For one of my journalism projects last semester I had to write a feature on a topic of my choice. This piece could have been an interview, participatory piece or trend piece. For my article on burlesque dancing, I feel I incorporated a bit of all of these pieces and ended up with a finished article I was very proud of. Please, have a read and let me know what you think…
“Everything you dream of but never can possess, nothing’s what it seems, welcome to burlesque”. Cher’s opening number to the 2010 film ‘Burlesque’ means a lot more when you can actually appreciate the concept behind the dancing. Before I delved into the world of showgirls, show tunes and sparkles, I had no idea what a burlesque dancer consisted of or what they really did. My skeptical mind always led me to believe it was in the same league of pole dancing and stripping, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Performance is the essence to this specialist form of dancing in which women (and some men) practice the art of tease in a dignified, over-the-top and glamorous way.
Making my first ever burlesque acquaintance was something that I expected myself to be very apprehensive about but after exchanging a few emails and watching Christina Aguilera perform over and over again on the ‘Burlesque’ movie, I found a girl called TeTe Bang and I was actually rather excited to meet her. While I sat and waited in the little Costa coffee we had agreed to meet in, I imagined a girl full of make-up, dressed in elaborate clothing walking in in stiletto heels. The thought of this made me feel rather underdressed as I was the total opposite of elaborate, dressed in a Hollister jumper with tatty Ugg boots. When she arrived though, I was slightly surprised by the fresh face that greeted me. Thinking back now I feel rather stupid having the image of a girl in full burlesque costume walking around Baker Street. If nothing else she would have been a bit nippy exposing that much skin at 9am on a cold December morning. However, dressed in a fitted military coat and kitten heels, she looked no more outlandish than the next person.
“Hi I’m TeTe Bang,” she said, sitting down opposite me with her gingerbread latte. “I’m so sorry I’m late. I had to nurse a burn from a performance last night.” Learning that TeTe was a fire performer was impressive, but the fact that she learnt to do it when she was only 12 years old was totally unexpected. “Yeah I trained in Thailand with my mother, but I still make mistakes sometimes.” She directed me to the scars on her face saying, “I do fire eating and fire breathing but I use fire fans as well. It’s quite scary I’m not going to lie.” Regardless of the danger, it certainly doesn’t phase her during her performances in Proud Cabaret where she is a resident. The subtle way in which the costumes direct the audience to her assets combined with the fierce fire blowing is something you can’t help but marvel at from the crowd below.
Playing with fire is TeTe’s, ‘gimmick’, as she puts it. “You’ve got to have a gimmick,” she explained to me when I asked her if anyone could become a performer. “People want you if you’re untouchable, if you’re something that not everyone else is. You need to look the part, play the part and not be an average everyday girl”. Seeing performances in different clubs means that the suggestion of a ‘gimmick’ becomes apparent. Wherever you go there is always an array of different performers with some weird specialties and some regular ones. There are plenty of different ways you can go with it from playing with things such as water, fire or bubbles, to focusing on specialist arts such as fetish, ballet or mime.
“My mother has always been a fetish performer,” TeTe announces quite off-hand when I ask her if she ever considered going into the more ‘risque’ part of the dancing. As soon as she said the word ‘fetish’, my innocent mind heaved a big sigh and I felt myself shift uncomfortably in my seat. “She always said she didn’t want me to do the same as her but she knew I would eventually because we are very similar. I love what she does though, it’s amazing.” I began to imagine watching my Mum prance around on stage in bondage gear, harnessing whips and chains – I don’t think at any point I’d be able to call that amazing. You would think that being brought up with the world of fetish being practiced in the next room would be weird for any child but TeTe said she found it an excitement and always viewed it as a good thing. “I was kinda brought up around half naked women, and I always told everyone I wanted to be a performer like my Mum. When I used to tell teachers at school what I wanted to be when I grew up they looked at me with disbelief and told be me to be serious.” I don’t think that sort of attitude would have went down well at my catholic comprehensive!
