Transcending Cosplay: Some Thoughts on Nerd Burlesque


Stormy Leather burlesque as Battlestar Galactica Cylon

Stormy Leather, photo by Melody Mudd

by The Lady Aye

February, 2013

The galaxy is awash in Slave Leias—every con, every screening, every Halloween; it so fits into the male fantasy and cultural landscape it’s become a cliché, but when is the last time you saw a sexy Tauntaun? As the trend of nerdlesque or geeklesque* sweeps the scene, my challenge to you as performers is to think beyond the gold bikini and really dig deep in to your chosen material for the elements that are innovative, elucidating, and take your game to the next level. Geek chic is everywhere these days, from the T-shirt racks of your local mall to prime time TV, and nowhere is the mainstreaming of underground culture more prevalent than in the pop culture-sensitive field of burlesque. Further, while there is some really rich material here just begging to be examined and lampooned, there’s also the risk of producing a generation of acts and performers that are providing themselves and their audiences with shades of parody porn or cosplay, thereby removing the most innovative elements of the genre.

Amelia Bareparts burlesque as David Lynch's Twin Peaks Log Lady

Amelia Bareparts, photo by Melody Mudd

To be clear, this is not a knock against any one of the tropes or characters that are encompassed in the “geek” pantheon—I’ve seen any number of acts that transcend the source of their inspiration—it’s more of a test of the community to be wary of what is nuanced performance and what is just grabbing for low-hanging fruit.  Part of my thinking about the rise of nerdlesque stems from the roots of my love for the genre as a whole. When I started producing and attending shows about ten years ago, one of the things I was struck by was the range of expression burlesque offered women in particular, more so than I had found in the male-dominated worlds of both rock and comedy, where even parody was dictated by the demands of the male gaze. New York burlesque, dominated by pioneering performers like Little Brooklyn, World Famous Bob, Julie Atlas Muz, and Bambi the Mermaid, on the other hand, served up archetype and expectation with a big comic side of in-your-face nudity. It was beyond refreshing for someone like myself, who’d spent years looking for others who shared her belief that comedy is a form of intelligence and a powerful statement for women.  These performers managed to have their roots in the burlesque tradition of mocking conventional mores while simultaneously giving their work post-modern intent and a sense of zeitgeist.

My issues with nerdlesque come out of these standards for performance. I want every performer to think about what his or her act adds to the cultural conversation. If you are simply coopting or copying characters someone else wrote, drew or otherwise embodied and stripping out of a costume (no matter how accurate), you’re adding nothing. The addition of nudity in and of itself simply isn’t a comment or a layer of nuance in a genre popularly defined by the art of striptease. Further, it runs the risk of isolating audiences in a rush for obscurity, exactitude, and inside jokes.  This is not to say that other aspects of burlesque don’t run the risk of becoming derivative, they certainly do (ask any veteran about the use of “Harlem Nocturne” or anything “Dita-inspired”), but engaging other people’s established characters raises the risk of seeming hack exponentially. Conversely, the task of doing it well is that much more admirable. Adding these layers of meaning and comedy is where the true artists separate themselves from the pack and involves asking oneself some fundamental questions about your source material and letting go of a measure of preciousness.

To me a great example of an act that works is Fem Appeal’s “Incredible Cook” act. It takes a well-known character and adds a fun twist and a whole lot of personality and sells the whole thing delightfully. The premise is simple: the Incredible Hulk becomes frustrated with making dinner and voila, the clothes come off.  The costume is lo-fi, the foundation is quirky and there’s nothing really inherently sexy about an angry green woman, but the whole thing just works. Why? First, because Fem (as she does with all of her acts) completely commits herself to it as a physical comic, and audiences respond to that. She is not recreating a particular plot line or epic battle of the comic books or movies, and anyone with even passing familiarity with the character can enjoy it.

