A recent BBC documentary explored why burlesque has become such a controversial subject. I believe this reclaimed and constantly evolving art form is now one of the most empowering things a woman can do. As founder of a school of burlesque I am often asked to explain why it can be empowering for women, as opposed to just another way to trick women with a bit of glitter and 'girl power' attitude into exploiting themselves for the gratification of men. In other words, why it isn't just posh stripping, as Ant and Dec laughingly called it on Britain's Got Talent.
After years of performing and teaching performance I founded The Cheek of It! School of Burlesque and Cabaret in 2007 with the idea that women could learn an activity that encourages them to feel empowered, to get inspired by their uniqueness and have a whole lot of fun. Having been brought up by a mother who worked as a pioneer in the area of sexual empowerment and assertiveness for women and being one of seven sisters, I feel passionately that every woman has the right to not only enjoy her sexuality but to celebrate it as she sees fit! Promoting burlesque was a natural career move for me.
Burlesque can be many things. It is most commonly associated with Dita von Teese and vintage-inspired striptease. But in fact the word 'burlesque' actually means to make a mockery or satirise. This is the starting point for all our classes and performances. We create entertaining performances to tell a story, combining many skills including dance, acting, humour, magic, circus, roller skating, hula hooping, even knitting and yes more often then not we also use striptease. We ask the student to be inspired by what excites her and what makes her unique. I am particularly interested in celebrating women being funny, clever and sexy. The media often only allows women to be sexy or funny or clever when in my experience women are all three in ample proportions.
Women usually take burlesque classes for one of three reasons: they want to feel cheeky and have fun, they want to improve their body confidence and how they feel about themselves, or they want to become a professional burlesque performer. When asked about their experience of learning and performing burlesque the majority of our students will use the word 'empowering' in their answer. Regardless of why you come to learn burlesque you are welcomed into an environment that gives you permission to understand, explore, celebrate and have fun with your sensuality. You indulge in your feminine energy and create a performance that reflects your personality and beauty, instead of being constantly valued in terms of weight, size and age. No wonder this is an empowering experience considering the society norm - images of women photo-shopped to inhuman proportions and perfection preached by way of a size 0 body and cellulite- free thighs.
What might interest those who've never been to see a show before is that over 50% of the audience are usually women and the men that do come want to enjoy a night that showcases powerful women being funny, sexy, clever and thoroughly entertaining - and why the hell not?
I have heard countless women say that burlesque has changed their lives for the better. The scope of performances is as varied and awesome as the women who perform it. You may see a vintage fan dance but you are just as likely to see women spouting poetry, juggling fire or rapping about the myth of vagina dentata whilst covered in leopard skin and spikes, like our 'Best Act of 2013' Diablo Daniels. Through burlesque women get to release their cheeky magic, cover themselves in glitter and shine like there's no tomorrow. Knowing that they're being validated by an adoring crowd for their humour, their wit, their feminine prowess and their bodies, no matter if they are size 6 or size 20, not only transforms how they feel about themselves forever but can improve every other area of their lives, from career to relationships.
Of course there are promoters who have jumped on the burlesque bandwagon and undermined its pure core of fun and celebration. There is bad burlesque like bad anything - the type that's exploitative and crass, that gives the audience the power, rather than the performer being in control of the show's tone. But true burlesque is fun and cheeky, not seedy - it's a celebration of femininity and women feeling good about themselves.