This is a question DeeDee and I always get asked by the students we teach who want to actually get themselves out on a stage. We don’t teach routines in our classes, we just give tools to build your own routine as we strongly believe that everyone has their own style and already has a routine locked away inside them that they just need the keys to release.
So where do you start?
Think about the things that you truly love. Think about the stories you want to tell and the kind of music that gets into your head and your heart – the kind of music that fires you up. All these things are a good starting point.
Check out this post on choosing music to help you decide on a suitable song. Remember, with songs, you don’t have to take them literally – as in, you don’t need to mime the lyrics – or even lipsync them. You don’t need to hold up loads of props because they are things mentioned in the song – use the essence of the message to carry your story through. On the other side of that, don’t pick a track and totally ignore the message – ie, if the song is about something tragic happening and your routine is really upbeat and a celebration, then that is not going to gel well at all (I’ve seen this a lot in the belly dance world, which can be difficult to translate the message when it’s in Arabic – dancers doing an upbeat celebration dance to a song where the singer is literally breaking their heart because their love has gone!)
First of all, head over here:creating a story line and mapping out your act as this should help you when it comes to thinking about what you want to say in your story and it’ll also help with mapping out the song. The basics, though – what is your theme? If you don’t literally want to tell a story, where there is a character at the start, something happens to the character (the catalyst that makes your character take off their costume – or makes your character change in some way) and then there’s a resolution at the end, you will need a theme to make a story on stage. This could simply be a spectacular costume that comes apart in a really unusual way. This could also be the ‘story’ of a cocktail, or the story of you entrancing the audience. A theme is a lot harder than a story as it relies on you casting a spell over the audience so their minds can’t wander onto anything else. It relies on a lot of confidence and making your theme strong. And of course you will also be portraying a character…
In both cases, think about your story – what is the beginning? (how are you costumed? What is the music? what are the actions? What is the motivation?). What is the catalyst? (If you are telling a story, this is the thing that causes your character to change and do whatever you are going to do next. If you have a theme, this is the moment you start removing your costume – why and how is this different from the start?). What is the middle of your act? Is the message still strong. And finally, the end – you always need a strong end to an act. Think of an act like a short joke – It has a beginning, middle and a strong punchline that either makes you think, makes you wow at how clever, makes you shocked… It might even have an unexpected twist. A strong end just finishes what you are saying and is the point of what you are saying. A weak ending that just trails off leaves the audience feeling limp and shows you have not thought of the entire act. A weak ending with a strong start is basically pointless.
Some performers I know like to think of their ending first and work backwards. If you have a great idea for pasties, or a great reveal or even twist, work out what it is you want to say and how you will get there. Remember all burlesque and cabaret is escapism and we are all selling a fantasy so anything is possible.
Character? I just want to be myself on stage…
Trust me when I say this, but no one is ever themselves on stage. Comedians that seem like a casual type of person? It’s all and act! Singers fronting a band? A bigger version of themselves. Any type of performer who goes onto the stage is portraying a character.It’s not really because they feel like they need something to hide behind, but a character does give you confidence.
Types of character:
If your character is an obvious character from modern times – or even history, your best friend is research. If you are parodying this character, write down as many facts and character traits as you can and choose which you think you can exaggerate on stage in an act.
If your character could be a real person but is a type you’ve made up in your head, again research is your friend. Look up the type of things these characters could do and the expected behaviors. Even unexpected behaviors – going against the grain of what is expected works really well.
If you are going on stage as ‘yourself’, you need to practice making a bigger, bolder version of yourself, as no offence, but going on stage in the same way you would usually walk around a shop and choose what you will have for dinner isn’t going to cut the mustard. How will you walk? Walk tall, walk as if all eyes are on you (actually, they should be if you are on stage). Make every moment count. Make everyone in the audience feel like you are only performing for them (eye contact!) and make all your moves bold, big and brave, so you can feel the tension right through from your head to your fingers to your toes… And make every move a deliberate one.
Now you have your basic ideas, write down how you will illustrate that through costume. How are you dressed when you first arrive on stage and how will you be dressed when you leave the stage? What do you need to get there? As tempting as it is, you don’t need to take off a whole list of clothing (unless that is the actual joke of the act – that you have come on stage with so many clothes on…) but a few clever pieces will help tell your story. Things to think about here include how will the item be removed? Try and think outside the box when it comes to items and how to remove them. Also what will you do with the item afterwards? It can be great fun playing with an item of costume – there’s loads you can do besides the usual waving it around or using it to pat yourself down. Think about if there is anything unusual between the layers (confetti, glitter, a message, a sandwich!).
So now you should have an idea of costume, music, character. What you also need to gel everything together is a few linking steps, as all the above would be pretty boring as a routine. Linking steps make a routine flow and can also reflect the character or story. Linking steps include different walks, turns or ways of moving. Bump and grind movements such as figure 8s, shimmies, bumps at accents in the music. They are also things you do like moments of stillness on stage, pointing, eye contact and other things that tell your story. Ooh and don’t forget your face. Although you’ll obviously be giving good face through out your act (your face will tell the audience how you want them to fell), you can also use a moment of stillness to make a face, a wink, something even more cheeky… It’s very powerful.
When it comes to props, less is more. I’ll repeat that: LESS IS MORE! it’s so tempting, particularly when you are first making a routine, to put as many props in it as possible – basically you are hiding behind these things. One or two carefully chosen props are enough, if you have to use props at all. Have a read of this: Props help. And remember the golden rule: a prop is part of the routine, you are doing the routine and the prop is an addition to it. If it is just a reference or a waft in the general direction of the prop then cut it out. Also, with fans (isis wings, etc) these have to make sense in your routine. Don’t just get an expensive pair of fans and add them to a routine if it doesn’t make sense, because you’ve heard it is burlesque. Everything you add as a prop should enhance what you are already doing and the story you are already telling. If it doesn’t then it is taking focus away from you (remember YOU are the most important part of the story) and taking up valuable space in your case.