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To Bare or Not to Bare?

Is That Really the Question in Burlesque?

Image of Victoria Libertore; courtesy of Brooklyn Arts Exchange

Burlesque used to be a mysterious concept to me. I caught a show or two at well-known venues such as the Slipper Room or Galapagos. I had seen the concept weaved into experimental modern dances presented in mainstream theaters. But my idea of burlesque was short-sighted and oversimplified. I pictured women in extravagant costumes finding dramatic ways to be naked, shake their asses and titillate audiences in low-lit, overcrowded clubs where a view of the action was difficult. I had no idea who these performers were or what the point was—until I took Victoria Libertore’s (aka Howling Vic.) four-week Burlesque class at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange with eleven other amazing women.

I wasn’t alone in my naiveté about Burlesque. The word itself conjures interesting responses from most people. When I told my friends that I was taking the class, they smirked. Men’s eyes lit up; one friend mockingly winked, shimmied, shook his hips and exclaimed, “oh yeah.” Women were either fascinated or judgmental. But burlesque, despite its reputation as the tawdry underbelly of performance art, is actually a wonderful hybrid of theater, dance, comedy and costuming. It’s a form in which anything goes, which makes it all the more fun and entertaining. Burlesque is empowering, extravagant, serious and fun all at once. Burlesque dancers are hard working, passionate, complex and artistic women (and some men) who are part of a supportive network.

When my Burlesque class started this past spring in the studios of BAX, no one knew what we were getting into—one woman even admitted that she didn’t know the class would involve stripping—but this class seemed to be about theatrics, formulating a piece, and embodying archetypes, such as queen, goddess or cat, rather than taking off clothes. It was an angle of burlesque I had never fully considered—even as a choreographer and performer myself. Our impossible goal was to make a 3-5 minute piece by the end of the four classes. After the first session, I was hooked. Heightened fantasies of becoming a glamorous burlesque performer flitted through my mind. Burlesque now represented indulging in all preconceived notions, and embodying stereotypes in order to break them. For minutes on stage, burlesque would mean becoming quirky characters and escaping reality. In the oddest moments, where burlesque had no place, it crept into my mind: in business reporting class, or lectures, or while replying to emails. What was I going to do? What was the point of my piece? And most importantly, what was I going to wear (or more appropriately, take off)? Images of classic film starlets from the ‘40s came forth. I saw myself with blonde pin-curled hair, long thick black lashes, deep red lipstick, in a black corset and fishnets, a boa, and of course, my favorite pair of iridescent purple stilettos.
My name: Violet Femme. Shoes would be my co-stars; after all, what woman wouldn’t want a good pair by her side? My piece started slowly. Like most choreographing, I started with a muse—my starlet image, the materialistic qualities many of us embody, and my shoes—and expanded on it.

Classes felt like therapy at times. We had to take on extreme emotions, all of which would be used in our work. Despite the coziness of class and the heady exercises we did, there was always one question I couldn’t shake from my mind: would I bare my breasts for these ladies? I am not a stranger to going topless for art so I didn’t think striptease on stage would be such an issue, but as I tried to set my piece, I wasn’t sure if and when the ‘big reveal,’ as it’s known in burlesque circles, would ever happen. I was reluctant to have my breasts be the center of attention.

By the third week, the non-performers (the majority of the class) really stepped up, and the performances were incredible! Bras and other clothing items were provocatively removed. We represented all ages, shapes and personalities and the supportive cheers and smiling faces were unending. I thought if this class mirrors what the burlesque scene is really like, then book me. If they could do this, so could I. My one stiletto-pair piece evolved into a three stiletto-pair piece. In it, I became a hedonist—greedy and obsessed with shoes, hording them and feeling great in them. Others chose umbrellas to hide behind, martinis, long black gowns, cowboy boots; you name it we covered—or uncovered—it.

Ultimately, though, performing burlesque dance is complicated and sometimes tedious. It takes a lot of hard work, imagination, and rehearsal just to be sure your costume stays on when you want it to and comes off the way you planned. Timing is everything. You’ve got to know your body and your state of mind going onto that stage, or nobody’s going to buy into the performance. Most importantly, you have to have fun out there. It’s the journey to reveal that matters, not the actual exposure.

So, in the end, did I bare my breasts?

Does it matter?


Carley Petesch


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2006

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