Jul 162018

My book has been published, Routledge. 

About the book: 

Drawing on interviews with a breadth of different showgirls, from shows in Paris, Las Vegas, Berlin, and Los Angeles, as well as her own artworks and those by other contemporary and historical artists, this book examines the experiences of showgirls and those who watch them, to challenge the narrowness of representations and discussions around what has been termed ‘sexualisation’ and ‘the gaze’. An account of the experience of being ‘looked at’, the book raises questions of how the showgirl is represented, the nature of the pleasure that she elicits and the suspicion that surrounds it, and what this means for feminism and the act of looking.

An embodied articulation of a new politics of looking, Viewing Pleasure and Being a Showgirl engages with the idea (reinforced by feminist critique) that images of women are linked to selling and that women’s bodies have been commodified in capitalist culture, raising the question of whether this enables particular bodies – those of glamorous women on display – to become scapegoats for our deeper anxieties about consumerism.

Jan 162018

A chapter I have written on the representation of strippers in the media and contemporary art has been published. It is in the Routledge Companion to Media, Sex and Sexuality by Clarissa Smith, Feona Attwood and Brian McNair.

In it, I write about pop videos, films, popular feminist critical perspectives, academic writing, and activism. I also write about artworks including the Girlie Show by Edward Hopper, Lucky 13 by Philip-Lorca Di Corca, The Politics of Rehearsal by Francis Alys, Abstraction Licking by Christina Lucas, Cosey Fanni Tutti’s collages, Strip by Jemima Stehli, performance pieces Strike a Pose by Kate Spence, and Sister by Rosana and Amy Cade.



Jun 172012

Andrea Fraser takes up the position of the stripping woman in her performance Official Welcome, in which she addresses an assembled art audience giving an introduction to ‘the artist Andrea Fraser’.  The scripted dialogue, in which she performs ‘artist’ and ‘supporter’ quotes a number of collectors’ and artists’ real introductions and acceptance speeches, all delivered whilst Frasers strips naked and then clothes herself again by the end of the performance:  

Artist: Yeah, the art world likes “bad girls.”  But if you tell the truth and people don’t want to hear the truth.  If you’re honest about how stupid and fucked over life is, you end up in the tabloids.  I don’t go looking for it.  It just comes in a big stinking tidal wave. Removing bra, then shoes, then thong. I’m used to it.  It’s boring. […]  

Supporter: Well, thank you.  Thank you for your dedication, for your vision, for your life.  I think we all must dare, as artists do, to break free of the past and to create a better future, rooted in the values that never change.  That’s the great lesson our artists teach us.

Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser (2005) Andrea Fraser ed. Alexander Alberro

Fraser’s work can be understood within the context ‘Institutional Critique’, as pioneered by the artists Hans Haacke and Michael Asher.  Within this positioning her work takes on an intellectually engaged examination of what we expect a contemporary artist to give us; she subverts what we think art is by conflating the site of the artwork, the museum, the collector, the critic and the performer.  Can we be sure where they all begin and end? 

The project ‘Untitled’ is also really worth looking up.  Fraser’s work is always smart and fearless and I have incredible respect for her practice.  

Jun 172012

I feel I shall have to transition from photography and video and into live art and performance practices to really continue this list.  Before I do, I shall just list women photographers who in some way address the Showgirlian.

Elinor Carucci is a photographer by day, but a belly dancer by night.  She’s documented her dancing life in the book and series ‘Diary of a Dancer‘.  A well-observed project in which we see the types of venues, audiences, costumes, dance moves, preparations and the come down following performing.  Its documentary and a diary.  Just through pictures, a complex narrative is told.  With lots of sequins.

Katharina Bosse‘s book New Burlesque is a fabulous collection of portraits of New Burlesque dancers.  The dancers look fabulous in clothes the look like they could be performance costume, or in some cases, sassy day wear.  The pose and flirt with the camera knowingly, in domestic spaces, corners of cafes and deserts – nowhere you’d expect to find them.  They are there, at the beginning of this new movement, carving out a space for themselves. It is a joyous book.

Jo Ann Callis‘s practice spans decades.  I saw an exhibition of her work at the Getty Center, Los Angeles and I made loads of notes as I wanted to review the show for a magazine (I didn’t in the end).  But you know, I almost feel that to write about Callis’s work is a redundant gesture.  I don’t think they need much introduction.  I adore her photographs and I love looking at them.  Much of her work is concerned with femininity and the experience of being a woman.  Just take a browse round her website.  Look out for ‘Woman Twirling’ and ‘Performance’.  She taught me when I was at CalArts, and she was just had so much style, I would wear any of her outfits.

Katy Grannan makes portraits of people who respond to her newspaper adverts. Much of her work early photographs were of teenage girls, naked, who had responded to her requests.
Jun 172012

To reduce Sophie Calle‘s down to just the work she did stripping is a sin. However, this is what I shall do here and now.  Please go look up Calle’s wider practice if she’s new to you.


Sophie Calle’s practice is brave, transgressive, self-reflexive, uses herself. But it’s wider than that, its also about how we perform ourselves, how we connect to other people, how our emotions shape us.  How we look, and how we are looked at.  

Jun 172012

Viva, 2009, dir. Anna Biller

In feature film, Viva artist/filmmaker Anna Biller constructed a recreation of a Seventies sexploitation movie.[1]  The film is an uncomfortable mix of camp pastiche and truthful real-emotions storyline, which sees Barbie/Viva going on a journey of sexual emancipation.  The final scene, celebratory and sad, sees Barbie and her friend in a down-market recreation of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s number Two Little Girls from Little Rock from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.[2]  For Biller, the aim is to negotiate how female desire might be represented and provoked.  Most interesting to Biller are the responses she receives from female viewers in support of the film; women can read the resistance in the film, but she finds male viewers only see pastiche.[3]

[1] Anna Biller (2009) Viva  [film] Los Angeles, CA: Cult Epics.

