Betty Q

The first Polish performer and burlesque teacher. Initiator of the Burlesque Academy and co-founder of Madame Q (stage, academy, cocktail bar). Director of the “No Cover” project. Author of choreography for films, music videos and theatre. She performs on Polish and foreign stages. Body-positive activist. Graduate of the Pedagogical Faculty of the University of Warsaw. Outside the stage, a committed embroiderer.

B efore I got down to burlesque, there was no burlesque environment in Poland. I decided to try to create a Polish platform for this type of performance. Being a teacher, a dance instructor, and a theatre instructor, I wanted to popularise the phenomenon of burlesque in my country. When I was in middle school, I already noticed the significance of the theatrical element, and the expression of femininity in burlesque. That was something important for me then.

On the other hand, contemporary burlesque – as I understand it – is not just about femininity. It can be used to perform masculinity and non-binarity. I felt that burlesque was using the language I used, that it was my expression. People who come to my classes or watch our performances pay attention to the fact that this is a way to self-determination and finding understanding with ourselves. What I do on stage is my choice. The tools I use are meant to both convey a message, and entertain.

At the very beginning, I focused on body-positiveness – the joy of the body. My performances were cheerful and very light. But everything changes. Recently we celebrated the 10th anniversary of burlesque in Poland. For me, it was quite a long way to find some other means of expression, and different content to convey. Now it is the concept of representation that is relevant to me. I want to make sure that minorities – and women are still a minority in many spheres of life – are given a voice. It is like taking a class photo: shorter persons go to the first row. And this is the place we need to provide for people from minorities.

My artistic activity can also have a therapeutic aspect at different levels: our audience sees that burlesque performers feel free and attractive on stage, also when they have non-normative bodies, outside the canon of beauty. Some performers, for example, have Caesarean scars, and are ok with that, whereas our viewers may be ashamed of their own scars. We are witnessing some kind of normalisation of a non-normative body which is not present in the mainstream media. Thanks to burlesque, everyone can feel represented and attractive. During my classes people find out that their bodies are not only appealing, but that they can also have control over them. We often do not like our bodies because they are beyond our control. In burlesque, we show that everything is possible.

The term “artist” is brand new in my life. I came to be an artist through years of stage performances and participating in various events. Unfortunately, it takes women longer than men to call themselves artists. I am first and foremost a performer. In Poland, acting status is highly institutionalised and connected with graduating from an art school. Being an “amateur” is not very well perceived in these circles. Despite the fact that I have acting and theatrical experience, I am still sometimes called a “burlesque dancer”, although I am not a dancer. I am more of an actress. I really like performing and making people happy, and I really like teaching. I think I am good at both, and I have a sense of mission. What I do, I believe, helps to develop sex-positiveness and body-positiveness, makes people reflect upon their bodies. This is the most important thing to me. Our burlesque classes help people change attitude to their own bodies – and at the same time change their lives. I did not realized that until recently, but I get a lot of feedback now I am more aware of the positive effects of what I am doing.

I am a Humanistic Jew. Humanistic Judaism means full respect for tradition, culture, history, texts, religion, but in an atheistic perception. I believe in society and culture. It means translating the texts of Judaism into a secular understanding. Humanistic Judaism has much more content than Jewish “secularism”, because it does not reject theistic texts, it learns from them. A Jewish community – the essence of Jewishness for me – is a group of people, and it is science. Jewish culture has always been closely related to learning, studying, and even the very ability to read and write, which is a certain distinguishing feature of this civilisation.

My family did not celebrate Jewishness. It appeared in my life only when I was an adult. I represent a generation who had to discover Jewish identity and culture for itself, to learn it. This is some kind of a paradox, because the continuity of Jewish culture in our families was interrupted by the war. Very often the Holocaust survivors did not cultivate it anymore.

I am a Humanistic Jew. Humanistic Judaism means full respect for tradition, culture, history, texts, religion, but in an atheistic perception. I believe in society and culture. It means translating the texts of Judaism into a secular understanding. Humanistic Judaism has much more content than Jewish “secularism

There is a festival of Jewish culture created by Jewish men and women, “FestivALT”, very authentic, organised mainly by artists from Kraków. I have been invited to participate in it as a curator and moderator of debates. Last year I was asked to recommend topics for the future festival editions. It motivated me to think how to conduct debates in the Jewish world in general. I realised that I also had the right to decide about it. I suggested to discuss the complex of a “new Jew”.

I have always known that I am of Jewish origin. Initially I did not call myself a Jew, but now I do. At one point, my mother realised that there was the Jewish community in Poland. I joined it and I found myself. It was extremely important for me that I was accepted. At the same time, I realised how much I did not know about Jewish rituals and culture –  about everything that this community had in common. I felt a little inferior. I feared that I did not deserve to be a part of it. But I received a lot of support. They told me: “You are one of us! Everything is fine.”

On the occasion of FestivALT, I organised a discussion about the “new Jew” complex. It turned out that there were other people who shared my experiences. That sometimes we would pretend to understand Jewish traditions and rituals, that we would not ask for explanations even if we did not follow what was going on. My mission in the Jewish community is to show that it is all right not to know, and that it is OK to put questions. This can make you feel even more attached to the community. The issue of “new Jews” occupies me a lot, because the majority of Polish Jews were not brought up in the so-called “Jewish homes”. And it is not about converting, but about numerous stories similar to mine. Many people who discover their roots do not do anything about it because they are afraid that they know nothing. However, I am a born activist, I am sensitive to these complexes, to minorities, to the equality context. And what I am talking about concerns myself – I felt uncomfortable with my ignorance of Jewish culture.

I use the fact that people recognise me to talk about certain things, and to normalise them.”

I am one of very few performers in Europe who are Jewish and deal with burlesque. I use the fact that people recognise me to talk about certain things, and to normalise them. For example, the term “Jewess”. I have two special gigs which concern the topic of Jewishness: one of them is a joyful, charming Hanukkah gig which I performed at several events of the Jewish community. The second one, which I do rarely and is difficult, combines the Jewish and Catholic tradition. It refers to my roots, because my family names are not only Klarwajn and Rotman, but also Oporska and Ciszewska. The latter are Polish surnames – I do not forget about my Polish legacy either. Many years ago, during my studies, I took part in a project called “I am Polish” organised by the Jewish Religious Community in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior, under the auspices of Maria Kaczyńska – then the First Lady. Huge billboards with photos of people from various minorities: Ukrainians, Germans, Karaims, Jews and Romanies and captions “I am Polish, I am Romani”, “I am Polish, I am Jewish”, “I am Karaim, I am Polish” appeared in Polish cities. The message was that we do not have to choose who we are, we can be at the same time this and that, 200%. I celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, combining these two cultures: Polish and Jewish. I cannot imagine a year without Christmas, and at the same time I cannot imagine a year without Pesach, which is my favourite Jewish holiday.

The most important thing about Jewish heritage in Poland for me is that the Jewish tradition here is also related to secular Judaism. You can be a Jew in a cultural, not only religious context. Many people forget about it. Not being a religious person cannot be a reason for one’s dismissal as a full-fledged Jew.

I worked at the Jewish Agency for several years, where I dealt with education, organising trips to Israel, and for some time also Aliyah, emigration to Israel. Then I realised that many people perceived Israel to be a safe place, however strange it might sound considering the situation in the Middle East. It means that there is a place where a Jewish person can move and became a full citizen when things get very bad elsewhere.

My greatest dream is that things are fine in Poland. And this probably clearly demonstrates that I am Polish.