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Rhinestones and Rebellion

28 Jun 2021
Art is all about expression - Verity Johnson gives us a first-hand account of burlesque as an exploration of female sexuality and taking back control of your story.

It’s 7.20pm and the club is crackling with so much excitement you can practically hear it, like there’s a thousand giggly cicadas on a girls night under the tables. 

The air is as heavy and heady as our lasciviously red velvet drapes. This is the electric hour, the time right before our burlesque club opens the doors. 

The girls are pacing hypnotically, flicking out and snapping shut their 8ft ostrich feather fans with ruthless fluidity. 

Our manager is obsessively straightening tables, retying ribbons and adjusting roses. I’m cracking my knuckles, one by one, left to right, pinky to thumb. I can smell the heady rose scented hand cream of one dancer. Hear the nervy, peppermint flecked, compulsive gum chewing breathing of another. We’ve been waiting all week for this. 

Of course there’s the usual hungry adrenaline all performers get pre-show. But there’s also a drop of restless, riotous danger in the air; the way a street smells before it all kicks off into a brawl. We’re pacing the barricades, rhinestones at the ready…

Photo: Coco Mae.

Whenever I tell someone I’ve started a burlesque club, they look at me with a mixture of confusion and intrigue. I get it. Even among the arts crowd, cabaret and especially burlesque are fairly new disciplines in New Zealand. 

No one’s exactly quite sure what they are yet.

Photo: Coco Mae.

It doesn’t help that burlesque as a discipline is enormously vast and sprawling. It’s had more flings, affairs and long-lasting loves than every Love Island season combined. It has roots in Italian satire, a heart of vintage strip tease, an ongoing on-off-on-again fling with political protest, a big influence from contemporary and Queer dance, and a recent phase of acrobatics and circus iterations as its hit the big scale arts fests. 

So yeah, it’s a confusing creative cocktail alright. What you get is an art form that stretches from Dita Von Teese riding a giant lipstick around the Civic theatre, to green alien stripper cats monologuing against Scott Morrison. (Australian burlesque is as wild as it is world-leading.) 

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll tell you how we do it at our place. 

Our burlesque is a frothy, feisty, firecracker of dance, drag, cabaret, comedy and vintage strip tease. It’s camp and cathartic, sensual and sultry, elated and escapist. And beneath it all is the riotous reclamation of feminine sensuality. 

See, the heartbeat of burlesque is actually a marching drum roll, a call to arms, a raucous revolutionary cry, by women for women, to take back the stories of our sexuality. 

It’s this intellectual rebellion at the heart of the art form that sets it apart from straight titillation. 

Photo: Andi Crown Photography.

Sure, burlesque can be flirty. But unlike titillation, it’s not interested in playing into the audience’s existing ideas of sexuality. Instead, like all art, it has something to say about them. 

More specifically, it wants to rewrite them. And it does so using tease, dance, comedy, drag, and acrobatics, all stuck together with sweat and boob tape. 

For many performers, the first place burlesque starts is with our bodies. Burlesque openly rejects one of the most entrenched, eternally frustrating, stubbornly persistent ideas we have about female sexuality; that only thin bodies are desirable. 

It not only does this by highlighting to the audience how undeniably gorgeous women of all shapes are on stage. (Burlesque famously celebrates both older performers and those of all bodies.) But it also actually makes the performers believe the message too.

You can say that all bodies are beautiful, but whether you believe it in your bones is another matter. However, when you start performing burlesque, you realise that the artists who’re truly, achingly, hauntingly desirable aren’t the thinnest or prettiest or most conventionally attractive. They’re the ones who’re most confident.

Photo: Andi Crown Photography.

Confidence is what makes a performer become the axis around which the whole room spins. They pull audiences inexplicably and inevitably towards them like an imploding sun. And the ones who can combine confidence and talent? Absolute supernovas. 

After a while, you start to accept the undeniable truth that when it comes to desirability, your body is far less important than your confidence. (And of course, you’ve always been told that, but this is the first time you actually believe it.)

How can you not? You see, night after night, crowds of strangers rush up to the most confident performers, surrounding them, crowding them, trying to gulp down the air they exhale so they too can drink from the same secret spring of self-assurance and badassery. 

Photo: Andi Crown Photography.

It doesn’t totally erase the “thinness is the ultimate hotness” belief that society drills us in. But it does make the argument seem as naive and ridiculous as the high school girls who first told us it. And that’s a damn sight more empowering than any yoga class or #GirlBoss conference. 

The second deep pull for both performers, and audiences, at burlesque shows is how it makes such a fraught subject as our sexuality so light, effortless and dazzling. 

Many performers come to burlesque as a journey to find a new version of themselves. I started because I was bored of hating my body, but also as my own internal #metoo reaction. I was exhausted with how heavy and painful my sexuality had become as a young woman, lugging around all the weighty years of casual abuse, harassment, shame.

But burlesque transformed this heaviness into lightness effortlessly, simply by seeing female sexuality as fun. Glitter, feathers, green alien cat’s all so stupid. It’s as raucous as it is ridiculous as it is risque. And it’s hard for your shit to get heavy when you’re running around in nothing but tangerine feathers. 

Photo: Coco Mae.

That idea that sexuality could be fun was mind-blowing for me. 

Ever since I sat as a nervous year 4 student learning about chlamydia in my first health class, sex has been dangerous. Now here was something saying, hey, you want to cover yourself in cheese and grate parmesan off your vagina? Go for it! And the light touch burlesque treats our heavy experiences with is both transformative and staggeringly rare. 

It’s not just a sexual catharsis for the performers, the audience feels it too. (And at burlesque shows, the crowd is always predominantly female.) 

You can always feel a change midway through our shows. The room gets lighter, everything begins to levitate like we’ve pumped everything with helium. And that’s when you realise the crowd are having the same revolution we are. Our escape on stage has made the women in the crowd weightless too. We’ve cracked them open and their souls have made happy dashes for the sky like escaped children’s balloons. 

But perhaps the most deeply electrifying part of performing burlesque is that it reminds you, immediately and undeniably as you stand under the hot lights and cold sweat of the stage, that you have control of your body.

Photo: Coco Mae.

Revealing yourself in public, especially your squishy bits, is terrifying. But as soon as you get over the initial terror of it, you have enormous power. You just broke a string of taboos about modesty and propriety, you didn’t catch on fire from hell’s fury, and everyone’s watching you in, what do you want to say? 

I can’t think of any other time when I have such total control over the narrative of my own femininity. And even if I don’t have anything particularly original to say (we’re not all green alien cats), the act of simply being able to express it on my own terms is revolutionary.  

Photo: Andi Crown Photography.

Obviously, we shouldn’t need to be reminded of that. We should feel we have the same indisputable power over our own bodies that gravity does.

But of course, we don’t. 

One of the most disorientating feelings as a young woman is that your body belongs to everyone else as well as you - and their demands come first. 

So for many of us performers, standing on stage in front of strangers is the first, visceral, “oh-holy-shit-this-is-real” reminder that we’re the owners of our own fleshy pockets. 

If you’re still looking for a definition of what burlesque is, think of it as a bejewelled middle finger to society’s expectation of our sexuality. 

It’s dance, drag, comedy, and circus all shaken up with tease, reveal and a whole lotta glitter. But it’s really a rhinestoned revolution, by women and for women, for the stories of our bodies.