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It’s a rainy night in Portsmouth, but even the weather cannot dampen the spirits of the crowd gathered in the softly lit room at the back of the RMA Tavern. The walls behind the small stage are hidden by classically draped curtains and twinkling fairy lights, the bright outline of a golden anchor stands out from the deep red fabric, and the swinging sounds of a man singing 1940-50s cabaret classics drifts amongst the conversations at the bar. The noise is reduced to a murmur as the music quietens, the compere introduces the first act, and the audience watches as the sassy Miss Violet Va Voom takes to the stage and slowly peels off her entire outfit to rapturous applause. 

The audience at ‘HMS Pin-up’ are gathered here to watch one of an increasing number of burlesque nights that are taking place across the country. Once the preserve of late nineteenth century and early to mid twentieth century cabaret, the art of burlesque has enjoyed a somewhat renaissance in recent years, with high profile performers such as Dita Von Teese emerging as household names and prime-time television shows seeking to transform everyday women into flirty, feather-wielding artistes.

From the reaction of Portsmouth’s diverse crowd, it is clear to see that the revival of live burlesque is pleasing a wide array of audiences, but what of the performers who get up night after night and boldly show off their bodies in nothing but their underwear and a pair of killer heels? What drew them to the stage (and burlesque in particular) and how do they feel about those members of the public whom, perhaps upon encountering their acts for the first time, cannot see past the sequinned nipple tassels?

Tallulah Mockingbird, a bright and effervescent antipodean, explains that the re-emergence of burlesque into public consciousness has been a largely positive thing for performers such as herself. “
You know, whenever something goes a bit more mainstream, you feel a little bit precious about it because it’s partly your baby… and you don’t want everybody to have a piece of it. But then on the other hand, [burlesque entering more mainstream culture] has created lots more clubs and a lot more events to go and perform at.”

‘Yeah, it’s been noticeable’, adds Miss Golden Delicious, a young performer who has travelled down from Hull, ‘especially after the ‘Faking It’ Christmas special. There’s been a big influx of new performers, which is great because it’s spreading the word and bringing burlesque to the masses, and a lot more people are a lot more educated about what burlesque is. More people are coming to nights like this, more people want to take part.”

“Also, you’re less likely to come up against a crowd w
ho when you start performing, kind of deadpans you because they’re not quite sure how to react to a woman taking her clothes off on stage”, reveals Tallulah. “More people are kind of aware now that it’s alright to whoop and holler, and that’s what we are up there trying to get you to do!”

However, I sense a tempered frustration in Miss Delicious’s voice; is there perhaps a downside to burlesque re-entering the spotlight? “You do sort of get stereotyped and lumped with a bunch of burlesque performers that aren’t really into burlesque; they just see it as stripping and think ‘Ah, brilliant! I can be a stripper’”, she says disappointedly. “They get up there, put a pair of tassels on and think that that’s enough to be a burlesque performer- that’s not great, especially since [burlesque] is getting a bit of a bad name in certain areas [as a result]. Other than that, it’s good thing!”

How do burlesque performers then answer to those who, despite increased awareness, still simply discount what they do as stripping and argue that it is degrading? It is certainly a topic that many feel strongly about. “They need to be educated!” retorts ‘The Scarlet Sta’ Miss Ruby Red. “They obviously don’t know anything about [burlesque] then. Perhaps they know bits and pieces, but should come along to a night and see what they think!”

Others also feel that is unfair that such comparisons still persist. “I’ve got friends who, whilst they wouldn’t label it as a degrading thing, have actually come to see me and decided that it’s not for them. They do think it’s a little bit too close to stripping, especially when it’s one of their mates’ girlfriends up on stage doing it. That’
s fair enough; they’ve given it a go and decided it’s not their thing,” admits Tallulah.
“I mean, I’ve seen strippers (and whilst I’ve seen some amazing women strip and I wouldn’t like to belittle what they do as it’s a really hard job), I do think that there’s a different element of control involved in burlesque” she reasons. “I’m giving the audience a real nod and a wink and in a way, it’s really quite old fashioned because of that. Also, I’m very much in control of what’s going on and the situation will stay that way. I would say that the power of the gaze is switched round: it’s not that you’re there to be admired (although possibly, that is what some people want), but it’s actually about making people laugh and making people feel okay about making fun of themselves… and feeling okay about someone else having a bit of fun with them as well.”

“Well, it is stripping- there’s absolutely no getting away from it: you take your clothes off (you ‘peel’/ you ‘strip’); that’s it”, admits Miss Golden Delicious. However, she maintains that the significant difference lies in the commonly misplaced emphasis that appears in comparisons with stripping: with burlesque “you tease because it’s striptease.” “Burlesque is all about over the top humour (and making a t** of yourself on stage most of the time!)” she laughs, “but it’s fun; that’s what it’s meant to be. It’s all about the tease and that’s what people should remember; it’s not just ‘stripping’ it’s ‘tease-ing’.”

