“Think, Pussycat!: How Did You Get Into Burlesque?”

Welcome to a new regular feature at Burlesqueadelphia: Spreaditorials, opinions and insights from luminaries in the burlesque community. Our first contributor is none other than Sway Bradbury, an esteemed staple of the scene who made her re-debut at the July Honeygasm

I think every burlesque dancer has received an email, Facebook message, or after-show grilling session that contained some form of “How did you get into burlesque?”. It’s not an easy question to answer at all, let alone in a succinct, professional email or over loud music at a bar. Each performer has their own story, their own glittering journey; some found it through a performing friend, some took classes, some were there when the neo-burlesque revolution started in the early to mid 90s. The question is more often that not a lead in to the “I want to do what you do” conversation, the “How do I become one of you glamorous, hilarious naked people?” conversation, a hope to look behind the curtain just for a moment and find out the secret to being One of Us.

So, how did I get into burlesque? When I was 16, I was running and playing punk shows out of an old Masonic ballroom in Red Lion, PA with my then-boyfriend. I was some combination of goth-vaudeville-rockabilly in lifestyle, and Dita Von Teese was just beginning to gain mainstream popularity in late 2006, so whenever there were articles about this costumed queen of vintage fashion, wife of Marilyn Manson at the time, someone would give the article to me. For Christmas that year, that high school boyfriend stole a copy of Dita’s “Burlesque and the Art of the Teese” from Borders, and it was gifted to me alongside a copy of the Suicide Girls burlesque tour DVD, sending me down a rabbit hole of ostrich feathers, rhinestones, and striped stocking peels.

Me at 17, looking very punk and trying very hard

I remember pouring over the pages of that book, watching and re-watching that DVD, and researching everything I could about burlesque. Every movie reference Dita made, I researched and watched. Every song the Suicide Girls danced to, I downloaded. For two years, I made pasties in secret in my room, filmed myself dancing on my Macbook web cam, and brought elements of burlesque costuming or cabaret into my music shows. I pirated Marilyn Monroe movies and mimicked her movements, watched endless YouTube bellydance videos to learn how to move my hips, and bought albums of classic burlesque music off of iTunes.

The summer before I turned 18, I moved across the country to Detroit, MI, where fortunately I had a friend in a local burlesque troupe. I contacted them via MySpace and started going to troupe meetings soon after my birthday. On November 8, 2008, I did my first ever burlesque number, a 6 min clown-themed striptease to “All That Jazz” from the movie musical Chicago. I got tipped one dollar by one of Detroit’s biggest burlesque fans, and told by several audience members that it “didn’t seem like my first time.” It was a dream come true.

I did a few shows with the troupe, and was soon kicked out for being a precocious, over excitable, opinionated teenager. I had recently made friends with Roxi D’Lite and remember calling her when I got the email saying they no longer wanted me to be a part of their shows. “You’re better off without them!” she cooed. She was right. A lot of my favorite burlesque performers started their careers by getting kicked out of troupes. [Not that there aren’t a lot of GREAT troupes out there now!]

Once I was forced to go solo, I used my connections through my music career, or the few shows I had done with that troupe, to get booked wherever I could. I headlined with fetish troupes and circus guilds, I worked steampunk conventions, toured with a sideshow at 19. I learned how to optimize the search terms for my burlesque videos and got bookings through my website. I did strange gigs on people’s patios, in living rooms of fans and friends, on the floor of a beer-soaked VFW hall. Soon after I turned 21, I convinced a local pole dancing school to let me teach burlesque at their facility. I had never even taken a burlesque class, and didn’t until a year or so after I had moved to Philadelphia, more than 5 years into my career as a burlesque performer.

Me at 20, doing a singing striptease at Dirty Show in Detroit, MI

The rest, as they say, is history.

I tell you all this because there is no right answer. Unfortunately for every aspiring ecdysiast, there’s no tried and true method that guarantees you stage time, no magic class or special showcase that means you’ll be up there twirling tassels. The scene is huge in a way I didn’t know was possible when I started dancing, and coming back after my year and half hiatus feels, in some ways, like starting all over again. There are shows every night of the week, practically, in Philadelphia, and when I started in Detroit, we were lucky to have one burlesque show a month. I have this conversation with burlesquers who’ve been in the business for far longer than I have and I sound like a tiny baby burlesquer; I would never have gotten into burlesque if there hadn’t been the boom in the late 00s, or the resurgence in the early 90s from the Velvet Hammer and the Miss Exotic World Pageant.

So, how do you start? Really, that’s up to you. Go to shows. Go to ALL THE SHOWS. Watch all the burlesque you can, live ideally, and on YouTube. YouTube is an INCREDIBLE resource, you can find videos of award-winning numbers for free in seconds, as well as tutorials on how to make the fundamentals of burlesque costuming. If there are classes near you, take a class. It’s a good way to test the waters. The Philadelphia Burlesque Academy now has classes every week, practically, about a variety of different parts of the industry. Dance alone in your room, video tape yourself, watch it and see what your body looks like when it’s moving. Make friends in the scene, be nice to people, and ask for help. Email the people who run the shows you like and see if they’d be willing to help you get your feet wet. There’s space for all of us, and we were all new once.

Me at 25, at my comeback show on July 3, 2016

I hope to see you on stage soon. Fellow performers, let me know in the comments below how YOU got into burlesque!

Your dumpster fire,

Sway Bradbury

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