[2] Howard Hawks, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Sol C. Siegel, Charles Lederer, Joseph A. Fields, and Anita Loos (1953) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [film] Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001.

[3] I talked to Anna Biller about the film in September 2010, LA.

Jun 172012


Jemima Stehli adopted the position of the stripper in her photographic series Strip, in which she questioned the designation of power in the art world within a voyeuristic framework.  She stands with her back to the camera in front of a seated male who is identified only by his job title, ‘Critic’, ‘Writer’, ‘Curator’ or ‘Dealer’.  A long cable-release is visible in his hand.  In each photograph Stehli is in a different state of undress caught in the act of stripping.  The precise moment the photograph was taken during this private strip is controlled by the seated male, his power doubled through the status of his job in the art world.  And yet, he is the pawn within Stehli’s game.  She has created the scenario; it is her concept, her intellect, her skill, and her body that she chooses to display.  She is active.  The seated male is unable to not look; he must play the stooge.  The photograph registers his level of satisfaction or discomfort: is that us, the viewer, looking at ourselves?

Jun 172012

Leigh Ledare represents a transition into the frame, and a new way of approaching the showgirl.  Now, my examples will be about embodying or trying out the showgirl, and thus, the following examples are about what she symbolises, how she can be used, rather than, who is she?

Let’s start with two recent examples.  Liz Cohen and Nikki S Lee put themselves into their photographs and literally embody the woman-as-object, but through that embodiment, we have to deal with the concept of the woman-as-object having a brain.  These approaches bring intelligence into the body. 
Liz Cohen turns a Trabant into an El Camino, and herself from mechanic to bikini clad model posing on the car.  Two kinds of body transformation.
Nikki S Lee goes native in particular social groups.  The documented results show her passing as one of the gang.  Amongst the groups, she’s become part of where exotic dancers. 

It’s worth pointing out, that these practices would not exist without a number of female photographers, whose work engages less with a Showgirlian impulse, but women-in-representation.  So, look up, if you don’t already know:
Claude Cahun
Hannah Wilkie
Cindy Sherman
Renee Cox

Jun 172012

Time for something more contemporary!  Here are four male image-makers (they work in photo & video) who are using the figure of the stripper as a site of exploration.  They show a fascination with the stripper but also work to expand our understanding of who she is and what she does.

Philip Lorca DiCorcia creates portraits that reinvigorate the form.  He does more than portraits, actually, and his photographs always command my attention.  He created a series of photographs of pole-dancers in action.  I sense Lorca DiCorcia’s admiration and attempt to fathom the pole-dancer’s milieu in the photographs.


Tom Hunters photographs tell stories of contemporary life.  Inspired by newspaper headlines, sensational reporting and more Pre-Raphaelite compositional tropes, among other things, Hunter’s photographs are complex, full of detail and place our contemporary context into a historical one.  And his photographs are (say it quietly) beautiful.

Mainly using video Francis Alys explores social constructions.  He’s used a stripper combined with audio from a singer’s practicing exercises, to explore where a (public) performance begins and ends.  Here, he employs the stripper’s performing, moving body, with it’s techniques and expertise, and yet this is not directly the subject of the work, rather, the stripper is used to construct something new in the artwork.

Ok, so now things are getting really interesting.  Leigh Ledare‘s work is just amazing and mind-blowing (and I’m jealous of his practice, not to mention the way he always finishes the work is such a sophisticated way).  I’ve blogged about his work before, here.  One day Leigh visited his Mom’s and she opened the door, naked, having just got up from sex with a younger man.  Thus, she announced her sexuality to her son.  Mom had been a ballet dancer, exotic dancer and placed ads looking for men to look after her.  She approached Leigh to document her sexuality.  Leigh does so, in an intelligent, sensitive and self-reflexive way.  Never leaving Mom to be the subject of a forensic, pathologised study.  His practice has included photographs of Mom in flagrante, her posing for him, sometimes he is in the frame, sometimes they are having innocent fun together, other times something more erotic is inferred.  Also, handwritten notes from Mom, from his younger self further contextualise their relationship.  Mom resolutely takes an active role in the images.  Her challenging unrepentant gaze frequently looks out at us.  And Leigh’s newer works trace Mom’s actions, but using himself, by placing his own ads in papers and soliciting women to make photographs that objectify him.  In Leigh’s work, subject-object politics is always complex.  



Jun 172012

Another approach taken has been for documentary photographers to observe the porn industry.  Their photographs serve to deconstruct the usual image-constructions of pornography and create quite mesmerising images.  However, as with all documentary images, we must remain alert to the fact that the documentarist positions himself outside of what he sees, as a neutral observing.  Its a position of privilege to suggest that the author-position is neutral and objective.

Larry Sultan’s project ‘The Valley’ is an exploration of the porn industry
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders porn portraits

Jun 172012

Edward Hopper’s haunting paintings recreate Modern city life in the sparest terms.  He empties out all details that do not create the narrative he is after and what’s left in his composition have become archetypes.  The film ‘Pennies from Heaven’ consciously quotes his painting scenes to mesmerising effect.  
However, a little known photo ‘Girlie Show’ is why I’m listing Hopper.  He created the painting after visiting a burlesque show, and restaged the entrance of the dancer with his wife.  Thus, the painting is a composite of the memory of a theatrical encounter, and an homage to his wife with whom he had a complicated sexual relation. 

