I recently came back from performing in the Montreal Burlesque Festival for the first time. It’s a festival that I have wanted to be a part of for a couple of years now and seemed to just always miss the application deadline. This year I was on the ball and got in with an act that I really enjoy performing. I should have enjoyed my experience at this festival, but I didn’t. It was soured pretty significantly by the fact that the night I was placed on was a competition show. Those who know me know I am not a competitor. I’m competitive, but not a competitor, and there is a distinct difference. Because I didn’t seem to be given the option of not competing without being withdrawn from the festival entirely, and at the ill advice of some outside sources (“you’ll be fine”, “just do what you always do”, “maybe you’ll actually win”, etc.), I was forced to follow through on a situation that doesn’t make me feel good and that I feel is toxic for me.
I know there are a bunch of you reading already going “This is Knox just being sour grapes.” I assure you, it’s not. As much as I’m a self professed “sore-loser”, my reasons to write this have way more to do with dissecting this specific instance of performance, and less lamenting the fact that I didn’t win. The winners of this competition more than deserved their titles (I actually saw all three winning acts). El Toro probably did the best performance of that act that I’ve ever seen him do and was absolutely deserving of the big win. This has everything to do with me as a performer, and nothing to do with the accomplishments of the winning artists.
I’d like to start by saying that I don’t have a lot of experience as a competitor, especially as a dancer. Sure, I played team sports, but that’s a different kind of competition I have no issues with (and in fact usually enjoy), as the variables of victory are different. I’ve maybe done 5 legitimate competitions as a soloist in my entire life: 4 when I figure skated as a kid, one as a dancer when I was about 24. I would argue that I have not been raised or trained to mentally or emotionally handle the kind of competition I encountered this past weekend in Montreal, and knowing this about myself, I am resentful and critical to the festival and it’s organizers for not clearly giving the courtesy of the option to compete. Had I been given the option, instead of the demand, I definitely would have declined. I also argue that generally burlesque is a terrible art form to be placed in a competition format. Unlike figure skating or dance, it’s judgement is entirely subjective. Where skating and dance have concrete, long standing and documented methods and techniques to weigh and measure, burlesque is far more of an interpretive art form. Where as the rubric to evaluate dance or skating include turn rotations, bio mechanics, alignment and even a checklist of the quality of execution of specific steps and movements, the burlesque rubric is left to far more subjective to things like costume, music choice, performance quality, interpretation and “it” factor. Often what is considered “good” in burlesque is so heavily dependent on the individuals judging and the politics of the scene. I have on more than one occasion watched a win and thought to myself “really?” That being said, I have also watch as winning performance and thought “well duh”, so this is a gentle reminder to the reader that these are not sweeping rules but general opinions based on my feelings and opinions.
While my “streak” in formal competition is generally good, my experience around competition is not. As a skater (and the fact that I was between 10-13 years old), competition was about doing me. I don’t remember meeting or talking to other competitors and I never saw their routines, so as far I as I was concerned, it was just me and the ice. I could feel confident in what I did because I had no basis of comparison, and my mom nor my coach pushed me to do otherwise. These are the only positive experiences I have around competition because I was young and sheltered. The next formal competition I encountered wouldn’t come until I was 24, where I was competing for a “job”. It was a dance competition for a spot in a Pussycat Doll type dance troupe that I had already “unofficially” been dancing in for a couple of months. I knew why I was being placed in competition: I believe the director of this troupe didn’t want me there and was trying to find a diplomatic way to expel me because the winner of this competition was by audience vote. I think she believed her audience would share her dislike for me. I don’t think she believed I would win (which I did). And the reason I believe this is based on her treatment of me in rehearsals and on jobs after I won my position. There was a resentment for me being there, but she couldn’t kick me out now without a lot of people asking some questions on her character. This was not the only instance where I was made to compete to prove my worth not just as a performer, but what often felt as a person. Competitive situations in my industry often felt like initiations into the “cool” group, which if you read some past posts, I’ve never been part of the cool group.
