How I Undressed the Remarkable Power of Burlesque

Photo: X Mark Photography
An average day for me is not particularly glamorous. My muggle job is at a cupcake bakery in New York City, so basically I’m an indie movie cliché. I was an assistant manager at the bakery for a while, but I moved to New York to pursue acting and the arts. Waking up at 3 a.m. stressing out about wedding cakes was not part of the dream. I stepped down from being an assistant manager and now hold a part-time position there.

The bakery is where I first came in contact with burlesque. I used to work with a performer who goes by the name of Pearls Daily, who's been on the scene for years and currently holds the title of Miss Coney Island. She’s fantastic! I went to see her Harry Potter burlesque show, and it struck me that... I could do this. Around the same time, I saw another performer—Rosie Cheeks—who was just phenomenal. She’s classically beautiful—this leggy, fantastic looking woman—but that’s not why she’s good. She’s able to set someone on fire with a look. She’s so precise and choreographed. I remember watching her unlace something with one little finger in one swift move. She didn’t even have her clothes off yet! The specificity with which she was able to do each move made me think, “Oh, I want to be able to do that!”

What's really nice about burlesque is that from a creative standpoint there are no rules . Yes, it involves taking off clothes 98 percent of the time, but you can do whatever you want with it.

My actress friend, who was my roommate at the time, wanted to boost her body image. I suggested taking a burlesque class—just for fun! So we attended the Essential Burlesque program with Jo "Boobs" Weldon, the headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque. It was four classes, four Sundays in a row—and it was just so much fun. There’s a showcase for new students at the end of the course, and I invited the producer at  Hotsy Totsy—a monthly show put on at the legendary burlesque club in lower Manhattan called The Slipper Room—to attend. I was offered the "kitten" position for their upcoming Star Wars tribute show. The "kitten" is the person who runs around making sure that everyone gets their clothes back. When performers throw off a glove, or a pastie, or any number of props, they might disappear into the wings or the audience. It's the kitten's job to collect them. (I do a Dory from Finding Nemo act and I have all these tiny jellyfish, a scuba mask, and all these other props—having a kitten is always helpful.) After that, I pitched the producer a Thor act because I knew they had a superhero week coming up. He said yes, and I had to scramble to put something together!

What's really nice about burlesque is that from a creative standpoint there are no rules. Yes, it involves taking off clothes 98 percent of the time, but you can do whatever you want with it. I’ve seen an entire burlesque act where it’s just one woman putting on Spanx. There are performers who use pizzas instead of fans. For someone who has moved to the city to pursue The Dream, there’s very little money and opportunity to put up your own show and to be free creatively. If I auditioned for a commercial, a redhead might get it because the kid who’s playing the daughter looks like she should have a redheaded parent. There’s so little that you can control in the industry. But with burlesque, you go up on stage and you’ve chosen your outfit, you’ve chosen your music, you’ve chosen exactly when and what you're going to do.

As a woman, I find that social culture dictates a lot of how I'm supposed to look. Body acceptance movements are on the rise, but the industry is still largely dominated by slender models on billboards and very attractive young women in movies. There’s this expectation for how we’re supposed to look and present ourselves, but god help you if you achieve that look and then you show it off too much. There’s a very fine line where we’re acceptable as women.

There’s a power in the fact that I’m granting you permission to look at me.

Burlesque is a space where I’m supposed to be confident and I’m supposed to be sexy and flirty. It’s a space where that’s literally my job whether it’s half an hour to an hour. Even just for the 3 to 5 minutes when my song is on, my role is to be as sexy as I possibly can be. Every burlesque performer is supposed to have their own personality. I'm not the kind of performer who can slowly lift off a skirt for a full minute. I’ve seen those women and they’re fantastic, but I’m a lot more comedic, cheeky, and flirty. It’s fabulous to go up on stage and really take control of how you’re being seen. I’ve been fully clothed—completely and conservatively—in an office, and felt all the men look at me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. When you’re on stage, you are specifically drawing attention to the body parts that you want the audience to look at. There’s a power in the fact that I’m granting you permission to look at me. On stage, it's purposeful.

As told to Kells McPhillips

There are so many women out there doing amazing things. Check out Nicole Cardoza's story and hear from a woman who was part of the first all-black group to climb Mount Kilimanjaro

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