Jun 172012
How does art respond to and extend our understanding of the showgirl?  I have put together some examples that explore woman-as-object (my interest is in showgirls, but this list is broader than that).  The idea for putting this together came to me whilst reading Katy Pilcher’s article ‘Performing in a Night-Time Leisure Venue: A Visual Analysis of Erotic Dance’.  In the paper, Pilcher uses photographs to elicit attitudes and opinions from the subjects of the photographs.  It reminded me of the approaches taken by artists: sometimes their works suggest a co-authoring between the subject and object, sometimes the subject in the work is further objectified, sometimes the role of the subject is embodied.  I have put this list together to try to show this breadth of approach.  The time period in which the works are created plays a role and I also noticed gender was a significant factor in the type of approach taken.  I shall start by presenting male artists.  I’m using the term ‘artists’ somewhat loosely, as there are practices here that belong to a photographic tradition rather than something more conceptually and critically engaged (that also reflects conversations in image-making, as the time-period of production also bears on the work made).
I love Walter Bird and I went to see his photographs at the archive in the National Media Museum in Bradford.  His photographs create an undisputable, enchanting glamour.  Sometimes I find myself wanting to reject all objectifying images made by men of women, but then, I see Walter Bird’s photographs, that are so powerful, respectful and glamorous and I cannot maintain that critical position.  Something complex more complex is going on.  Of course, in Bird’s photographs, Hollywood films of the 1930s and the associated film star portraits, women are constructed as glamorous goddesses in lieu of power either in the narrative or in society (see ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey).  However, this construction of woman-as-image now is a very different thing – can we create a new context for the images and reject the related powerlessness women represented at the time?
I’m not going to add them to the list, but the other image-makers that fit into this Walter Bird category of, shall we say, glamorously subjectifying women are: Guy Bourdain, Helmet Newton and Howard Hawks.  All worth looking at.
Apr 172012

I clocked off from my research for two weeks, during which time, Samantha Brick-gate happens.  I don’t want to add to the sheer volume of words generated by the incident, instead, I wanted to blog the final encounter with the showgirl in my second chapter.  My research, to reiterate, investigates both my own feelings of loving showgirls and the experiences of showgirls themselves.  It is my hope, wish, intention, that through opening up my feelings of sisterhood and respect for glamorous women, that I may potentially add to a rich, healthy discussion and how women relate to one another in positive, sisterly ways.  I am completely fed-up with the trite worn-out trope of women’s competition amongst each other.  It is not what I feel or experience.

In a tiny bar, Cellar Door, underneath the Aldwytch, London, I put cocktails I could not afford on my credit card. As it was a bar, a middle-aged man chatted to me, asking what I do. I told him. He began to tell me what he thought about burlesque, informing me how little affect it could have. I began speculate a politics of burlesque, perhaps, femininity and the potential for collectivising around specific issues, citing the Slut Walks as an example. He responded by telling that as he could not see what all the fuss was about with the Slut Walks. As he saw it, it was a good idea to avoiding dress like a slut and going to bad areas, in reference to the initial comments by the police representative, who addressing a group of students in Toronto, which hard sparked the initial protests. Hearing his prejudiced, short-sighted views, in which his sense of entitlement had blinded him of other peoples’ experiences, caused an internal incandescent rage. I did not want to have tell him how totally ignorant, misogynistic he was and his sense of entitlement to tell me about my research and experience as a woman in that specific context, so instead I died a little inside. I was gradually able to disassociate from him as the performers did their turns. Hannah Friedrick, sang jazz interpretations of pop songs including Material Girl, Wild Thing and songs from Jungle Book, to hilarious effect. I was singing along and I was able to relax and make a few notes in my notebook. I drank another cocktail and started to chat to Beatrix Von Bourbon, the burlesque dancer, before she performed. We had tweeted each earlier in the day. Then, as Beatrix started her second and final strip of the evening, I stopped writing and I closed my notebook, so that I could be present in the moment.

The strip was a perfect moment and the performer owned the room. She performed for the audience, as an act of generosity. She was experienced and educated enough to be aware of what she was doing. It did not feel sleazy or uncomfortable despite the number’s conclusion in which the performer’s nudity was in close proximity to the audience. She was prepared to be our object of desire for a moment, because she chose to be. And as I watched, still, not far from the middle-aged man, I thought, yeah fuck you, you have no idea what this means, what pleasure the performer is generating. You have no idea what this means!

Amongst the pleasure-experiences I have described, this was a very simple encounter: a tiny bar and a dancer with a fabulous heavily tattooed body in a great outfit. During the short act, my attention was focussed and nothing else existed. The formula was minimal, but completely accessible to me. I just felt happiness. I felt happy a woman could produce the moment. I felt sisterhood for the performer.

Apr 172012

The pounding, relentless forward propulsion towards the end of the world in ‘Melancholia’ experienced through the emotional breakdown of Justine serves to illustrate just how little agency the individual has. Against impending disaster: economic, environmental, political we experience only our own our emotional response. That’s all we can feel. As the film shows, we have no manoeuvre room to change the direction of the hidden planet Melancholia. We can change nothing. Just feel the catastrophe.

The first time I watched the film, I enmeshed my own feelings I was experiencing of dislocation, estrangement and research-confusion into Justine’s pull downwards into depression. Maybe she was the only one who understood what the end of the world meant. Maybe she was the only one who intuited it. The unrelenting unravelling and unhinging of Justine drives the film. Her inverted charisma cyclones, collecting up the cinema-spectators with tear-stained faces. It can wrap you into the storm, if you let it. As I walked away from the cinema in November I could feel my own cyclone collecting all my failures, all my doubts, fears, flaws. Like a magnet, the affect of film searched my psyche and found all the negativity. I had no agency. I could feel the self-doubt rush to the surface. I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe, I was hyperventilating.

The second time I saw the film, the cyclone didn’t pick me up. I watched the film dispassionately. I saw only the metaphor of the film. And the hand-held camera work and lens flare. Holding myself outside the film, I could see the mannered personas with their limitations. If I say they were one dimensional, that is not to suggest a weakness in script or acting, rather, the characters were roles, functions, once that function was completed, the character was over. The script, a product of a misanthrope’s mind, no-one comes off well, but oh! they look good. I love the running through wool, the naked moonbathing, sex under dress. All these sensuous pleasures: they return the depressed subject back into her body. She can feel.

