Tuesday 24 April 2018

The day I became a burlesque star

Erin McCafferty

So there I am, holding on to a wooden table in the dressing room of the Sugar Club, while a girl pulls on the strings of my boned corset, her foot pushing on me from the back as she begs me to breathe in.

My hair has been coiffed to perfection and my make-up is full-on '40s style. It's like a scene from an old-fashioned film. Only it's not a film set, and it's not 70 years ago. This is Dublin 2010, where the Neo-Burlesque scene is fast garnering a large following.

For those who are not acquainted with this part-cabaret, part-dance, sometimes-strip tease entertainment, burlesque may conjure up slightly seedy images. Think half-undressed girls in old-fashioned underwear, music, flirting, decadence and unabashed sensuality. But there is more to it than that and it's not for nothing it's undergoing a revival.

Just check out the Burlesque & Cabaret Social Club, which takes place once a month at The Sugar Club, Dublin, and regularly sells out, as well as a host of one-off burlesque nights in venues around Dublin.

"Burlesque seems to thrive in times of recession," says Lisa Byrne of the Irish Burlesque School, explaining that all kinds of women come to her classes.

"I've taught teenagers and even one 80-year-old. They come from all walks of life and in all shapes and sizes, too. I've been amazed by the transformation in some women after just a few weeks," she says.

"It not only improves their posture but they become openly more confident and comfortable in their own skins."

Intrigued, I decided to enlist the help of Dublin's very own 'Queen of Burlesque' -- Miss Bella-a-Go-Go, who not only gives private tuition but teaches general burlesque.

The first step involves choosing a name -- a burlesque alter ego if you like -- the likes of 'Roxy Rhinestone' 'Azaria Starfire' or 'Truly Divine'.

Now while I'm definitely interested in this phenomenon, I am by nature not an exhibitionist. In fact some would call me shy.

But as Bella explains, part of the beauty of burlesque is that it allows you to show a different side of your personality. "It's a very liberating experience," she promises.

Feminists argue that far from being liberating, burlesque promotes the female body as a sexual object and can therefore be deemed degrading, but Bella begs to differ. "I've experienced plenty of negative comments about it over the years," she says.

"And often it is young people who are the worst offenders; the same ones who think nothing of getting drunk at the weekend and making fools of themselves.

"They presume you're just a stripper, when in fact burlesque is so much more sophisticated. Strip-tease is one small part of the act and it's not mandatory. Even when it is involved, it's tastefully executed."

At this point she fixes me with her eyes and begins to remove an arm-length glove with her teeth. "Keep watching," she commands as she holds my gaze and slowly, very slowly, pulls the glove off, exposing her lower arm.

"You see?" she says. "It's not about what you take off, but how you do it; and you don't even have to do it. It's about teasing the audience and being proud of your femininity. Burlesque is empowering for women."

Empowering it may be, but on the day of the class, which takes place at the Sugar Club, I find myself feeling nervous.

However, as woman will attest, the power of some new clothes and full-on hair and make-up should never be under estimated. By the time I have donned my new costume, I feel like a different person; no longer 'Erin McCafferty -- feature writer', but 'Erin McCafferty -- burlesque dancer extraordinaire', with all the confidence one would expect from such a title.

It helps that I'm joined by a number of delightful ladies, each of whom has a thoroughly normal background.

Alexia Lace, for example works as a temp; D4 Von Teese is an artist; Lolita Lush is a mother of three; and Didi Décolletage has recently moved here from the UK.

And then there's Harlot Deville, who, having relocated to London, is fast making a name for herself as the only Irish burlesque dancer on the London scene. Far from intimidating, I find them sweet and encouraging.

There's a feeling of camaraderie as they help each other into the appropriate garb and swap stories of vintage finds, in the make-shift dressing room of the Sugar Club.

The class itself is conducted by Bella, who has the authority of a natural teacher, but the humour of a comedian. She commands that we walk tall, open our shoulders and stick out our derrieres at intervals, as we follow her simple but stylised steps to 1920s music.

It's easy and fun and surprisingly works the muscles; I feel it the next day. Of course this is a beginner's class, but I get the gist.

"Remember you're a lady, a sexy, elegant lady," she reminds us as we shimmy and strut and twirl to the music before removing a glove in the aforementioned manner.

I begin gingerly, feeling somewhat self-conscious. But although the moves are done in jest, I'm walking taller, pushing my shoulders back and carrying my head that little bit higher. The effect is subtle. I feel more ladylike; more feminine. And it's fun. By the time the photographer arrives I don't want to stop.

Move over Dita Von Teese there's a new girl in town and her name is . . . well, here lies the problem; I've yet to come up with a burlesque name.

Suggestions on the back of a postcard to the Irish Independent ...

Irish Independent

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