Sizzle Dizzle burlesque as Ms. Pac-Man doing glove peel

Sizzle Dizzle, photo by Alex Usticke

So how does this translate to performing nerdlesque specifically and burlesque in general? I think the lesson lies in asking some very basic questions before constructing your act. For example, would this act translate to an audience of the uninitiated? If not, then perhaps your focus is too narrow and you should think of ways to let the audience in. Ultimately burlesque is a performance art and every successful act fully takes the audience into consideration. Conversely, are there any worries about plagiarism or over-saturation in choosing a character? Then the act has been done before in some way and it may be worth thinking about fresher angles. This is a more complicated question, since one could argue there are a ton of grey areas when pursuing archetype (e.g., clowns, kittens, housewives, etc.), but it’s still worth considering if your chosen material could be worn thin by repetition— even if it is your pet subject. Lastly, is the act entirely dependent on the costume or set piece? I’d argue this is a distinction that extends through the entire genre, but like Batman, the work really hinges on your personality shining through and not simply shopping for the right hardware.

In the end, no matter what the form, neo-burlesque is powered by a brilliant DIY ethic and that construction has both its own triumphs and pitfalls as the practitioners dictate the content. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but I also want to encourage ongoing dialogue, hard work and a safe space for originality content and social critique.

Strip long and prosper!

*These words seem to be used interchangeably, both by performers and the mainstream press, so for the purposes of this article I don’t draw a distinction —L.A.

The Lady Aye is an award-winning sideshow performer, producer, and MC who has worked with everyone from Rob Zombie to Cirque du Soleil.

All photos used with express permission for Burlesque Beat. Please respect copyrights and contact melodymudd@gmail.com for permissions. Performers may use shots for promotional purposes, but please credit properly with photographer’s full name and a link to this piece in all instances

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  • Scottybunny1

    Your job as a performer is to show up.  If you hide behind a costume or a pretense you might not reach your audience. So what. Who cares.  You gotta be you. Success as a performer is something that happens in the air between the stage and the seats – it’s not your job to pre-determine success! It’s your job to fullfill the passion in your heart. Art is about expression, period, otherwise you end up tortured in a cycle of self-censorship. The problem with you kids is you over think it.  You should really be getting on the stage to satisfy yourself at the same time realizing other people are watching.  It’s really that simple. Be the life of the party.  From where I stand (finishing a baguette and a block of picante gorgonzola, glass of red wine – ready to move on to the chocolate) you guys are choking on sub-genres and the conjecture of self-proclaimed expertise. What if you don’t know anything?  What if your audience doesn’t care what you know?  What the hell is up with all of this nostalgic mystique?  Sometimes I think the legends must laugh their asses off at all this hyperbole.  Put your sparkels on, get out there, and do your job.  AND! If we remember anything – it’s that it’s called burlesque DANCING!  Everyone knows you will take your clothes off – but know one knows how you are going to move!  There’s too much building, too much narrative, too much story telling, too many rhinestones and not enough dance. People should really come away from your show with a sense of who you are.  I’m so glad I came out of the dark ages from the nightclubs of New York. I’m so glad I came to burlesque before burlesque.  The people I know from back then put a character on stage to destroy it. To work against it.  I think we would all be better off with a little irreverence.

  • It’s great to see so much lively conversation. It always comes back to Miss Astrid’s adage: “If it’s not fun if you don’t take your top off… maybe you need to rethink that shit.”

    Iris has a salient point:  curating your acts for specific audiences is a necessary skill. A joke about Spinoza’s expulsion from the Jewish faith –“Did he get his foreskin back?” — might kill at a philosopher convention. But Aye’s piece speaks more to the incidence of acts performed for diverse audiences.

    Several have expressed concern that Aye’s caution applies to burlesque as a whole, which is undoubtedly true.  Yet nerdlesque may be doubly at risk because nerd culture developed specifically as a closed society. As a response to the jock/greek culture that dominated high schools and universities, nerds (possibly inspired by the seminal film “Revenge of the Nerds”) embraced their nerd-dom, essentially saying, “This is what’s cool in our clique, and you can’t join.”  It’s human nature–no one really wants to be equal. While I was called a nerd in high school because I was good at math, now I could never pass because I don’t know the name of the cantina singer in “Star Wars.”

    This is a subculture particularly obsessed with the esoteric, the minutiae.  A burlesque act about Superman is not necessarily nerdlesque; Superman is a mainstay of popular culture. (See Dangrrr Doll’s well-wrought piece on how to take this to the next level http://nerdyandnaked.blogspot.com/2013/02/nerdlesque-and-what-we-need-to-grow.html )  An act about an obscure video game or manga series is something else entirely–not only because the average viewer won’t get the reference, but because the viewers who do get it will become relentless trolls if a single aspect is inaccurate. In the 30 years since “Revenge,” nerds/geeks have proven themselves as elitist than the subcultures against which they originally defined themselves — well-illustrated by the vibrancy of response to Lady Aye’s piece.

