Weekly Burlesque: Interview with Photographer and Publisher Dale Rio

ShimmyThe burlesque scene has its very own print magazine thanks to Dale “Black Dahlia” Rio, Shimmy Magazine‘s co-owner/editor and photographer who recently relocated to Seattle. She has been photographing burlesque for about five years. A little over a year ago she began editing and publishing Shimmy Magazine, the only print magazine devoted to burlesque.

I know how hard it is to not only get a project like that off the ground but to keep it going for any amount of time, and I’m thrilled to hear that Shimmy has come out in a larger format and is now being distributed in book stores! She interviewed me for Shimmy and now…well, turnabout is foreplay.

How did you get interested in publishing?
I’ve worked on the other side of publishing, as a freelance photographer and writer, for over ten years, and when my business partner, Robin, and I decided to start Shimmy, it was both of our first forays into the business side of things. It’s been quite an eye-opening experience, especially since both of our magazines are self-published; we’ve had to learn all the ins and outs and do most of the work ourselves!

Why do you think so many people who are interested in Burlesque are also interested in Roller Derby?
In both, women have total control. Naturally, women are attracted to burlesque and derby because of that, but men too seem to really appreciate the fact that in both, women are doing things on their own terms. In both, too, something that has a firm foundation in the past has been taken and adapted to today’s sensibilities, so it touches upon a sense of nostalgia but is ultra-modern at the same time.

Today’s burlesque embraces women of all shapes and sizes, and the audience responds to that energy, even when the women on stage don’t typify society’s standards of what is beautiful. Derby too has redefined what’s beautiful with a focus on strength as opposed to an unrealistic, idealized image of perfection.

Both also combine smarts with sexiness. Roller derby leagues are skater owned and operated in a DIY fashion that gives skaters 100% control over their leagues. Everyone really digs that. And burlesque performers are largely self-represented, make their own costumes, do their own choreography, etc., and people appreciate the hard work that goes into each performance.

Dale RioHow did you get interested in burlesque?
My interest in burlesque actually stemmed from my interest in sideshow acts. It was through sideshow performers that I knew and photographed that I was first introduced to burlesque.

What does burlesque mean to you?
Burlesque, to me, is a process. It starts the moment you’re struck with inspiration and continues through to the act of performing and fine-tuning your number. Each stage of the process, from selecting music to choreographing and costume making, is creative and challenging, and that’s what I like most about burlesque.

What was your first experience with live burlesque?
I believe the first time I saw burlesque was when I went to catch a performance by a woman whom I’d photographed for a portrait project. That was at the Blue Angel in NYC (which is now called Le Scandal). I found her act in particular irreverent yet sexy, and I thought it was great.

The first time I performed was when I organized a fundraiser for the LA Derby Dolls roller derby league. We teamed up with a local, weekly burlesque show, and some of the skaters performed. Never one to do things the easy way, I did an homage to my team, Fight Crew, which involved a complicated voice-over consisting of a demented stewardess monologue segueing into “Come Fly with Me” by Frank Sinatra, ultimately segueing into sounds of a plane crash and back to the monologue.

In the act, I tried desperately to get the attention of an oblivious but handsome passenger, and by the end of the song, I became so frustrated that I strangled him with his own seat belt. Since I don’t skate in LA on the Fight Crew any more, that was a one-time performance! It was a lot of fun, and the fundraiser was a whopping success.

What is one of your favorite experiences so far?
Gosh, that’s a tough one. Every time I attend Miss Exotic World, Tease-o-rama, or the New York Burlesque Fest, there are so many amazing performers that it’s absolutely mind blowing and so inspirational. I like getting the chance to know some of the performers through photographing and interviewing them. I’ve made some friends along the way and have also had some preconceptions shattered.

Dale RioDo you travel to burlesque events?
I try to get to all of the major events to cover them for the magazine. I also travel a lot for the freelance work I do, so whenever I’m on the road, I try to meet up with as many performers as I can. I’m currently working on a personal project called “Night and Day,” in which I photograph performers at their day jobs in costume.

Since today’s performers don’t usually get paid as well as performers in the past have, it’s interesting to explore the dichotomy of who these women are during the day as opposed to who they become at night. I’m trying to include as many performers from around the country (world!) as possible, so when I’m traveling, I like to chip away at this project too.

Who inspires you most, and why?
My mom is my all-time, No. 1 inspiration. When I was a kid, the only magazine we could afford a subscription to was Ms. My mom raised me by herself while putting herself through a Ph.D program. She never lectured me or told me how to do things, but she showed me by example that you can do anything you set your mind to, and that no one can hold you back.

What is your favorite aspect of burlesque as it is now?
I really enjoy the fact that everyone’s welcome. There’s a style and a taste for everybody: classical, humorous, bawdy, long hair, short hair, no hair, flat chested, curvaceous, tattooed. Anyone can get on stage and be a success if they have the confidence.

What would you like to do or see next in burlesque?
Personally, I’d like to start making enough money to take dance lessons and start performing more! Until then, I’ll have to be content photographing others have all the fun. I’m not sure what direction burlesque will go in in the future; I’m just going along for the ride and watching what happens.

What do you think is one of your characteristics as a photographer?
As a photographer, I’m known for my painless photo shoots. I’m not the kind of photographer who makes the subject bend to my will; I’d rather have a collaborative shoot than one where I dictate what takes place. It makes for a more comfortable process and usually results in photos with which we’re both happy.

– Jo Weldon

Jo Weldon is Headmistress of the award-winning New York School of Burlesque and is a regular burlesque performer. Visit burlesquedaily.blogspot.com to read her daily blog.

Shimmy Magazine: www.shimmymagazine.com
Dale Rio: www.dalerio.com

Photo credits (Kitten on the Keys; The Great Throwdini): Dale Rio