To get to where you are, you have to realize where many have been. (NSFW after the cut)
This doesn’t just apply to the performers of years past, but also to contemporary performers who, in essence, blaze their own amazing trail, leaving you with your jaw wide open and a realization that you’ve got some work to do. I say this having sat in two very different, but ultimately amazing audiences the previous week: one as an audience member at a Brown Girls Burlesque-sponsored show in honor of Jean Idelle, a burlesque dancer from the 50s who is soon to be inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame (courtesy of the performances by Brown Girls Burlesque and their special guests), and the other, as a quasi last minute stage kitten, quasi audience member at the lecture-performance on Wild Wild Women (burlesque and the sideshow), who watched in stupefied joy as contemporary top performer Julie Atlas Muz made her pussy lips sing to Judas Priest’s ” Breakin the Law.”
As you can imagine, Jean Idelle is what we would call legend, a performer from one of the golden periods of burlesque, but also a performer competing with an often white-washed view of history. Following “La Baker,” writes Chicava Honeychild, the creative producer of Brown Girls Burlesque, and an amazing fan dancer herself, “The 1940s and ’50s was an era of stunning nightclub floorshows that featured African-American women who traveled coast-to-coast and around the world. Yet, the books that claim to detail the history of burlesque say little about women of color and their unique struggles and triumphs.” Idelle, who is now in her seventies, was treated to performances from The exHOTic Other, Jazabel Jade, and the other amazing women who make up the troupe, all in an effort to raise money for her trip to her Legends induction. Ethereal and divine, it also is a homage to the great performers who came before, as well as how things have changed and stayed the same.
On the other side of the coin, there’s Julie Atlas Muz, a contemporary performer, whose own work rests in between the world of burlesque and performance art. Muz has trail-blazed mainly by doing her own thing, which is enough in itself to make one realize how far you can go (what’s that quote about surrounding yourself with people who are better than you?). “Bust Magazine” describes her as one who “thrives on the heady thrill of exposing both herself and her work to the censure of a world which often devalues her art form and equates it with soft porn,” which frankly, sounds way more fun than what would have been considered “art” by an institutional force that’s known to rarely take many seriously, other than the big boys. Muz is hilarious and beautiful, her work a combination of ooing and then screaming, bringing the bizarre to the front and center, where you can enjoy every moment of it. Let’s just be real honest. That’s some hard shit to follow.
By watching other performers, not only do you realize what you may or may not be as one, but moreover, what you aspire to do. Not in a – hey, I’m going to do that act type of deal (cause that’s a serious no-fucking no), but how performers carve out their own spaces by way of cutting through what came before them. It’s an education of sorts, a way of recognizing what those who came before or, hell, are still coming (that joke writes itself) and how heavily they influence the space you take as a performer and form into your own. Moreover, it makes you buck up and get out there and own it. That’s the thing about blazing trails – you eventually have to own them, whether it’s being a legendary performer like Jean, a game changer like Julie, or just altering the course of what you expected for yourself. Sure, two of those weigh heavier than say, personal narrative, but they are also personal narratives, ones that can then provide visibility for others who are just beginning or finding their way. The important part is recognizing those who came before you for the trailblazers they are, whether it’s for creating a paradigm shift or merely existing – they are the ones who keep at this thing, who keep making magic happen again and again and again. If that’s not something to be thankful for, or at least, to be in awe of, I don’t know what is.