By: Darby Kendall
A combination of parody, performance and pastiche, burlesque is hard to explain to someone who has never seen it. The performance art has a sizable history, beginning in Victorian England as theatrical parody, then gradually evolving into the variety shows and stripteases performed today. It suffered a decline in the 1940s due to a crackdown on burlesque houses in New York City, but the modern world has seen a resurgence over the past couple decades. Prominent Neo-burlesque performers such as Dita Von Teese have brought the public eye back to the stage, where it is predicted to stay for years to come.
Performing burlesque is not for the faint of heart, and nobody knows this better than Ruby Joule. The founding member and producer of the Jigglewatts Burlesque Revue was quick to explain to me just how much work goes into putting on a show. I spoke with Ruby to see what it’s like being a burlesque dancer.
SMEAR: When did you first discover burlesque, and what about it drew you in?
Well, to answer that, I have to tell you that I didn’t know what burlesque was. I didn’t know the word ‘burlesque,’ but I knew that it existed somehow. That form of humor and those body references are all throughout our entire culture. Just look at Looney Tunes, and Bugs Bunny dressing up like a woman with the lashes. That is pure burlesque. I grew up in dance and theatre, so I knew there was something else, something people weren’t talking about that was a little more adult, kind of off limits. The first burlesque show I saw was here in Austin, in 2000, and this lightbulb just went off. It was like, that is the thing, that’s the thing I was looking for. It was just this moment of recognition; this is everything about show business that I love.
S: So how long after that discovery did you start performing?
I started performing in 2006. The journey was off-and-on, because at that time, there were only two burlesque troupes in Austin. It wasn’t until this perfect storm of girls got together, and sitting around between takes at the movie we were working on at the time, the subject of burlesque came up. We all realized we wanted to do it, had dance backgrounds and could make costumes, so we decided to put on a show. That’s how The Jigglewatts was formed. It was such a thrill, and so much fun. I feel like we all found a home in that world.
I feel like we all found a home in that world.
S: I know you are a producer of the Jigglewatts, and I was wondering, how much work goes into putting on a burlesque show?
Well, it’s about 10 full time jobs in one. Burlesque was born out of this DIY mentality of making your own costumes, sourcing your own music, doing your own hair and makeup, coming up with your own choreography. It is entirely self driven. So, when you’re producing a show on top of that, it’s herding kittens into lines. I have an amazing team that I work with, so I’m lucky. My favorite thing about producing is curating the show, and figuring out what world we’re going to bring the audience into.
S: How do people react when you tell them that you perform burlesque?
Usually they’re confused because they don’t know what burlesque is. The reaction absolutely varies person to person. A lot of people who don’t know what burlesque is will say ‘Oh so you’re a stripper,’ or ‘What club do you work at?’ They either have a misconception about it, or they have no idea what it is. I come across it all the time. It makes me feel a little sad, but then glad for the opportunity to tell someone about burlesque.
S: You obviously have such passion for performing – What is it about burlesque that made you fall in love with it?
It combines a bunch of things that I love, like playing dress up, being a big show-off, using humor and I get to be in charge of everything I put onstage. I get to decide if I want to be the Sugar Plum Fairy, and then I just do it. Coming from the world of mainstream acting and dance, we don’t get to do that. The platform of burlesque makes it a lot easier. It’s really just so much about fun. When I went to my first show, I felt shock, and then I thought ‘This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.’ I wanted nothing more than to be up onstage doing that. Burlesque is the ultimate creative freedom.
Burlesque is the ultimate creative freedom.