As 24-year-old females in Melbourne go I imagine I am pretty typical. I have finished uni, I work full time, live in a share house and have a range of hobbies and interests. Most of these are almost borderline clichéd – catching up with friends over food or alcohol, seeing bands, sewing, baking, going to the gym. One, however, is a little out of the ordinary. Burlesque. For the last 18 months I have been learning the art of burlesque at a school in Melbourne. I have learnt to peel all manner of clothes from my body – from gloves to bras and everything in between. I have performed on stages in front of crowds ending up wearing little more than booty shorts and pasties. I have danced on chairs, with fans and with feather boas. And I have loved every minute of it.
So what makes someone who is not a dancer decide she wants to learn to take her clothes off, and then use these lessons to do exactly that publically? To be completely honest, I don’t know. I don’t know what made me start the classes, other than the fact I’d seen a few shows and thought that it could be a bit of fun, but I definitely know why I have continued. Some of the reasons are pretty basic, such as the improvements to my fitness, strength and flexibility. Others are less easy to articulate, but possibly more significant.
It’s probably important to point out that I have never been much of an exhibitionist. For years getting me in a bikini was enough of a challenge. I have never really been that comfortable with my body, instead viewing it in the critical light that many women (and men) do. However, burlesque is all about celebrating the female body in all its forms, and in these classes we are taught to celebrate our own bodies. This happens explicitly through learning how best to show off the female figure (triangles, who knew) and about loving our own bodies, and what they are able to do. But it also happens implicitly, as a result of pushing ourselves to try new things, and achieving them. If you’d asked me 18 months ago if I thought I’d be able to flip myself upside down over the back of a chair I would have laughed at you, but that’s just one of the things I now know I can do. Sure, that might not be a skill that is useful in all that many aspects of my life, but that’s okay, the sense of accomplishment I felt the first time I successfully performed that trick was reason enough in itself.
You couldn’t ask for a more supportive group of people either. The girls at the school range in age from early 20s to late 40s, and the body shapes and level of dance training are just as diverse. No one is there to judge, and we spend a lot of class time laughing at each other and ourselves. When three of the girls from my school were selected to compete in the Victorian finals for Miss Burlesque Australia in May a whole group of us went along to watch and cheer them on as we were so proud of what they had achieved. That camaraderie and support extends even to the most minor of things. When learning a new skill we often split the class in two and ‘perform’ for each other, and when someone does particularly well, or incorporates the move in a way that’s new or interesting it is celebrated and applauded. You can’t really ask for more than that from a hobby, that’s for sure.
So does doing burlesque make me a bad feminist? Am I going backwards by putting myself out there to be judged for my body and how well I can remove my clothing? I know that for many burlesque is just seen as another form of stripping, and one of my (male) friends even refers to it as my ‘porn dancing’ classes. Sure, most burlesque routines involve the removal of at least a couple of items of clothing, with many ending with the performer wearing extremely little, and so from the outside I can understand this view of burlesque.
I don’t believe, however, that doing, and loving, burlesque makes me any less of a feminist, nor do I believe that me doing this – by choice – means I am allowing my body to be exploited for anyone else’s pleasure. Yes, it can be highly sexual, and yes I have even done a course entitled ‘the art of tease’ which was all about removing items of clothing one at a time with the aim of driving the audience wild, but is that always such a bad thing? It is entirely up to me how I choose to use what I learn, and even within the class context there is never any pressure to peel or reveal any more than each individual is comfortable with. As long as I am only ever doing the classes because I want to, and I enjoy them, then I believe that there can be nothing anti-feminist about that.
I didn’t start the classes with the aim of empowering myself, or with any sexual agenda, but if an unintended consequence is that I now feel comfortable enough in myself to get semi-naked on stage in front of strangers then I can’t see how this is a problem. In fact, it is actually a pretty liberating feeling.
I may have started burlesque as a bit of a laugh and it isn’t something I will ever do professionally, but it’s probably the best thing I have ever done. Not only has it been great for my health and fitness, but it has done wonders for me in all aspects of my life. It will always be a hobby, but one that I will continue to pursue with passion and enthusiasm, and one that I would recommend to anyone and everyone.
Liz Brandt is a strategic planner in local government. She was born in New Zealand but brought up in Australia, so is like Russell Crowe but without the phone throwing. Instead, she wants to use her planning degree to aid with the provision of social housing and to improve the sustainability of our cities.