And that has been my regular experience with competition and competitive settings: that there is someone who is rooting against me. Whether that is factual or in my head doesn’t matter, it’s what I feel, and it affects my performance and my experience. Montreal was no exception. I spent about 4 weeks leading up to the show mentally and emotionally prepping myself. If I had my way, I would have had my own private dressing room, I wouldn’t have talked to anybody but the tech crew, and I would have taken stage and done whatever I was going to do and leave it to fate. But that is not the nature of burlesque festivals. Networking and socializing is a massive aspect of festivals and in a venue with such cramped backstage areas and so many performers, you had to crawl over someone just to scratch your own ass. And in any other situation, I would have liked it that way. I like festivals because it is the chance to meet new people, to see different interpretations of an art form, to watch new levels of performance and self expression. I like cracking jokes and admiring costumes and finding like-minded individuals and talking shop. But in competition I don’t feel that freedom to do those things. It is hard not to start comparing knowing there will be a “winner”. I very quickly get in my head and the vampires start coming: “everyone is sexy and you’re just cute”, “your act is too conservative for this”, “you’re not wearing enough rhinestones”, “your prop looks so homemade”, “no one likes the dancer”....
I’m not a competitor, but I have regularly been put in competition. It’s in the language, and I find dancers (particularly burlesque) to be notoriously catty and tactless in that regard. I am all for it being critiqued, but there is a time and a place where that critique is helpful and useful. I do not want my work to be measured while in front of an audience, or to feel that while I’m on stage. I want it to be enjoyed. I want to feel joy to perform for you. Competition only makes me feel desperate and inadequate. And that was my time in Montreal this past weekend. I tried as best I could to get out of my head and into my work, but I couldn’t. Every potential judgement pecked at each of my insecurities. I felt the kind of nervousness I get before I go into a meeting with someone who’s said “we need to talk.” It’s harder to get in my body and grounded. It feels like every pass I make backstage is being judged. I lose confidence and start making stupid mistakes because I’m questioning everything I do. My mouth feels dry. All of a sudden I’m not focusing on how I’m going to make an audience feel, I’m focusing on what I want them to think. I’m focusing on trying to be liked instead of trying to connect. I’m focusing on meeting a standard instead of setting my own. All of a sudden the work doesn’t feel like it’s mine anymore. I can’t roll with punches and play in mistakes because all of sudden those mistakes feel like they matter. All of a sudden, I’ve lost my joy in performing.
I was grossly unhappy with my performance in Montreal this weekend, despite the fact that a lot of people told me how much they loved it. I’m looking at photos and video on Instagram and I see it doesn’t look nearly as bad as it felt, but I’m still dissatisfied. Once I got off stage I candidly said to certain performers that I wasn’t happy with my work. I noticed people’s knee-jerk need to pacify negative emotions. I got the predictable “but it looked amazing!” and being told I was being overly critical or ridiculous for thinking otherwise. The most validating moment came from my new friend Maestro Maestra, who when I lamented that my performance felt awful just said “I know.” That little bit of validation, I can now say, was a saving grace to a bitter experience. He understood as I do: you should be dancing for an audience, you should take their experience into consideration, but to forget your own is a terrible disservice too. Anyone can get on as stage for the validation. That is readily accessible. But the feeling of accomplishment when you create something is purely you is unparalleled, and how you feel in a performance is equally important. I suppose the silver lining in this experience was to rediscover why I do this work for you, but also why I do it for me. As a kid, when it came to my dancing, my mother would tell me “you’ll stop doing this when it doesn’t make you happy anymore.” And my dancing makes me the happiest. And this weekend reminded me why it makes me happy. I’m sure there will be exception to the competition rule (BHoF and New Orleans are goals, but in my mind, you get into those competitions, you’re already a winner), but competing for the sake of competing is detrimental to my work. I’m just not a competitor.