Musings on the NOLA Burlesque Festival / by Stratton McCrady

I know I walk on shaky ground when I start to project my version of reasons and motivations for things women do. This project called Acting Out has ultimately worked to traverse that minefield, chasing the urges which drive people to crave putting themselves out there for scrutiny. Perhaps in the end all I ever sought was to better understand. All the obvious answers appear to apply; these performers crave the color, the lights, the adoration and adulation, the attention, the desire, the novelty, the vintage reliving of a past era, the electricity of a rocking public address system, the rhythm and physicality, very much the costumes, the glitter, sequins and false eyelashes, the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

Through more careful and intimate conversations, I’ve come to believe it’s also about exhibitionism and to some very real degree, about a visceral urge to expose and express one’s sexuality. More than that, it all connects to what an actor friend of mine described as a fundamentally Eastern aspect of spirituality. She said in her discipline, physical energy, sexual energy and creativity are deeply intertwined, in ways Western spiritual systems fail to recognize. In some pure ways, the sexuality in burlesque seems irrevocably bound to creative performativity. To use an overworked feminist term, this act of performing certainly appears to  empower.

Though I have no experience with the mainstream world of strip clubs, I will suggest that while burlesque dancers do get paid small fees once they progress past a certain threshold, the ethos of bills stuffed into a g-string, hundred dollar lap dances, and requisite demands which come with the strip club impose an entirely different meaning and energy than found in the world of Burlesque. Like strippers, burlesque dancers have fans, and sometime stalkers, but they do not suffer the same presumptions strippers do, in the pursuit of money.

Recently as I roamed and shot photographs in and around the New Orleans Burlesque Festival I found myself pondering what seems a seminal motivation. I’m increasingly convinced that a huge driver is the act of transformation. One of the dancers we spoke to during the weekend shared that she and most of her colleagues were never the beautiful or popular kids growing up who felt they fit in. As a member of our mainstream media culture, I’ve long been aware of the power of makeup and dress. Never before have I felt it so pervasively.

At one point I found myself at an upstairs bar in the back of a performance venue and my camera attracted the attention of a young woman who was completely decked out, much like a burlesque performer (not surprising given the festival.) I asked if she was a performer, and she said yes, though not performing at this particular event. The extent of the makeup included layers of sparkle and extra eyelashes, the hair with professional extensions and color, and the outfit retro, noir, bombshell sexy, heels painfully high, skirt slit all the way up to there. She had not dressed that way to go on stage. I don’t presume to know how it all may have made her feel. The outfit acted clearly, like a uniform serves, as an signifier. It was then that this notion of transformation began to simmer for me. We live in a cattle call world of dehumanizing and often impersonal drudgery. I know my quests in camera have always been about feeling more alive - about illuminating the glory of what I think everyone should see. I had the privilege to shoot both some technical run-throughs, performers working in rehearsal clothes, and then to shoot the performances of the same acts. The transformation is vast in scope and sometimes astonishing. And so I wonder.

People too often quote the phrase questionably attributed to Oscar Wilde, “Everything in this world is about sex except sex… sex is about power.”  I wonder if that whole metamorphosis from everyday woman to bombshell is all about the transformation - plugging into the energy, the sex and desire and all the inherent power -  to become larger than life - which transformation might provide.