Quick addition to yesterdays post.  This is a blog about being vegan in the burlesque world so I feel it is only fair to give a quick critique of the burlesque handbook. Now, Jo is not vegan.  She never says she is and even run a burlesque show that is a tribute to cheese.  I won’t therefore pass judgement on her non-vegan behaviors, but will just discuss parts of her book that vegan readers might want to know about.

There are three sections of the book that deal with pretty un-vegan topics: Chapter 4 – Fans: Your Fine Feathered Friends (pages 87-112), a section on choreography with feather boas on pages 40-42  and then the section on feathers as part of costumes (pages 136 and 137) in Chapter 6 – Costumes – Constructing Outfits for Deconstruction.

Now, I should point out that the chapter on fans does mention to variety of different kinds of fans one can use and even create, something I have mentioned on this blog before (for example Lefty Lucy’s flannel fans), so there is ways for vegans to find the chapter applicable.  The chapter does mainly focus on feather fans though, how they move, how to take care of them and how to create your own feather fan.

The boa choreography could easily be done with boas that are not fathers or made of fake fur, so this part isn’t really anything to be concerned about.

As for the information on feathers as part of a burlesque costume, the chapter does say that they aren’t necessary and are just aids to a costume that exaggerate movement, much like fringe would.  Jo goes into how best to adhere and sew feathers onto outfits or headdresses, which does make me sad because although I will not wear them, I must confess adding a feather to a hair ornament  can give authenticity to vintage look or make an outfit suddenly more glam and showgirl.

I often feel sad about how it seems some burlesque performers will just through a feather on an outfit for no other reason that the idea “feathers=showgirl=burlesque.”  This is why there is one section of the book I want to talk about which falls in Chapter 1: Inspiration: Your Internal Theater (one of my favorite chapters in the book). I give you now Jo’s take on why she uses feathers:

“Although I don’t identify myself as living as a Native American, still more bits of information I got from my family inform me of some of my identity and affect some of my passion for burlesque.  I was always inspired by the idea that each feather in a chief’s bonnet represented an act of courage, and I wanted one of those long ceremonial headdresses. When I was told these were reserved for male figures of authority, I wanted one even more! Without yet fully understanding all the meanings of those ceremonial bonnets, I decided I decided I wanted a feather for every time I walked down the street in a tank top, trying only to beat the heat but knowing I would get unwanted attention and catcalls as well.  Part of my interest in cross-dressing came from the idea that I would earn one of those headdresses whether I was a man or not…I sometimes think about this when I am handling my boas.  Feathers represent bravery, power, and charisma to me, and I love wearing them.”

Although I will not wear feathers, I grew to have a deeper respect for Jo when she wrote about what feathers meant to her, that there is a reason and purpose behind her use.  There are many argument against it, but it does give me some good feelings to know that they a reflection of her heritage and upbringing rather than just an add-on to an outfit.

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The Burlesque Handbook by Jo "Boobs" Weldon

 

I will admit, I finished this book awhile ago, but with all the excitement of the NYBF and then 2 gigs and a photoshoot it took me a little while to get around to writing this review.  If you remember, I did a book review before for The Happy Stripper which I had mixed feelings about.

I’ve mentioned  Jo “Boobs” Weldon, the Headmistress of the School of Burlesque, on this blog before.  In fact, her clicky link thing on the bottom has quite a few entries already. Well, this is her book.  One part memoir, another part history lessons and a whole lot of how-to, this book is quite applicable to whatever one might be looking for in a burlesque book.  It works for the curious, the newbies and those already performing.  I wish I would have had this book when I first started getting into the world of Burlesque for I learned and read a lot about backstage etiquette and creating routines that I had to learn the hard way or have been struggling with.

Another great thing about the book is the way Jo makes you feel like you know all these performers as well.  She frequently discusses their acts, their advice and uses her own personal pictures, making it seem like you are looking through someone’s (fun and scandalous) scrap-book.

 

Photo by Murray Hill of Jo at her book release party (From Jo's facebook)

 

The only parts of the book that weren’t enthralling for me were her step by step instructions on the NYSoB routine and fan dance techniques, but that is only because I took the 4-week essentials burlesque class where I was taught these techniques and moves in person, so reading them, although a good reminder, just couldn’t live up to the real experience.  Really though, I think that says something about the Burlesque Handbook, the only negative was that I was given some of the information from the author herself!

