Glorian Gray explores the current debate on who should and shouldn’t be allowed to teach burlesque classes and questions if there should be a checklist or syllabus for teachers to follow…
If you want to learn burlesque it’s not usually hard to find somewhere that teaches it. You can find lessons in local dance schools, pole dance schools, fitness schools, and being taught by individuals. Spoilt for choice! But are all choices equal? It seems common sense to assume that if someone is teaching something, they are experienced in that thing, insured and qualified to teach. Yes? Surely. But with burlesque, it is not so clear cut. Not everyone is satisfied that all teachers are qualified to teach, and there are real concerns that some people teaching classes have comparatively little experience or training as burlesque performers or as teachers.
Why is it important to have suitable teachers in burlesque? Well, arguably, this could produce less able/informed/skilled performers, which could influence the standard of performance across the art form, which could lead to customers not enjoying shows, gaining a negative impression of burlesque, and not attending or recommending future shows. So, in the long run, less jobs for all of us. It could result in very unhappy customers who have paid money under the impression that they are learning from an expert when they are not. It could be dangerous if the teacher doesn’t have safely awareness (warm-up and down, insurance, risk assessments etc). It could result in students not going on to perform due to a bad experience, therefore reducing the amount of new performers, who we need to feed the industry and keep everything fresh.
Summary: Unsuitable teaching could threaten the future of the industry, take money unethically from people, lower the standard of the art, taint the reputation of the art.
Or, it could do none of this. It could all be fine.
For as long as I have performed, there have been debates about who is suitable to teach burlesque, and the same questions always arise. How long is long enough to have performed before you teach? What skill level should you have? Should you be a regular head-liner? Do you have to have a teaching qualification? Do you have to be trained in some kind of performance? And so on. And to this date, there has been no consensus about the answers to these questions within the community/industry.
But why is there so much debate around these questions? Shouldn’t it be obvious? Well, consider these examples of burlesque teachers;
• A newcomer to burlesque (done a few shows, less than a year’s experience), who is a trained dancer and dance teacher.
• Someone who has performed burlesque regularly for five years, but is not trained in any way.
• A newcomer to burlesque, who just wants to teach burlesque for fun/confidence, not for the stage.
• Someone who is a limited performer (performs small events, hobbyist level only etc) but a good teacher.
• Someone who has never performed burlesque but runs a fitness school & has devised a fitness accredited burlesque course.
• Someone who is an experienced, skilled performer with no teaching experience.
• Someone with experience as as stripper.
• Someone who has never performed burlesque, has been to a couple of shows and watched some instructional DVDs.
Which of these are more “qualified” to teach burlesque? With one exception, it’s difficult to call, but we see all these types of people teaching. And the truth is, being a brilliant performer does not guarantee you will be a good teacher, and people who are mediocre performers can have very satisfied customer reviews. People who have limited ability/skill and little experience can still lead classes that produce happy customers.
Part of the reason for this is that there are different types of classes, with very different aims. What does it actually MEAN when we say we are holding a burlesque class? Will our classes just be fun, taster sessions, almost burlesque themed parties, like hen parties are? Are we trying to train new performers for the stage? Are we teaching burlesque-themed dance and fitness? Are we talking striptease or comedy/mime/acting based burlesque, or a mix of both? There are many approaches to burlesque, which is a very varied art-form, and can (whether you agree with is or not) go as far as to include a certain look, a certain sound, a certain aesthetic, for many people involved, as well as being about performance.
So – it’s pretty complicated.
We have collectively been debating and bemoaning this for years, without being able to really work out who should and shouldn’t be teaching, or even if there should be a “should” or “shouldn’t”. The one possible solution that keeps popping up is to have a burlesque class curriculum that we all endorse and follow. There are loads of difficulties here though, too. Never-mind the massive amount of work to get it in motion, who would create the curriculum? Would a set and examinable syllabus stifle the much valued creativity and individuality in burlesque, creating a set of clone performers? It is already possible to tell where a newcomer learned by what they do on stage, sometimes. Aaaaaaand- if someone created a syllabus and had it accredited by a dance society etc, what if you didn’t WANT to teach what the syllabus set? What if you don’t rate the people who create it, don’t rate their view on what burlesque is and isn’t? What if you already teach and are happy with what you are doing? Would you want to adopt this new curriculum? Would we just end up with just as much division as ever? Maybe.
A possible solution is this; we do it together, as a community. Through consultation and questionnaires etc, we find out what performers think, what newcomers want, what existing teachers teach, what we all think should be the BARE MINIMUM that a newcomer should learn in a class. We create a set of LOOSE GUIDELINES about this. Not a rigid curriculum.
This would allow people to teach in their own way, using the guidelines but communicating and teaching them in whatever way they feel is best. They can put their own spin on it, and make their own additions, just making sure they cover the bare essentials. Once we have devised these guidelines together, we roll it out together. This would not only make sure that newcomers learned what they need to know, but if everyone adopted it, it could help those teachers who have less experience to lead even better classes, and it could help customers get a good all-round basis of teaching, no matter where they learn.
Now I reveal- a large group of performers are working on this idea, and more input is needed from everyone. Give your input! What do you teach? What do you want to learn? What do you think should be taught in a beginners course? Do you disagree totally with any kind of standardisation? Say why! This link is to a small questionnaire on the issue, fill it in and have your say. You can also google “Burlesque Teaching Survey” to find it.
Modern burlesque is an emerging, developing industry, in its infancy. All other performance arts have teaching standardisation of some sort. This is going to happen at some point. Lets make sure that WE are the ones who do it, that WE are the ones that shape and guide it, because WE are the ones living it.