A couple of weeks ago, I was treated to a unique birthday experience; one I might not have chosen myself. Courtesy of the wonderful Phoebe, I had my first burlesque night. I was not sure what to expect, but excited nonetheless, and eager to catch a glimpse into this world I knew nothing about.
We visited the House of Burlesque located in a speakeasy style bar at the SWAY club in Covent Garden. As it was both our first times, nervous and unsure, we whispered the code word to the hostess. (Top secret stuff!) She then ushered us down a staircase which seemed to lead to the toilet. While we understood it was a speakeasy bar, it is safe to say we were slightly taken aback by the children running up the stairs. (‘Are you sure it’s down here?’) Initially confused, we turned the corner and were welcomed in by the neon lights of the hidden bar. Giving our names on the door led us to a front row table (thank you Phoebe), and a couple of happy hour cocktails later we were ready to begin.
As previously mentioned, I was not sure what to expect. My only vague ideas of burlesque consist of something to do with Dita Von Teese, drag queen Violet Chachki, and gorgeous women taking their clothes off to some sexy music. A quick research into burlesque traces its history as being a blend of performance, satire and adult entertainment; originating from Victorian Burlesque which was a risque parody of classical theatre or ballet, it then evolved into American burlesque which was more the sort seen at variety shows, eventually being popularized by stars such as Dita Von Teese, resulting in the burlesque that is performed today. However, even with this knowledge, The House of Burlesque left me stunned.
What I did not expect was the variety of performers; different styles and body types were warmly welcomed to the stage. It was a pleasant surprise to see women of different shapes and sizes performing, and refreshing to see the confidence and sexiness they exuded. The show was not about Dita Von Teese-esque women (think curvy yet slim) simply taking their clothes off; it was creative, fun and empowering.
By empowering, I mean that I came out of there feeling incredibly confident. Not only did the evening affirm my beliefs that you do not have to look a very specific way in order to be deemed attractive, but the women also convinced me that the sexiest thing a woman can be is confident. Burlesque is about the art and confidence of taking your clothes off, rather than focusing on what is beneath. The performances varied from sexy, fun and campy, but were all so impressive, emphasizing that the performance is what we are here to see. Burlesque is not just about some seeing some naked ladies.
On that note, I liked that the show was performed in the round, with fairly bright lights. There was no kind of voyeuristic atmosphere whatsoever. You could see both the performer and the audience, and they could all see you. I also paid attention to who made up the audience; I would argue that it was made up of 90% women, with the only men in attendance seeming to be partners of said women. Everything about the evening made it clear that we were witnessing a performance; we are not simply watching women take their clothes off.
While I did not fully understand burlesque before this night, I feel like I had some form of respect for it, at least. However, now I completely appreciate the work that goes into a performance; from the concept, music, costumes, lighting and choreography, it really is a work of art. Aside from burlesque generally being a fun night out, it is also interesting to look at from a feminist perspective. As nude women are so often submitted to being under the male gaze, burlesque subverts this dynamic by reclaiming the power of their nudity. The performers reclaim the terms on which they undress, and they grant you permission to watch them. The power dynamic of the performer and the audience is noticeable; they have you under their control, and you are here for them, not the other way around.
In this sense, a night of burlesque cannot be faulted. It is fun, relaxed and something rather unusual to do with your Saturday night. The performers at The House of Burlesque were incredibly talented, as was the show’s compere, Delores Deluxe. SWAY club was cool, the cocktails were gorgeous and the performers were a bit of both. Burlesque is well worth a night out;. you can find out more information on the shows here: http://www.houseofburlesque.co.uk. Go on, treat yourself to something new, you might be surprised by what you see