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How to become a burlesque performer

Updated on April 3, 2013

What is burlesque?

The History of Burlesque....

Historically the term burlesque was applied to a variety of different entertainment forms including musical theatre, literary works, music and film. In essence it is designed to provoke laughter in the audience through charicatures and parody. The term has since been applied to the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

In the 1860's-1940s burlesque became associated in the United States with a form of variety act performace which would usually include a female strip-tease act. There was an attempt in Hollywood to regenerate the form in films such as Cabaret and All That Jazz.

Burlesque, or 'neo-burlesque' as it has been termed has come to enjoy a resurgence since the 1990s on both sides of the Atlantic. With noteable burlesque stars such as Dita Von Teese enhancing it's image and popularity.

Dita Von Teese: A Modern Burlesque Star


Step One: Immersion

I would advise that you begin by researching burlesque, which may be how you have landed here! Search the internet for content about modern burlesque, read accounts by performers, read their blogs, websites etc. If you use social networking sites, try following a performer on twitter or friend requesting them. A lot of professional performers have 'official' facebook pages for fans and will post regularly giving news and updates.

If possible go out and attend a few live shows. This is the best kind of exposure to 'real' burlesque that you can get. Through attending a real live show you will get a feel for burlesque and the style of performance and the atmosphere, this is experience you can't get through internet research,

If you can't find any shows in your local area or don't have the confidance or open-minded companions to go with try searching youtube for videos of real performances. This way you can get an idea of what burlesque is like on stage.

There is more to becoming a burlesque artist than just performing on stage, it is often more of a lifestyle, which can entail interests in: alterative fashion, corsetting, costume design, dancing, vintage, makeup, hair styling, handcrafts, painting, art, etc...!!

A word of caution....

Burlesque has a very glamerous image, in part due to popular burlesque stars such as Dita Von Teese. The reality is however sometimes a little less glamerous, for the most part the work will not be very well paid and you may be required to perform for free or for charity events in the beginning while you build a reputation and contacts. You may be required to buy or make your own costumes which involves a bit of time and effort on your part. I have included a link to a humerous article below which offers an account of the less glamerous side of burlesque!

Dita Von Teese performs her famous martini glass routine

Step Two: Lessons

Although it is possible to teach yourself burlesque I highly recommend that you first take some lessons from a professional or established performer.

Burlesque lessons are becoming increasingly available in the UK, typically a one hour lesson will cost between £5 and £20 depending on the location and the qualifications of the teacher. During a lesson you can expect to have a lot of fun as much effort is made to ensure that all participants feel relaxed and comfortable. Sessions are often booked as 'girls only' sorry boys! You will typically learn a number of poses and techniques, usually along the lines of glove peeling and stripping hold ups. You will also learn about moving on stage and interacting with the audience, which are essential if you want to perform. Some teachers try to encorporate elements of body confidance building which is important. You may learn a routine to a song which you can often record and take home with you as a reminder of your achievments!

Aside from learning the basics, burlesque classes are a great way to meet like minded girls and make contacts with people. It may be that someone in your class knows someone who is looking for a performer, or knows of an upcoming variety show. You may even be able to form a group with the other girls and get booked as a group act. Your teacher may also be able to give you soe guidance on burlesque in your area and perhaps put you in contact with the right people. It is all possible and you would miss out on these great oppertunities if you don't get out there and go to a class.

Welcome to Burlesque!


Part Two: Lessons (Student Edition)

There is another opportunity open to University students, many Universities have a burlesque society, or offer burlesque classes as a subdivision of the dance society. These lessons are likely to be much cheaper than private tuition and will again help to introduce you to like-minded people and the benefits that entails.

An added benefit of joining a University burlesque society / class is that the University is likely t put on it's own shows and host entertainment evenings which you will be able to perform at

If your University does not currently have a burlesque society, why don't you consider starting one? There is definitely an interest and a demand for burlesque, so I guarentee you won't be the only one who is interested in pursuing it.

Step Three: Your Image

Burlesque performers usually have a unique look or image which they have carefully created and cultivated. While many burlesque stars adopt a traditional image this is by no means a requirement.

It is important to try to find a style which is unique and yet reflective of your particular personality or interests. The key here is to be inventive and think outside of the box. You do not have to conform to the 'classic' burlesque look, you can have blonde or multi coloured hair and you can be individualistic in your performanc style. It's best to be 'you' or at least one form of you! rather than trying to immitate other acts or styles. A genuine version of you will always be better than an immitation of someone else.

Try creating a scrapbook of clothes, makeup, hair styles etc that you like, or create a folder on your computer to save your inspirational material. Then you can use this as a source to help you get started and give you some ideas, then you can begin to personalise things.

Once you have some ideas about what style you want, you may need to visit the hairdressers for a cut and style. Hair is a very important part of the image and whatever colour or style you go for, your hair should be kept in good condition, well cared for and neat (unless you are going for dreadlocks of course!) Makeup is also important and it is worth having a play around until you find a style that suits you. Traditionally burlesque stage makeup involves a porcelein white face with heavy false eyelashes, black eyeliner and red lipstick. But again feel free to get creative, incorporate some colour or some glitter!

A Stage Name

You might consider coming up with a stage name, this is usually something saucy or provocative and can help to commercialise your act, making it more marketable. You may be able to forge a stage name out of your own name, or you may want to pick something complety different. Feel free to get creative!

alternative style burlesque look


Step Four: Get Some Pictures!

Once you have got an image together that you are comfortable and happy with, which feels like 'you' and doesn't feel too much like a costume or an imitation then you should get some pictures taken.

You don't need to hire a professional photographer if you have access to a digital camera and computer and have a bit of know how, or you have some helpful friends!

However, if you have the spare money it may be worth paying for a photoshoot. Professional pictures are often better than amateur attempts and they're quality stands out and lends more professionalism to you and your act. It is very easy to book a photoshoot, many places offer this service, and you may be able to get it cheaper if you make a group booking and invite friends along. Photoshoots can be arranged for as a little as £15 and you will be able to take home the pictures on a pen drive. It may be worth letting the photographer know what style of shoot you are interested in, perhaps take along some sample shots that you like, so you can work together to create a shoot that you will be pleased with.

Once you have a portfolio, it will be much easier to market yourself and your act and get bookings.

Step Five: Getting a booking

This is where contacts are really important, a quick chat with the right people can open up a world of oppertunities and it often is a case of who you know and not what you know. This means that communication, social networking and making friends is really important.

Contact current burlesque performers to see if they know of any oppertunities for you, or would be willing to collaborate. Look into variety shows and charity events and be prepared to work for free. You will find that bookings often come out of other bookings, getting your first one will be the hardest but once you have started it will become easier.

My burlesque troupe and I have been able to get bookings simply by calling lots of different venues and asking whether they would like to book us for the evening, we have been able to put on shows simply by doing this. If you don't ask, you don't get! So don't be shy, just call and ask.


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