Often criticised by those who have never seen a performance Martin McGrath discovers that burlesque is not a dirty word when he talks to three performers about how they discovered their artform, their pride in their work and the controversy that has threatened to drive this thriving entertainment scene off the stages of London.
You can get some interesting reactions when you tell people that your task for today is to interview three burlesque dancers. There’s a lot of eyebrow lifting and some smirking, a bit of tittering and even the occasional nudge and wink.
Which is, frankly, all very silly.
These reactions seem even stranger when sitting down with the three dancers themselves, Tempest Rose, Beulah Bell and Amber-Rosia. I am immediately struck by their shared intelligence, determination and self-confidence. These are very modern young women, but they’re also possessed of a real sense of belonging to an entertainment tradition stretching back hundreds of years.
When I ask them how they would describe their acts, they each reach back into the history of their artform before talking about what they do today.
Tempest Rose calls upon the “broad history and different elements of burlesque” before describing it as “a theatrical art that pulls together eroticism and sensuality, sometimes striptease, parody, comedy, dance, theatrical spectacle – costuming and presentation are a large part of burlesque – and then unique specialist skills because it can bring together circus and fire-eating and storytelling and point work in ballet and singing.”
Beulah also describes feeling that her act is a part of a long history – one that often courts controversy. “The revival of burlesque has taken a slightly risqué form from another era. You’d think that in this day and age people would be able to cope with it. But I do quite like that we still have that ability to shock, that we still have a slight innocence as a society. ”
The situation in Camden, where the local authority has been forcing burlesque venues to close or cancel performances through a draconian interpretation of licensing laws (see Camden in Crisis below), makes them all angry.
Beulah’s first concern is with the effect Camden’s rulings are having on the perception of what they do. “The worry, as performers, is that we’re being looked down upon and people are getting a misguided view of what we do. People who are into burlesque know what the artform is but others may read one article or see one thing and get the wrong idea. And if people who don’t have experience of burlesque make assumptions because of what Camden council are doing, for example, then they may think thatour profession is something that we should be ashamed of. And that upsets me.”
Tempest, who lives in Camden, is bewildered by the strange priorities of the council. “I could buy crack at ten o’clock in the morning on the corner of my street, if I wanted to,” she says. “But I can’t dance in an over-18 venue in front of a consenting audience of adults.”
But there are also wider concerns – points of principle and practicality that bother her, and that she believes should bother people who have never even seen a burlesque show. “An artform is being censored which hasn’t even been viewed properly by the censors. In the future that could be applied to anything. And it is costing performers work. I’ve lost three regular paying gigs, but it isn’t just burlesque dancers who are losing out. The burlesque revival has allowed other cabaret and variety performers to work as well. As burlesque has become more popular there’s been work for magicians and comedians and ventriloquists. Variety kind of died out in London but burlesque has helped bring it back. It affects their work as much as it does ours.”
Amber-Rosia wonders where the censors will turn next if Camden gets its way with burlesque. “It’s going back to the 1950s censorship laws,” she says. “It not only going to affect burlesque, it will also affect theatrical performance where someone, as part of the storyline, removes some clothing. Or look at the Carry On films. If you applied Camden’s rules to them, they’d be banned. They’re burlesque. They have more nudity than some burlesque shows.”
That sentiment gets vigorous agreement from all sides. The Camden censors, some of whom happily admit that they’ve never even seen a burlesque show, have entirely misunderstood what burlesque is about, they all insist.
“Burlesque performers don’t all even do striptease,” Tempest points out. “There’s an obsession with nudity from people outside burlesque – that it’s always striptease – and they discount that you can have completely valid burlesque routines that don’t use striptease at all.”
“The main elements of burlesque aren’t actually sexual,” Beulah adds. “The main elements of burlesque are comedy and cheekiness. It’s not offensive. I can’t imagine anyone being really offended by our burlesque show.”
“My mum comes to the shows for God’s sake!” Amber-Rosia interjects.
“Both my parents are extremely proud of me,” Beulah agrees. “They understand what I do. If my parents aren’t offended by it I don’t see how people can see it in a sordid light.”
Tempest Rose believes that there’s more to burlesque than its critics understand. Where some can’t see beyond sexy dancing and lingerie, some acts are working at entirely different levels. “A lot of burlesque crosses that boundary into performance art and burlesque always was a comment on society. It always contained satire. It’s more obvious with some acts than others but certainly I’ve watched acts and been made to think about social attitudes in a new way. The critics discount all the strands that make burlesque a unique artform.”
Burlesque seems caught between two sets of moral crusaders. There are those who criticise it for contributing to “moral decline” but there are also those who believe that what performers in burlesque do is damaging to the interests of all women because it contributes to the idea of women as just sexual objects. The three women reject this totally.
