~Written by very special guest contributor The Shanghai Pearl
The Great Burlesque Exposition, which takes place annually in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was primarily organized by Ol’ Scratch and Betty Blaize of The Boston Babydolls. It has since grown to a bi-coastal effort (Scandal from Bohemia helps coordinate the classes from the West Coast) and is now in its seventh year.
I have had the pleasure of participating in the expo for a few years now, and each year gets bigger and better. I took a moment to ask the organizers what and why they started The Great Burlesque Exposition, and here’s what Ol’ Scratch had to say:
“Prior to getting involved with burlesque, I was the executive director for a high-tech membership organization. Part of my job was to organize a major educational conference and tradeshow each year. The first few burlesque events I attended were much more like fringe festivals than like the events I was used to attending; they largely consisted of shows at several different locations, and had almost no daytime events or educational component.”
“I created The Great Burlesque Exposition with two goals in mind,” Ol’ Scratch continued. “First, to create a weekend-long event at which all the activities and attendees were under one roof, because I believe that the best sort of inspirations, collaborations, and community-building come from that continued, close contact. The second aspect was to create a world-class professional development conference. If we – the people who perform burlesque – didn’t take it seriously as a profession, there’s no reason for anyone outside the burlesque community to treat us as serious professionals.”
Here are some juicy tidbits from my Great Boston Burlesque Exposition travel diary:
Friday, March 29: Day 1
Friday is the day that most people arrive. The only event on the first evening’s roster is “The Rhinestone Revue”, the Exposition’s showcase of previous GBE winners, invited guests, and guests of honor. The hosts for the 2013 Rhinestone Revue were GBE’s Legend Guest of Honor, Toni Elling, and founder Ol’ Scratch.
Before we started the show, Scratch called Burlesque Legend April March from the stage so we could all wish her well (she had broken her ankle a few weeks before and was heartbroken she was unable to attend). Everyone in the audience and backstage sent our love and wished her a speedy recovery.
I was so happy to see Willie Barret’s (aka Joe Paul Williams, Delsarte Master) sweet, charming, and comedic return to the burlesque stage. Joe Paul Williams is first and foremost, a scholar and master of the Delsarte method of movement. He was also a burlesque performer in the ‘90s. I am a great admirer of his work and love, love, LOVE his classes.
Willie Barrett’s return to Burlesque (Photo by Samantha Laine)
Jo Weldon, author of The Burlesque Handbook, debuted a beautiful tribute to the ladies of her Pink Light Burlesque project. She is one of my favorite performers to watch- so beautiful, and so dirty. Another highlight was Vancouver’s Burgundy Brixx, (of Kitty Nights and Vancouver Burlesque Centre Fame). Her pitch perfect act to an Ellington medley was a pleasure and a joy to watch. Backstage, The Boston Babydolls were the envy of all in their matching ‘Vegas’ costumes: large fancy cut stones and rhinestone chain all over the place.
The Boston Babydolls (Photo by Jo Boobs)
Legend Toni Elling, who co-hosted the show, is such a treasure. She is so natural and charming on stage.
After the show we migrated next door to the Last Chance Speakeasy. The Ballroom next door was turned into a sexy speakeasy by event sponsor House of Gorejess. It was lovely to see Cherry Killer Tomatoes representing Seattle on the bill.
Show highlights included Betsy Propane’s sweet and effervescent balloon act and Cherry La Voix’s extremely hot strip. There was a lot of joy on stage in the many performances that night, as exemplified by Betty Propane’s infectious number and Cherry’s intoxicating tease.
Saturday, March 30: Day 2
Saturday kicks off the first daytime events of the conference. There are a wide variety of classes, panels, discussions, and roundtables. I started the morning off with a panel on “Body Image in Burlesque” with Dot Mitzvah, Whisper De Corvo, Lydia Ransom, and Abhorrence. One hour is not enough time for such a loaded topic, but we managed. Then I headed to teach my extended “Master Class” version of “Drama”.
I love this class. We run around like maniacs and push our own boundaries with melodrama and theatrical presentation. I had a terrific group of students who were totally ready to be challenged and WERKED. So good. I am in love with the lot of them.
