Jo Wheldon - Burlesque Pioneer
With roots in English vaudeville, American burlesque and striptease flourished in the mid-1800s. By the 1930s, full-scale raucous burlesque shows were at the height of their popularity in the United States, riding a line between sex work and art, passion and scandal – the iconic Blaze Starr epitomized this spirit.
Times however were a changin,’ and an increasingly conservative culture, “seedier” (read: more naked) exhibitions of erotic dance, and the rise to conventional pornography all but eradicated burlesque by the 1970s. Then, after twenty years of veritable silence, neo-burlesque experienced a mainstream revival in the 1990s – one that’s going steadily stronger today.
In the midst of this uniquely American art form is Jo Weldon. Weldon worked for fifteen years as a stripper, centerfold, and calendar model and spent time backstage with rock ‘n’ roll hair bands in Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles before moving into theatrical burlesque. She wrote The Burlesque Handbook (2010), which is considered essential reading for new performers, and is Headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, where the curious and the ambitious learn to strip, strut, tassel twirl, and eyefuck. Weldon is a co-founder and Vice-President of BurlyCon, the burlesque world's only academic-focused conference, and is Co-Executive Director of Education at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. She has won multiple awards from various organizations for her work in preserving and advancing the art of burlesque.
Rogue sat down with Weldon to discuss gender, sex, and the current state neo-burlesque, as well as what it’s like to be a fierce, “undomesticated woman” (her words) in 2015.
ROGUE: What do people need to know about burlesque – why is it awesome?
Jo Weldon: The most awesome thing about burlesque is the creative independence of most of its artists. While there is a demand for burlesque that is more acceptable to mainstream viewers – burlesque focused on spectacle, skills, and standardized bodily appearances – there is also a demand for burlesque that is wacky, subversive, bizarre, risky, and experimental. The independence of experimental burlesque is what attracts a lot of people. Even in the more mainstream shows though, there is a tenor of pride and shamelessness about sexuality and the integrity of the naked body that many audiences and performers find empowering.
How do you feel about the class and stigma lines that are frequently drawn between stripping and burlesque – like, burlesque is “ok” but stripping isn’t?
For some women, their sense of identity relies on the false dignity and safety of resisting being sexually objectified. Some women are willing to throw other women – "sluts" – under the bus to maintain the status quo, where they think they’re safe. But they aren't safe there at all. In reality, attempting to code one’s self as sexually unavailable recreates the Madonna/whore dichotomy. And this sort of othering actually keeps us all endangered. Safety trickles up. If you honor the integrity of the whore, it's more likely that the Madonna won't be raped either.
You’ve had a wide range of occupations and experiences that run the gamut in terms of what’s conventionally thought of as being “feminist” or “empowered.” How have feminism and empowerment operated throughout your career and life coming up?
I don’t know if there is such a thing as conventional feminism, but I realize that if there is, being a stripper and dominatrix and heavy metal groupie probably isn’t it. And I always think of "empowering" as a complex term, even though I use it. I believe that whether or not something is empowering depends on the areas in which a given person needs to be empowered, and that – unfortunately – there is no one empowering feminism that can serve everyone. But I believe in listening to women’s truths and trying to figure out a way to be accountable to their needs.
The hair band scene of the eighties is often seen as comic because of the way people looked, but in reality it was very sexist, racist, and homophobic. It was also incredibly physically dangerous. People were constantly fighting, getting into car accidents, and overdosing. But oddly, there was a freedom there for me to be outrageous and I needed it. I wanted adventure and glamour and danger and sex and high energy--I wanted specifically to avoid being dependent on the goodwill of a capricious corporate job or a husband who had control of the finances. I wasn’t seeking a “safe space” – I was trying to break away from what I was told was a safe space but knew was predicated on obedience, which I just didn’t have to offer. And to be honest, I really enjoyed the glamour and outrageousness and sexual freedom, to the extent that it was there.
I have always been fortunate to be resilient – a concept sometimes exploited in social justice conversations – and have always felt that I didn't need social approval or a standard partner to be a legitimate person. I also have never felt that I needed fixed politics or ideologies to be a feminist. The world changes, the amount of information available to us changes. We have to be fluid and patient in order to support the women around us, and the women who are not as visible to us, to have better lives.
Have you encountered any gender bigotry?
I do struggle at times with radical [feminist] bigotry – entities and groups that seem to think there is only one correct form or feminism and anyone who sees something different is simply brainwashed or complicit in their own oppression. I would like to see more honest dialogues between people who disagree – dialogue instead of eye rolling, contempt, and impatience. I don't think marginalized people should be tone-policed, but I think their allies should be
Gender identity is a hot topic in today’s wider world. How are gender identity and performance impacting the world of burlesque?
Burlesque is already an exaggeration of gender, as well as a mockery of gender roles. The hyper-feminine gender identity a lot of women express in the art form– feathers, extra false eyelashes, costumes that modify the body, big wigs – are reminiscent not just of 20th century feminine tropes, but also of the drag queens that exaggerated and mocked them, as did the heavy metal bands in the ‘80s. It’s not necessarily about what men find attractive. Burlesque is meant more to be glamorous and playful than sexually appealing.
I am thrilled to see increasing gender diversity in burlesque, but it’s certainly not new to the genre. As a marginalized art form, neo-burlesque has always attracted marginalized people. I grew up with a lot of trans people who were not out because of the danger of being so. More visibility, both in burlesque and the mainstream, can only be good for the wider acceptance of people of all genders.
Burlesque allows for a wider range of bodies than many other forms of entertainment, especially dance. But saying burlesque has this wider range is often misinterpreted as saying that all burlesque shows are inclusive of all body types. This is not true. There are a lot of burlesque shows in which people of every body type can find an enthusiastic audience, but burlesque is not exempt from the issues around body type in our society. When an audience is more mainstream or the [show] producers are more timid, especially around the rare high paying corporate gig, you see less diversity.
What’s the most radical thing you’ve seen in burlesque?
The most radical thing I've ever seen in burlesque is the way older women who display their bodies and their sensuality are honored. Jennie Lee and Dixie Evans, two women who did burlesque in the 1950s, are responsible for building a community of older burlesque performers. They started doing reunions in the 1950s, when the performers were still young, and these seeded what is now the Friday Night Legends Night at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender event. At the Weekender, nearly a thousand performers in their 40s and younger come to see women who honed their performances in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s perform and strip, some in wheelchairs. I've seen a proudly naked 80-year-old woman get an adoring standing ovation from a thousand people in a fancy casino theater in Las Vegas. I don't know where else that happens. It’s radical, and I’m proud to be a part of a community that sees humanity in this way.
Interview by Chauntelle Tibbals, PhD