I don’t cry the second time I see the film. I watch, distanced. I choose not to descend into the film.

It’s like I told you honey, don’t make me sad, don’t make me cry.

Lana del Rey saved me from ‘Melancholia’ that second time. Her song ‘Born to Die’ takes control of the descent. She describes mental tumbling downward, in this song, through a destructive compulsion toward the archetypal bad boy – is it even him she loves, or just how he looks?

Come and take a walk on the wild side. Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain, like your girls insane.

The song is an ode to the pleasure of the descent. Lana chooses to pursue the pleasure of failing, for the wrong boy, the wrong life choice, the wrong drug. But this is the song of the sober person. Remembering the feelings of disembodiment, disenchantment, wanting to feel, feel something. Even if those feelings are the most negative and masochistic. An ode to the masochistic pull of falling down, into hyperventilated tears. The fond rememberings of someone back on terra firma. Choosing not descend again.

Choose your last words, this is the last time cause you and I we were born to die.

Moving back and forth between the so cool it hurts car-bonnet sex in jeans-shorts and Converse and sitting, queen of her dominion with a her tigers, in white femme-fatale dress, blue rose-crown and red lips, there is no sexier way to tell the story of the love-affair that nearly killed you. The affair, here, a love affair, but also we could insert any death-drive behaviour that we will upon ourselves, bringing us back into our own body. I guess my drug of choice is my quiet victim-moments in which I force myself to envisage and feel the catastrophic failure of my research and career. But I have a choice, I can choose that choice. Own that choice, own my feelings. The individual, with her agency.

Dec 022011
I tried to photograph the interior of this theatre, but without a magazine publishing deal they would not work with me.  So I loved the show, but it makes me sad to think about it.  

In the dark theatre, I could not make notes.  I make notes in the pub afterwards: 
Voulez Vous Coche Avec Moi number: women groin moves/sex moves. Kicking routine ending in water, Busby Berkely.  Homoerotics not sublimated, cavemen with Mohawks and one woman with boobs out, men rolling on each other.  Men stripping in shower.  Dancing in black leggings. Drag singing.  Jumpers in black bodysuits with lime stripes.  Girls not fully on beat of the music.  Smiles! I love smiles! Sex moves.  Contemporary choreography and music.  Girls over a barre number.  I’m Coming Up by Pink – strange disco headwear.  Trampy women in ‘cameras-flashing’ number, lace bondage leotards.  Short-haired female dancer going for it, my favourite dancer.  Tap-dance on a podium Matrix-style.  Sailor scene, strip for men.  Tango with two men and one woman.  
Dec 022011

I also visited Paradis Latin, and here are my notes from that show.  At the end of the evening I rode a ‘velib’ – a bike you can rent in the street, to my friend’s flat to say goodbye to her before she travelled back to Berlin.  Just some context for you!

Paradis A La Folie: Madness in Paradise.  Tourist crowd, same one as Nouvelle Eve.  No style.  Gaggles of women in 20s.  Couples in groups in 40s, boring looking.  2 x couples alone in 50s.  Blouse and purple knit jerkin.  Australian bus load of 20s in semi-smart clothes (but a bit townie too).  And audience on holiday, relaxed, drinking, speaking English.  Large Indian family.  Lower-middle class demographic?  Professionals, skilled workers and students?  Banquet tables.  Large groups of women. Sparkly diamante hair-band.  A straight audience?  A photographer comes round, I say no.  It’s strange how on the metro if I saw these women I see around me, I’d feel an affinity with them, but not now, in this context.  The lights dim.  Video projected.  Roses outfit, 5 girls, 4 nudes, t-bar tan shoes, all short brown hair, 5 boys.  Compère lowered on to stage, a pale pink top hat and tails.  Rose nude lowered from ceiling long hair and flower thong, ballet flats, nude with leaves.  Ballet pas de deux.  Female singer enters from back of auditorium.  Rose coloured long dress with large rose neckline.  Singer with 4 men and then compère.  Showboys for moment, lots of jump steps, tapping, cheeky, cheesy choreography, very Constance Grant Dance Centre.  Compère speaks to audience in French, then English.  Waiters on stage, the male dressed-up host as we came in, now in drag.  In ballet class number at the barre, evolves and more sexy leotard girls come out, very Eric Pridz video.  Judo boys – manly???  Music, Daft Punk-esque beats.  Steam shower with girls, just towels, 4 girls, strip with tease removing towel.  Bit more knowing choreography.  Bums in showers – men.  More comical choreography.  Barbie doll bodies – hairdown, swish hair head roll.  Rave disco scene – techno.  Pop/street dance influences unzipped skeleton wet suits.  Goes to black, zip-up full skeleton suit.  Oh-la-la song.  Girls in Adidas type tracksuit bottoms.  Compère back, black suit.  Angelou, unicycling bartender.  The formula makes me think of the ‘70s.  Country fair carousel, rotating with girls on as architecture – blonde pageboys.  Opens up into 4 girls in leathers on motorbikes, take off helmets and shake out blonde hair.  Strip off to boob harness and thong.  Dance on the bike, arched back.  Hair swinging.  Rope and man in white pants – ‘Christopher’ – sublime smile – Tarzan/Indiana Jones music.  Shaved armpits, arm decoration, sequinned shorts.  Very flit, flexible, was he an Olympic gymnast 15 years ago?  The guy spotting him is a star too.  Montagues and Capulets Prokofiev music, period dress.  Court dance, with boobs, pas de deux scene from Romeo & Juliet.  Strip off to under-net, they marry, sexy ballet??  Hip hop tribute to Romeo & Juliet.  4 girls in waistcoats, jeans and Trilbys, 5 boys in just jeans and Trilbys.  Body hair-free evening.  Boys as objects.  17tth Century Louis 15th number, girls as boys court dancing, boys strip off and stay, girls leave.  Real boys in same sort of outfit and they strip off too.  2 sets of boys dance together.  Bouillon?  Tap-dancing juggler.  Can-can, better costume, better choreography (than La Nouvelle Eve).  Girl tumbler, 3 boy tumblers.  Compère in white tails.  Thanks technicians, dressers, musicians, front of house.  Cheerleaders, singer in a long white gown – Marie.  No fake boobs.  Crossdresser type dame goes back and forth between male/female dress.
Dec 022011
I visited the the smaller scale cabaret ‘La Nouvelle Eve’, and drank a small bottle of champagne, included in the ticket price, whilst making these notes:

