I’ve been fortunate to have had several opportunities to catch C. Amanda Boutahorse‘s performances in the past and recently sat down with the performance artist to learn more about the craft.
Hit the jump to check out our full interview!
What first drew you into the culture? When you saw your first show, did you have a thought that you could (or wanted to) participate yourself? What made you want to get into it?
I was living in Albany when the Bing Bamboo Room Burlesque Show started. I remember seeing postcards for it and feeling conflicted — it seemed really titillating, but I wondered if the feminist in me would find it exploitative. I didn’t actually go to the show, and I altogether forgot about burlesque until I saw The Arts Center advertise that they offered burlesque dance classes. It sounded fun and vaudevillian, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The first day, just a few simple posture tips undid a lifetime of body shame. (See comic at end of interview).
It wasn’t until I had taken both burlesque classes that The Arts Center had to offer that I actually attended a show. I had watched videos of burlesque performances on YouTube but I didn’t really get it until I sat in the audience of The Bing Bamboo Room Burlesque Show last June. The theme of the show was something like Paris 1960’s, and all the YeYe music only increased my love for the show. The performances were all such a blast to watch, and at certain points throughout the show, different performers dressed in french maid costumes scurried around the audience dusting them with feather dusters. It was stupidly exciting, and I couldn’t escape the desire for someone to dust me, too. I didn’t feel like anyone was being exploited; quite the contrary. The performers seemed empowered, seemed to have agency. It was intoxicating.
I had dressed up in my best 60’s Paris get up (who could pass up the opportunity to look like an extra in a Godard film?) and the producer, Mister James, approached me and the friend I was with (Betty Bonneville) about performing. He suggested the classes at the Arts Center, and when we told him we’d taken them, he practically said “what are you waiting for, then? Betty performed the next month, but I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to. “You don’t have to go down to pasties, Mister James had said; but that wasn’t my concern — I’d worked as a nude model before. I was more afraid of choreographing a routine. This task seemed substantially less daunting when I had an act idea in mind and started constructing a costume, and in late August 2012, I made my burlesque debut at the Bing Bamboo Room on the final night of Savannah’s. Â
â€¨I’ve since attended all sorts of burlesque shows in Albany: everything produced by Mister James: Bing Bamboo Room, SPAM [Scooter Pie at Midnight // rock-n-roll burlesque at Valentine’s], and Burlesque Paradisio [1920’s burlesque at Cafe Paradiso], as well as shows by the troupe Foxy Trot Burlesque, and the burlesque-flavored cabaret troupe Charmed and Dangerous.
I’ve also been to shows in Northampton, MA, NYC, and I’ve performed in Williamsport, PA. After learning all I could learn from classes in the area, I, along with fellow performer Alice Mammalis, signed up for a class at the New York School of Burlesque. We traveled to the city every Sunday for a month, and learned all about stocking peels, feather fans, boas, and so much more. It was a great opportunity to learn, but also to network. I’m still in communication with some friends I made in the class, and I even had one friend, Bonita Boogie, come up and perform at the Bing Bamboo Room.
â€¨I’ve been producing an event since last July called Pasties, Pencils & Pints, which is sort of like freeze-frame burlesque (for your drawing pleasure!) This not only gives me the opportunity to attend such an event without having to drive several hours, but it also allows me to network. In addition to local burlesque performers, I’ve had performers from NYC and Philly model at Pasties, Pencils & Pints. As the host and producer, I have plenty of opportunity to chat with the models, and I learn so much from everyone. It was actually the model from February — Philadelphia’s own Miss Rose, who encouraged me to start my own show. The next edition of Pasties, Pencils & Pints is on July 11th.
What risks have you taken in your performance, or any particular challenges you’ve overcome that you’d like to talk about?
Though it didn’t seem so daring to me, I received so many compliments on my courage after I ended an act in a merkin. (If you didn’t know: A Merkin these days is just a pastie to cover your lady bits, but the term started out referring to a pubic wig. Prostitutes would shave their pubes after contracting crabs, and wear merkins so customers wouldn’t suspect anything.)
