RAY OF LIGHT
A Conversation with Burlesque Dancer AMBER RAY
By Lori Zimmer
The neo-Burlesque scene in New York is swinging–way past full-swing–and into the danger zone of over-saturation. In a time when it seems every shitty bar, café, or bowling alley features a night of chicks taking their clothes off, it’s easy to forget that authentic Burlesque is actually supposed to be a glamorous, creative art form, spanning back to the 1890s. But like anything, popularity leads to lesser quality.
Not so with Amber Ray. I first saw her perform at Duane Park along with Brian Newman, during an epic birthday meal. Unlike the other performers (who are all gorgeously glamorous and talented at Duane Park), Amber stuck in my mind. Her costumes were gorgeous, her moves were graceful, but she didn’t just dance that night; she sang. I’ve always been big on the romantic songs of the authentic Swing Era and beyond, my grandfather filling my little Lori head with the songs of Ginger Rogers, Etta James, and Martha Tilton on mixed tapes he’d make for me. Amber’s voice has the timeless quality that these great ladies of the past did, the strong tones of the torch singer, and the transformative ability to make you forget where you are or what year it is.
Combined with her show-womanship and incredibly glamorous costume abilities, we have a star on our hands. But what’s great about Amber is that she isn’t pigeonholed in just the Neo-Burlesque world. A true performance artist, she extends her artistic creativity and costuming talent into a cast of characters and roles that go beyond the striptease or the torch singer. The busy lady is one of the hard-working industry greats that pushes her craft to the limit, inspiring both the burlesque and performance art world.
Lori Zimmer: What came first, costume design or burlesque?
Amber Ray: Naturally, burlesque. Costume design is just one of my side careers.
LZ: When did you get into singing? Are you classically trained?
AR: I started singing when I was in middle school, grade 6. I was too late to get an instrument so I opted to join the choir. The teacher would really push for someone to solo a verse during practice and I was always gutsy, so one day I raised my hand. After completing the verse I looked up to see the teacher and class with mouth agape. After that I could never really get away from singing in school. I went on to do duets and solos in concerts and compete in statewide competitions. I have a few medals, but I only vaguely remember what happened. I moved from school to school, but stuck with choir, always having this same scenario play out in a whole new environment. I was always a bit shy with it in front of an auditorium, even though I had the guts. I was a rebellious teenager and I really didn’t start singing again until about five years ago, which came as a surprise to the performance scenes I was in because they all knew me for my visual presence and weren’t expecting I could actually sing.
LZ: What drew you to old jazz standards?
AR: As many of the ideas I dreamt up as a child, torch singing and being a showgirl were the two I eventually went on to develop. When I hit my teenage years, I ordered some CDs in one of those mailings they used to send out where you would get 12 free for joining. Two of my first CDs were Billie Holiday and Lena Horne’s greatest hits. I really fell in love with the romance and stories of love, heartbreak, or vitally living life. I started ordering more. I was into Sarah Vaughn, Dina Washington, Ella Fitzgerald (who is now my ultimate fave), and Eartha Kitt. I went on to find later that many of the songs I loved most were written by Cole Porter and that started a whole new obsession.
LZ: Do you prefer to be called a performance artist or a burlesque performer?
AR: I definitely prefer to be called a performance artist. I have been hired for all kinds of artistic and theatrical jobs over the years. My main performance bread and butter has definitely been burlesque, but I am also hired to do tableaus, walk around characters, spectacle as a singer, or appear in various film and photography projects. I think of myself as a character–or a persona–rather than a stripteaser.
LZ: How has the burlesque scene changed since you started out?
AR: I started stripping right after my 18th birthday. I had this idea that it was going to be slight naughtiness with all furs, rhinestones, and dancing only to be sadly disappointed by the total lack of pageantry or theatrical quality. That really didn’t stop me from collecting costumes, making themes, and playing out my little theatrical desires in such venues, however.
I had heard stories at that time while in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, of a racy cabaret in NYC named the Blue Angel; I knew something like I dreamt was out there, early on, but I had to find my way to it.
I started doing burlesque as a dinner club show in 2000 in Philadelphia with the long-running Peek a Boo Revue at the 5 Spot (which has since burned down). When I first started, the internet was just starting to get into full swing and people all over the country and world found out that there were many people all over that were recreating these little shows. The beauty of the early neo-burlesque movement was the lack of saturation. The quality may not have been perfect but something about the spirit of the scene was. We were a tight little utopian community that wouldn’t dream of stepping on each others toes, we fed off of and supported each other’s individuality and also there was enough gigs to go around, even though there were only a few venues. Where there was about 15 to 20 people in New York City doing burlesque in the turn of the century, now there are probably hundreds. There are many more shows and venues. I quite like the variety of the scene and the fact that there are so many levels and options of shows to choose from. There are so many different kinds of things to see in a show, nowadays. There are comedic burlesque dancers, singers, clowns, sideshow, boylesque, twisted theatrical numbers, acrobats aerialists–on and on. The drawback is that competition has gotten more fierce and the jobs can be harder to come by if you aren’t diligent with your network and the progression of your talent. Your heart really has to be in it and you have work hard to stay in the eye of producers and worldwide scene.
