Monday 22 April 2019

Burlesque: Becoming Dita

Jo Gohmann

The Neo Burlesque revival first hit Dublin six years ago with the debut of The Tassel Club. Now, in addition, there's The Burlesque & Cabaret Social Club and the Dublin Burlesque Ball. There are shops devoted entirely to selling corsets and vintage-inspired lingerie. Women are opening old-style millineries, and burlesque dance classes have mile-long waiting lists.

The city appears to be in a bit of a boa chokehold at the moment, with people dropping as much as €30 to see these bawdy, vaudeville-style shows. With the men in wingtips and the ladies in faux-fur, the crowds can Charleston to swing music then revel in the naughty allure of a va-va-voom striptease.

While Dublin initially had a hard time recruiting local gals for shows, this is no longer a problem. Apparently, watching a flawless fan dance can awaken even the most dormant of exhibitionist urges, and now there are dozens of fearless lasses who are eager to craft a burlesque alter ego. Last August, the Dublin Burlesque Ball held a competition for Ireland's Next Top Burlesque Star, and 10 cheeky contestants did everything but roll around naked in a pool of blue paint. (Oh no, wait, forget it -- someone did do that.)

It seems everyone wants to be the next Dita Von Teese. But how exactly does one make the transformation from blushing Aoife McGee to Madame Vivi LaBoom? Always a sucker for sequins and publicly humiliating myself, I decided to take a burlesque crash-course to see how it's done.

First, I enroll in a beginner class at the Irish Burlesque School. Entitled Flirting With Burlesque, it promises that I'll "shimmy, shake, bump, grind, wiggle, jiggle, twirl and swirl" my way through the classic burlesque moves. No experience is necessary, and I will "finish the course as a glamorous burlesque dancer!"

The class is located in the Dance Space Centre on Foley Street and I arrive for my first lesson in my scrambled-together ensemble of fishnets, spike heels, T-shirt and denim shorts. Not exactly Vegas showgirl, but I had been unsure of the dress code. I soon see that I'm not the only clueless beginner. Other women are in exercise shorts, one is in slacks, and one gal is in a floral dress worthy of Sunday Mass.

There are about 15 of us, all in our 20s and 30s. I chat with my fellow sexual deviants: A hairdresser, a receptionist, and a PhD candidate getting her doctorate in Euripides.

Our instructor, Lisa Byrne, stands before us in a lacy leotard, stockings and a boa. With her flame-red hair, she looks as though she's stepped out of a 40s pin-up poster. Lisa perfected her burlesque skills while performing at London's Café de Paris under the name Kitty Darling. She welcomes us in a friendly, patient tone, then launches into some warm-up exercises that involve a lot of hip rolling and shoulder-shaking.

As Lisa instructs us on how to pelvic thrust, it's clear that we're all feeling a bit bashful. This isn't like ballet class, where if your tour jeté is shaky people just shrug. We're all keenly aware of the fact that we're trying to look seductive. However, we sport such frozen looks of concentration as we shimmy that I fear we look more like an army of cyborgs with faulty wiring. To make matters worse, I've just realised that the giant window on the left looks straight into the offices of The Irish Independent. Wonderful.

Near the end of the lesson, Lisa offers a stack of boas to use, and she puts on some classic burlesque music. It's all horn and bass drum, and, clad in our feathers, the class appears to loosen up a bit. We learn a short bit of a routine, and Lisa ends with an assignment: we must return next week with our burlesque stage name.

I feel rather exhilarated after the class. Yes, I'd had a few awkward moments and I appear to have pulled a muscle I didn't realise I had, but it had also been a great laugh. On the bus home I try to brainstorm a name. As Lisa explained, our name should evoke our dancer's persona and style. Are we naughty? Funny? Classic? Do I want to be like the lovely Dublin dancer Sapphira Swan who prances around in a red cape, coyly flirting with a big bad wolf? Or am I more like the not-so-subtle UK performer Asha Tank, who carefully positions an angle grinder so that sparks shoot from her metal knickers?

So many options! Feeling rather stumped, I turn to the internet for assistance, and soon find a 'burlesque name generator'. According to the site, I need only type in my real name, and my burlesque name will magically appear. And it is ... drumroll ...

...Lavender Gouda.

No no. That isn't going to do. I quickly find another site that offers provocative words that you can string together to form a name. Ermine. Perky. Sensuous. Foxy. Moonbottom. The list goes on and on.

