In burlesque, you have creative freedom. You have control and responsibility for everything you put on stage. You build your act from scratch by selecting your music, making your costume, creating choreography, telling the story, and sharing yourself with the audience. Unlike being part of a play or other creative endeavor where you are piece of someone else’s vision, burlesque is completely your project and product. In the spirit of burlesque, I present my first (well overdue) blog post as the outer-view-of-the-interview. We’re often interviewed, both formerly or informally, and the content can rarely make it out to the final product for public consumption for various reasons. Hence, my first post is here to put out to view.
What is Burlesque?
The history of burlesque is long, beautiful, comical, and political.It’s painful and joyous. It’s a story of the audacity to punch up at bureaucrats or to show an ankle. It’s a story of daring and discovery, of sensuality and slapstick. When people ask me what burlesque is, I’m often forced to give them the “drive thru” answer, because they asked in a time or place where having lengthy conversations about history and defining the undefinable are not possible… like an actual drive thru. I’ve resorted to “a glamorous and/or comedic performance art that typically involves striptease”. I’ll give it the fast casual rendition. Burlesque shows of the yesteryear involved a variety of performance types. Magicians, comics, singers, variety performers all graced the stage. The “golden era” of burlesque in the first half of the 20th century would feature striptease performances with elegant costumes performing their bumps and grinds to live bands. Over the years, burlesque faded when the world around it changed. A resurgence came in the 1990s and has been going strong ever since. You’ll see slightly different parameters, but the general consensus is that burlesque can be “Classic” or “Neo-burlesque”. Most people use “Classic” when an act could be dropped into that golden era and blend in. “Neo-burlesque” is a broad term used for the burlesque of today. “Nerdlesque” is used when a burlesque act references pop/nerd/geek/fandom culture in some way. “Boylesque” has been used in reference to male presenting people doing burlesque. There are a lot of books, films, classes and other sources for the history of burlesque and to get a thorough idea of what it is. I am in no way an expert and am constantly still learning. My favorite is to listen to my co-producer Lipstick Lamarr tell the tales of burlesque history, but I am fortunately enough to be around her when this takes place.
How did you learn about burlesque?
I have always been interested in visual and performance arts and all things creative. I love learning and discovering. I’ve always had a fondness for vintage entertainment and being mesmerized by everything humans do. I can’t recall the exact first time I ever heard of burlesque, but I started attending shows in 2010.
How did you and your troupe get started?
The first time I saw burlesque I knew I wanted to be part of it. I also yearned for it to be closer to my home area of Frederick, Maryland. Almost every show I had attended was in Baltimore or DC. I knew if I was interested, that others around me would be as well. As it turns out, a mutual friend introduced me to Lady Bladie, who had the same vision of being an entertainer and bringing burlesque to the local area. We performed under the name “Honeybee Burlesque” with other entertainers in a show at The Lodge (Boonsboro, MD). Myself, Lady Bladie, and Lily La Q were invited back to perform in another show. Shortly after, I found a venue in Frederick to host a show. Lady Bladie and myself rounded up some willing participants, continued to use the Honeybee Burlesque name and we produced our first show in February 2014. Several of our troupe members found us at that very first show and started getting involved, including our other co-producer, Lipstick Lamarr. Over the years we picked up more and lost a few. We produced shows at some other venues in Frederick and were invited back to The Lodge for a regular occurring bimonthly format. We’ve been there ever since on that same every-other-month schedule. I also perform in other shows and have had some amazing experiences over the years working with different troupes, venues and projects. I wished I had the opportunity to attend classes when I first started, so that is definitely something I encourage to others who ask how to get involved in burlesque. I have attended many workshops the last few years and will continue to do so. Our troupe runs an annual Burly U series because even though we’re not actively looking for additional troupe members, we want those interested to have a local opportunity to learn and explore burlesque. We don’t consider ourselves experts in any way, but we share what we’ve learned and during the process we always learn more.
How did you select your stagename?
“Bearcat” is jazz age slang for a feisty, hot tempered woman… which I am not. I’m really easy going and generally have myself together. “Barecats” is also the team name the Exotic Dancers League, founded by Jennie Lee, used for bowling and sports. They fought for better compensation, safer work conditions, rights for dancers, celebrated burlesque as a legitimate and reputable entertainment. “Betty” was mostly just for the alliteration, but I like to think of the other important Bettys. You know… Betty White, Betty Boop, the ship from Alien Resurrection. I’m sure if I was selecting a stage name now, I’d probably choose differently, but Bearcat Betty is me. Everyone knows me as Bearcat and I couldn’t imagine the hassle of changing now.
What is your real name?
