Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Talking with Dita

In the October issue of the Canadian magazine Glow, I wrote a piece about the history and revival of burlesque. Not all of my interview with Dita Von Teese made it into the story so I'll be serving up occasional outtakes.

How would you define burlesque?
I usually describe burlesque as a form of live entertainment that was popularized in the 1930s and '40s in America. It was a bit like Vaudeville, which was a variety show, but in Burlesque, the comedy sketches were more sexual in nature, and in burlesque, the headliners were striptease artists. You had all kind of burlesque queens, some were very elegant - like Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand and Lili St. Cyr - and then again you had some really racy dancers too.

How did you get into burlesque?
I was obsessed with films from the '30s and '40s. When I was a teenager, I worked in a lingerie store, and I became very interested in the history of lingerie, and began collecting vintage lingerie and clothes. I wore my hair and makeup in vintage style, and later, when I was 18, I wanted to be photographed pinup style for my boyfriend. It became a hobby for me, making these cheesecake pics, and I started one of the first adult websites on the internet in the early '90s, and it was all retro fetishism and pinup. I was also working in a strip club in 1991, and of course, wearing my corsets and stockings and that is basically how I learned about burlesque. I always wanted to to know the complete history of everything I loved. I developed my profile over the years, so basically, it took me over a decade to get where I am now.

What are the trademarks of a good burlesque performer?
Individuality has always been a key factor, along with charisma and stage presence. But I think the real trick is when it looks effortless and fun, and when the dancer doesn't look like she is trying to be sexy. And above all, because the great burlesque stars were all self-made, I think that it's key that a burlesque dancer creates her own act. It takes some major ambition and desire behind a burlesque act to make it great. It doesn't work when it's just a girl being put in a costume and learning choreography, you lose that individuality and the power behind the performance when it's contrived like that. It's the biggest mistake I see in some of the commercialized burlesque clubs. It looks sanitized and cheesy and there is no heart in the act. It just becomes a pretty girl dancing around, and that isn't enough to be a star. With any performance, this is true, actually. Historically, the best entertainers aren't always "technically" the best when you think about it.

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