RAVEN GEMINI is a burlesque dancer with Chicago’s Vaudezilla. She shares a peek into the world of burlesque dance and how some of the assumptions often made about professional dance differ in burlesque. Her responses are part of a larger series dissecting what it means to be a professional dancer. To read other perspectives on the topic, click here.
What does your current regular dance practice look like?
I tend to be a somewhat lazy dancer, unfortunately. I’m terrible at disciplining myself to practice my own solo acts. That said, I do work privately with my mentor once a week, I teach three burlesque classes a week, and I usually also have a regular evening rehearsal for our weekly show once a week, where we warm up, run group burlesque acts, and occasionally show solo work.
Would you call yourself a professional dancer?
I do, though my definition of “professional dancer” might look a little different from others’, thanks to the particulars of working in burlesque. I am a full-time freelance creative, and derive 100 percent of my income from performing and teaching burlesque, making costumes, and modeling (usually for art classes). I typically perform about six times per month, both for Vaudezilla – the production company that essentially trained me – and independently for other producers in the city.
What do you believe is necessary for a dancer to call themselves professional? Is part of being a professional getting paid?
I believe that compensation is part of being a professional, but it’s only a part. Being a professional, to me, has much more to do with attitude and behavior, both during rehearsal, performance, and backstage. Conducting yourself professionally in your correspondence with producers, showing up on time and ready to work, and being generally agreeable when in close quarters (like the dressing rooms/backstage) are all super important if you intend to cultivate a long career in burlesque.
One of the unique things about burlesque shows is that A) they frequently happen in bars and B) the lines between hobbyists and professionals are quite blurry. Performers may be very talented and perform for many years, but not consider themselves professionals. Occasionally, this manifests as a willingness to work for a lower-paying producer (which is something we in burlesque love to bemoan as the reason people devalue our art form, which… may or may not be completely valid. That’s a complex issue). Sometimes, it just manifests as a desire to have fun at shows, going onstage after a few drinks, etc. If you do, however, consider yourself a professional, the stakes are often much higher for you, and you tend to behave accordingly.
Is there a certain amount of training involved in becoming a professional dancer?
I’m pretty sure there’s a certain amount of training involved in becoming a professional in any field. That said, there’s no one way to become a professional dancer, particularly in burlesque. Our art form is part dance discipline and part Vaudeville/theatre, so there are people who come into burlesque from all kinds of backgrounds. I had 11 years of formal dance training and a degree in theatre, but there are folks who find burlesque who have had no formal dance or performance training to start out. When people are serious about becoming professionals, however, it usually becomes clear that seeking out some kind of training is necessary, whether that becomes formal dance classes, one-on-one work with a mentor, or training in related disciplines like pole, circus skills, gymnastics, improv, etc. It really depends on the kind of acts you’d like to perform, and the aesthetic you feel most drawn to.
Do you consider project-based work to be professional?
I think most burlesque performance is project-based, honestly. Vaudezilla, the company with which I work most often, rotates themes on a monthly basis, and sometimes also does standalone (that is to say, fully-scripted) shows. Other production companies produce long-running scripted work, and still others produce single-evening productions or monthly shows with rotating casts.
Do you consider solo work to be professional?
The vast majority of burlesque performances are solo pieces. The average burlesque show can be anything from three or four solo performers to a fully-realized production with 15+ dancers, scripts, sets, costumes. Speaking from personal experience, the shows I typically perform in involve two to three group acts and eight or 10 solo performances, all centered around a theme. Sometimes this theme is very broad (Roaring 20’s/Prohibition, Carnival, etc.), sometimes it’s a narrower focus (Women in History – my favorite theme). Performers cultivate their own solo acts based on what speaks to them. Performers also typically retain ownership of their own acts, including choreography and costuming.
I did see a single performer produce an entire one-woman burlesque show once. That presents its own unique challenges, since so much of burlesque also involves striptease. If I recall correctly, this particular performer alternated a striptease with a reverse striptease (where one starts in pasties and ends the act fully dressed), and also involved some elements of video and non-strip-based dance to create time for costume changes, etc.
Do you think the definition of a professional dancer is different than it was 25 or 50 years ago? If so, do you have any ideas why it might have changed?