“There is still this bizarre notion, that I absolutely despise, that any time a woman, in any situation, displays herself in an erotic or sensual light, automatically her body is there for the sexual pleasure of men,” Tempest argues. “That is a very dangerous viewpoint and I think all women should be very wary about it. Because it is saying that you can’t be sexy, or, if you are, it is only for men to get off on. It turns the clock back to a time when the onus was on women not to be sexual rather than on men to control themselves. All of a sudden it’s the women’s fault that men objectify women.”
“It’s like saying that if you wear a mini-skirt, you’re asking to be molested,” Amber-Rosia agrees.
“That’s exactly what it’s saying,” Beulah adds. “Men can’t be trusted to exercise control so the law should be directed at limiting what women can do. The mainstream media is always using the female form in an overtly sexual way. Look at the girl groups or rap videos on MTV. There is stuff that’s played before nine o’clock for any young girl to watch that is far more sexualised than our nightclub act to an audience of consenting adults. We are tasteful, we are beautiful, there’s no sleaze. If people want to worry about sexual images of women, they should look at the mainstream media, I think. Not people like us, who are promoting femininity and strength and fun.”
And advertising is full of explicit images, Amber-Rosia points out. “You get these huge billboards – Marks & Spencer bras for example – that are far more sexual than anything you’ll see in burlesque. Anyone can see those adverts.”
“But no one is trying to shut down the fashion industry,” Tempest Rose says.
So, if there’s so much overtly sexual material in the world – and if recent changes in the law mean that strip clubs and lap-dancing venues are opening in larger numbers all across the country – why should the comparatively modest style of burlesque suddenly be experiencing a dramatic renewal?
Tempest Rose thinks part of the reason is that people are trying to escape from the aggressively sexualised images that dominate society. “Women are really sick of being told what is sexy. The image of what is sexy on television and in the media is so aggressive. There are people who like the slightly understated, old-fashioned sensuality that exists in burlesque. It’s a way of finding your own sexuality and watching someone else do it without it being so aggressive.”
These women make it absolutely clear that they’re not being exploited by anyone. They decide the content of their shows. They decide what they will and won’t do on stage. And they manage their own careers, taking what work they want.
“We’re professional,” Amber-Rosia says. “No one is taking advantage of us. We don’t need to be regulated at that level. I’ve never seen a burlesque artist who is up there and doesn’t want to do it. You look at some of the women we work with and they are the strongest and most powerful women I have ever met.”
Burlesque artists are strong and confident, Beulah says. “Yeah I might have a bit of cellulite, yeah I might have a few spots here and there, but you know what? I can perform, I can put on a really good show, and I can make everyone in a room smile and enjoy themselves. I entertain.”
“It’s always been about me,” Amber-Rosia confirms. “When you are up on stage, you have to have that exhibitionist streak, you know? Women who are not happy doing this job tend to leave, they do not stay around for long. You’ve got to find your niche.”
Camden Council officers have chosen to classify any performance that involves the removal of clothes as “adult in nature” even if, as is the case with most of the burlesque acts, the acts don’t involve explicit nudity. As a result, venues seeking to put on Burlesque shows in the borough are being forced to apply for licences of the kind required by lap-dancing venues.
A number of venues have cancelled regular events and Equity members are losing work as a result.
Equity has written to Camden Council asking them to reverse their policy.
The Council said it was acted to “protect the public, especially children from harm” but these performances are taking place in licensed premises to adult audiences. Burlesque is not primarily about titillation and the content of burlesque shows is no more “adult in nature” than many plays in theatres across the West End such as Blue Angel, Equus and Chicago. Will Camden extend its ruling? Or is this a case of one rule for burlesque performers and one for large theatres?
UPDATE: A vigorous campaign by the Burlesque Women’s Institute (www.burlesquewomensinstitute.com), supported by Equity, has seen Camden reverse its decision on the treatment of Burlesque performances in the borough.
Tempest Rose started out as an actress, joining Equity in drama school where she studied classical acting and musical theatre. She successfully auditioned for the Kitten Club, London’s longest running burlesque troupe, with whom she continues to perform as well as working as a solo performer.
Beulah was classically trained in dance – studying tap, ballet and modern – but rejected the rigorous training and lifestyle. She started working as a striptease artist in an old-fashioned club in Soho where she met and teamed up with Amber-Rosia. She now performs solo.
Amber-Rosia “fell into striptease” and met Beulah in Sunset Strip. With a background in trapeze and gymnastics, she found she had a talent for pole dancing but a desire to take her performance down a different route. She found burlesque allowed her to tell stories that were more sensual and artistic.
(Originally published in Equity magazine, Summer 2009)