What does it mean to be a Burlesque performer
In the 19th century when Lydia Thompson and her band of British Blondes took to the stage to perform a Burlesque routine in their flesh coloured tights, they had, in equal measure shocked and mesmerised their audience. They had not only waded outside the acceptable norms of propriety but also created ripples of change that continue to influence performers two centuries later. Though Burlesque had its roots in parody and satire during Victorian-era Europe, it gradually branched out to embrace perceived risqué elements like striptease and cabaret- thereby also providing women a space to take charge of their bodies and sensuality.
Today in the 21st century, in spite of the presence of well-loved performers like Dita von Teese, Burlesque still thrives in the shadows. It exists on the fringes – its presence considered rebellious and incompatible with what is held virtuous in our society.
But for its performers, Burlesque is more than an art form - it is accepting, tolerant, inclusive; in other words, it is home.
TAL spoke to three well known Burlesque performers from Adelaide to comprehend the immense love and devotion that they have for the art. They stated unequivocally that the dance form gave them the confidence to love and accept their bodies, be in charge of their sensuality, and be courageous.
Here are their stories.
(Performers stage names have been used and not their real names)
Diana Divine, The young trailblazer
At 22, Diana Divine is probably the youngest comedy Burlesque performer in Adelaide. But her wise beyond years maturity emanates both on the stage and off it. It is this foresight and stubborn love for comedy Burlesque that saw her create the hugely successful performance group Just ASS League whose repertoire usually comprises Burlesque-themed renditions of popular characters from DC Comics.
So you get Batman wearing heels, a hula hoop swinging Robin, a singing Catwoman – the list goes on! Today, Diana is one of the more sought-after performers, and the shows put up by her group usually end up commanding five-star ratings.
Foray into Burlesque
As a child, Diana loved the glamour, chaos and madness, and the colours that accompanied theatre, musicals, and arts. Therefore, it came as no surprise that she started performing in musicals organised by her high school from a young age.
However, a couple of years ago, everything else came to a standstill when Diana attended a Burlesque act put up by her friend. “I was hooked! And, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she says.
Though the young Adelaidean didn’t undertake any formal Burlesque training, she thought it prudent to learn a bit about the history of the art, important techniques, and trademark dance moves. “I attended a couple of night classes to learn the Burlesque genesis and growth story, techniques like shimming and emoting through facial expressions, among other things. These lessons helped me improve my act, making it more refined and accurate,” she says.
After the completion of her classes, Diana hit the Adelaide Burlesque scene.
“I wasn’t scared at all,” says Diana of her first stage appearance. “I know a lot of people feel scared and nervous before their first performance. But, strangely I wasn’t. As soon as I stepped on the stage I felt like I was home,” says the cat lover.
Celebrating the self
Diana is the first to admit that she doesn’t have a conventional burlesque dancer body type – an hourglass or slim figure. But that doesn’t stop her from celebrating the body she has. “I am fiercely body positive. And, when I am performing, I have never thought I am humiliating myself or looking silly. I have performed to loud cheers and standing ovations. So, I know I am doing something right!” she says.
She acknowledges that being a Burlesque performer helped her become more secure in her skin and confident. “I am surrounded by these gorgeous, skinny women, and when you don’t share the same body type, self-doubt starts to creep in. But being on the stage and putting up performances that are well received and loved, makes you confident. It makes you realise it is not how you look that matters it is how you perform, and that is an important and healthy realisation,” says Diana.
She adds, “I think it is imperative to understand what you can and can’t do. Find your groove and work on bettering it. I remember the first time I took my clothes off on the stage. It was such a liberating moment for me! I felt like I was venerating my body.“
For Diana, more than the performances it is the unfettered feminism embedded in the art of Burlesque that gets her adrenaline pumping. “Going onto the stage, taking off my clothes and being nonchalant about it was probably the most feminist thing I have ever done. It was like I was taking control of my body, of my agency, and no one could tell me to cover up! Instead, I was the one calling the shots, and giving directions to the audience - telling them where to look, and what to do. That was incredible - an extremely powerful moment for me,” she says.
Burlesque’s indifference towards formal training is one of the many aspects that attracted Diana to it. She adds, “You don’t need training to be a Burlesque dancer. You need to be a consummate performer – someone who knows their craft and is confident to perform in front of the audience. I don’t think I am a good dancer, therefore I rely on other skills - like humour or making funny facial expressions. It is essential to grab the audience’s attention and to sustain it. Then, everything falls into place,” she explains.
Diana adds she is not afraid to bare her body, and more importantly her soul in front of her audience. “I am not scared to be vulnerable, emotional, silly and goofy – that is how I can and will connect with the audience. But, sometimes, in spite of doing all this, you may still not have their attention,” she says.
She adds, “In times like that gauge your viewers’ reactions and if they are not warming up to you, change your act. Be attentive, and remember that Burlesque is like improv, be ready to change your act at a moment’s notice.”
Having a support system
For many parents, hearing their children pursuing an art form that requires them to bare it all might be a bitter pill to swallow. But, Diana says she has never had to hide her profession from her parents.
