While I was writing my review of Burlesque for Art Attack this week, I decided the least I could do for Houstonians who bothered to read about that movie's woeful lack of authenticity (among other things) would be to point them to where they could find the real thing. It wasn't until I'd spent a good amount of time, uh, researching the question that I realized no such place exists in Houston.
How is this possible? Austin has the Jigglewatts and Kitty Kitty Bang Bang (and the Texas Burlesque Festival), Dallas has the Lollie Bombs and the Velvet Kittens. We're the largest city in Texas and the 4th largest in the country. We have a sub-tropical climate that encourages a lack of clothing. Why the hell don't we have a burlesque troupe here?
Other groups come to Houston from time to time, sure. I last saw the Jigglewatts at the Bettie Page Tribute in the Alamo West Oaks, for example, but for some reason Houston seems unable to sustain a troupe of their own. The closest thing I could find was something called "Concrete Rose Cabaret," but their MySpace(!) page hasn't been updated since 2008.
I decided to consult a local expert in such matters. Rebecca Hadley is Headmistress of Lady Grace Academy, which is "dedicated to the instruction and advancement of Feminine Arts." She performs as "Grace Truvant," and was kind enough to answer some of my dumb questions:
Hair Balls: You mentioned to me that one of your goals in 2011 is to put together a Houston burlesque troupe. Why do you think it's been so hard to get one off the ground here?
Rebecca Hadley: I can imagine numerous reasons why it's difficult to get a troupe going - some unique to Houston, but most not. The most obvious is the fact that you're dealing with other people. There are always going to be scheduling issues, possible personality conflicts, differences of opinion, etc... The desire of the participants has to be pretty strong to overcome those obstacles. Houston is also hampered by its sheer enormity. Troupe participants may have to drive an hour each way to meet in a central location for rehearsal and performing. That's a lot to ask of people who will make little to no money for their efforts.
Probably the biggest challenge for the Houston market is the lack of actual burlesque already being performed in Houston. Women may not know that they want to do this simply because they don't even know it exists. They've never seen it before.
From my own perspective, I'd been studying exotic dance (at a pole dance studio) for more than two years. I was even training to be an instructor, but something didn't feel quite right to me. Then, I traveled to New Orleans for their first annual burlesque festival. I had only a passing knowledge of what burlesque was and had never seen it performed live. My husband and I just went for fun. The very first night we watched the performers, it was love at first sight for me. Just an instantaneous Bam! And I KNEW that this was what I was supposed to be doing. I think a lot of women in Houston haven't had the opportunity to make that same sort of connection.
HP: I saw an interview you did earlier this year that talked about Houston having more of a "strip club culture." Why do you think that inhibits the development of burlesque?
RH: You know, I just threw that out there as a theory to a reporter's question, so it's certainly not a scientific fact. But I do know I spend a lot of time explaining to people in Houston that burlesque is not the same thing as stripping in a men's club (and I should state that I don't think there's anything wrong with stripping in a men's club - it's just a different animal than burlesque). People in Austin, Seattle, New Orleans and even Dallas already seem to understand that distinction. I get the sense that the strip club culture here has conditioned a lot of women to believe that feminine movement is meant to be performed for the pleasure of men only. And while it can be a wonderful way to please your partner, it can also be a lot of fun to dance just for yourself OR for an audience of men AND women.
HB: How do you respond when people question the "female empowerment" aspect of burlesque? Would you say performers have more control over their routine and how far they want to go with it?
RH: Yeah, definitely - there is an aspect of control and self-expression that comes with burlesque that some (not all) women find empowering.
And this can be a bone of contention with some women who approach things from a more "traditional" feminist perspective. They find the fact that burlesquers would display our bodies for the male (and female) gaze to be potentially degrading. But for younger, third-wave feminists, it's not even an issue - they're ready to own every aspect of their life, including their sexuality. If they want to get up on stage, strip out of a gorilla costume and simulate fellatio on a banana, then dammit, that's what they're going to do - societal norms be damned!
The important thing is that burlesque performers choose their music, their costumes, their message, their appearance, where they perform, when they perform, how much they take off and how much they keep on. They don't get paid by random men in the audience, they get paid by the show's producer - so in that sense, they are very similar to other performing artists. They have complete autonomy and control over their image and presentation.
I know for me, personally, performing and teaching burlesque was a revelation. About seven or eight years ago, I was agoraphobic - I didn't drive for two years and rarely left my house. So the fact that I am now able to dance in pasties in front of an audience of 300-plus people borders on miraculous. Even better, is that I'm able to stand in front of a room full of women and teach them to love their bodies - no matter what shape, size or age they are. While I love performing, teaching is the ultimate high. And I never would have had the courage to do it, if I hadn't discovered burlesque. So, long answer short - yes, burlesque is empowering.
HB: You said earlier that a lot of women don't even know burlesque exists. How would you go about correcting that?
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RH: Good question. Unfortunately, movies such as "Burlesque" probably aren't going to be helpful. It just seems to muddy the waters in terms of presenting the art form as it's currently practiced.
On a national level, there has been some real momentum. New York School of Burlesque founder, Jo Weldon, released "The Burlesque Handbook" earlier this year which is the first how-to manual for aspiring burlesque dancers that's ever been created. And performers Dirty Martini and Immodesty Blaize have both been featured in documentary films in the past year. Additionally, the number of burlesque festivals has been expanding seemingly exponentially. The Dallas Festival will be on its third go-round this January and the Texas Festival takes place in Austin in April.
Locally, I think it's a matter of continually pushing it out there in front of people in whatever manner possible - whether it's putting on shows, holding classes or getting stories in the media. In marketing class, they teach you that an advertisement has to be in front of someone an average of seven times before it makes an impression. I think it's the same way with burlesque. Women have to hear about it in a real sense - not just as a word with an interesting historical connotation - quite a few times before it starts to take on a personal meaning for them. For those of us that love burlesque and want to build the scene in Houston, our job is to change burlesque from a nebulous concept to a living, breathing art form that is as inviting to women as it is exciting to the audience
Lady Grace Academy is on holiday hiatus until Dec. 8 while Hadley reworks her 2011 curriculum (to include a new Intermediate Burlesque series and an academy troupe for student performers). For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.