If you want to see more about the book you can check out the table of contents and some excerpts from it on the School of Burlesque website.  The book is available for purchase on most online book vendors or, if you will be at a class or show where Jo might be, try shooting her an email (contact@schoolofburlesque.com) and see if she’ll be selling them at the event, this way you can also score an autograph too!

The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque (2008) by Jacki Wilson.  187 pages of text plus citations.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book.  There were some things I loved about it, and others that I couldn’t handle reading one more sentence about.  If you were picking up this book because you were purely interested in burlesque and learning more about the new burlesque scene I’d give The Happy Stripper a C+. f you are looking for an interesting read about feminist topics concerning art, women, history and burlesque, this book would get a solid B+.   Now let me explain.

The Happy Stripper is basically a really long paper about feminism.  To me, it reads as a research paper, and not the most well researched one at that.  If you notice, it does not say ‘feminism’ anywhere on the cover, so I was a bit confused when the author just kept talking feminist theory and citing feminist critiques throughout the whole book.  The book also focuses a great deal on female artists, specifically performance artists.  Luckily for me, I enjoy reading about feminism and performance art, but I didn’t pick up this book to read about those topics, I wanted to learn about burlesque!  As I mentioned above, I felt the  new burlesque research wasn’t where I would have hoped it to be.  Now, that being said, the historical research seemed top notch and was fascinating to read.  The current burlesque research done by the author seemed like it was all done hastily on the internet.  For example, Wilson says the burlesque world is sadly lacking black burlesque performers and that they are discriminated against.  Wilson then makes mention of only two such performers, one in the UK and one in New York. Doesn’t talk about them or their acts, just mentions two names.  Although I can’t speak about the discrimination factor, I was floored by the audacity of the author to make it seem like there are only 2 black new burlesque performers (and only 1 in NY).  Not only is this not true, Fem Appeal also runs her own weekly show!  Plus the author made no mention of other performers of color, where you once again have a lady who not only is of color, but is ALSO the organizer and emcee of her own weekly show (Calamity Chang – Dim Sum Burlesque).

And while I am on the topic of the “lady” factor, I became very frustrated by the female focused perspective Wilson came from.  There are a great deal of male burlesque performers as well as those that straddle or bend the area between the gender binary.  Sadly, these performers weren’t discussed or even mentioned in the book.  Since the author spends so much time focused on feminism and the debate between the sexually liberated woman and the objectified lady,  we rarely get to even hear the performers themselves discuss their thoughts.  It is one thing to speculate and theorize when you have no primary sources to work with, but the author did! She could have interviewed so many of the performers, or taken a class or even tried burlesque once herself before casting judgement on a whole movement that is still alive and evoloving.

My last issue was with the overwhelming heterosexual perspective in this book. Many times the author discussed feminist viewpoints about the woman always trying to please the man, or every time she undresses she is tied to the male gaze et. al. What about us queer ladies?  I know many times while I’m performing, I am not focused on what men are thinking of me. And I am sure other gay female performers out there would agree that they are not consciously or subconsciously doing their show to impress and try to bed/wed a man.

All this negativity aside, the book was enjoyable to read, and the actual parts on burlesque (1/4?) were interesting and thought-provoking.  The author does a great job of setting up the historical context to let the reader understand the world and society at the time the three big booms in burlesque were happening (1870, 1920, 1990). The author decided to focus on single performers from these periods, which allowed a deeper level of research on those specific women, but  at the same time it also cuts away at the variety of shows and performers happening at that time.

In summary, the book wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t really focused on burlesque.  I can say I definitely learned some things about the past world of burlesque, but the book stayed up in the theoretical and philosophical clouds of feminism and post-feminism that I feel the reader loses their grounding and ability to connect with the information on a practical level.  The book doesn’t seem to be sold in book stores yet, but if you have the money and an interest in history, feminism, performance art and burlesque, I think you might want to check out the book for purchase online.  If not, focus on some of the other burlesque books on the market or just go see more shows and talk with the performers. You might learn just as much if not more.