- 24 Jul 14
It has its critics – but the growing burlesque scene is allowing many women to combat body negativity and improve their self-image.
A dancer is pacing the floor in Nike high tops, fishnets and a tulle tutu. Her director Lisa Byrne, meanwhile, is attempting to make the feather-flooded stage look like a place that produces theatre, not down comforters.
It’s nearly show time at The Button Factory for the Irish Burlesque School, and everyday women of all shapes, sizes and professions are getting ready to show what happens when you swap inhibitions and body negativity for silk fans, feather boas and a bit of old world glamour. Between the recent Miss Burlesque Ireland competition and Dublin’s annual Burlesque Festival, Ireland’s burlesque scene has been steadily growing as a wiggly alternative to tighter and (I’ll say it) far less interesting Irish dance.
Since 2009, the Irish Burlesque School has offered women a safe place to strip down and develop their emotional and physical strength through practicing – and performing – the historical, occasionally misunderstood dance.
“People think it’s nipple tassels and that’s it,” Ciara Cawley, one of Lisa’s students, bemoans. “They don’t know how broad burlesque can be.”
The school’s July show had the expected spreadeagles and pin-up standards. But the burlesque women also enacted Kung Fu battles with aliens to a soundtrack of the Beastie Boys’ ‘Intergalactic’; gave space to a satirical gender-duo act; and unveiled a tableau characterised as “Gene Kelly on acid.” It’s easy to understand why Lisa describes burlesque as performance art.
“It’s a piece of theatre, so the storyline must be so strong throughout,” Lisa explains. “There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end, with a point to it.”
Lisa (stage name, Lisa Darling) is a Glasnevin girl who went to London to study dance and musical theatre under teachers who expected perfection.
“A lot of my friends were dropping out of dance with all sorts of problems – eating disorders, injuries, having to get surgery because they were so worked to the bone,” Lisa says. “Burlesque taught me to stop being so bloody hard on myself and to actually embrace dance.”
She returned to Dublin after years performing abroad and began teaching burlesque. Her goal was to nurture her students and make dance an empowering outlet for them.
“Burlesque is really stripping away body negativity and saying, ‘No. You are perfect just the way you are and actually, we are going to make an act out of that, and we are going to put you on stage and show everyone how perfect you truly are’.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more confident and bubbly personality than her student Amy O’Keeffe, a 28-year-old teacher for children with autism. But Amy insists she wasn’t always that way.
“I had zero confidence before I started, and I had the worst body image,” Amy, who has adopted the stage name Scarlet Von Tassel, admits. “Now, it’s like, I have a big belly but that’s okay because it’s burlesque!”
Similarly, Emer O’Driscoll, stage name Reme La Rouge, a 43-year-old makeup artist and power lifter/possible goddess, says she had to be physically dragged on stage for her first burlesque performance.
“But I came off glowing,” Emer beams, adding that her next stage appearance involved a red-hot devil costume and a pair of squirty cans. Tonight she dons a thong bodysuit.
The students’ families and partners, aka burlesque widowers – “because they lost us to burlesque,” Amy explains – are generally supportive. That said, the widowers are honest about what they see.
“Our boyfriends get together and say, ‘People think it must be great having burlesque girlfriends, but these gals are nuts! They are screaming about feathers! They are stuck in their corsets! It never ends’,” Amy laughs.
Lisa’s classes range from Beginner Burlesque to Charleston to “Nouveau Burlesque” – a Beyoncé-inspired, commercial form of burlesque. She hosts between six and seven classes a week, with roughly 20 girls in each. The women are all different ages, sizes and shapes from various nationalities, job backgrounds and walks of life.
“One of my cousins came up to me and said ‘I’d love to do it, but I don’t have the boobs’. But it’s not about the boobs,” enthuses Emer. “That’s the beauty of burlesque. It doesn’t matter what you look like. I wouldn’t get into tights for class when I first started. I was always wearing yoga pants or workout clothes.”
“Now it’s hot pants and fish nets!” Ciara pipes up.
And she doesn’t exaggerate. Make a trip to Lisa’s Foley Street studio, and you’ll find the girls warming up in red lipstick, bowtie heels and the teeny strips of leathers that make up said hot pants.
Critics say burlesque objectifies women, but student Kara Kelley (aka Dahlia Allure), 27, points out that their fan base is mostly women. Ciara adds that the classes alone are a “real lesson in female solidarity.”
“I work in a male-dominated industry, so even to come to the first class was intimidating,” Ciara admits.
Talk all you want about the male gaze, you can feel the raw feminine force in the room as you watch Lisa’s darlings move through her eight counts with ruler-straight shoulders, smirking and simmering for their own reflections.
It’s clear to see. Nobody puts baby in the corner – and nobody could take an ounce a power away from Lisa’s darlings.
Want more? Check back at hotpress.com next week for additional photographs and stories about the ladies of the Irish Burlesque School.