"Okay, stroll to the left, that’s right, let’s grind and bump...
Meet Amber Alert, Cheri Bomb and Beebee Bardot - that’s me. The clothes we are stripping off may be only play-acted for now, but give us a chance and our tassels will soon be spinning. The class is Burlesque 101, the classic art of striptease, and the setting is Toys in Babeland, a women’s sex shop in SoHo, New York City. But, in fact, I could be almost anywhere. All over the US and the UK, women are signing up for classes in striptease, pole dancing and even strip aerobics.
"You can trail a boa," says Ducky Doolittle, our instructor for the night, "or try a head swing. Think, ‘I’m sexy, I’m hot.’ And you will be."
Ever since Oprah dedicated a show to ‘releasing your inner sexpot’, naughty dancing has taken off, big time. Madonna was recently snapped pole dancing for a magazine photo shoot, while Kate Moss appeared in a White Stripes video spinning and twirling with abandon.
As a symbol of empowerment, the pole is fast becoming this year’s accessory. In Scotland, Edinburgh’s Harvey Nichols store recently hosted a pole-dancing exhibition and lessons for customers, while Pink Piranha, a lingerie shop in Glasgow, has had a pole installed on its shop floor, in case the urge should take you. The poles are surprisingly inexpensive and easily obtainable on the internet - give it a year or two and Ikea will be selling them.
"It’s a life-changing experience for some women," says Dawn Love, who runs DIY Divas, a pole-dancing class in Glasgow and Edinburgh. "At the end of three weeks, they walk out of the class stronger, sexier, more confident people."
Love, who used to be a dancer for Peter Stringfellow, got the idea for classes from an article she spotted on the internet. Pole-dancing classes were taking off on the west coast of America, so why not the west coast of Scotland? Her classes have been running for two years now and have gained a faithful following. And, contrary to what you might expect, the students are not limited to lithe 18-year-olds. One 48-year-old can’t get enough of it, and keeps coming back for more.
"We teach them how to put on a full three-minute stage show," Love explains. "They learn how to walk to the pole, how to walk around it and how to use it in their act. And then they move on to facial expressions, how to tease a crowd, how to keep them entertained. You don’t have to act like a monkey; you can be sexy without hanging upside down. It’s all about the way you hold yourself, the way you move."
The finale to the three-week course is the show the students put on in venues such as Glasgow’s Truffle Club for family and friends. As well as advice on the staging of their acts, the women are given glamour makeovers with false eyelashes and diamante sparkles to help them look like professionals. Then they go out and do their thing.
"It’s good, clean fun," says Love. "There’s no nudity, unless the urge takes them. And once they’re up there, the women become the divas they always wanted to be."
So, do all women want to be divas? In every housewife, student or career girl, is there a rampant exhibitionist longing to get out? Given the right context, it would appear so. In Hollywood, Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani recently performed as part of the Pussycat Dolls, a burlesque-style cabaret group that has run the circuit of hot clubs. And in New York, the burlesque revival is in full swing. There are dozens of clubs and new venues, such as the lavish Moulin Rouge-inspired show Le Scandal and Lucky Stiff, where you can see women of all shapes and sizes performing striptease or vaudeville acts practically every night of the week. Anyone can do it, and a lot of people are. As you read this piece, hundreds of would-be performers are sewing on sequins and sourcing eyelash glue for the many open audition nights that are advertised all over the city.
The craze has spread to London, in venues such as the Whoopee Club, while Glasgow follows closely behind, with its Club Noir set to open at the end of March in the Big Joint in South Street. Ironic, camp and sexy in a vintage kind of way, this revival in the art of classic striptease is being hailed as nothing short of revolutionary.
Burlesque was born in Britain in the 1840s, as entertainment for the working classes. As a mixture of music, dance and ribald comedy that mocked the more refined worlds of ballet and opera, it was cheap, accessible and hugely popular.
Producers soon realised that audiences wanted more than a good laugh. In fact, the more flesh the female performers revealed, the more tickets they sold. Back in the chaste Victorian era, during which the sight of an uncovered ankle was cause for alarm, when one female act came on dressed in a tutu and did not perform Swan Lake, it was regarded as lewd, rude and extremely shocking. The show sold out for months.
P G Barnum brought burlesque to New York in the 1900s, and in a few years almost every town in the US had its own burlesque theatre. Troupes travelled from state to state, and performers such as Little Egypt and Gypsy Rose Lee became household names. Although many of the acts were considered highly risqu, there was virtually no nudity. One performer did little more than twirl a parasol, and the climax to her act was the suggestive removal of one of her gloves. It was always more about the teasing than the stripping.
