burlesque: a personal history

The Atomic Bombshells - Jazz FuneralThe Atomic Bombshells @ The Triple Door

In writing here, I realize I’ve written around my burlesque experience more than I’ve written about it. Christ, if I’ve made a post without referring to it…

I spent six years shooting Seattle’s burlesque scene before burning out. I have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for it anymore (much to the chagrin of some of my friends) but I can’t deny that it spoiled me in a lot of ways. More than that, it’s where I made my bones as a photographer. It’s how I learned, how I built my skills to capture movement and dance that still serve me to this day, not least of all in shooting fire.

So let’s talk about it.

I first learned about burlesque in the late ’90s when Dita von Teese was just starting to make waves and I was honestly captivated. It sounded titillating and captivating and classy as all hell. It also sounded like something that would never come to my college town. So file that away and move on.

Fast forward several years, I’m living in Seattle, playing in a samba batería when I meet a woman who says she dances burlesque and she’s doing a show that week. I’m the only one from the group who shows up and it was remarkable and mind blowing and I definitely felt out of place and impolite for the act of seeing someone… you know… in… *ahem* that is to say… she wasn’t… with the clothes? Eventually I got comfortable with it. Eventually I could enjoy the show for what it was, the nudity for what it was and cheer with the best of them.


Belle Cozette - Urban Fan DanceBelle Cozette @ The Pink Door

A year later, I’ve actually taken a class to perform burlesque and, in conversation with a local producer, I mention that I like taking pictures. When she asks if I’ve ever considered shooting burlesque shows, I think she’s kidding. And like that I’m the official photographer at the Pink Door for two and a half years. Everything followed from there.

I shot the first four years of the burlesque Nutcracker, went to Las Vegas to see Miss Exotic World, met up with performers from across the country and took probably hundreds of thousands of photos of it all. I was on stage, off stage, back stage, worked with burlesque related events like Dr. Sketchy’s and more.

And I was spoiled by it all. How could I not be?


The Heavenly Spies - Welcome to CampThe Heavenly Spies @ The Can Can

I loved the dramatic lighting (although those bastard orange spotlights could die the death). The performers were fantastic and gorgeous and the personalities they displayed were spellbinding. Never mind the energy and vitality to boot!

This is why I get frustrated by photos staged like water colors, lacking life or motion. Fine the composition is great and the exposure and blah blah blah. Why is she just standing there? Hell, why is she there?

For about three years, I was everywhere. Almost literally. I’d see more shows in a month than most fans would see in a year. And as the scene grew, I went to even more shows. Which is when the burn out really started to kick in.

Paula backstage
Paula the Swedish Housewife in the wings @ The Triple Door

I can’t say precisely when I started to burn out, but I think it related to the growth of the scene. We went from one or two weekly rooms with three (or so?) semi-regular troupes to more and more of both. What was once kind of rarified became commodified and with that, the standards changed as the audiences grew. For every show that pulled from the cream of the crop, there were two more

I started to feel like I was seeing more burlesquers and fewer performers. Most of the performers I’d seen had a background in dance or drama before they started bedazzling and stripping so the show had more to offer than just casual nudity. There were tap dancers and torch singers and vaudevillians and just plain weirdos on stage making it about the journey, not just the destination.

But with more eager graduates from the “academy” forming troupes and taking the stage, the bar for entry was lowered. All you needed to perform was be willing to take off your clothes. It felt like a ritual. Because the audience cheers when a stocking is removed Just So, more people would remove their stockings Just So. Tassel twirling went from a signature move for one or two performers to a common standard because it was expected. All you had to do was take off your clothes.

I knew it was over when I got sick of hearing emcees telling the audience: “You might even see some titty!!!!” And as the audience roared, I found myself thinking “Yeah but you probably won’t see much talent.”

Because I’d seen those tits already. Hell, I’d seen plenty of tits. And when that was boring, what were you left with? Everything else that was brought on stage. Terrified eyes, half-assed routines, cliched scenarios, the same moves, the same journey, the same destination.

And, yes, I know, nudity is great and sexy and all that. But without the context of intimacy or, at the very least, interactivity (*ahem*) it felt like gross anatomy.

So I left after a spot of personal drama. I left because I was tired of being told that this thing was sexy, told that the only polite response was a rousing cheer (because criticism wasn’t welcome in the community) and that the best thing about burlesque, when it wasn’t being vaunted as a historical art form of great esteem and culture, was that you got to see tits. The same tits. Artlessly. Again.

If I miss anything, I miss the personalities and the stage lights. I miss the big, bold moves and kinetic dance acts. I don’t miss the polite applause or the acts that endured due to inertia. I certainly don’t miss the ritual of it.

I actually went to a show about two or three years after I quit. A good friend was performing and I went to support her and, yep, ritual. Sexy because it was. Sexy because the ritual. Sexy because.

And that’s burlesque for me. It was real, it was fun, it was informative and it’s something I’m glad I don’t have to go back to any time soon.


Randi Rascal - GiftingRandi Rascal @ The Jewel Box