“My mother is extremely supportive, proudly telling everyone that I am a Burlesque performer. Initially, she was worried about the judgement, but in time she made peace with that. My dad is probably my biggest fan! He attends almost all my shows, but understandably leaves before I start taking my clothes off,” she says.
“Unfortunately, many performers don’t have similar parental support. I know of performers who have been in this business for 20 years and are yet to come out to their families fearing judgment,” says Diana.
Diana has a piece of advice to aspiring Burlesque performers. “Make friends in the community- these networks will keep you updated about new shows. Directors are always looking for new talent, and it is important to know that new shows are happening,” she says.
And to those dismissive about the dance form, she has only two words to say, “Grow up!“
Pic Courtesy: Anoop Puzhamudi and Diana Divine Facebook
Follow Diana on Instagram
Lyra La Belle, rising like the Phoenix
For Lyra La Belle, founder of Hot Sauce Burlesque – a dancer school, Burlesque was like a log that saved her from drowning. For years, the pint-sized dancer had lived a rewarding life, putting up shows across the globe from Texas to London. But an abusive marriage put a stop to all that.
“I have been a professional dancer for 20 years, travelling to various cities and countries for my shows. Ironically, I met my ex-husband as a dancer, and he loved that part of me. But a few months into the marriage he started forcing me to give it up. To keep peace and to salvage my marriage, I gave up dancing. It was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make,” says Lyra.
The abusive marriage and its consequences brought Lyra’s confidence to its knees. She thought she could never dance or be a performer again. Then, she met Burlesque.
Unable to take the ever-growing demands of her marriage, Lyra decided to call it quits. “And, the day I left my husband, I went back to dancing again. I was 34 then, and I am 42 now. There’s been no looking back since” she says.
The inclusive nature of Burlesque attracted Lyra. “I took to Burlesque because it is probably the most inclusive of dances. It doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age, sex or body type. If you are a good performer, Burlesque has a place for you,” she says.
When Lyra started Burlesque, she was still battling the demons from her former marriage. “Burlesque helped heal the wounds, and it was like stepping out of the shadows. After years of struggle, Burlesque made me feel confident again – about myself and my body,” she says.
“I have always thought my breasts were too small, and not attractive enough. I also had to deal with a post-partum body, complete with stretch marks and the like. These changes coupled with my battered mental state after my divorce exhausted me, and made me feel useless. But Burlesque gently helped me connect with my body, and that helped me rebuild my broken confidence. I started to learn to love, be proud of, celebrate and show off my tiny body!” she adds.
“There’s nothing more healing and liberating that getting naked in a room full of strangers! And, the cheers you get for your performance is exhilarating!” she continues.
Being a teacher
Lyra is aware that many women suffer from the same lack of confidence and body insecurities that she did due to a number of factors. In a bid to help women love their bodies more, Lyra started Hot Sauce, a Burlesque school that aims to teach women the dance from and inculcate in them self-confidence and self-love.
“My clientele includes many women in their early 40s. They come either to learn a new form of exercise or simply to dance. But inevitably almost everyone ends up wearing baggy tees and sweatpants- like they are trying to hide their bodies. And, I promise them that within weeks they will walk out in hotpants and fishnets, celebrating the beautiful bodies they have. And, that's exactly what happens!" she says with a hint of a triumphant smile.
Lyra knows that Burlesque has more than its shares of naysayers, with judgement following the dance form everywhere it goes. She has had to deal with unpleasant experiences herself. But, she adds, that has should never stop any Burlesque enthusiasts from enjoying the art.
“If you don’t like something, get out. It is not a big deal! Staying and making unsavoury comments about the performers is simply disrespectful,” she says.
Lyra is often known to put rowdy and judgemental viewers in their place. “If I find someone being impolite during a performance, I would go to them and shimmy on their face, or drink their beverage. It is my way of putting the spotlight on rude people,” she explains.
Though the performer can deal with hecklers, she feels sad when women turn their noses up on Burlesque. “I feel that judgement comes from a place of insecurity. Maybe you are not happy with your bodies, so you cannot tolerate women who are. That’s sad!” she adds.
Lyra’s family has always been her biggest supporters. “Initially, my dad and three brothers didn’t understand what is it that I was doing. But some years ago, when I received a four-star rating for my show at Adelaide Fringe, they realised how far I have come,” she says.
Lyra adds, “Though he is very supportive of my choices, my dad refuses to attend any of my shows! But whenever my picture comes up in the paper, he cuts it out and keeps it as a souvenir. My two younger brothers have no desire to see me perform. But another brother of mine always attends my shows, simply to stare at the other lovely performers.”
She continues, “On the other hand, my mother is a mixed bag! During one hot day at an Adelaide Fringe performance, my pasty fell off leaving one of my breasts bare, that shocked her. Trust me I didn’t hear the end of it!”
