to me about burlesque. This performer, I came to find out, is a normal person with a normal job. She comes from a normal upbringing, and like everyone, has eclectic tastes. She does what she does because she’s having fun, finds it exciting, and well….
Well, I’ll let her words tell that story.
Her stage name is Ellie Darling, and is not only a wonderful dancer, but has also set up / produced some of the local events here in the Portland area.
Matt: You go by the stage name Ellie Darling, is this your real name?
Ellie: Ellie Darling is the name I use for shows I produce, when I perform, when modeling, and attending events related to any of those. A few close friends, including many I have made in the industry, call me Ellie. I think because my stage name isn’t too far from my real name, it crosses over pretty well.
M: So, to people who don’t quite know what burlesque is, how would you describe it? (I’ll be getting some history of burlesque, but I’d like to hear how you would describe it).
E: I would describe it as an art of strip tease; interpreted and performed in styles that are unique to each performer. The art, from a performer’s perspective, is more about the tease aspect, not so much the stripping aspect, though many audience members would honestly say they focus on the stripping. Lol. Yes, clothes are removed, but there is a lot of expression that goes with this as well; it’s in the batting of the eyes, the playful smiles, the peek of sexy legs hiding under a long, side slit dress, pulling the satin gloves with the teeth, and the final reveal of twirling tassels and shimmering pasties! My words are nothing in comparison to watching a live performance, so acquaint yourself by attending a show. You don’t know what you are missing out on until you go and see it for yourself! What it comes down to is that burlesque is entertainment and an art form that is so captivating to watch!
M: When was your first peformance?
E: My debut was on May 15th of 2009 at the Roxxy in Salem. I performed a duo and 2 solo acts. From there, the rest is history!
M: What made you decide to produce shows?
E: I love performing and weekends are about my only availability, making it difficult to say yes to producers for weekday shows. So, I took a chance in November of 2009 and produced my first show at Tiger Bar on a Saturday night. It was such a success; they requested that I bring another show! The second show was just recently held on February 20th, and that was a hit! Producing thus far has been an excellent experience. I appreciate the world of Burlesque even more.
M: Who is your audience?
E: The audience is anyone and everyone! I don’t know how many people I have met who never even heard the term Burlesque, who are now very dedicated fans. You can be any age (over 21), any gender, any business professional or non-business professional, etc. My philosophy is that there is no target group. The audience can be anyone!
M: I went to your Ellie Darling Presents A Night of Burlesque show at Tiger Bar and it was a huge success! What do you have planned for the future?
E: Currently, I am working on a big show for May of 2010 at Dante’s in Portland. The performers will perform to live music by Shaun Toman and The Twangshifters for this one. The line-up is tentatively the same as the February 20th show you went to at Tiger Bar. May will be my one year in Burlesque too, so this will be a fabulous way to celebrate if all is a go! I will continue to produce shows at the Tiger Bar because the staff is amazing and the crowd is fantastic! It’s just a great venue all around. As far as other future plans… I can’t spill all my secrets (insert evil little laugh, Ellie Darling style). Plan on seeing more of Ellie Darling as I wet my feet in other areas of entertainment. No, this will not include singing
M: What is your style of Burlesque?
E: I am inspired by music of all varieties, so I can’t say I have one specific style. I love some of the 20′s jazz, 50′s swing, even like some Marilyn Manson and plan on doing a version of Tainted Love because the song just really moves me. As Ellie Darling, I get to be whoever I want to be and perform to whatever I am feeling at the time. Depending on the week I may feel like performing in a flirty & playful way, or sensual & sexy, or perhaps even dark & passionate. So I guess to answer the question, my style might be considered eccentric. I love variety and have several acts that I have either already performed or still in the works. I don’t ever want to be trapped in one style. I treat my modeling in the same way. I’m all about the variety and being able to capture different audiences.
M: What’s it take to be Burlesque dancer mentally?
E: I think you just have to be prepared for anything. I’ve had a zipper get caught, started to the wrong music and I know others have had a pastie fall off or have taken a spill on stage. You just have to be confident in yourself that no matter what happens on stage it’s ok because people are having fun, and that’s what matters!
M: Do you have to psych yourself up?
E: I get so giddy with excitement that no psyching up is necessary. lol
M: How do you deal with the crowds?
E: I love performing in front of large crowds! So dealing with crowds is never an issue. The more, the merrier!
M: Do you have to physically look a certain way to be a performer?
E: Confidence and acceptance of your body, no matter what shape or size, is of the utmost importance! You have to own it make everyone believe you are the best amongst the best out there while you are performing. If you didn’t think you were great at something, you wouldn’t do it… you have to exude confidence at all times!
M: I don’t like being in the spotlight on stage, so I have no idea what you’re feeling when you step up and move to the music… What’s it like to go out on stage today?
E: It’s exhilarating! Music starts and I become a dancing machine. It feels incredible to be on stage and the best part is catching glimpses of these people smiling back at you or laughing at your silly quirkiness during the routine. The best is when their eyes peel back and they scream out!
M: If exciting, do you still get excited? Nervous? Uncomfortable?
