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Lucy Does Burlesque

14 August 17 words: Lucy Manning

There’ve been several times in my life when my mouth has signed me up to something before my brain has had the chance to work it out. Nominating myself to be school-council representative in year seven was disastrous for my street cred, and stepping up to the Ayia Napa boat party drinking competition went as successfully as one can imagine. Now, for the entertainment of you lot, I agreed to attend a burlesque class and write about my experience for dear old LeftLion. Why?

The word “burlesque” derives from the Italian “burlesco”, from the word “burla”, which means to mock or ridicule. The art form has been present in our society since the seventeenth century, when it was used to take the mick out of highbrow art like opera and literature, moving on to ridicule class, societal norms and esteemed figures. Elements of comedy, music, and dance were all as standard, but the inclusion of striptease didn’t happen until the early twentieth century.

Today, Nottingham Dance and Fitness run burlesque classes every Thursday evening over at the YMCA gym: a good place to start on my endeavour. After booking myself in as a nervous newcomer with dance teacher Berni, I threw myself into research; raising my blood pressure by watching YouTube clips of Dita Von Teese splashing about in a martini glass, diamond-encrusted nipple tassels swinging all over the shop. Being built like a fourteen-year-old boy with the spots to match, the prospect of shaking my non-existent tail feathers and pinging off a bra strap or two was daunting, to say the least.

I rocked up to the session in a pair of stained leggings and my boyfriend’s t-shirt. I was on my period, my hair was greasy, and I’d just scoffed an entire fourteen-inch pizza in seven minutes. I felt anything but sexy. If owt, I was the physical embodiment of “un-sexy”. An anti-sexual being, if you will.

I needed something to distract me from the nerves bubbling in my belly, so I started to find out why the other class attendees got involved in burlesque themselves. Many of the women had taken up the dance style at university and hadn’t been able to abandon it; some had joined for a bit of a confidence boost; others wanted to do something for themselves following a bad break up.

“It brings out a part of them that they probably didn’t even know existed,” says Berni. “It allows them to explore their femininity and realise its power.”

Women need to be encouraged to appreciate their worth and strength in order for them to prosper. And if popping your suspenders on a Thursday night enables you to do that, then go get ‘em. Equally, though, I found myself questioning how I felt about being a part of something that appears to play into patriarchal ideas of a woman’s worth being determined by how sexually appealing she is. I wondered about the distinctions between burlesque and stripping, and whether women who felt empowered by burlesque only did so because men found them attractive while they were doing it.

“Stripping usually involves full nudity, and its only purpose is to arouse,” Berni says. “Yes, Burlesque performances have some elements of striptease in them, but they also involve other skills: dance, comedy and storytelling. It’s tease, not sleaze.”

Half way through a routine to Beyoncé’s darkly sexual Fifty Shades of Grey remix of Crazy in Love, I caught myself in the mirror shimmying my imagined stockings off with gusto, and winking bashfully at my own reflection. The hair I’d scraped back into a slick pony tail was now flouncing its way around my shoulders, albeit rather haphazardly and still in desperate need of a wash. I’d kicked my trainers off, and I was fully immersed in my own performance. There was absolutely no denying it: I felt sexy.

But I was still pretending to take my clothes off, and I wasn’t doing it in a satirical way, ridiculing a serious art form, or mocking any social constraints. While it might not carry the same stigma or seek to serve the same function asstripping, burlesque performers do take off their clothes to music for the entertainment of others.

There are, of course, differences in the two art forms. Stripping is thought of in a reproachful manner by many, and women who work in strip clubs face unfair prejudice from a society that seems agitated when a woman uses her sexuality for her own benefit. Women who strip are incredibly agile, strong and poetic dancers, and they’ve got more guts than I’ll ever have. But why is burlesque any different?

Burlesque audiences are largely made up of women. UK-based burlesque hostess, Lili La Scala, states in her online blog that 90% of her audiences are females or couples: “It’s very hard to do a sleazy show designed to titillate men when the majority of the audience are women,” she writes. “Women… watching other women… bump, grind and sparkle? Could there be anything more feminist in the world?”

The difference in ownership when comparing stripping to burlesque is interesting. Women who strip for a living are, in many instances, in control of their own decisions and bodies, but stripping is a transaction: “I give you more money, you get more naked.” The audience – usually male – commands the performance; the more she takes off, the more money she makes.

With burlesque, the artist extends an invitation to the audience to watch what she has prepared; she, or he, is the sole decision maker on how they use nudity during the performance. “The sexiness is powerful because it is the artist – not the audience – who assumes control over the artist’s body and identity,” says Elle Holland in an article on burlesque and feminism for the Huffington Post.

And, I have to say, I found the burlesque-class environment to be nothing short of empowering. There was such a diversity of age, shape and size in Berni’s class, and their celebration of each other – even me in my scabby attire – warrants recognition. It made it fun. No one was trying to outdo anyone, or be sexier than the next; it was a collaboration of sultry gazes and sashays meant to compliment every woman in the room, and make her feel good about herself in the process.

Burlesque encourages you to embrace your own sexuality; to forget about the lumps and bumps – or in my case, the lack thereof – and enjoy your body for what it is. Who cares if it’s stripping or not? You can’t deny the strength and confidence it gives to the women in Berni’s class. They’re celebrating themselves, for themselves. And in a day and age where women can’t seem to do wrong for right when it comes to their sexuality, and our bodies are critiqued and judged on a daily basis, it’s more important than ever that we take back some control. And we’ll have a damn good time while we’re doing it.

Nottingham Dance and Fitness run burlesque classes on Thursday nights at the YMCA Gym from 8pm.

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