Audience: tourists, families – large Indian family.  Middle aged couples, girls aged 10, boys aged 13?  Australian student group.  Young smart couple, 20?  Middle aged large group, breaks up into men and women.  Two German women in 60s.  Everyone dressed up smart.  American father and son.  Preppy Americans in front of me.  Opening number, 10 women, 4 men.  Is this chorography dated?  Disco-ball entrance, blonde-singer, g-string.  5 girls techno-beat number, red top with cut out heart on sternum, more commercial dance.  4 boys enter, girls leave.  3 girls back – smiles! Topless dancer, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  Sparkle sleeves, original.  I like the dancers, personality.  Head-dresses, just hair up, understated.  Blonde-singer comes on with very Moulin Rouge headdress.  Topless, singing.  She doesn’t have ‘it’ fully.  Two men juggling with hats.  Black waistcosts, white shirts and trousers.  Australian audience member pulled up on stage – juggler speaks English – tourist language.  Cancan – three boys in red and black, two girls in pink.  Ten-girl line, multicoloured costumes.  Lots of yelping, like wildcats.  Boy cartwheels and tumbles, takes centre-stage, why?  Kicking music, same as Constance Grant Dance Centre uses (my dancing school).  Three boys come on.  Boy doing jumping splits – why?  All girls in twos, 2 girls dancing together.  Mr Bean type clown enters.  Physical comedy.  New number, 4 girls in trousers and 2 boys – all in the same costume, 5 girls in floppy drop-waisted dresses, 2 couples come on.  Feels fresh, dramatic tango-like.  Girls are boys in the choreography.  Nice use of back.  Cuban-heeled Oxfords on girls as boys, boys in a flatter heel but that’s the only difference in costume.  Music is a bit Eurovision.  4 boys from Grease, 2 girls on ribbons, topless in S & M harnesses.  They leave.  Black strap costumes – nice.  Blonde singer is ‘Arta’ the star girl/compère is a better dancer than singer.  No singing.  Topless male, more manly.  White costume dancer with ballet-flats and thong.  Enigma type music for ballet.  Arta back in long backless frock.  Good set of lungs on her.  I don’t like her bottle blonde bob.  Jazz Hot Baby – blue leotards and bows, pillbox hats.  Great costume, not used enough.  Jazz Hot – great song, would love a bit more tapping out.  Arte talks in every langue – she’s like a flight announcement.  Frothy, needs balls.  Arta gets 4 audience men to dance on stage.  Really?? A bride as a prize?? Bit weird.  Bit buy-a-Russian-bride.  Man comes on stage with showgirl holding a baby.  Weird.  Like Fire number, film Showgirls hand-move.  Arte, she’s good, but I want a larger personality to carry the show, she’s slightly lacking in charisma.  How do shows queer themselves?  Finale black and pink.  Love Me, 6 girls, topless, platform shoes for shorter dancers.  Oui Je T’aime finale number.
Dec 022011
In the summer I went to view a number of showgirl spectacles in Paris.  During the shows I made notes.  I wrote down descriptions and on the spot analyses of the displays in front of me.  I typed up my notes with the hope of using them in my writing, however I have found it hard to make them useful. As I just cut the words from my Chapter 2, I thought I’d recycle them here.  This is what I wrote from my not very good seat at the side of the stage, at the end of table I shared with noisy disinterested patrons.
Dance, Dance white caps, disco-dancing.  Older showboys.  Thong bum.  Parle Dance? Long hair through caps, high kicks, glitter.  Aujhord’hui 3 singing bun-heads, mics on face, string beads for a top.  Pleat skirt with feather trim.  Camp dancing.  3 nudes high-kicking.  Male dancers, dry ice, uniform-type hats, marching.  Female voice – la la.  Women with coloured trim dresses.  As girlfriends to soldiers.  Bead top.  Boobs covered for some.  Red dancing pom pom.  Slim thighs.  Amazing costumes with moving parts.  Juggler act to techno music.  Pirate number, men.  Hookers for pirates, hair down.  Boobs out and harnesses.  Sultry looking faces.  Pith helmet – safari suit.  Orientalism outfit.  Harem with beads and harem women.  Strange fan-like headdresses.  Cat-like women – leopards, enter wailing – ahhhhh, fight with soldier guards.  Body ripples.  Medusa.  Blonde girl slave enter.  Jumps into pool with snakes.  Snake dance underwater!  Kisses snake.  Couple fly in on string in neon and UV light.  Orientialism.  Pantomime.  Real boobs.  Featured act – male and female acrobat.  East-European looking.  Circus type ringmaster.  Clowns – men – mini horses walk on x 6.  Kossacks!!!  Orientalism less successful than using tropes from entertainment – girl clown number.  Pointing to own construction – more useful.  2 girls in one dress.  Lions – dancers as lions.  Wide trousers on clowns.  Drum bit featured act.  Audience interaction.  Mexico – big sceam from crowd “Mexi-co!!” “China” “Ukraine” “Brazil”.  Drunk woman – act – dancers clubbing, comedy.  Cancan, no men.  Men.  All cartwheel.  All cartwheel and splits – but male extra-flex man!  Boogie Woogie number.  3 singing women – English – all other in French – short-hair wigs.  Punks/Cher costume – zip t-shirt.  ‘New Generation’???  3 girls and all men.  “I will survive!” song.  Tom of Finland hat and jacket – strange Eastern European Eurovision moment.  Stage lowered with men.  Mirror ball man – over the top pink costumes.  Hip wiggle move.  Wardrobe malfunction –  lights not on on one side of pack.  Pink boots, thigh high and ankle.
Aug 192011