E: I get VERY excited! I do get nervous too, but the excitement tops that hands down! The only time I feel uncomfortable is off-stage after a performance that I feel like I botched. But within 30 seconds, I’m done throwing myself a pity party. I just remember the smiles and the cheering and it’s all great!
M: While at a show, I hear the announcer telling the crowed to hoot and “holla” to show their appreciation, and sometimes get bawdy. How does this make you feel?
E: One word: FABULOUS!
M: Is it really appreciated?
E: Absolutely!!! It would be awkward to perform to a silent crowd. We love the cheers because it means we are doing something right and we just explode on stage with more excitement!! It’s like a turbo charge and the energy spikes like crazy!!
M: Do the crowds ever get obnoxious?
E: Not in my experience. The shows I have produced and been in have all been very professional. My all-star MC, Burk Biggler, does a fabulous job at making sure the crowd knows to get rowdy, but not carried away with obnoxiousness. He does a great job setting the tone from the start!
M: Have you ever had to deal with “handsy” guys?
E: Thankfully no. The audience members have been very respectful in that regard and it is much appreciated.
M: You dance in Portland Oregon, have you performed anywhere else?
E: I have performed in Salem, Portland, and Vancouver. All of the venues have been great!
M: Anywhere “exotic”?
E: ha ha ha!! Funny you should ask. Yes. I have experience performing pastie-free burlesque at other “alternative” venues. I use layers and perform as I would in a burlesque show. The difference is that I make it a bit more sensual for the audience, but I still play and every now and then I do make the audience laugh. They love it!
I love to dance; pasties or no pasties;-) It’s that simple. Call it stripping or call it burlesque, it makes no difference to because I know who Ellie Darling is, where my limits are drawn and the direction I am headed at all times. I prefer to call what I do burlesque though… just saying;-) But I’m not going to pick a fight over it either. It’s been a debate for years and not one I will solve in this life time.
M: Burlesque is a bit risqué, how do family members handle it?
E: I performed a handful of times before I shared it with my immediate family. I grew up in a fairly conservative home, so this is a little out there for them, but they love me anyway! My philosophy is that as long as I am not hurting anyone, it’s all good. The only person I might hurt is myself with new shoes I haven’t yet broke in! Blisters are no way to end the night!! lol
M: You’ve started branching out into promotion and producing, how has that been?
E: It has been PHENOMENAL! The support and the attendance have been so great and I sometimes just sit back in amazement!
M: Do you find that other promoters are willing to work with you and help you along, or is it more of a cut throat business?
E: My experience has been nothing short of superb! The most recent Tiger Bar show (Feb 20th) was proof that there is a lot of support by producers and performers alike. In the audience, were performers and two recognized Portland Burlesque producers who were there to support the show and support me as a newcomer as well. It can’t get any better then that! As far as it being a cut throat business, I promote in the most positive and respectful way. I strongly believe that if you are good to people and associate yourself with good people, and always portray yourself in a positive manner, you only attract the good;-) I stay away from negative as much as possible! I never even post if I’ve had a bad day or if someone really chaps my hide on myspace or facebook. No one wants to hear about that stuff. Be the things you want to be and you shall become them;-)
M: I ask this, because you seem to be a genuinely nice person, and what I’ve seen of promoters and “some” of the other dancers, I get the feeling that not everyone is so nice… How do you deal with this?
E: Thank you, Matt! All I can share is what I have experienced personally. I will not judge anyone without having the experience come first hand. We are all adults in this business and if I catch a bad vibe, I have the ability to walk away without creating a scene. I find rumors to be annoying and uncalled for. It’s all hearsay until you know first hand. So how do I deal with it? I just continue to be me. I’m just out here because I love it and because I enjoy entertaining. We are here to entertain and we make it what it is! So far, my experience has been absolutely fantastic!
M: Is there a seedy side of burlesque? People hear about casting couches for movies, and I’ve heard horror stories from women that worked as strippers… but the burlesque dancers that I’ve met seem to be very happy people… Is this accurate?
E: The performers and producers I have worked with have all been professional and respectful. They bring a lot of positive energy to the shows and all appear to be positive in nature. I have yet to experience anything less then a great. I’m a lucky gal to be surrounded by good people.
M: Lastly, what’s the best aspect of burlesque? Is it the people? Music? Awesome costumes? Adoring fans?
E: All of the above! It’s everything encompassed into one glamorous explosion of awesomeness! I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting the fans and I have met some fabulous people along the way who have become some of my closest friends. On stage is where I get to be free and not worry about daily life. I get to hone in on that woman who is a dancer, performer, model, and that woman who gets to become anything she wants to be. It’s truly an amazing experience to be Ellie Darling; model, performer, and producer. I LOVE IT! All of it has been a lot of fun!!
So people, if you’re bored next week and find yourself wondering what you’re going to, or what there is to, do… then I recommend you look up a local burlesque show, give a cat call, whistle loudly… and don’t forget to drop a buck or two in the pot when passed around by the stage kitten. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about having fun… so why not have a tassel spinning time??
Special thanks go out to Ellie Darling for being a sport, “A View Askew Photography” for the imagery, Hai Fliesh for taking time to chat about costumes, and to all the stage kittens that have to pick up the costumes, and sweep up the glitter after each act.
And because their costumes are freaking amazing, I leave you with a bit of Moulin Rouge