Observing the way girls carry themselves on stage with an air of unattainability is admirable and something you wouldn’t observe in strip clubs. The careful way they mix seduction techniques on the stage while holding back their ‘goodies’ so that the audience is always left wanting more is something I thought would be risky in front of hundreds of horny men, but that seems to be what makes burlesque so desirable to be a part of. “People just walk into some bars expecting to be able to get on stage and strip, but that’s not what burlesque clubs are”, TeTe further explains when we get onto the topic of clubs where you’re required to remove clothing before you get any money. “The bars I have performed in and the upstanding bars in London like Cafe de Paris, Madame JoJo’s and Proud are more than happy for you to show a bit of skin, but that’s not what it’s all about.” Stripping isn’t an essential part of burlesque but being confident and flaunting your assets on stage is vital.
As a woman, there is something empowering in watching women of all different shapes and sizes performing on stage. Seeing shows in which girls dress up in elaborate costumes and incorporate their talents whether it be singing, dancing or just showing off their amazing bodies, got me immediately in the mood to do it myself. “You should try it! Seriously!” TeTe said to me while I sipped on my hot chocolate and imagined myself head to toe in costume, prancing around on a stage. As I sat and thought while TeTe blabbered on about how I could use her costumes and she would help me, the angel in my head was asking me, ‘What would my mother say?!’ The devil shot the angel down by whispering to me, ‘She doesn’t have to know.’
The first step on this journey was looking the part, so the week after our meeting, I took TeTe up on her offer and arranged to meet my dancer at her house where she makes and customizes all of her costumes for her many performances. Her bedroom was decorated simply underneath the mass of sparkles and countless beads that graced every surface and her wardrobe was like a hanging treasure chest. Corsets, basques and jackets of different colours and styles hung before me. “I love making costumes, I love designing costumes, I love everything about costumes!” TeTe says excitedly whilst running her hands over the array of garments. “Pick one and you can try one on!” After carefully looking at all the outfits in her closet and half an hour sat in front of her mirror getting my hair and makeup done, I was finally ready. Standing in front of the mirror didn’t feel right in a black corset with a suspender belt attached to stockings and the biggest black stilettos I had ever seen before. My catholic upbringing definitely went out of the window when TeTe handed me a leather whip. Nevertheless, there was something empowering about having the whole package. “You look amazing! Now you just need to know how to dance,” TeTe said! I didn’t like the sound of that.
My first and only burlesque lesson was definitely an experience but I still cannot decide whether it was a positive or negative. With TeTe next to me to help and show me some encouragement, (I definitely would have ran away if she hadn’t been there to push me off the tube) we stood in normal gym clothes but with heels instead of our trainers. When we entered the bright, mirrored studio, I couldn’t believe how underdressed we were. We joined the group stood in the middle of the room and I began surveying the others that were there. A 30-year-old woman next to me was standing tall in fishnets and a short, tight, black dress and another woman seemed to be dressed in full costume. “It’s clearly their first time…” TeTe whispered as the instructor started getting us ready to dance. “Today we’re going to learn the bump and grind.” In my mind I was thinking ‘Oh my lord, what am I doing…?!’ and almost walked out when everyone around me started doing the ‘squat, roll and thrust’ movement. TeTe could clearly see the look on my face, but she nudged me and said, ‘Just let go. It’s only for an hour.’
I never would have guessed that at the end of the hour I would have been strutting around the studio, being flirtatious at the front of the class using the same move that I was rolling my eyes at 45 minutes before. The confidence that exuded from me as I walked out the door was one I thought would never leave, but next to the girls who perform every night who have miracle figures and amazing bodies, I still felt inferior. “If you kept on at it you would feel better.” TeTe said as we discussed the lesson in a coffee shop close to the studio. “I felt totally stupid on my first course but now I feel amazing when I go on the stage.”
I feel like I’ve tapped into something special after discovering the world of burlesque. Not only is it an exuberant, over-the-top art form, but it is also an experience you can share and enjoy with friends. A night at Madame JoJo’s or Proud in Camden includes a 3 course meal, an array of quality performances and a guaranteed night of laughter. If you think that a trip to a burlesque club would be an awkward and uncomfortable one, you wouldn’t be the first, but personally, I have never been more wrong in my judgement. As long as you enjoy a bit of cheesy music, a lot of jeweled costumes and can appreciate the female figure in all its glory, then there is nothing to be skeptical about. Like Cher said, ‘nothing is what it seems,’ in the fabulous world of burlesque.