Stripping bare the burlesque myths

The stage is set as participants in the workshop enjoy learning a new skill

The stage is set as participants in the workshop enjoy learning a new skill - Credit: Archant

Forget what you think about an ancient craft, says FLORENCE KNIGHT after meeting some special dancers

The burlesque workshop participants take centre stage

The burlesque workshop participants take centre stage - Credit: Archant

A mention of the word burlesque is almost certainly to be met with a raised eyebrow and a wink or a nudge. Traditionally it conjures up images of a slightly seedy, late-night show featuring scantily-clad women performing a striptease to an almost exclusively male audience.

Leading burlesque artist, Modesty Blaize, who will be headlining the Burlesque Valentine’s Ball

Leading burlesque artist, Modesty Blaize, who will be headlining the Burlesque Valentine’s Ball - Credit: Archant

But the art form which started out as parody and can be traced back to ancient Greece has recently enjoyed a resurgence. Far from exploiting women, it sets out to empower the female form and is great fun as I discovered when I joined a burlesque workshop at The Barnfield Theatre in Exeter.

The theatre was hosting Sideshow by the Exeter Alternative Theatre. The production was billed as a celebration of theatre, burlesque and cabaret and paid homage to the city’s annual Lammas fair when, for centuries, travelling showmen made an annual visit to the city.

The Victorian splendour of The Barnfield was the perfect backdrop for the workshop, hosted by a trio of burlesque dancers with the stage names Lilly Laudanum, Velma Von Bonbon and Sandy Sure.

Make-up free and dressed in casual clothing and flat heels they did not, at first glance, resemble the corset and stocking-clad femme fatale associated with burlesque but as Lilly explains that is part of the appeal: “It is all about creating an illusion. People have this image that burlesque is all about striptease but actually it is a minority who do.

“For most it is about creating an image and teasing and suggestive looks and slow movements. It can be sexy but it also encompasses drama, comedy, dancing and singing.”

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Sandy Sure, who will be leading a series of taster workshops in Torquay in the New Year, agrees and says far from exploiting women it celebrates them: “Many women who have been in abusive or controlling relationships or who lack confidence really enjoy burlesque.

“It is not about shape or size and appeals to all ages and backgrounds. It gives women confidence and control, which is helpful in all areas of their lives.”

This was clearly demonstrated by the ladies attending the workshop who included a secretary, a mum-of-six, a TV production assistant and a self-employed seamstress. All very different but united in their interest in burlesque and learning the basic skills.

Our first step was to do exactly that – learn how to walk. Heads held high; hips slightly swaying as we artfully placed one foot in front of the other, the transformation was instant. We all felt centimetres taller as we imagined walking with a book on our heads and an invisible thread passing straight down through our bodies as we paraded beneath the spotlight of The Barnfield stage.

Next up was eye contact – a simple act but a surprisingly challenging feat to execute as we paired off and deliberately held each other’s gaze. “Eye contact is very important in burlesque and in general as an indicator of confidence. It is a sign you are engaging with the person and of course, it can be used to flirt and communicate all different types of mood,” explains Velma.

Next we practised taking off a glove. Again something we normally do without thought but a burlesque act which can take minutes and become a very sensual act as Lilly explains: “There is one girl whose whole act involves simply taking on and off a glove. It is all about creation the illusion using slow and exaggerated movements, keeping eye contact and engaging with the audience.”

Finally it was walking to music, practising some Madonna Vogue-style movements and some sensual glove removal using flirty and suggestive movements.

All of us left feeling taller and determined to maintain the tips we had picked up. Plus getting back home and removing the Marigolds after washing the dishes is a whole new experience…