Sometimes I plan blogs, and I plan them so much with ideas in my head and notes in my notebook that basically they never happen.  Over thinking.  And other times, I just think of something and want to get it out there so it manifests somehow.  That’s what I’m doing now.  As an artist, I am meant to be thinking about making art.  In a studio.  But I find myself thinking all kinds of things I’d like to do, usually nowhere near a studio.  It’s nice to spend time alone – like this summer – in Berlin, Paris and London, away from normal life, to let those ideas of all kinds rush to me, through me and wash over me.  Like waves.  Some of the water will stick though, and I’ll take the idea forward and it will manifest in art.  For now, though, maybe its fun to treat the ideas as the end product, the thing.  So, one idea I had whilst watching Basic Instinct with Camille Paglia’s commentary was that I’d like to do commentaries on films too.  It would be like writing but better.  I like writing because you have to give your ideas form on a page, but I like thoughts in themselves, and writing is just a carrier for your thoughts.  Talking is my favourite thought carrier.  But that’s tricky.  I mean, how do I get my talked thoughts ‘out there’, so they exist as a professional output? Why, is that important, you might ask.  Well, the more thoughts I get out there ‘in the world’, and the more that people receive those thoughts (maybe like them? I can but hope) then the more freedom and potential for getting a wage I have.  I am not after millions, just something to live on.  I’m saying this because I have one more year of stipend at Sheffield Hallam University, so I can feel pennilessness rush towards me to steal my style.  But freedom and a wage.  That’s what its about isn’t it? It is for me.  No outward signifiers necessary.  The wage I blow on DVDs, audiobooks, books, second-hand dresses, make-up and haircuts (if I could have a bit more money I could have more frequent haircuts then I’d really have style).  

None of this is the point.  This is all off the point.  These are idea waves.

What I was trying to say was, I would like to do an audio commentary for the films that I’ll look at in my PhD research like Showgirls; Gilda; Dance, Girl, Dance; On Tour; Dancing Lady and Stage Door.  The question is, and its the same question for everything I do at present, is it ‘art’ or ‘writing’.  A hybrid?  How would it be disseminated?  Could it be a DVD or something online, or an mp3 you have to play whilst you watch?   

I have ideas in the moment, in the experience.  The thereness.  The in the moment.  Like when I was watching spectacles this summer: Yma at FriedrichstadtPalast in Berlin and Moulin Rouge, Nouvelle Eve, Paradis Latin in Paris.  I thought some really big thoughts.  About what I was watching, about how to penetrate the spectacle, about visual pleasure, about how spectacle can be queered, or not, how it might evolve.  My (dream) future life as a Professor of Showgirls, Desire and Art in which I am paid as a consultant to develop new shows that are both progressive and traditional.  A life in which I do not have to pay to see shows, at least.  And theatres give me access to photograph their auditoriums (unlike FriedrichstadtPalast, by the way.  They said I could get access if I was to get the photographs published – going on a gallery wall is not enough, apparently.  So if you could enable me to get a magazine commission for the interior of the FriedrichstadtPalast, then, let’s talk).  

If I could create an audio commentary for seeing spectacle, now that would be cool.  Like an audio guide for galleries and museums.  Only for spectacle. Maybe it would be for all shows, including burlesque.  Huh, I really should do that shouldn’t I.  

Jun 222011
My body seems to know things I do not know.  Or, at least, I have observed it’s critically timed messages (rebellions?).  I guess there is a battle for supremacy between my brain and my body.  My brain can think and generate thoughts and words.  But my body can call the shots.  Let me recount an instance.  Last year, I gave my first conference paper in Newcastle.  Not only did I speak words, I danced a section of it.  When I woke up very early on the morning of the conference, to catch the train to Newcastle, I realised I had very itchy toes.  Athlete’s bloody foot!  I hadn’t had it for years!  I had my outfit planned out, which involved a trusty pair of blue t-bar shoes with a two-inch heel.  Closed toe.  So, I put on a pair of ugly, comfy Crocs sandals and took the pretty shoes in my bag.  I switched the shoes over just outside the conference venue.  On my way up the stairs to where the conference was held, an ugly sandal fell out my bag.  I did not notice until a man ran after me with ugly shoe.  I was mortified!  Not only was I nervous at the ridiculously maschocistic nature of my presentation, but my body was telling me who was boss!  There is nothing like my own body to make me look stupid at any moment!
Apr 032011
I am gently encouraging myself to write an introduction to next Saturday’s symposium ‘How Do We Look?’.  I have just typed the following.  I am not going to use it.  So, I am pasting it here.  It makes no sense other than as a visual to help me think.
Imagine I find a hand-written love letter on the street in LA.  I pick it up, and wilfully, misinterpret the letter as a love letter to the city itself.  Not wishing to remove this letter from its original location (perhaps its author will return), I quickly write the contents of the letter.  My new version is to no-one and from no-one.  It is in my rushed handwriting and I do not know how much it bares resemblance to the original text.
Aug 062010

