Somewhere between the familiar and the foreign, the pop culture mainstream and its recesses, and every bit both exotic and erotic, lies burlesque. It’s an art form as varied as any other, with a range of styles and powered by a myriad of emotions, though still it’s often misunderstood and underrated. Those who have found this world, though, are quick to embrace it.
For the uninitiated, here’s a primer of sorts to create the right frame of mind and wet one’s appetite; a bit of a burlesque tease. We’re enlisting someone who both works behind the scenes and on stage: Red Herring. The prolific Toronto-based 28-year-old performer took to the burlesque stage in 2009. She began producing shows a year later. They now include Reveal Me at the Rivoli, Back End Burlesque, among others. For the past two years she has run the Toronto School of Burlesque, and also produces the Toronto chapter of Naked Girls Reading. But that may be more advanced for some readers, so let’s keep it simple for now.
What It’s Not
There are plenty of misconceptions when it comes to burlesque, thanks in large part to a variety of misleading pop culture offerings as well as skewed body image ideals that populate magazines and entertainment. It’s definitely not that Cher and Christina Aguilera movie, and it’s not what the Pussycat Dolls do either.
“There’s a misconception that we’re all thin women with amazing dance skills, huge breasts, a perfect ass, and red and black (or pink and black) lingerie that doesn’t come off,” says Red.
“We get told a lot by women, who make up the majority of my audience, that it’s inspiring, brave, and generally amazing to see so many different kinds of performers on stage owning what they’re doing,” she added, talking of those first timers in the crowd. Men on the other hand often expect something more lewd and less entertaining. Something that more akin to a strip club atmosphere than anything else.
What It Is
It’s about the reveal. It’s not about what it is being shown, but how it’s being shown. Burlesque, after all, is a tease—a strip tease. And performers and performances are incredibly varied: sometimes there is a lone person on stage, sometimes a group. Sometimes it’s rowdy and raucous, and sometimes it’s fragile and tragic. There can be elaborate props and ornate costumes, there are acrobatics and yes, the stage can and will get messy. While some events are thematic in nature, there are often no limits to what can take place.
“Recently one of my shows featured a male performer doing a classic performance to ‘Putting on the Ritz’, a female performer getting fetishy in latex and on a chair, a drag queen ridiculing the audience to great applause, a ginger molesting a plush rabbit during a tea party, and a gender-bending raunchy stripper toss up to Tim Hortons,” shared Red.
There is surely something for everyone, and definitely plenty to talk about.
Who Are They?
Well, firstly, they are burlesque performers. They are men and women of all colours and ages and body types and sexual identities. Like most artists, many have various jobs to pay the bills, perhaps begrudgingly so. That is part of the reason they adopt mononyms. While the idea is to have a reflective, memorable moniker so as to stand out, because there are those out there who misunderstand and look down upon burlesque, anonymity helps as well.
“Not everyone wants to be easily found,” explains Red, who, yes, wishes to be called by her stage name. “We are sexual creatures. We remove our clothes often seductively on stage, and some misguided people can believe that because we choose to do so, we are DTF at any given moment.”
She goes on to explain that for some, doctors or lawyers for instance, a disclosure of the crossover between burlesque and their ‘muggle’ job can be unfortunately detrimental.
Red is fortunate enough not to have to worry about those around her, but there are others who are more careful, and some who she has worked with for years and seen in many stages of undress where she doesn’t know their real name.
How to Act
Now you have a bit of an idea of what to expect when you get there (although truly, under you are there, you can’t know it all), so the question becomes what exactly to do once you arrive. It’s not the opera, that’s for sure, but it’s also not a strip club. Each performance dictates to what extent the audience vocally engages, but for the most part, you’re encouraged to cheer throughout at every peel and reveal.
“We love nothing more than people who hoot, holler, and clap,” says Red, whose own performances tends towards the nerdy and quirky. “This is a rare chance to look at and take in a performer who has purposely made themselves into a gorgeous creature, and express your appreciation,” she adds. Of course, she has to offer a disclaimer. “This is not okay on the street, in a cafe, or in most places in polite society, but this is perfectly okay when we’re on stage!”
It’s not a competition, that is to say, most (some?) performers prefer not to hear that one was the best of the night, but rather that you loved his or her show in particular or all of it in general. Even feel free to buy them a drink!
Why Do They Do It?
It’s an exhausting, pricey artistic endeavour, and with those aforementioned who may not completely understand, it can be tricky. It would seem that everyone does it for different reasons, but ultimately it comes down to a part of the person wanting to express themselves, be on stage, inspire, engage, and enliven.
“Performing to me, is about being entertaining,” explained Red. “There are few ways to liven up an entire room like getting on stage. I’ve been a stripper, a musical theatre performer, a dancer, an actress, a host, and more, and that time on stage is addictive You feed off your audience, if you’re doing it right, as much as they feed off of you.”
The performer has virtually complete control of the show: the music, the costume, the dance—it’s a pure creative endeavour limited only by perhaps practicality and the limits of the imagination.
Perhaps the best part of burlesque is the sense of community. It’s an active, outgoing, and welcoming group of people united by their love of artistic and creative expression, and because there are so many different people united by a common goal. That leaves the viewer to embrace the beauty and enjoy the show.
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. You can follow him on Twitter @MrAnthonyWrites.
Photography by Bettina May.