LZ: The burlesque resurgence has reached the point of being watered down, being performed by less-than-trained performers in unsavory venues. How do you feel about its popularity? Good or bad?
AR: The over-saturation is natural, but it could be the death of mainstream excitement for burlesque. I’m not sure. I sort of feel like it will have its niche of fans and more people will find it, that like it and pay attention as with any subculture. The vitality both women and men feel when they see a good quality show produces fans, for sure. People have been flocking to cabaret and showgirl reviews all over the world for over 100 years. I think that live entertainment aspects of burlesque and cabaret that aren’t clearly defined raises curiosity, and you know that each show will have some surprising aspect because you just don’t know what you are going to get. Also, there is just nothing like live entertainment. There is something so inspiring and human about the interaction of being in the moment. That’s what I really love most. If there is a show that really isn’t very good, chances are it probably won’t last. Also, you get what you are paying for in most cases, as well. Shows that are cheap and in small venues will have good stuff but won’t have the quality of a production in a bigger, fancier venue with gourmet food. I like being able to perform in most kinds of shows, however. I’m definitely for sophistication in art. but I like to help out the underdog and nurture what they are creating as well.
LZ: Where do you think is the best classic venue to see a performance?
AR: Duane Park Restaurant in Tribeca is my performance home in NYC. Every night one can see high quality burlesque, magic, and/or variety entertainment accompanied by live music in a beautiful setting with delicious food, wine and cocktails. On Thursdays, I host and am the chanteuse for our musical magic and variety show Cabaret Des Illusions. A couple Fridays and Saturdays a month I appear in the dinner shows doing striptease with the bands.
LZ: What exciting projects do you have coming up?
AR: I have WAY too much on my plate but this habit never seems to let up! I have diligently been working on my repertoire and have a band ready to do put on my own show. I’m looking for the right night (I prefer a weeknight, since I travel often on the weekends) and venue to install the show. The problem I am running into is that I don’t have enough money to produce it myself and production is not something I feel I can do while simultaneously creating and performing a killer show. I have a couple back-up/atmosphere dancers lined up, and a couple celebrities who said they would be up for headlining. My persona consists of Mae West, Jessica Rabbit, and Frank Furter of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame. I would be hosting and singing and there will definitely be elements of burlesque, but I’m much more interested in creating a Lounge Cabaret that might be close to the vision of David Lynch; something that would be sophisticated and perhaps surreal. The visuals and costuming will be very important as well as the flow of the show.
Details are very very important to me. I may start a Kickstarter Campaign to remedy this situation so I can bring it to Duane Park on a wednesday.
I finally re-opened my store on Etsy. Very simply, I make high-quality, sparkling, crystal-drizzled flower clip accessories. I have been creating Amber Ray Accoutrements for about four and a half years and I have sold thousands. I have collectors and customers all over the world who often buy my wares. I will be gradually adding more accessories such as burlesque headdresses, embellished costume lingerie sets, pasties, shoe clips, and fascinators. I state in my store and on my fan pages that I am available for custom designs, if anyone wishes. The only thing I do not do is sew costumes. I can design and decorate but sewing has never been something I enjoy doing. I have a few seamstresses that I send design clients to, and often the costumes come back to me for finishing. I am a sculptural creator, not a mathematically methodical one.
I am also now a teacher in the burlesque and art community and I am really passionate about being able to guide people who are looking to free their spirits, express themselves, and develop a more pleasing visual to the rest of the world.
My lecture Dare To Dream, Dare to Dazzle is my “Inspiration for Artists” Lecture on my philosophy and methods and how these elements built my international career/persona. I give insider knowledge and methods for organizing your inspirations so you are ready to take action on your dreams with management of life’s variables, strengthening your will and focus on your development in a variety of practical and creative ways.I discuss the common battles and obstacles I was up against both internally and externally and I give my personal development methods including tips on networking, tricks and tactics to overcome the challenges life presents. My mission is getting these individuals to get to work making their own lives their art.
My lecture Costume Crush is a show-and-tell. I basically make costuming less intimidating. I show people how I make ornate costumes on a budget. I also show them several pieces of my own costumes so that they can see how things were made. It surprises people to see beautiful things they perceive as perfect from afar are actually quite thrown together, up close. I teach them ways to fix problems, use different types of supplies, and utilize what they have laying around. It’s really fun to get the feedback because they often report that they start to get to what they have laying around the very next day!
Amber Ray is a New York based burlesque performer, costumer, torch singer, and all-around babe.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Marie Havens
Amber Ray, 2012, Photography by Coco Alexander