I come up with a handful of contenders, and run them by my fiancé: Foxy McGlitterwhip; Ima Imbroglio; Aurora di Silkysmack.

Several weary fiancé sighs later and I have a name: Tayto Galore is born!

The next step in my burlesque-a-thon will be getting the right look, so I head to the Honey Trap Boutique in Dun Laoghaire. Stylist Melissa Nelson opened her shop two years ago, selling corsets, lingerie, elbow gloves, stockings and other saucy accoutrements. She also offers makeovers in her Pout Parlour, which are a big hit with weddings and hen parties, as well as couples who are just looking to kick things up a notch. I make an appointment for the Full Foxy Makeover, and Melissa kindly offers to fit me out in a costume as well.

When I arrive, I discover the walls of Honey Trap are tastefully lined with an array of satin, velvet and lace corsetry. Melissa greets me warmly. She is a striking woman: tall, with ruby lips, and blonde hair that is swept up in a fist-sized curl. She sports a jaunty eye patch, which I at first think is an accessory, but later learn is worn due to a car accident from many years ago. In what appears to be a tongue-in-cheek gesture, she also sells eye patches as costume pieces. "That's why I have my shop, so I can wear my patch without getting any grief!" she laughs.

Melissa ushers me into the make-up room and explains that she wants to give me a very old world-style burlesque look, circa 1930s. She introduces me to Eimaer Geelon, a hair stylist who crafts many of the elaborate coifs seen on The Tudors. She immediately attacks my hair with a curling iron and begins coating it in what feels like a tanker of hair spray. While she works away, Melissa closes in on me with an eye pencil and lipstick.

When my make-up and hair are complete, Melissa helps strap me into my ensemble, which feels akin to wearing a bear-trap blouse. With my internal organs now firmly crushed and my head feeling about 20 pounds heavier, I am shown my new look.

Whoa. My hair is very... big. Eimear has turned it into an elaborate twisting sculpture, and it looks almost otherworldly. So much so, I feel a bit like I could do a cameo on Alien vs. Predator. But then, I remind myself, this was the style in the 30s. The blowout had yet to be invented.

As for the costume, well, it is impossible not to adore my corset. I can't breathe and I don't fill it out in the slightest, but the red velvet and cinched waist make me feel as if I'm ready to kick the saloon door down and start a ruckus. I feel a bit more madam of the bordello than Gypsy Rose Lee, but no matter, I can now totally see the appeal of glamming it up old style. It feels like an exotic alternative to stomping around in stilettos and a Topshop mini-dress.

Next step: time for a proper burlesque audition. Lisa announces at the end of dance class that there are spots available in an upcoming Karl X Byrne Burlesque & Cabaret and Social Club. The audition will be held in a studio in Temple Bar, and we need only show up and perform the same dance we've been learning in class.

On the evening of the audition I'm suffering from a wretched head cold, and it kills any potential butterflies I might have had. I arrive at the studio feeling about as sensual as a bag of wet turf. Lisa is there to lead things, and for the first round it's just myself and two other ladies. Watching at the front of the room is a man in a fedora and topcoat, and a woman in a leather pencil skirt and red pompadour. I stumble through the routine in my Lemsip haze, and afterwards we are introduced to the man in the fedora -- Karl X himself. The woman in the pompadour is burlesque performer Lolita Lush. Both are incredibly friendly and disarming, and they gamely ask us our burlesque names.

At the last minute I ditch Tayto and opt for Foxy McGlitterwhip.

"Hmm," Lolita Lush frowns at me. "I hate to say this, but I'm afraid that sounds a bit... porny."

Over the next few weeks of dance class, we slowly begin to look less cyborg and a bit more sex kitty. Gone are the Sunday Mass dresses. Now there are corsets and satin pumps. I've ditched my denim shorts and now sport a sequinned dress and stockings.

There is much more confidence in the air, and a bigger sense of both joie de vivre and spirit of carpe diem. I definitely feel more secure in my shimmy, and I can now strut in heels with great ease.

And yet I don't think I'll be hauling myself up on to a real stage anytime soon. At least not without the aid of a large vintage hip flask.

But it matters not. It's been a hilarious bit of fun to dip into this sparkly, high-kicking world of pretend, and I'm already eyeballing Lisa's next round of classes: "Release Your Inner Showgirl!"

Who knows, with enough practice, maybe I really will shoot sparks from my knickers.

Mother would be so proud.

Irish Independent

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