After class, I headed over to the ”Legend Q & A” with Toni Elling and Jo Boobs in the main ballroom. I was quite disappointed by the turnout for this event. [SOAPBOX ALERT] One of the best things you can do in any craft is to acquaint yourself with its history. Legend Q & A’s are a rare chance to hear FIRSTHAND the stories of burlesque history from the people who lived it. So, if you have a chance to do it- don’t miss it.
I’ve attended several Legend chats throughout the years and this one was particularly extraordinary because Jo managed to coax Toni to speak on some of the racism she experienced during her time in burlesque. For those of you that don’t know Miss Elling, she is the type of lady that has a kind word for everyone. Soft-spoken, sweet, and a lady through and through, she is usually very resistant to speaking about racism.
[RACISM TRIGGER WARNING] She shared with us that it was not uncommon to have “… people check my costumes to see if I was clean…” and “…once someone checked to see if I had a tail. That was the worst…so terrible…”
Uncomfortable as it may be, I think this is an important part of our history that we should know about. Burlesque is not all victory rolls, rhinestones, and roses. Our past, and parts of our present, are checkered with racism and many other nefarious -isms. Racial tension and racism (while perhaps not as overtly violent and visible as they once were) are still present in our culture and amplified in our microcosm. It’s a sinister and nefarious thing that can only be broken down by self-examination and supporting one another in having those difficult conversations.
The last thing I have to say about Saturday’s “Legend Q & A” is my new favorite quote from Toni. When asked if she had any advice for new generations of burlesque performers, she simply stated “Love it- or leave it.”
After the Q & A I made plans to have a little outing with Joe Paul Williams. I was thrilled to have a chance to spend a little bit of time with one of my favorite people. Joe Paul and I got ourselves off campus and into Harvard Square for a walk in the springtime sun. We decided to have a small interlude at Burdick’s Chocolates, which I found out later was one of Boston’s best chocolate houses, famous for their chocolate mice and hot chocolate. We talked art, artistry and our own histories in burlesque (Joe Paul performed boylesque and comedic stripper-grams in the ‘90s) over divine desserts. Dreamy.
Burdick’s famous chocolate mice
Saturday at GBE features “The Main Event” where competitors travel from all over the country (and the world) to strip and tease for a coveted Howard Award (named after The Old Howard, or The Howard Athenaeum, home to burlesque queen Ann Corio and infamously shut down by Rose La Rose).
Competition and judging in burlesque is a very strange and challenging thing. My only job that evening was to enjoy the show and pick a favorite, which quickly turned into a wildly difficult task as the night progressed. I easily had a dozen favorites for a million different reasons- I didn’t envy the main judges at all. The show was a thrilling stream of terrific acts and Ol’ Scratch kept things moving at a quick clip.
Here are the winners for the evening:
Donna Denise- Most Classic, Judge’s Favorite (Toni Elling)
Gorejess- Best Solo Performance, Judge’s Favorite (Jo Weldon, for best costume malfunction)
Danger Doll – Most Comedic, for a dirty and hilarious strip as a polar bear
Femme Brulee – Most Beautiful
Peggy Delune – Best Hybrid
Vanilla Frappe and Vivienne LaFlamme – Judges Favorite (me!) for a fun and filthy ‘Rubber Ducky’ duo that LITERALLY made my dreams come true.
Other highlights included:
Beelzebabe started off the show with a classic strip in a stunning red costume. Bobby Barnaby delighted the room with an electric and exuberant fan dance. Donna Denise stunned with her gorgeous grasp of classic burlesque in an aquamarine gown trimmed in long, lush lavender turkey ruff. Essence Revealed owned the stage with her gorgeous body and booty tricks that made my eyes pop out my head. Honey Lawless did a lovely burlesque of Marilyn Monroe’s turn in “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. Burgundy Brixx and I were aflutter over Honey’s stunning gown recreation.
