November 12-15, 2015
Hilton Seattle Airport Hotel & Conference Center, Seattle, Washington
Torrential downpours greeted the glitter tribe in the Emerald City. The rain didn’t matter much since the majority of Burlycon attendees spend very little time out of their jammies. At Burlycon, you get to see all your favorite burlesque stars in their comfs. This is what makes Burlycon markedly different from the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, the other great annual burly gathering. BHOF is amped up to a Vegas volume: louder, drunker and dressed to the nines. Burlycon similarily captures the spirit of its host city and tends to be subdued, academic and more stoned than drunk. Not that things don’t get wild. It’s just the parties are typically confined to attendee’s hotel rooms. At Burlycon, the tribe is here to learn, and with over 100 classes to choose from, there’s no shortage of knowledge.
I was pleased to see a musical theme running through many of the weekend’s classes and workshops. Most likely due to the presence of guest-of-honor Ronnie Magri, known for his work with New Orleans’ Shim Sham Revue and the seminal burlesque album Shim Sham Revue- Music of New Orleans Burlesque Shows of the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s. He has also been associated with Dita Von Teese; they performed together often in New Orleans and he collaborated on music for her various shows throughout the years.
I attended Ronnie’s “Risque Rhythms” class on Thursday and really enjoyed his advice to performers especially to avoid using music as background noise but rather make it an integral part of the act. Classic burlesque performers turned popular songs of the day into their own, adapting them with the house band to create instrumental soundtracks that were unique to that performance. Ronnie concedes that times have changed and a live band may be a luxury that most producers cannot afford. His solution? Ask a DJ to create a custom mix for an act but try to stick to instrumentals. Unless you are doing a literal interpretation of a song’s lyrics, lyrics can distract from the performance. As someone who’s seen a ton of neo-burlesque over the last 20 years, I couldn’t agree more. Nothing bores me more than some lyric-heavy alternative rock song lacking any rhythmic swing accompanying an act that has nothing to do with the lyrics. Instrumentals take the focus off the song and put it squarely on the dancer.
On Friday, I made my way to the Crystal Ballroom for the keynote and was amazed at how much bigger the audience seemed from years past. Initially, I attributed it to the change in venue but when a quarter of the room raised their hands saying it was their first time, it was clear that Burlycon has grown leaps and bounds. Ronnie came up and said a few words as did the other guest of honor, burlesque legend Delilah Jones. The highlight for me was Indigo Blue’s observations on the proliferation of performers “calling out” on the Internet. This is something I’ve noticed as a casual observer of the burlesque community. There’s a lot of talk about support and community in burlesque but often the competitive side of performers rears its ugly head. Indigo suggested displaying more compassion, understanding and most importantly, to take a minute and think before you type. Words on the internet will be there FOREVER, so act accordingly and instead of “calling out,” perhaps a better option would be to “call in.” That is, to use your personal connection and communicate like a real person, face to face. Amen.
The night before, I was able to catch Delilah Jones’ “My Life” session. Delilah will be celebrating her 75th birthday in two months and man, does she look great. Must have something to do with her 500 daily sit-up routine. Certainly, appearance was a major factor for her generation of performers. Dancers had to have a graceful walk and “perfect skin” (no blemishes, tan lines or tattoos) and strictly adhere to the beauty standards of the time. She joked that when her and her fellow dancers would go out on the town, they resembled a gang of Stepford Wives.
Still, she seemed to have fond memories of a glamorous, mob-run Vegas, where dancers would call ahead to the casinos after their shifts and get VIP treatment upon arrival, drinking champagne and mingling with the stars of the day. According to Delilah, the original burlesque era ended in 1965 with the introduction of topless bars. She continued to work into the 70’s, removing her first g-string in 1972 and retiring in 1980.
Her advice to younger dancers? Today’s tease is too quick. Slow it down. A typical burlesque act back in the day would run 20 minutes or more. A burlesque performer in the day would hardly get her glove off in the amount of time it takes a modern burlesque dancer to complete her act. She suggested paying closer attention to clean lines on stage as well as looking your best. Also, she stressed that burlesque is versatile and encouraged performers to be creative. As a trained burlesque dancer, belly dancer, contortionist, nightclub manager, producer and author, Delilah doesn’t just preach versatility, she embodies it.
My final session for the weekend was Saturday night’s “Story Time.” A new event organized by Mandy Flame. Anecdotes ranged from hilarious to incredibly moving. Highlights for me were my old friend Armitage Shank’s narration of a letter from an angry parent complaining about the apparent lack of “family friendliness” at a Circus Contraption performance. Irresistible Oh’s moving account of the general lack of visibility of people of color in the burlesque community and her encouragement from Toni Elling to keep going, to be seen; Scratch’s beautiful story of the late legend Joan Arline (“The Sexquire Girl”) and his recreation of one of her classic props that moved her to tears; finally, Amber Ray’s letter to a former principle who punished her for drawing “dirty” pictures her junior year of high school, unwittingly inspiring a lifetime of stripping that eventually led her to a successful career complete with European tours and museum exhibitions in her honor.
One of my favorite things about Burlycon is the general lack of pretense. At BHOF, performers (and fans) are there to be seen, or to compete. The feeling of community is there, it’s just a little more guarded and a little less inclusive than at Burlycon. I love meeting new dancers and seeing the excitement in their eyes when they see one of their heroes saunter by. And the great thing is, at some point, you’ll probably see that same dancer sitting down with their hero, picking his/her brains over a coffee or cocktail. That’s exactly the kind of “calling in” Miss Indigo Blue encouraged in her keynote.
If you have even a cursory interest in burlesque, whether as a performer, producer, fan, historian, musician, whatever, I highly encourage you to attend next year. You’ll fall in love with your burly family all over again. Added bonus: you get to hang out with them in their jammies.