By the Second World War, however, burlesque was in trouble. During his 1937 morality drive, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia claimed burlesque shows promulgated filth and promptly shut them down. In the rest of the US, burlesque was losing its audience to the movie screen and radio and television. Despite producing a new generation of stars, such as Betty Page, by the 1950s burlesque had become synonymous with sleaze. Its kiss of death came with the new wave of adult cinema and the sexual freedom of the 1960s.
But it’s back and it’s big. On any given Saturday night, the VaVaVoom Room in New York’s Fez caf is packed. Couples, groups of girls and huddles of drag queens sip cocktails and take in acts such as Dirty Martini, a voluptuous performer whose huge behind and generous breasts are legendary on the scene, and Bambi the Coney Island Mermaid. And yet, although it may resemble the original form in many ways, burlesque today is fundamentally different. For one thing, it is produced almost exclusively by women.
By day, Kate Valentine is a striking redhead with an easy laugh and a killer smile. At night she becomes the VaVaVoom Room’s MC, Miss Astrid, a black-bobbed German dominatrix, who introduces the acts with a droll sense of humour and a hefty dose of irony. "If you sink my show steenks," she says, "come back next veek. It is all new acts."
With a background in dance and acting, Valentine first started producing and directing burlesque seven years ago. Now she runs the VaVaVoom Rooms in San Francisco and New York and has a pool of over 100 performers. "It is very female-centric," she says. "I think part of the reason is that there is something that women want to express about their own sexuality, and burlesque allows for that. Women are presenting themselves in a sexual way, but it is very self-defining; you choose how you’re being presented. Women within the media are always being framed in a sexual way, but it’s a very narrow, male way. I don’t think the general public really buys into that. I think it does a disservice to men and women, in terms of what people find attractive and what people are interested in. Burlesque allows women to put themselves in the starring role."
Downtown in the Lower East Side, the Slipper Room is heaving. The stage is lit up and a series of performers come on and do their thing. Lady Ace, or Anna Curtis, is dressed as a career girl, complete with mobile phone and secretary spectacles. "I like to play around with stereotypes of women," Curtis says. "My acts are more dramatic, more thematic than original burlesque. Some stories are told with costume and dance, and some are straightforward glamour."
Curtis, like many other women on the circuit, comes from an arts background. She studied photography and spent her weekends go-go dancing, before stumbling into the burgeoning burlesque movement a couple of years ago. "No one can explain why it has become so popular," she says. "We are bombarded by nude images whether we want them or not. Just take a look at the in-box of your e-mail. Maybe burlesque is a relief. It’s all about the tease."
Back in SoHo, Ducky Doolittle is living proof of this. Upholstered in a black vintage corset, fishnet stockings and shoes so high her feet are practically perpendicular to the floor, she is undeniably well-padded but still incredibly sexy. So how does she do it? Some of her tips are practical: wear a girdle and a pair of nude tights beneath your fishnets, to give the illusion of a well-toned body. Some reinforce confidence and positive body images: "Act the way you want to be, and soon you will the be the way you act". And some help to build your burlesque persona: "If you’re going to use a banana in your act, step on it. If you’re going to use a cake, sit in it. You’re not supposed to do these things, so do them."
But what kind of women take a burlesque class? Looking around the room, the other participants look surprisingly normal. "I know a lot of women tell me they want to learn simply because burlesque looks like so much fun," says Doolittle. "Other people do it because they want to tap into the part of them that is sexy. They want to explore what it feels like to be desired, they want to explore their own sexual creativity or they want to find a new avenue for expressing their sexuality with their lover. I also believe it’s because women are feeling more and more entitled to being sexually expressive."
The class is over and self-adhesive pasties, or nipple covers, are in hot demand. While we mull over plain or tasselled, eyelash glue or spirit gum, the merits of a plastic chicken over a dozen balloons and a pin, the atmosphere is nothing short of euphoric. "It was incredibly liberating," says Charlie, a 32-year-old designer. "I’d say that there is a revolution happening. Women are beginning to say, ‘I can be sexy on my terms. This is my body and I will not be ashamed.’"
In Scotland, too, women are beginning to feel the benefits of hijacking what was until very recently a world created by and performed for men only. "Pole dancing is also a great work-out," says Love of DIY Divas. "After the class, women walk a bit taller and smile a little brighter."
DIY Divas (0141 248 7831)
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east