Tuesday, 3 July 2012

What Is 'Professional'?

Almost every Burlesque performer has, somewhere in their blurb the line 'I am a professional burlesque dancer' or similar.

This irks me on many levels. Firstly, and most quickly, I don't believe you should call yourself a dancer if you can't dance. Walking around in time to music shedding a pretty costume is all well and good: it is performance, it can be artistic, it may be entertaining, but it is not dancing.

Secondly: what is 'professional' in this context? The OED defines the term variously as “Engaged in a profession as a means of livelihood”, or “Characteristic of or befitting a profession” And this is the issue. Generally, if something is your main form of income, that is your profession.

However, what if a performer is of a very high standard, working in good quality shows, yet they have a day job, and burlesque is merely a hobby they enjoy, which provides a little extra pocket money on the side? Do they have the right to call themselves a professional burlesque performer as they conduct and present themselves in a professional manner? Conversely, and less occasionally encountered, take the example of a sub-standard performer who works a couple of nights in lower quality shows: do they have the right to call themselves a professional as they do not have another job and therefore relies on the money they may earn from performing?

Attitude also plays a huge role in determining professionalism (take the second definition from the OED): a performer can be paid well for a show, yet behave shockingly backstage, or turn in a sub-par performance. This would be talked about as “behaving unprofessionally” however they have been paid well. On the other hand, a lower paid, or unpaid, performer may arrive and behave impeccably or produce a stand-out act: this would have been “professional conduct” so who can judge who was the professional or the amateur?
On a slight tandem: Amateur does NOT mean 'bad'!. Amateur Dramatics companies do not advertise themselves as professional performances despite the fact that many are of an extremely high standard. However this is something to discuss at another time.

It is a tricky subject and one that is much discussed on various forums. I, personally, trained in performance: my qualification was called 'Professional Musical Theatre' and I gained a Distinction. Does this qualification alone entitle me to call myself a professional performer when I spent my first year out of college working in a bar and schlepping to and from auditions several times a week?

The blurring of definition is possibly what has led to the confusion. Performers state that they are 'professional' as they expect, usually quite rightly, to be paid for their performances, but it carries with it expectations of a certain standard: both in performance level and personal conduct.

It's not for me to say who can or can't call themselves a professional burlesque dancer – people can call themselves whatever they wish, but I do believe there should be more awareness of what the term actually means and the responsibility you create for yourself when you use it.

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