I also loved Ruby Solitaire’s lovely strip out of a glittering red Dalek costume. I was not only impressed by her beautiful strip, but also by her costume. A Dalek is characteristically hard and robotic, and a burlesque performer (and costume) is generally soft, flowing or feathery. Ruby’s act and costume artfully juxtaposed and balanced all these disparate details.
Sailor St. Claire, Whisper De Corvo, and Gorejess represented Seattle beautifully. Gorejess won not just one but two awards with her fierce strip, Sailor St. Claire was luminous in her pretty and ethereal winter frost act, and Whisper De Corvo sparkled in a lovely and classic fan dance.
Sophie Champagne traveled from Milan to show us her tail feathers, Captain Elastico’s strongman act was charming and unexpected- it was a great, great show with strong performances from all involved.
After the show was the Pool Party with yummy surf rock from The Waveriders! The competition was over but Miss Mina of the Boston Babydolls still won at the Pool Party by showing up in a MERMAID TAIL. (Being obsessed with mermaids myself, I was naturally quite jealous). Poolside hijinx ensued and fun was had by all.
Poolside with GBE 2013 double winner Gorejess
More poolside posing with Seattle Sweetheart Cherry Killer Tomatoes (Photo by Gorejess)
Sunday, March 31: Day 3
Sunday, the last day!
I started the day with Lydia Ransom’s “Obscenity Law and Burlesque” class. Fascinating and informative, I am so glad I was finally able to attend this class. The policing of women’s bodies in public is galling, appalling and simply bananas.
I was able to catch a small part of the Exotic World film screening before my next class. This ended up not being the best decision on my part, as I found myself quietly weeping not 15 minutes into the film.
My next class was “Power, Pleasure and Meaning”, a lecture and discussion I created to address some of the complex problems I have been seeing and experiencing in our community. I already get the most nerves when I teach this class, probably because this class has a hefty chunk of my tender human self invested in it. In any case, it went well- there were as many nodding heads as knitted brows (and even a few outright frowns). So I felt successful. When teaching this class at a festival or setting such as BurlyCon, I have a short amount of time to deliver a lot of material. Then I send people home with worksheets and they do the hard work on their own. (What I would love to do is offer an extended version of this class where we tease this stuff out together…)
My last class for the day was much lighter subject matter. I headed to the craft room to teach “Headdresses, Fascinators and YOU!” This class is probably the most popular class in my DIY Showgirl series. In it we learn how to shape and manipulate feathers and students create their own fascinators to wear home. The most gratifying component of this class is the excitement and pride the students have over their new and beautiful (and often shockingly impressive) creations. The last chunk of the class is guided DIY, which basically turns into a fun craft party.
Here’s a peek at some stuff we made:
Finally, we reached the Tea Party! At the end of the conference The Boston Babydolls host a charming tea party for the expo participants. This year’s tea party was sponsored in part by Jacqueline Hyde.
After catching up with conference attendees over tea and delicate nibbles, Paco Fish and I walked across the bridge for a quick dinner before…. “The Newbie Showcase”! One of the best things about this weekender is the support it offers new performers. In addition to a variety of classes and panels, it features an entire showcase dedicated solely to new performers.
New performers (aka ‘Newbies’ or ‘Fresh Meat’) are a special thing. Sometime when I talk to brand new performers (usually after a class or in between classes) I find myself feeling particularly nostalgic for that the ‘newbie’ time. The first few years are amazing! You have a million ideas and want to do everything! You are vibrating or quivering with possibility and excitement. It really is an infectious energy. I wish we could bottle it.
The show itself was energetic and joyful. A few highlights for me were Gigi Holliday and Dainty Dandridge with two high energy and classic performances. Also, Tapitha Kix (a member of the Baltimore/DC-based troupe Twisted Knickers Burlesque) revived some old school vaudeville with her TAP DANCING, EN POINTE. Fabulous!
After the show, it was time to pack! So with that I leave you with what plays in my head at the end of every festival/convention/expo…
Learn more about the adventures of The Shanghai Pearl, the “Tantalizing Temptress from Taipei and Princess of Pulchritude!” (Burlesque Performance and Instruction) at www.TheShanghaiPearl.com.