Bearcat Betty. (This is when you imagine me staring quietly at you after asking me this.) I’m sure when people ask this, they mean what is my legal name, but Bearcat Betty is my “real” name in this setting. It’s no less real than a nickname. It’s no less important. I treat entertaining as a business, so I see it as professional to use my stage name. My legal name is not a secret identity, but avoiding it for all things burlesque that aren’t signing a legal document is my standard. This is not me “declining to give you my name”, this is me… being me.
Where do you perform?
Regularly with my troupe at The Lodge (Boonsboro, MD). Periodically in other shows most often around the Mid-Atlantic area, but occasionally elsewhere. Always in my shower and sometimes in my car.
Why do you perform?
First it started as a creative outlet. It was a way to soothe my artistic soul when I spend most of my time in life caring for my children, working my career tethered to a headset and computer, and washing, drying, but never putting away my laundry. It worked. Burlesque was able to tap into a smorgasbord of different art areas and skills. I’m constantly having to learn something I didn’t know. Basic things, like music editing and sewing. Complicated things like how to make a prop that has never existed before. It continues to feed my artsy parts.
What I didn’t see coming was the profound life changing aspects of this art. I’m now surrounded by supportive people who aren’t afraid to be themselves in whatever weird and wonderful way that is. They’re strong and loving. They’re diverse. They’re smart, talented and skilled. They believe in equality and kindness. They will laugh with you or cry with you or be angry with you, sometimes all at once. Not just my fellow performers, but the audience as well. The atmosphere of a burlesque show is an encounter everyone should allow themselves to experience. We go through our days in whatever capacity we can manage. Sometimes we excel or are full of joy. Other times it’s asking a lot just to function. We come together at night, everyone eager for an emotion. Maybe they need to laugh. Maybe they want the excitement of something out of their ordinary. Sometimes they’re effected in ways they didn’t expect. Over the years I’ve had different people come to me and explain how something I did impacted them. Sometimes, it isn’t something I did… it is just who I am. As a burlesque performer, you create this magical DIY package that you’re probably stressing about, worrying is not good enough, complaining about a lack of time, money or skill, and just overall suffering over… and then you put it on stage. You step out onto the stage and gift yourself to the crowded masses… or the three people at the bar. You expose yourself, both physically and emotionally. You take part in a fusion of power and vulnerability under the spotlight. You’re powerful because you have complete autonomy over your body. You dictate what they see and when. You chose when to engage with them. You determine your value. You’re vulnerable because you’re putting yourself out there to be viewed, and consciously or not, to be judged. Your time, your work, your decisions, everything that you’ve put into this five minutes to share with them and you don’t know how they’ll feel about it and if you’ll fulfill that promise you made to entertain them. This dance of generating emotions is a treasure. We can be complete strangers and if nothing else, we share the same emotions. Sure, what causes the emotions and how we handle them differ. But they’re the same. If we can bond over that, are we still strangers? I’ve surrounded myself with these people and this atmosphere and it has strengthened me as a person and a performer.
What are Blue laws/How do they affect you?
“Blue laws” is a common term for laws that prohibit or restrict certain activities. (‘Blue’ being the word used for rigid morality in the 18th century when the laws arose.)
Most typically when talking about blue laws and burlesque, the laws being referenced are the local liquor laws. Every state is different. In Maryland, liquor laws are determined by county, which is why something may be permitted in one area and just over the county line it is restricted. Most ‘blue laws’ in some way limit the types of entertainment that can happen in a venue that serves alcohol. Typically, this involves varying degrees of restrictions for what parts of a body can be seen and what a body can be doing. Here are a few examples of things that can’t happen (either by a person, something simulating, or media displaying):
“expose to view any portion of the female breast below the top of the areola or of any portion of the pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva or genitals”
“encouraged or permitted to touch, caress or fondle the breasts, buttocks, anus or genitals of any other person”
“perform acts that simulate sexual intercourse, masturbation, sodomy, bestiality, oral copulation, flagellation or any sexual acts that are prohibited by law”
As entertainers in a county or state that has these restrictions, we can be somewhat limited. It does not mean that burlesque can’t happen. Burlesque is about much more than body parts or whats happening to them. The limitations are often caused by the lack of understanding about burlesque as an art form, the laws, or about how compliance can be achieved. It is important for venues and entertainers to partner together.
What does your husband think about you performing?
My husband and I met in 2011 before I started performing. He is very supportive of everything I do because he is my chosen partner in life and I chose wisely (this time), Burlesque is just one of the many adventures I’ve had in life and that we’ve had together. When I’m interested in anything, he enthusiastically encourages me to pursue it. My heart breaks a little when I hear people say their spouse/partner wouldn’t “let” them do something like this. You control your own life and decisions. If you find yourself in a relationship of any sort where that person doesn’t support you and your interests, you may not be in a situation that is best for you. I know how incredibly difficult it can be. I was in an unhealthy marriage in the past and it’s not easy to find your way out. I encourage anyone who finds themselves saying this phrase to sit down and have a think, and reach out if you need to talk it out with someone.