This important difference certainly feeds into the idea of burlesque that each individual performer holds. “To me, [burlesque] basically means having a good time” says Tallulah. “I love looking at people like Dita Von Teese; I think that she looks fabulous, but she looks fabulous. I really enjoy making people laugh, and I enjoy burlesque that make me laugh too. It really is about me trying to have a good time, and also trying to help the audience to have a good time as well.

“It definitely means having fun- that’s why I do it”, agrees Miss Va Voom. “I’m not out to make a career of it, as I know some girls do (and they are very, very good at it). For me, it’s about being able to develop a creative side that I didn’t know I had; it’s a chance to meet other people who like the same things that I do and build on a really knowing friendship base.”

Ownership of the stage and a sense of independence is also a big part of the attraction of burlesque. Far from being exploited during their act, each performer embraces the limelight and struts confidently to the centre of the stage, toying with the audience whilst retaining their attention and complete control of the routine’s progression.

“I like to be able to have something for myself- I’m in control of what I do: I come up with my routine and what I represent; it’s not being given to me. It’s about ownership and confidence”, confirms Miss Va Voom, whose second act of the night stood in contrast to her coy tea themed opener, and contained a bold and individual music choice in the form of a contemporary Muse track. ‘The Scarlet Sta’ Miss Ruby Red reveals that to her, burlesque involves a particular “having a life other than being a full-time mum.” Having left the army to have children, she confesses that it was simply “something else to do on the side. [A way] to go out and enjoy myself.”

The controlled exposure and acceptance of one’s body also plays a part in its allure. “Burlesque is more about empowerment for women”, argues Miss Violet Va Voom, “I think that it’s [new popularity is] bringing a new style of performance to people’s attention and actually whittling away slightly at the feelings a lot of people might have about burlesque when it’s bulked in with other performance genres (such as lap-dancing or stripping), despite it being something rather different.”

“If you look at audiences, they do tend to be more female-centric rather than male centred like they are in other areas,” she continues. “I feel it’s becoming more about women finding confidence, self-expression and a way of having fun as well as meeting other like-minded women (regardless of body shape, size, colour…any of those issues which can impede or affect women wanting to do something similar in other areas).”

There is no doubt that the UK burlesque community is strong. Networks of performers frequent sites such as ‘The Ministry of Burlesque’ and many women meet on the circuit or in classes run by seasoned performers and form strong friendships. Burlesque then seems to be about getting to know and understanding others, as well as yourself and your audience.

Overall, Miss Delicious feels that the underlying power of burlesque and its unifying quality lies in its use of parody: “the whole thing is parodying something that can be sexual” cleverly making it into “something that’s easy for the masses to understand and enjoy,” she explains. “As soon as I hear ‘burlesque’, I think ‘striptease-r’, comedy. It’s always got to be comical and you’ve got to be aware that you are making fun of yourself, your own body.” The delicate mix of self depreciation and celebration is vital to burlesque, and inspires awe and admiration from audience members, as well as a quiet understanding from fellow performers. “Everyone knows that twirling your t*** around isn’t exactly a sexy act”, she continues, “but you’re making the most of what you’ve got.”

What these women have undeniably got is guts- by the bucket-load. Their acts have poise, exude playful sexuality, and are all delivered with a consciously over-the-top yet appealing theatricality. As burlesque goes from strength to strength, performers are able to practice their art on ever growing stages. “The biggest crowds I’ve performed in front of were probably at festivals”, Tallulah tells me. Her troupe, The Teasemaids, “have done the Lovebox Weekender before” as well as a high profile “corporate gig with Immodesty Blaize in Amsterdam”. Celebrities are also embracing burlesque entertainment; “I performed at Kate Moss’ 34th birthday party recently too”, she adds. “I had to do a fan dance in about two square-feet of space, with Ronnie Wood standing behind me, people bashing their way past me the whole time, and Kate there looking a little bit like she was almost having too much of a good time… certainly the most bizarre gig! Never to be repeated!”

As the curtain falls on the final performance of the night, the costumes and props ranging from parasols to oversized music boxes are hurried away, and the whimsical air fades. Judging by the acts on show in Portsmouth, I cannot help but think such tongue-in-cheek romps are set to be repeated in years to come, turning expectations, social norms and even the tasselled performers’ genders (in the case of Miss Golden Delicious’s final fruity flourish) on their heads. Innovative, dramatic and perhaps still slightly controversial, UK burlesque continues to triumphantly shimmy forward with a polished glitz and an ever present wink.

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