Burlesque: Adding charm to art of striptease

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MISS Gypsy Charms is having a wayward eyelash moment which no amount of glue and stress seems likely to fix.

The culprit is a spidery black false eyelash, the fiddly finishing touch to an outfit of feathers, royal blue satin and frills – layers of them, laboriously hand-stitched on to a pair of Bridget Jones big pants – creating a Moulin Rouge can-can affair that wouldn't look out of place in a Toulouse Lautrec painting.

Her lips are scarlet, her black stockings are trimmed with tiny blue ribbon and once the eyelash is in place, the transformation is complete. When finally she kicks her left leg high into the air, the skirt rustles and those frilly knickers are on show for all to see.

Then she bursts into a raucous laugh, suddenly spins around and lifts her skirts again to confirm – in case anyone was wondering – that the frills on her pants go all the way to the back too.

Oozing confidence, with a naughty twinkle in her eye and years of dance training under her belt, no wonder Miss Gypsy Charms is one of Scotland's leading burlesque queens.

But don't for a moment think that make-up and ruffles, high kicks and false eyelashes are all there is to her.

For when the feathers and the frills are put away, she morphs into Sarah Vernon, 32-year-old sociology tutor and PhD student as well as the shrewd business brains behind a rapidly growing dance academy.

It's a bizarre double life that Sarah has finally perfected after years struggling to find her niche.

"This is a dream come true for me," she declares gleefully.

"I'm doing what I always really wanted to do and I can combine it with my studies. It's absolutely ideal.

"I'm creative but I like my studies too, so this gives me the perfect outlet, and I've also been fascinated by the art of striptease."

So fascinated, in fact, that although studying for a PhD might sound terribly intense, her subject is a little closer to her first love: "Yes, it's a PhD that looks at stripping," she grins. "But it is serious. It's about looking at strippers and their history, its origins. It's the first time someone has done a PhD on stripping, so it's really exciting.

"That said, the library on George IV Bridge has become my second home. I sit there at a table with all these old books about striptease and I'm sure everyone must be wondering what on earth I'm up to."

The sensual, sexy and provocative style of burlesque – although Sarah is quick to point out that there is as much comedy in it as "peeling", or stripping – hardly sounds like a top career choice for a little girl, but she knew that's what she wanted to do from a very young age.

"Ever since I saw the movie Gypsy Rose Lee and watched the genie dance on Aladdin's hand," she smiles.

"I remember watching both and thinking it was just stunning, beautiful, gorgeous."

She went to Boroughmuir High School but every evening until she hit 17 would be spent at dance classes.

If she thought she had been born to perform, however, her parents had other ideas.

"I suppose my parents decided that a career in dance would only lead me to the fast food outlet of my choice, so I went to university," she shrugs.

"I had a passion for dance and theatre, but I also understood what they were saying.

"We didn't fall out about it. Okay, there might have been a bit of disagreeing, but I knew that what they were saying was sensible."

Sarah ended up at Glasgow University studying her second love, film. The passion for dance – exotic dance at that – didn't fade.

"I loved the academic side, but there was this over-riding urge to entertain," she explains, "so I ended up stripping."

She deftly skips over the finer detail of that element of her dance career, moving swiftly on to where she is today – one of a growing band of Scottish burlesque performers, drawing on the "art of striptease" to create a sensual yet not sleazy form of entertainment.

Tonight, she will join the pick of burlesque artistes at the Voodoo Rooms for the latest Burlescapades evening, a cabaret-style dance show featuring award-winning singer and raconteur Dusty Limits; comedy magician Chris Cross; male burlesque star Lucky Strikes and her own business partner, Viva Misadventure – aka Jane Kelly, 34, from Morningside.

While Sarah speaks, Jane – whose own path to burlesque was via cruise ships, where she donned skimpy outfits and feathers as a showgirl dancer – passes the time by practising her own routine, suddenly sliding to the floor in a fluid motion and resting in "splits" position.

While Sarah's expertise lies in provocatively peeling – the burlesque dancer's more sedate version of striptease – Jane's lies in choreographing their act and stitching the frills to their knickers.

Tonight's routine is a quirky Springtime In Paris package in partnership with Lucky Strikes, featuring a dash of comedy, a lot of feathers and quite a few can-can high kicks.

"Burlesque is becoming such a popular form of entertainment," continues Sarah, whose home is in the city centre. "More and more people are understanding that it is just the right balance between glamour and fun, it's sexy and it's a chance to dress up.

"It's comedy too. If you look up 'burlesque' in the dictionary, it says it's a comedy, a parody. It has the moves of striptease but really it's mixed up to provide a parody element.

"Burlesque has become synonymous with striptease, but that's not necessarily all there is to it."

An increasing number of people seem to be in agreement. As well as partnering Jane in running the Academy of Striptease and Burlesque Scotland, the pair run a series of burlesque dance sessions at the Dance Studio in Edinburgh.

Among the students is IP consultant Beth Vokurka, a 35-year-old mum of two from East Lothian, who admits she was surprised to learn there was more to burlesque than first impressions.

"It wasn't how I thought it would be," she explains. "It turned out to be much more accessible and entertaining. I thought the class would be full or people who wanted to do burlesque professionally and it turned out to be a lot of mostly middle-aged, ordinary women like me.

"It's taught me a lot about deportment and how to walk in high heels – as well as how to remove a bra and swing a pair of tassels," she laughs.

"And, strangely, my husband seems very keen for me to go to the classes – there's never a problem there!"

&#149 Burlescapades' Springtime In Paris evening is tonight at the Voodoo Rooms. Find out more at www.burlescapades.com.