Revealing that much skin wasn’t something that was challenging for me, but the pelvic thrusts that I do to showcase said merkin really jiggle everything I’ve believed I should hate about my body. Everyone loved it, though, and after watching a video of that act a few times, I loved it too, including all the jiggling.
Burlesque performers are independent contractors, which is really fabulous. You have complete creative control over your acts, your choreography, music, and costume; so you can take your act on the road and perform it whenever you find a willing venue. The challenge with this is that there are certain things that happen for you at a burlesque show that don’t happen other places — like someone else picking up your discarded undergarments.
It’s very powerful to walk off stage wearing almost nothing, completely unconcerned with the clothes you’ve thrown in every direction. Performing burlesque outside of a burlesque show requires figuring out how to still make a graceful exit but not allow anyone else to trample all over your carefully constructed costume.
â€¨I’ve also had my music skip — CD players can be really finicky in some venues. One time I was on stage when my music began to skip bad enough that I figured I should give up, but then the music would continue as though perhaps the rest of the song would play just fine. It continued back and forth like that through the whole song. I ended up doing my whole act with freeze-frame bits. It was emotionally exhausting, but totally fine. I performed that act three more times that month, and the rest went off without a hitch.
â€¨Perhaps the most challenging thing is coming up with an extravagant idea and figuring out how to do it. For my Matroyshka act, I pull some costume pieces out of other costume pieces (like you do), and that takes a certain amount of costume engineering. How can I pop out of a larger nesting doll shell? How can I construct a larger boa that I can pull a smaller boa out of? How do I have to hold them both so that the solution I’ve devised will actually work? It takes way more thought than the aesthetics might imply.
What’s your favorite thing about performing in a burlesque showcase? In your experiences, are audiences typically responsive? What can someone expect whose never been to a show before?
â€¨It’s hard to pick just one thing, so I’m going to pick two. First, I love the experience of being on stage. It’s empowering! I love hearing the audience get excited about a move or a reveal that I’m proud of, that I’ve worked hard on. In most performances, clapping is the polite standard, and cheering is how the audience expresses they’re thoroughly impressed. Burlesque is the opposite — cheering (and hooting, hollering, wolf-whistling) is the norm, so when I receive applause, it’s the ultimate praise. No one ever insults anyone else’s body — all strip teasers are sexy no matter what size their parts are. Burlesque shows are devoid of the piercing body judgement that is so pervasive in so much of our culture, it’s really refreshing. I’ve never done anything so positive for my body image. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
The second thing I love is the community. I love being backstage with other amazing performers and learning makeup, costuming, movement tips, hearing how the everyone got their start and just building friendships with like-minded people.
Burlesque, at its heart, is a variety show for adults. It’s a bit racy, a bit sexy, a bit silly. You might see comedians, you might see magicians, you might see side show acts, you might see singers, but the staple, at a burlesque show, you will always see strip tease performances. These performances are generally all about the tease, typically feature elaborate costumes, are usually very theatrical, and are often clever or witty. You will always get to see something you weren’t able to see before, which is undoubtedly enticing. You’ll want to bring some cash to tip the performers. Different shows vary on how they accept tips. Some shows send around tip buckets, and some shows you may tuck tips into the performers’ costumes. Just listen to the host for cues. Performers usually put way more time and money into their acts than they earn performing their act, or even performing it two or three times, so the more you can tip, the more they can afford to bring you the most dazzling entertainment possible!
What advice has really stuck with you? What was the source? Who has taught you the most about the art?
â€¨At the New York School of Burlesque, while taking a class on feather fan dancing with Jezebel Express, she shared with us something that had occurred to her when she first began pursuing burlesque: “Sexy is a set of skills. I thought that was so encouraging, and really summarized why burlesque is so important to me — everyone is sexy, and anyone can learn to work what they’ve got and show it off on stage. I encourage everyone who expresses a hint of desire to perform to go after it. There are ways to emphasize the things you like, and disguise the things you don’t. And soon you learn to not worry about the things you’d previously considered a problem. No one sees you like you see yourself when you’re two inches from your bathroom mirror. They are happy you’re enthusiastically showing them the parts they want to see.
