by Jodi A. Shaw
When I think of burlesque, I immediately picture Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. So when I went to a burlesque show for the first time, I was expecting high heels, garter belts, and tight, sexy clothing. I saw the outfits I expected, but I didn’t expect to see all those items of clothing on the floor when the dance was over.
Though they are not to be confused, burlesque involves a whole lotta stripping. Burlesque has always been theatrical and humourous, frequently involving parody and exaggeration, but it wasn’t until the 20th-century that striptease became the main attraction.
Liv Yorston, founder and director of Studio Sublime Belly Dance in Calgary, has been involved with burlesque for the past seven years. She jokes: “[Burlesque] differs from stripping in the sense that we don’t take change.”
Kidding aside, Liv explains that, while one main element of burlesque is the striptease, burlesque dancers focus on a theatrical performance, often incorporating skits or mimicking the song’s lyrics, engaging the audience with class and sexiness, rather than simply stripping down and broadcasting their bodies. Liv’s burlesque troupe, Kabuki Guns Burlesque, produces shows that are particularly high-end, based on choreography and costumes. Strippers, she notes, are usually just girls getting naked for money: “No choreography, nothing left to the imagination, and half of the time they don’t even look like they are enjoying themselves.”
Burlesque dancers, on the other hand, have a lot of fun. With belly dancing, Liv feels she gets to showcase her more technical side, and 30 years of training. Her background includes a 10-year scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance, ballet throughout North America, and four years of Russian and Cecchetti ballet in Australia. Another four years of jazz, some African dance work shops, and a year of Indian dance contribute to Liv’s diverse and well-rounded dancing.
It all comes together onstage — and then some. “With burlesque I get to be a little more cheeky, completely liberated, all chains and barriers broken through.”
She describes it as empowering, and notes that many women are eager to join. “Men love it for obvious reasons,” she says. “Women love it even more because they can associate with it. After a show I am bombarded with women wanting to take classes and get involved in any way, even if it’s just helping out behind the scenes.”
After being “harassed into starting a burlesque troupe,” Liz started Kabuki Guns Burlesque in January of 2004. Soon other troupes started popping up in Alberta. Driving the popularity is the women, not the men. “They see it and think, ‘Maybe I could do that?’ Once they start, they become so empowered by it, their enthusiasm spreads like wild fire to their friends and family, which in turn makes them want to get involved too.”
I must admit, seeing my first burlesque show made me want to join too. I oppose stripping on numerous levels, but as I watched the dancer dance down until she had nothing on but her top hat and cane, pasties and panties, I was attracted by the confidence she emitted. The stripping is the most obvious element, but the technically interesting and sexy dancing, combined with applause and laughter from the audience, makes it clear that this dance form is about so much more than just getting naked.
“There has to be something more left to the imagination,” Liv adds. “It is a ‘striptease’ with the emphasis on the tease, rather than the strip.”
So while Liza Minnelli still pops into my mind when I think of burlesque, I also now think of women feeling sexy, strong, and having fun.