My Life in Burlesque: A Photo Finish

It started when I was 15 or 16: a perpetual discomfort at having my photo taken. No, I’m not some kind of international spy or superhero. I wish.

Hell, I wish I could remember HOW it started. My body issues, I can pretty much pinpoint their origins. But with photos, all I know is that I used to hate being in them.

In burlesque, that’s a bit of a problem.

In my near-year as a professional performer, I’ve been photographed CONSTANTLY. In performance, as well as before and after. The fact that the audience is not allowed to take pictures at burlesque shows is practically irrelevant, when you factor in photo shoots, show pictures taken by professionals, and new friends who just want to Instagram everyone in their sequins. A lot has changed for me in this past year, and the biggest thing I’ve had to get used to is the knowledge that every weekend, at least one camera is getting pointed at my face, and/or other parts of me.

“I don’t take good pictures,” I’ve told people. “In fact, I photograph terribly. Here, give me your phone, I’ll take the picture instead!”

Here’s the photo that started to turn it around for me:

Five burlesque dances in white flapper dresses
Photo by Greg Inda

That’s me, second from left. My face looks really round. I’m mid-yell and my hair is in my face (as it is for 99% of my existence, in and out of burlesque drag).

But I look so, so happy. Like, that’s how I imagine I look when I’m performing. This was one of my first shows with The Kiss Kiss Cabaret, a group I’d wanted to belong to for almost a year before I got the courage to audition. This group number was one of the first I learned as a company member and remains one of my favorites. By this point, it was almost 1 a.m. and I’d done my first solo and had been stage kittening. I likely hadn’t sat down for over two hours. And when I got up there in my fringed dress, none of it mattered. I had this photo printed out, I love it that much.

Highly unusual for me.

The photographer, Greg Inda, is an integral part of the company. Capturing dancers in their natural habitat is a tricky business (I mean, we’re constantly moving!), and this guy’s good. Seriously. Check out our Facebook page. He’s gotten photos of my butt that make me cry, they’re so awesome. And no, he’s not paying me to say any of this.

Closeup of Emma's butt in red panties with black garters and thigh-highs
THAT’S MY BUTT! Photo: Greg Inda

As the months went on, I started thinking. I needed to get more comfortable with myself in pictures, and learn more about how to take a good shot. Not just for burlesque stuff, but for my civilian life as well: I’m a writer, and I do the occasional non-burlesque audition. I wanted some nice pictures, but I knew myself, and that I needed to feel okay with the photographer and the environment. And that I’d need more guidance than most of my fellow performers, who know how to take gorgeous photos.

After checking out the head shots on his website, I contacted Greg. Told him my issues and what I would like to accomplish in a shoot. Also because I’m nosy, I also wanted a glimpse at the process. And copious instruction on how not to look like an idiot.

Bless him, I got a detailed email seemingly tailored to my Type A neuroticism. What to wear, how much makeup to apply, what to expect. Namely, that we’d be taking a lot of shots. If we were lucky, about 10 percent would be usable. Also, he and his partner are raising ducks right now and did I want to meet them?

Two yellow ducklings
Why is that even a question? Photo: hiren.info

Maybe it was the details. Maybe it was the ducks. Maybe it was the fact that I felt comfortable with this photographer, that he talked me through the entire process — from what top would look best with what lighting, to how to “turtle” my head forward and not put my chin down so much, to anecdotes about how even Brad Pitt didn’t know how to look his best in pictures when he was young. Whatever it was, this photo shoot was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Every so often, we’d sit down and look at the photos he’d taken. True to Greg’s word, there were a lot. And some didn’t work so well. I was visibly more at ease as the shoot went on. Less concerned about looking Totally Perfect Every Single Time. (Yes, I do better in life once I let go a little. It’s a lesson I have to learn over and over.)

“I’m liking when you look straight at the camera,” he said.

“Oh my God,” I said more and more. “That looks like ME! How did you do that?”

In true Tyra Banks fashion (yes, we talked about America’s Next Top Model and how fun it is to analyze those pictures), here are my best shots:

Emma Glitterbomb headshot

Emma Glitterbomb headshot

Emma Glitterbomb headshot

And my very favorite:

Emma Glitterbomb headshot

It’s odd sometimes, performing again. As a writer, I can edit, rewrite, largely control my output. As a dancer, I can prepare and perfect and rehearse myself to death, but I have to allow for missteps as the performance is in progress. Some shows will be better than others, for various reasons: audience, other dancers, my shoe coming undone.

Some pictures of myself I will continue to hate, because I appear to have three chins, or my eyes look too small, or I’m wearing a leotard and having my period at the same time. But maybe I’m not as terrible at photos as I once thought. Self-image will always be a struggle for me, but I’m starting to think it’s possible to evolve. To look at photos and go, “That’s me, and I look pretty good.”

For more about the photographer, visit greginda.com.  

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Emma Glitterbomb

Emma Glitterbomb is a burlesque dancer in Chicago. Writer by day and vixen by night, she's a proud company member of Gorilla Tango Burlesque and a founding member of Madame Hatter's Moonlight Marauders. Emma has danced with Beast Women, the Better Boobie Bureau, Festival of Flesh, the Kiss Kiss Cabaret, the comedy show Menage a Hah! and the blues band Miss Jackie and the Sass. Say bonjour at eglitterbomb(at)gmail(dot)com.

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