I think the definition of a professional dancer is a bit broader than it was 25 or 50 years ago. A lot of that is thanks to the internet and the accessibility people have to alternative media sources. You could be a professional dancer who derives all their income from YouTube videos, for instance.
I think acceptance of burlesque as being a “professional” dance discipline is a new thing as well, although I could be wrong. There certainly were professional burlesque performers 50 years ago, but they were a somewhat more marginalized group, due to the constraints of society. You might have been considered a professional stripper or a professional Vaudeville performer, or even a professional circus performer, but not so much a professional dancer.
Are there instances when people apply the term “professional” to a dancer or group of dancers when you feel it shouldn’t be applied?
This is kind of a tricky question as it applies specifically to burlesque, as the lines between hobbyists and professionals are quite blurry. As I mentioned previously, there are many talented performers who have been around for years who also have unrelated day jobs and don’t consider themselves to be professional performers. And burlesque shows often have performers of many different experience levels working together in the same show. So, unless it’s specifically a “student showcase” or a “newbie night” or something of that nature, it’s a little difficult to define what constitutes a “professional” level show.
How might your cultural perspective – where you live, where you’re from, what form of dance you practice – influence what you think of as professional?
Being from Midwestern America, I think there is still a lot of stigma around being a burlesque performer. A lot of folks have conservative family members or family members/employers with more “traditional” values, and so they find it difficult to “come out,” so to speak, as a burlesque performer. Likewise, being from the Midwest, it’s hard to get the general public to come out to see shows. In the winter, no one wants to go outside, in the summer, everyone wants to go outside, but not to a show, and the rest of the year, everyone is rooting for their favorite sports team. The attitude of embracing art and culture that exists on the East and West Coasts isn’t the same here. To that end, I think it’s more difficult to make the kind (and volume) of work that we would culturally associate with being considered a professional. Many of us (myself included) do a lot of semi-related accessory work in order to make a living, while still considering ourselves professionals in the field.
What do you wish people wouldn’t assume about the dance profession?
In the general sense, that it doesn’t all look like Black Swan. In the sense specific to burlesque, that it doesn’t look anything like Burlesque. Professional dancers do not all have to be skinny, young, white women, and there are tons of super-talented performers in all areas of dance who are working to change that narrative. Look at Misty Copeland, but don’t just look at Misty Copeland. Seek out the numerous burlesque performers of color, like Jeez Louise, Po’Chop, the Shanghai Pearl or Sydni Devereaux. Seek out and support burlesque legends like Tiffany Carter, Judith Stein, Pillow and Toni Elling, who paved the way for modern burlesque performers. They have a wealth of knowledge and so many stories to share with us. Don’t just throw together a tribute to Josephine Baker’s banana skirt act, but really research and understand the reason why she created and performed it in the first place. Artists don’t exist in a vacuum; we’re all a product of the society in which we live.
Also… don’t look down on strippers. People love to say that there’s some kind of artistic difference between burlesque and stripping, but really, if we’re being honest, the only difference is that club strippers get a heck of a lot more flack for what they do, and they get paid very well to deal with a ton of emotional labor that performers in a burlesque setting don’t have to deal with. They train just as hard and invest just as much in their work as the rest of us. What a note to end on, right?
Photo by Mike Licari
Raven Gemini is the gal that has it all! Her acts span genres, from horizon-expanding character work to beautiful classic dance pieces. She has been a proud member of Vaudezilla since 2012, and has performed at numerous national festivals including the Windy City Burlesque festival in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016, the Show-Me Burlesque Festival in 2016, the Ohio Burlesque Festival in 2016, the Michigan Burlesque Festival in 2014 and 2015, and the Freezing Tassel Burlesque Festival in Anchorage, AK in 2017. In addition to regular appearances in the Chicagoland area, Raven can also be seen traveling throughout the Midwest and beyond as a solo act and with her partner-in-crime, Monterrey Jacques. When she’s not onstage, Raven spends her time as photographer for Singing Raven Photography and maintaining her vintage fashion/lifestyle blog Revisionist Vintage. Learn more at www.vaudezilla.com or