I saw the show at the Lido (http://www.lido.fr/us/cabaret-paris.html) and had great fun.  It was so camp its indescribable.  They feature showboys in their show as well as showgirls, and I have to say they just made me cringe (I’m cringing so much I cannot bring myself to type a description of their worst costume).  A featured act was a male acrobat who performed on two long bits of material.  He was incredibly strong and flexible and his costume was a small pair of white shorts.  I was interested to think about this.  Through the use of his body, he displayed both a masculinity (strength) and femininity (fluidity in his movements and flexibility), this routed his performance outside of camp, somehow and located him in some sort of more serious object-of-desire place, in a way that the showgirls operate.  The showboys, on the other hand, are total camp, in a way that sort of negates their skill and makes them look like a Butlins act.  They are not any sort of object of desire, they are, as far as I could tell, a tacky joke.  Of course, I have no access to the spectrum of responses that a gay male spectator might have, and who knows, perhaps they function as an object of desire for them.  My point is, for me, showboys, no.  (From other performance instances I can say, male showgirls, yes).
Watching Crazy Horse (http://www.lecrazyhorseparis.com/) I lost my visual innocence.  The cabaret featured a troupe of female dancers, who performed butt-naked except for a very small strip of what looked like black gaffer tape, strategically placed. Although there was an audience roughly evenly split between men and women, I felt transgressive watching it, as though the whole spectacle was directed towards a male spectator and not me.  It was by far the most knowing caberet-revue I have seen.  It reputedly crosses over with burlesque as earlier this year Dita Von Teese was their featured artist.  However, I think this says more about Dita’s hetero-normative position within burlesque that she can cross over into more overt stripping contexts, rather than Crazy Horse’s closeness to burlesque. 
I felt that the show did a number of things in terms of styling and choreography that took the whole thing far closer to a gentlemen’s club dance context.  For example, the lighting and choreography dissected the bodies so that we saw perhaps, only legs performing.  I found the amount that we did not see the faces of the performers quite shocking.  There was no opportunity for the performers to ‘send-up’ the performance with their faces in darkness or out of view.  I found this the hardest aspect to handle.  I also felt that the repetitive use of the arched-back position that pushes the bum out moved the performances away from mainstream theatrical dance technique (which is often clearly visible in burlesque performances and particularly at the Lido) and more towards of gentleman’s club stripping.  I realised watching the Crazy Horse that I actually need to watch strip shows featuring lap and pole dancing so that I can write about the gaps and overlaps between the different styles of performing I’m interested in.  The show also featured some numbers that felt really disturbing and uncomfortable, for example a solo performance with a dancer who commenced her number tied up in ropes, and then used the ropes as props to perform on.  It’s S&M references felt shallow and quite frankly, anti-women.
The featured act was a male tap duo, which came as a blessed relief.  Fully clothed, the two were fully spot-lit, used their faces, audience interaction, humour and a number of different tap dancing ‘quotes’ to create an entertaining number.  And then we had to return to the strobe-lit naked women.  It was like our one moment of fun.  The seriousness of the naked women was alienating, I longed to see some smiling faces!

Mar 052010

I don’t know, I can’t explain, I don’t have answers.  I found a new ballet class, with a good pointe class after it, and I did it again.  I wore my Gaynor Mindens and they were too tight.  So I bought a new pair. Half a size larger, and with a wider box.  I am 31 and I bought another pair of pointe shoes.  Part of me thinks it is practice; dancing ballet and pointe.  And another part of me despairs.  Oh but then they first part of me thinks – ha! I can dance en pointe in unexpected places, like giving a conference paper?

Nov 222009

Winkle pickers, black shirt white waistcoat. Silver ballet flats, hookeresque platforms, red patent t-bar, 2 flapper head bands, 3 feather hair clips, fishnets, patterned tights, lots of black, feather boa, 1 scruffy couple, top hat, red stilettos, puff ball skirt, patterned dress with leggings with pixie / cowboy boots, stiletto platform oxfords, jarvis cocker with longer straggly hair, plaid shirt, jeans and doccers, purple chiffon wrap dress with boach, mini top hat, blonde dreadlocks (girl) with duffel coat, black trousers, Eastpak and trainers.  Fishnet stockings with visible suspenders, sparkly puff sleeves, man with dreadlocks, red and black corset with puff ball skirt, gatenet tights with patent black shoes, black dress with silver sparkles, red lippy with hair band, pin strip suit with waistcoat, shiny suit, grey suit, black shirt, purple tie and bald head, red tennis shoes, slacks and stripped shirt. Green strapless dress matching shoes and black jacket, 15 denier black tights. Sloochy top, mini skirt, leggings, big biker boots, addidas trainers, brown leather jacket and jeans, tartan skirt and black corset. High necked slinky dress with red and white corset, pink beanie hat, black layered frilled skirt, gothic flouncy coat, curler-ed hair. Flat shoes, vest top, satchel, curly mop over one side with stripe shirt, black waistcoat, converse with suit, glitter beanie, white thin cardie over dress, red corset with black lace, pencil skirt exposing hip bones.

Nov 022009

One afternoon in 2005, I came across a tin full of cigarette cards at a flea market. I leafed through to look more closely at the miniature pin-ups. I noticed the backs of the cards with the clipped-1940s-BBC-announcer biographies of the girls on the cards. I selected all the dancers from the tin (there were models, swimmers and tennis players I rejected, no one I had heard of before) and bought all of them. As I walked home, I decided to recreate all the photographs using myself as the model. My desire to explore another identity merged into a kind of wish, ‘What if I were this person in the photograph?’ The photograph represented such a desirable location that I wanted to be there. The details of the location, although totally unknowable to me, were here presented, as though the top layer of that location were lifted off and frozen. How could I thaw it out and get there?

