So you want to perform burlesque, but you’re not sure how to get started…

By on July 4, 2015

It takes a lot of guts, a splash of playfulness, and as many rhinestones as you can carry, but with a bit of dedication, you too can dazzle and delight on stage. Follow these steps, and you’ll be twirling your tassels in front of an adoring crowd (of one or many) before long!


Step 1: Take classes, if you can.

Hands down, the best way to learn to perform burlesque is to study with experienced burlesque performers who are also talented instructors and know how to break down the process for you. A good teacher will not only teach you the moves, they’ll also have exercises and frameworks that will help you through any creative uncertainties.

Red Hot Annie - Chicago

Red Hot Annie – Chicago

“I think it’s smart to take a burlesque class if you don’t have a dance background, which many people don’t,” advises Red Hot Annie, co-founder of Vaudezilla, the acclaimed production company and burlesque school in Chicago. And if you are an experienced dancer, chances are you’ll still learn some new ways to move your body as well as other new techniques. Some classes have a dance focus, while others are more theatrical, so you may develop a whole new vocabulary of skills you haven’t experimented with before. Also don’t be surprised if you meet a whole room full of your new best friends!

“I will say what I say to people whenever they take my burlesque class, at that first burlesque class,” Red Hot Annie confides. “It has the capacity to change your life. And if you’re open to it, you may find that a year from your first class, your entire social circle may be changed or may have a completely different tone to it.”

But what if you can’t afford to take burlesque classes or there are none in your area? What’s an aspiring burlesquer to do? Buy DVDs. Watch videos on Youtube. Shameless Plug: I have 2+ hours of free burlesque training videos on my website, which cover some of the basic movements as well as stage development and more. Learn the basics wherever you can, and practice, practice, practice!


The Shanghai Pearl - Seattle. By POC Photo.

The Shanghai Pearl – Seattle. By POC Photo.

Step 2: Go to all the shows.

Now that you’re starting to get the moves down, what’s next? The Shanghai Pearl, internationally renowned performer and lead-instructor at Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque in Seattle has the answer: “I think the number one thing is to go see what’s out there. Definitely go see a lot of shows and participate in the community if you’re a new performer, and take all the opportunities. See what people are doing. We’re really lucky in Seattle that there’s just three million shows happening all the time!”

For learning purposes, it’s important that when you go to shows, you don’t attend as a regular audience member. I mean, pay the door charge and act like everyone else, but don’t watch the acts passively. Put on your student hat and study the acts analytically.

  • Which acts do you like the best, and why?
  • Which acts do you not like, and what don’t you like about them?
  • What characters or styles appeal to you the most?
  • Which acts got an emotional reaction from you? Whether a sigh of admiration or “What the hell did I just see?” – pay attention to what moves you, positively or negatively. What emotions do you want to elicit from your audiences? What techniques or theatrical devices did the performers use to build their act toward the finale? What can you learn from that?
  • What techniques or theatrical devices did the performers use to build their act toward the finale? What can you learn from them?
  • Are you more attracted to the costumes or the story lines? To graceful dancing or bawdy humor? What directions do you find yourself leaning?

Etiquette note: While taking in burlesque shows, it is very important that you keep any negative thoughts about any of the performances to yourself! Use your inside voice, as in inside your head. Unless a performer has directly asked you for your critique, you’re better off focusing on the positive, even if the performer is nowhere in sight. You never know who knows who, and it would be a shame to burn bridges before you ever get on stage. Think of the performers on stage as your peers and potential friends, rather than how you would think of a Hollywood star on the cover of a gossip rag in the grocery checkout aisle. If this seems pedantic, I’m sorry, but this is a mistake I made many eons ago when I was newly hatched, and I’ve seen new performers do this many times. The goal is to study the performers without making it obvious that you’re studying them. Fly casual.

Want to immerse yourself even more into the burlesque show experience? “Volunteer for shows when you can,” Miss Pearl recommends. “You will learn so much while helping at people’s shows. I mean, of course, self care. Don’t wear yourself out. But definitely see all the shows.” Volunteering will also help you get to know some of the movers and shakers in your local burlesque community while showing them that you’re committed to burlesque, which may make them more inclined to hire you to perform later on when you’re ready. And you never know, some burlesque star you’re idolizing might just take a shine to you and help you along your path!


Step 3: Get in front of some eyeballs.