Don’t do it half-heartedly
Though Lyra is supportive of aspiring Burlesque dancers, she is not amused by those who put up shows as a hobby. “Hobbyists are different from serious performers. When you put up a show that is not practised thoroughly or is technically sound, you are doing a great disservice to the craft. The audience will come out of the show thinking that Adelaide Burlesque is not at par with other international shows. This is a problem that has been growing for quite some time now,” she says.
“I don’t mean to be harsh, but I am passionate about Burlesque and wouldn’t want anything to tarnish its image,” she adds.
But to those who love the art and are serious about being a performer, Lyra advises them not to let anyone change their love for the dance form. Also, she adds, do it because you have something to offer to your viewers. “Don’t expect anything in return and you will be pleasantly surprised with your journey,” says the Burlesque queen.
Pic courtesy: Hot Sauce Burlesque Facebook
Follow Lyra on Instagram.
Desert Rose, girl next door meets sexy siren
Tall and lithesome, Desert Rose cried when she saw Netflix’s documentary We Speak Dance. “I know it sounds corny! But I couldn’t help getting emotional. Dance is the universal language that we speak. And, there was this scene in it about Burlesque and how it allowed women the freedom to celebrate their bodies. I am so lucky to be a part of such an empowering art form," says Desert.
This unwavering passion for Burlesque and dance shines bright through all her performances. She’s like a chameleon; offstage with her calm demeanour and faraway look in her eyes, Desert can pass off as the quintessential girl next door. But on stage, she is the femme fatale who has been regaling audiences for seven years.
Her fierce, sexy, and flawless performances have made her an integral part of numerous award-winning shows including the recently concluded five-star rated show The Redheaded Cabaret at the Adelaide Fringe.
Learning to be confident
But Desert wasn’t always confident of her body. “Growing up, I thought I was masculine and lanky. I didn’t have curves and was extremely conscious about my body. I used to idolise curvaceous women and the sensuality they oozed. I was also bullied as a kid and barely made any boyfriends. These childhood and teenage experiences can chip away at one’s self-esteem and confidence,” she says.
To overcome these feelings of insecurity, Desert took to dancing. “I have always loved performing. Being on the stage and wearing colourful costumes helped me overcome my fears. I am a trained Jazz and Ballet performer and have been a professional dancer for the last seven years,” she says.
Dancing is quite literally in Desert’s blood. “I come from a family of performers. My sister is figure ice skater, and my father is a well-known ballroom dancer. Dance just came naturally to me,” she says.
Tryst with Burlesque
Her tryst with Burlesque happened almost by chance. “I attended a Burlesque performance put up by a friend of mine and was smitten. I quickly went over the organiser of the show and told him that I would love to participate as well. He told me he would get in touch when a spot opened up. And, soon enough I got a call from him about a performance and the rest, as they say, is history,” she says.
Burlesque, she says, “accepted me wholeheartedly, with my supposed flaws and made me feel whole again. I feel sexy, beautiful and confident when I am doing a Burlesque routine. I feel alive."
Desert points out that in any performance confidence is the key. “Burlesque helps you understand your body, and that makes you confident. When you present your routine with self-assuredness and poise, you will have the audience eating off your palms,” she says.
There are many elements of Burlesque that made Desert fall in love with it, especially the old world charm associated with the dance form. “I like the 19th-century feel of a Burlesque performance – the hair, the fishnets, high heels, and the romance of it all. It is like going back in the past, just for a minute,” she adds.
The need for support
The 26-year-old is quick to point out that though constructive criticism is welcomed, snide remarks often have an adverse effect on the performer.
“I remember during one of my performances, a friend’s girlfriend said I liked taking off my clothes because of the attention I was getting. She made fun of my costumes- the tassels I was wearing. Those remarks forced me to think that maybe my performance was not good enough. Even though I received good reviews, I would concentrate only the negative one. As performers, we have to be wary of that, and stop paying attention to the reviews that try to bring us down,” she advises.
Desert is grateful for the amazing support she gets from her family. “My dad is 83-year-old, and he was born and raised in London. He used to watch the famous Burlesque performances held in the Soho area, so he is aware of the rich history of the dance form. He is proud to know that his daughter is a performer too. He raised me to be a strong and independent woman, and seeing me make a mark for myself in this field pleases him greatly,” says Desert.
“My mom was hesitant initially, but she attended a show of mine and fell in love with my performance. My boyfriend loves what I do, but refuses to come to my show. I understand there’s a mental barrier there, and I don’t force him. But he is supportive, and that is good enough,” she adds.
Know the risks
Desert is disarmingly honest about the problems plaguing Burlesque performance in Adelaide. “Frankly, there isn’t enough money in Burlesque in Adelaide. To aspiring artists, I would say try to supplement this passion with another job. You have to understand it is not financially lucrative. Also, do your research. You can’t get up one fine morning and say you will become a Burlesque performer. You have to understand a lot goes into a performance,” she says.
Finally, she adds, find your style and constantly better it. “Don’t be a copy. Be an absolute original.”
Pic Courtesy: Anoop Puzhamudi
Follow Desert Rose on Instagram.