Sep 062009
I walk out into the floorshow.  The audience surrounds me.  I strike a pose in the spotlight.  I am wearing a strapless, floor length black satin dress slit up the side.  The music starts.  I wait for my cue.  I start to sing…[1]
I propose the scenario I describe above be called the ‘Tallulah Moment’; the moment when the female performer enthrals an audience, projecting her personality, skill and physical presence using the accoutrements of her profession—lighting and costume.  This moment is important to me and by using my personal identification with it as part of my investigation, I shall illuminate how a close read of its use in classic Hollywood films can be re-read as a celebration of women within a feminist discourse.
Why Tallulah?  The name calls to mind the eponymous ‘Bugsy Malone’ (1976) star and the actress, Tallulah Bankhead and through them, it represents excess, opulence, sexuality and joie de vivre—all highly appropriate for my purposes.  The word ‘moment’ relates to the photograph, the symbol, the emblem but not exclusively to the static.  The Tallulah Moment is a moment because I am referring both to the moving image and the frozen symbol.  In the classic Hollywood film, narrative flow is interrupted by such ‘moments’ bringing the unfolding of the story to a temporary halt.  In this interruption, I find potency—it is credit to the Tallulah Moment that it can be extracted from the film story and stand on its own.
Hollywood has used the Tallulah Moment as a device for generating pleasure in its audience. It functions by giving the female character, who, in the course of the conventional narrative is strait-jacketed into stereotypes and simplistic desires, a platform for the display of her power.  Ultimately, the storyline chastises her for that display, but within the Tallulah Moment, the woman is not punished; she is celebrated.  Hollywood developed its celebratory spectacle of the female form through studying the Ziegfeld theatrical tradition of opulence.  Indeed, Ziegfeld’s Follies provided both a ready supply of attractive young women for the Hollywood talent scouts in the 1920s and storyline fuel that was light on story and heavy on opportunities to theatricalise.  Therefore, Hollywood has used the setting of the theatre and the chorus girl, the showgirl, the dancer and the singer frequently since it started to produce films—‘All singing! All dancing!’[2].
The 1930s-1950s represent a heyday for both the Musical, and other genres, like Film Noir that employ the Tallulah Moment.  Therefore, it is this time period I want to address.  A musical ‘interruption’ in these films may take on a number of different forms, and a film may include a variety of them.  The Tallulah Moment proper features a single female singing and/or dancing, alone.  A variation on this is a partnered dance where the woman has a male counterpart.  The dance nevertheless allows the woman to shine, supported by the man.  Fred Astaire does not outshine Ginger Rogers when they dance together.
The naughty Ziegfeld flapper/dancer of the Twenties became good-girl virginal figure[3] during the Hayes Code era (from 1930 to 1968), where inference was everything.  The partnered musical number within a Musical film[4] functioned as a metaphor, representing the complexity of sexual relationships.  Through gesture and dance moves, the back and forth of a love affair is embodied.  During the dance sequence it is as though the two dancers go on date, have their first kiss, have an argument, reconcile and have sex.  The dance stands in for the work of the relationship and through it we can understand their affection to one another that is not shown explicitly during the film.  It is through reading the dance as more than a dance that we can understand why the characters become so attached, having seemingly only just met. 
There is a complex craft in constructing the Tallulah Moment.  It is created through a song (usually with lyrics but not necessarily), elaborate set, direction, camera angles and cuts.  For example, in the titular dance of the film ‘Cover Girl’ (1944) the Tallulah Moment is introduced with a montage of magazine covers before Rita Hayworth descends down an elaborate smoke-filled set and removes a long gold coat to present herself in a gold flowing gown. She continues running down to meet a troop of men dressed alike as photographers who dance with her in turn, lift her up and support her swoons.  The scene concludes as Hayworth runs up the path she descended on with the men running after her and glitter falling from the sky.  All of these effects are deployed within the overall construct of the film as well as the studio system’s crafting of the actress as a personality in publicity campaigns and advertising.  However, the story lines of these films repress strong female voices or personalities—something I perceive as I look back on films that reflect a different ideology of femininity.  Indeed I have to suspend my pangs of sadness as I indulge my black and white film habit.  It is so apparent how constrained the women are, which reflects the societal attitudes and limits that women where subject to pre-Second Wave feminism.
But there is release in the Tallulah Moment when the woman explodes with charisma and unapologetically revels in her objectification.  The woman owns her body and the gaze within that moment.  I recognise within this moment something quite absent in my life and I want that moment.  Whilst the Hollywood machinery constructs a moment so pure in its pleasure, overlaying heavy-handed devices to ensure how my gaze is taking in that woman, it is credit to the women who thrive in this moment that they are not a zero point at the centre, but a charismatic being.  Whilst I watch these moments, I imagine the performance in its barest incarnation—a woman, in a dress, in a spotlight.  I imagine my gaze undirected by lingering pans and insinuating cuts.  
During the 1930s-1950s time period the Hayes Code opened up possibilities in representing the female body that have effectively been closed down since then.  I am identifying the Tallulah Moment as one of these possibilities.  What I see happening was actresses with a high standard of technical dance training (and with that a working methodology of how to handle the gaze) were employed to display sexuality.  The freedom and fantasy of their use of their body is being used as a way of being sexually provocative without being overt.  My insider knowledge of dance training enables me to see that work being done and to feel its effect.  It takes skill to project your body as a fantasy space and this is what I am interested in suggesting.  When Rita Hayworth performs ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ in ‘Gilda’ she owns her body as a fantasy space, and credit to her for that.


[1] Imagery taken from ‘Gilda’ (1946) Columbia Pictures, directed by Charles Vidor starring Rita Hayworth.
[2] Taken from the promotional advertising posters for the 1929 film ‘Broadway Melody’, the first musical film featuring sound; ‘All talking All singing All dancing’.
[3] See Ruby Keeler in ‘42nd Street’ (1933), ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ (1933) and ‘Dames’ (1934).
[4] For example the Fred Astaire films; ‘Swing Time’ (1936), ‘Shall We Dance’ (1937), ‘You’ll Never Get Rich’ (1941), ‘You Were Never Lovelier’ (1942).