    In her “Burlesque Handbook,” Jo Weldon repeatedly mentions her love for classic Warner Brothers cartoons, which operate on multiple levels. Last weekend, I watched “Toy Story 3” in a room full of children, and got a kick out of the scene in which Buzz Lightyear recreates the floor walker speech (“spend a night in the box”) from “Cool Hand Luke.” The children in the room didn’t get this reference, but neither did the other adults–and it didn’t inhibit their enjoyment. Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding erudite–or, rather, nerdly–I was able to enjoy the moment on multiple levels at once. This doesn’t make me better than the 4 year-old sitting next to me, but it’s no stretch to call my palate more refined. And how skilled are the wizards at Pixar, able to simultaneously entertain a cynical 41 year-old and a happy 4 year-old?  

    I believe that the spirit of Aye’s piece is a call to open the conversation, to invite wider audiences to appreciate the work.

    –JDX, Editor-in-Tease, BurlesqueBeat

    • Thanks for this, JD. Loony Toons, Miss Astrid and Jo all weighed heavily into my thinking in writing this (although I’vee moved on to Sarah Vowell’s “Eliminate the Middleman (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/151/transcript). Either way,  I’m glad people are talking about performance, although I’m sorry to see some of the conversation become about the “legitimacy” of nerdlesque, which is not addressed implicitly or explicitly anywhere in the piece on objective reading. To wit, I’ll not address it any further in any context. 

      However, the one of the points I think that has been raised that is of note is about knowing your audience; to which I’d add the following thought: even if you’re preaching to the converted, it’s better to give a roof-raising sermon than to just point at the book.

      Hallelu!

      XO
      Aye

  • WaldemarDaninsky42

    “For example, would this act translate to an audience of the
    uninitiated? If not, then perhaps your focus is too narrow and you
    should think of ways to let the audience in.”

    I’m really not sure what to make of this advice.

    Should the audience for nerdlesque be “the uninitiated” … or should the audience be geeks?

    If
    the show has a theme (like video games or Joss Whedon or My Little
    Pony), isn’t it fair to assume that the audience will have a certain
    amount of familiarity with that subject already?

    If the show is at a convention, isn’t it fair to assume that the audience has a certain minimal amount of geeky knowledge?

    If the subject matter is obscure, is it still “legitimate” to introduce the audience to something they’ve never heard of before?

    I can’t help but read this statement as:

    “It’s okay to be geeky, as long as your geekiness is mainstream enough …”

    … and I find that statement very troubling.

    If I cared about legitimacy, I wouldn’t be a geek.

    • Xtbplayerx

      ::Super proud slow clap::

  • As the self-proclaimed Professor of Nerdlesque I have much to say on the subject of nerdy burlesque. Perhaps too much. I’ve had the good fortune to speak to or study the work of many of the folks commenting or mentioned here. If I haven’t yet, expect a phone call soon. If I haven’t said it enough, I’m very impressed by the work you all do (cough….even the non-nerdy stuff….cough).

    I’m chiming in now not to add my personal response but to say please please keep talking about this. We started this conversation, in a way, at the Nerdlesque Panel at BurlyCon 2012. Similar questions posed in this piece were posed of the panelists there. In fact, panelists were asked to respond to what Julie Atlas Muz said in her keynote speech (by the way, most of them agreed with her, I believe). There was also discussion at the first GeekGirlCon 2011 and at numerous other burlesque and geeky places where people meet. Back in September a group of producers from Seattle also addressed the Rise of the Geeks and Sustainable Nerdlesque in a piece written by Seattle Burlesque Press http://burlesqueseattle.com/2012/09/20/sustainable-nerdlesque-a-look-back-at-seattles-summer-of-nerdlesque/

    More needs to be said. More self reflection from producers and performers is needed as well. More defending of what you feel is right. More feedback, both negative and positive from critics and audiences. MORE MORE MORE. Be loud. Be nerdy. Be shameless. And boldly go where few geeks have gone before.