So you’ve taken some classes or practiced at home with some videos. You’ve gone to a bazillion burlesque shows. Now what? Red Hot Annie has the next step: “You need to just get familiar with the idea of performing with people looking at you. I think that’s pretty important.”

And no, your cat watching you dance around in your underwear while you’re cleaning your apartment doesn’t count. We’re talking real, live, human eyeballs. Before you get on stage for the first time, it’s very important that you get comfortable being watched while you perform. It will help you get over any feeling of awkwardness and allow you to look a million times more poised and confident when you do finally take the stage in front of a paying crowd.

So how the heck do you get performance experience before your first performance?

I hate to keep beating this horse, but another benefit of taking a burlesque class is that you have to dance in front of the instructor and the other students. However, if you can’t attend a burlesque class, there are many other dance classes you can take that can help you overcome any lingering shyness. Just pick something that sounds fun, and go for it! Any and all dance skills you learn will be handy to have in your repertoire.

Here are a few other ways to shake your stuff in front of a supportive audience…

  • Schedule a “date night” and perform a private burlesque striptease for your lover. It’s beautifully intimate, and it’s good practice!
  • Throw a burlesque party. Invite your best friends over for a fun night in! Consider having a sparkly, fabulous dress code, and encourage all the party-goers to take their turn strutting their stuff. It’s a lot of fun as well as being a great way to get up in front of a group!
  • Surprise your friends with an impromptu performance. Yes, I’m suggesting that you be “that person” and get nakedish for your friends at random moments. My friends enjoy that kind of thing. Your mileage may vary.
Bonus points if you do this!

Bonus points if you do this!

Notice that I said a “supportive audience.” This is key. The image above notwithstanding, at this stage it can be good to be choosy about who you perform for and the feedback you accept. It’s perfectly fine to say, “I am going to perform for you, and I don’t want you to say anything about it. Can you just watch me without commenting? I’m pretty nervous!”

Performing burlesque can be very vulnerable, especially when you’re first starting, so be sure to honor your boundaries and take care of yourself. Personally, I don’t ask for feedback from just anybody. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but I find it most helpful to seek out the opinions of seasoned performers I respect and admire.


“But I’m scared!” you say. “I don’t know if I’m ready to perform.”

“So,” Red Hot Annie replies, “if you’re someone who’s wanted to try burlesque and you’re not sure there would be a spot for you for whatever reason, I would say that if you want to try it, I think you should try it. I think it’s really about finding people who are in sync with you. Not every home or person is going to be necessarily a good match for you, but someone will be. I think if you’re interested in performing burlesque, find someone who will mentor you. Find someone who will guide you through the sort of crazy chaos of starting burlesque.”

“There are few people in the world who have the kind of open mind and sense of love that I think burlesque people can have,” she continues. “And so if you’re considering doing burlesque, and you’re timid, and you’re afraid of trying it, I say dip your toe in. See if you can find someone who will be supportive or who will mentor you, or who will just teach you. During that time, keep your eyes open, keep your heart open, and see if you can find a little place inside you that you can eventually make into a nice, big, comfortable, roomy burlesque persona.”

The founder of Tease! Bang! Boom!, Bombshell Betty began performing in 1996, toured internationally with her first burlesque troupe in 2001-2002, and founded her burlesque school in 2004 in San Francisco. She has released a burlesque training DVD and 2+ hours of free burlesque training videos, published the pinup modeling book “Plain Jane to Pinup Queen” in 2008, and has toured the US performing and teaching classes and workshops.

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  1. Sherrie Wald

    July 13, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Good Day to all!!

    I am so excited about joining your program and learning more of the art of Burlesque, and performance. I am in an area (Upstate South Carolina) that to my knowledge has no options for classes,or performances etc. so “Green” wouldn’t even be correct. I am hoping to attend performances and classes, even if it be in a nearby state. Often when I search for such events I get sent to a site that is no longer in service but hope to get the skinny on who to see and where to go.

    I was intrigued as I follow Betty on Facebook and see what she is doing for women and men 😉 on a daily basis with her wok. I currently work as a group fitness instructor and own my own studio. I would love to eventually offer these classes or workshops for my ladies and not from a fitness standpoint, but confidence building. So thank you for allowing me to take this journey. Any advice would be appreciated.


  2. link

    June 14, 2016 at 3:28 am

    If you aren’t seeing the types of shows you want to perform in being produced in your town, then you may want to consider performing outside of your city or producing your own show.

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