Getting an Education: Teaching & Learning in Burlesque

Learning is necessary to develop yourself no matter what level of experience you have. In Burlesque this is no different. Burlesque is a unique dance form in which there are no formal qualifications; it can incorporate multiple styles of dance (and sometimes none), and nothing will really quite prepare you for being a burlesque entertainer. It is an art of its own; some do it well, some do it really well, and everyone has their opinion on what is or isn’t burlesque. And nobody should every think that they do not need to further their burlesque education.

I had early success with burlesque that I immediately got requests to teach. However, I didn’t feel that I had enough experience or exposure to burlesque to be able to fairly represent it, and (as I have always been upfront about) I have very little formal dance training. It was not until I returned from my first USA trip 14-months after starting burlesque that I took a step to lead a classroom. It was on this trip that I got to experience truly classic styled burlesque, and over 20-years of a developed neo-burlesque culture. This is what I felt NZ burlesque did not have at the time…. We were only maybe 5 years or so into our burlesque history and not even 18-months since we saw a boom of interest that expanded NZ’s scene from a handful of performers to many because of the movie.

My own burlesque education started with a show by theatre-come-burlesque convert Ian Harman of the Boom Boom Room, and eventually was followed up with a workshop with Eva Strangelove and one-on-one classes with Ian, as my nearest course was 2 hours’ drive away. This show sparked for me what I expect will be a life-long passion for burlesque and the need to absorb as much as I could about the art. Even before I got into my first class with Eva and Ian, I spent almost the 10-months before doing self-directed research into its history. Since then I have attended over 30 different workshops and classes around the world which cover topics that can be directly related to burlesque. This does not include other training which you wouldn’t think of as burlesque related, including tertiary qualifications and short courses in Adult Education, Risk Management, Business & Marketing. However, these subjects have served me well in my burlesque career. Beyond this, it is important to me to keep learning what I can about burlesque. I have a large collection of books and DVD’s on the subject which I am constantly adding to, and lending out to close friends.

Looking back, I can say that it is my performance experience internationally, nationally, as well as the training that I have done, which allows me to teach burlesque. Experience is important if you want to be true to this art form. My continued experiences (both good and bad) and learning allow me to put together and continually improve on courses about burlesque and build beyond just the performance aspect it to prepare newcomers for the business we are in. it is your experience that will allow you to continually improve in your own professional development.

What has amazed me about teaching is how much I have learned and been able to apply for my own development. Students always have something to offer to teach you, whether it is feedback for you to improve on, or something new or different to incorporate in how you do things. Teaching, I believe, has made me a better performer as you must analyse movement, choreography, engagement and more to find ways to help your students improve. By doing this, I have been more active in applying it to myself. As well, I feel that when I am on stage I represent my past students and I want them to be proud to say they were taught by me. Just as they have my reputation in their hands, I have a responsibility for theirs.

So do I believe that “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach”? Absolutely not. I say that teaching burlesque requires you to “do”. You need to experience what it’s like to be on a burlesque stage, what it’s like to pull an act together, and what it is like to have multiple failures as a performer. However, I do not believe that all performers should be teachers. It is not for everybody and only you can decide if it’s something you can do. It requires a lot of preparation time outside of a class room, not to mention emotional investment and risk. Speaking as one who once let down students when I wasn’t able to emotionally invest as much as I should have during a difficult personal time, you need to be in a secure place within yourself, as well as have a good balance of skills and experience to teach others.

As both a teacher and performer, I feel that it is important to always learn new skills to add to your repertoire as it will always benefit your professional development. It is necessary to learn from other people who may have differing perspectives as it can help to gain understanding and open your mind. It’s important to look outside of burlesque as it can add a fresh element to your development. It’s important to learn from your mistakes as well as the mistakes of others – if you’re learning from someone who has never failed, then you’ll never learn how to deal with a failure.

Never believe that you have nothing to gain by going to a class, workshop or course. At worse, you’ll gain knowledge on how not to do things, and this can be just as beneficial. But for the majority of the time, you will learn something that you can take away and apply to your craft. Burlesque is not a finite subject and one can never learn it all, but one should always learn more.

Once you stop learning, you start dying – Albert Einstein.

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