    – Jo Jo Stiletto, the Professor of Nerdlesque, Author of Nerdlesque: The New Burlesque

  • Well written. Iris Explosion I know this is a subject near and dear to you, but I didn’t find this article disputing Nerdlesque/ Geeklesque as a legitmate form of burlesque. The writter mentions standards of performance which apply to all of the burlesque community. There’s also the clear statement of what she thinks makes an act good and what doesn’t. Performing at a convention with a niche audience is going to have a different result than performing in a NYC bar or even a bar in Charleston. I’ve seen both bad nerd themed acts and good ones. If the audience member is new to Nerdlesque then it’s hard to sit through a  routine where everything is an inside joke, just like it’s hard to watch a film or comedy set where everything is an inside joke. I really get upset when performers haven’t thought about the audience watching (I’m not talking about last minute one off’s, I’m talking about acts that were clearly planned out, just not very well). My hope is other burlesque performers no matter which style they choose to perform, will read this and think about what kind of work they want to create and why.

  • Dusty Summers

    Tigger makes an excellent point in saying that it isn’t what you are doing but HOW you are doing it.    I enjoy watching magicians perform even though I know how it is done and may be performing the same effect myself but other performers have a different “take” and that makes it entertaining for me.  Burlesque is the same in that no matter how many have previously peeled off their gloves or nylons or strutted to “Harlem Nocturne” it is always different, either by move, personality, costume, or some other maybe not so definable characteristic.  BTW, you are an excellent writer Lady Aye!

  • Random_Number_Generator

    “I’m actually genuinely confused by anyone who takes the article as a diatribe against nerdlesque specifically, because I feel like your personalizing and not seeing what’s actually there.” – Lady Aye

    “My issues with nerdlesque come out of these standards for performance.” – Lady Aye

    I don’t know, your confusion is what’s really got me confused. Not a single piece of criticism in this article applies to nerdlesque alone.

    “…would this act translate to an audience of the uninitiated? …are there any worries about plagiarism or over-saturation in choosing a character? …is the act entirely dependent on the costume or set piece?” – Lady Aye

    Your audience should be able to interface with your performance, you should be original, and you shouldn’t rely on your costume/set piece. That’s great advice for any burlesque performer, not just nerdlesque performers.

    “…there’s also the risk of producing a generation of acts and performers
    that are providing themselves and their audiences with shades of parody
    porn or cosplay, thereby removing the most innovative elements of the
    genre.” – Lady Aye

    That really sounds like a risk for burlesque in general. That there’s a chance that new performers will be bad. And I suppose you’re right. Though by only saying as much, to use your own words again, you’re adding nothing.

    “But if it doesn’t work for people who know absolutely nothing about the
    original, then it fails. The same way that a spectator with no knowledge
    about burlesque history should be excited to see your glove or stocking
    peel — not because it’s a classic peel but because it is exciting to
    watch how you do it — with zero frame of reference.” – Tigger!

    “To me a great example of an act that works is Fem Appeal’s “Incredible
    Cook” act. It takes a well-known character and adds a fun twist and a
    whole lot of personality and sells the whole thing delightfully. The
    premise is simple: the Incredible Hulk becomes frustrated with making
    dinner and voila, the clothes come off.” – Lady Aye

    Maybe the real message is starting to become more clear. What if I didn’t know who the Incredible Hulk was? Would Fem Appeal’s act still be engaging for me? Well, that would probably depend on her technique, choreography, and how much fun I had just watching it. That’s the message, right? So…what’s that got to do with nerdlesque again?

    There aren’t very many places the message can go from here. Is it about the genera? Is it about the performers? Your personal tastes?

    “I’m NOT singling out a group as bad…” – Lady Aye

    “My issues with nerdlesque come out of these standards for performance.” – Lady Aye

    • Clearly you have a hammer, so you see my article as a nail is all I can say.

  • Femappeal

    I am both a legitimate performer and a legitimate nerd and there are shows I will never be asked to do and that’s okay. Burlesque is an art form and most of us honor it to the fullest. I’m proud to be in that company. 

  • Anonymous

    Well! You have certainly caused quite a stir among myself and my esteemed colleagues.