â€¨I couldn’t say any one person has taught me the most; I’ve probably learned the most from the community. Burlesque is small! Especially burlesque in the Northeast. I’ve learned so much from spending time with local performers, but I’ve also learned a lot from the NYC Burlesque Performers Facebook group, which is basically a forum for performers to talk shop. People share their experiences from such things as where to buy LEDs to how to rip out of a ribbed tank top to what happened when they came out to their families as burlesque performers. I sometimes post questions, but more often I just read through everyone else’s threads. It’s a treasure trove of knowledge.
â€¨There’s also a lot of conversation that happens about burlesque in the form of blog posts. I’ve seen people share posts that talk about where burlesque is going and what it should be, and I’ve seen posts to counter these posts. I think the most balanced writing about burlesque I’ve come across regularly is by Jo “Boobs Weldon. In addition to founding the New York School of Burlesque, writing The Burlesque Handbook, and so many other things, Jo Weldon writes burlesque etiquette posts for Pin Curl that I find invaluable. I’m also grateful for having had the opportunity to take a few classes with her. She’s intelligent, she’s sassy, she’s poised, and she’s inspiring.
Tell us about your next event and where we can catch you next.
My next event is the debut of the burlesque show I’m producing. It’s called C. Amanda Boutahorse’s Cult Classics. It’s a bi-monthly burlesque tribute to a cult classic movie. We’re starting the whole thing off with a night of homages to the ever colorful Hedwig and The Angry Inch. This show is also double exciting because we’re christening a new venue — The Hangar! It’s at 675 River St in Troy (also a first — there haven’t been any recurring burlesque shows in Troy since the revival of burlesque in the early 90s!) It’s north of Hoosick — across from the Ale House. $10 to get in, and be sure to bring extra cash to tip the performers and the GoGo dancer! It’s next Friday night, June 21st. Doors at 8, show at 9.
â€¨I also perform regularly at the Bing Bamboo Room which happens at The Hollow Bar & Kitchen. I owe everything to the producer, Mister James, who brought burlesque to Albany 8 years ago!
I think a lot of people may find burlesque is still under the radar or don’t know where to look for it in Albany. What’s the community like and how is it growing?
Burlesque in Albany operates mainly in two ways — the most common is that a producer will put together a show and book performers, mostly people from the area (though some people who perform here regularly drive several hours to do so) and occasionally a guest or two from out of town (though Mister James is originally from the area, he currently lives in NYC and travels up several times a month to put on his shows). This is the way my show operates, and this is the way the shows I perform in operate. The other way burlesque exists is in troupe form — a group of performers get together regularly to build the contents of the show, often relying on the creative direction of one troupe leader. Troupes sometimes have guest performers, but their cast is a set thing.
â€¨Burlesque performers are super supportive of each other. You’ll often find us in the audience of each other’s shows. Outside of shows, you can find performers getting together to get feedback for acts, work on costumes, or just get a beer. It’s like a friend group that is continually growing, and increasingly comfortable being naked around each other.
Anything else you’d like to add?
â€¨Beyond the things I’ve mentioned already, Hors D’oeuvres Â puts on a great show in Northampton, MA (Bon Appetit Burlesque), and Harley Foxx teaches a burlesque class out there. There’s also a burlesque class in Hudson at Club Helsinki. I believe it is taught by members of the burlesque flavored cabaret group Charmed and Dangerous. It’s called Diamond Street Dames Burlesque Class. And Miss Rose, who produces Miss Rose’s Sexploitation Follies in Philadelphia, is the person who encouraged me to start my own reoccuring show. I suggested a one off — I’ve always wanted to do a Rocky Horror show, but she recommended I do a show that could encompass that as one theme. And thus – C. Amanda Boutahorse’s Cult Classics was born!
â€¨Additionally, it’s not updated as regularly as it could be, but there is the Upstate Burlesque Events facebook group.
Thank you so much C. Amanda Boutahorse!