    I am personally having a hard time with this article, because I don’t necessarily disagree with the things you wrote, I am just having difficulty seeing why these flaws are distinctive of nerdlesque specifically. Much of what you say applies to burlesque as a whole, and drawing a line in the sand about nerdlesque wrongfully implies that nerdlesque as a genre is inferior. I wish to stand up for nerdlesque as a legitimate form of burlesque. A great deal of being a smart performer is knowing your audience. For example: I have an act based on a specific video game that deals with some of the major themes of the game. It’s a fun act, with humor, playfulness, and a very distinctive story and character arc. It’s killed at video game conventions, and I’ve even had a well-known game critic tell me that it was the best piece of video game theatre he’s ever seen. I’m proud of this act, it’s a clear expression of something I wish to make an artistic commentary on, and I love performing it for a great crowd. Does that mean I’m going to do it at Duane Park? Helllllll no. 

    Shows like D20, Epic Win, The Pink Room, Critical Hit, Devil’s Playground and Whedonesque have all found dedicated audiences. Good performers, like any corner of the burlesque world, put a great deal of care, time, craft and thought into their acts, and bad burlesque flounders and fades in nerdy circles the same way it does anywhere else. Nerdy shows put butts in seats, and we’ve found a whole niche of giving and enthusiastic folks who may have never come to a burlesque show in their lives before we came along. That doesn’t mean our shows are for everyone, but as long as tickets sell and performers pour love into their work, nerdlesque will be sticking around. 

    I have a great deal more I’d love to discuss further on this subject, Aye, but these are my first few thoughts in response to what you’ve written. 

    What personally saddens me the most is that as woman, I have to fight for legitimacy as a nerd, and now, as a nerd, I have to fight for legitimacy as a performer.

    • The rest of it aside, every performer has to fight for legitimacy as a  performer. That is the responsibility of positing oneself as a performer.

      • Violet DeVille

        I don’t believe Iris is referring to legitimacy as a performer but rather as legitimacy as a geek, especially with the ever recurring meme of the “fake geek girl” meme that’s be spreading through fandom and geek circles.

        • I don’t at all address real or fake “geek girl” or the “legitimacy” of nerdlesque as a genre anywhere in the article, so I can’t and won’t speak to it.

      • Anja Keister

        I think what Iris is saying (and Iris forgive me if I am not reading you correctly) is that it is unfortunate, that in a community that prides itself so much on acceptance and support of each other, that she now feels she will have to fight more for legitimacy within our own community….for a criticism that truly is applicable to all burlesque performers, not just nerdlesque.

        • It may sound odd to say, but criticism IS support. No one flourishes as a performer or an artist or anything else for that matter without dialogue. Honest dialogue points out flaws as well as strengths. I’m NOT singling out a group as bad, in fact I go great pains to point out that performers do succeed and do so brilliantly.  I’m presenting challenges that I’ve seen performers struggle with and giving my advice based on experience and I extrapolate that to the burlesque community as a whole within the piece REPEATEDLY.  

          I’m actually genuinely confused by anyone who takes the article as a diatribe against nerdlesque specifically, because I feel like your personalizing and not seeing what’s actually there. This is NOT about whether you as  performers or as a genre get audiences, it’s NOT about whether one form burlesque is more legit than another, it IS about observing a trend – it’s pluses and minuses – and posing some questions that open a burlesque-wide conversation among professionals.

  • Fem Appeal

    Well Done AYE!  One thing to add: my “Incredible Cook” act is actually a commentary on everyone and their mother having a show on the Food Network.  One day I imagined a cooking show starring The Incredible Hulk where he hated every second of it.

  • Tigger!

    AGREED! Thank you, Lady Aye.
    Although I’m certainly a type of nerd (hello, librarian), I have a different frame of reference than many nerdlesque fans & practitioners. It’s strikingly educational to see which acts work for me without knowing all the references.
    Any stripe of burlesque act is welcome to include inside jokes or specific fanboy references for bonus points. But if it doesn’t work for people who know absolutely nothing about the original, then it fails. The same way that a spectator with no knowledge about burlesque history should be excited to see your glove or stocking peel — not because it’s a classic peel but because it is exciting to watch how you do it — with zero frame of reference.
    No matter what your act is, if you’re not appealing to the people who are NOT fans (not fans of you or your subject or burlesque), then you are not succeeding as a performer.
    Thanks for the ongoing critical dialogue.
    xxx Tigger!

    • Question: can an act be successful burlesque and only appeal to a small specific audience? I’m curious what others think.