The art of burlesque

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I CAN SEE FIRE AND THAT'S good enough for me," says Frodo, host and organiser of Glasgow's thriving art class/cabaret/burlesque club Dr Sketchy. Seconds earlier, as he started the introduction for burlesque model and co-organiser Miss Lucille Burn, a voice from behind a screen in a corner of Glasgow's Arches shouts: "Not yet!"

It's not the slickest of beginnings but that's the beauty of burlesque: the sequins may shine with a professional glimmer but the rest of it is, well, gently shambolic. And all the more fun for it.

"We enjoy the theatricality of burlesque," says Frodo. "We love acts that are classic burlesque – cheeky, witty and full of spectacle. We aren't so keen on this 'new burlesque' where getting your bra off seems to be enough to make a show. There really should be more nuance, showmanship and, if possible, a skill involved. Nipple tassels are great, but sometimes they ain't enough."

Wearing a satin corset and beads around her hips, Lucille moves around the stage with her flaming fans. Truth be told, she looks a little nervous, but that's probably fair enough when you're playing with fire with only a corset for protection.

The finale involves a flaming torch, which is rubbed on her arms and chest then popped in her mouth like a fiery lollipop. Theatrics over, corset off, the crowd show their appreciation and Frodo positions Lucille into her first pose.

The venue is filling up and the 40 or so people here are arranging their sketch boards, organising their pencils and charcoal and heading to the bar. The fact that it's all a bit homemade is part of its charm.

Fire-waving burlesque entertainment may be a little unexpected on a grey Sunday afternoon, but there's a steady flow of people of all ages with sketchbooks tucked under their arms heading for The Arches. Dr Sketchy has a growing following.

"This is much more relaxed than your usual life-drawing class, with the emphasis on experimentation and imagination," says Frodo. "We also make an effort to ensure there is as much of a spectacle as possible as it's about being able to draw the most interesting thing.

"Our models are performers, they are interesting to look at, and often have unique skills that add to the experience. Seeing the model perform changes the way the artist perceives them so that when they draw, they perhaps use a different approach than they might take drawing a traditional life model. And, of course, we have a bar, live music, games, prizes and all sorts of shenanigans in between."

Dr Sketchy has taken place once a month since last August and its success means it has the venue booked for the rest of 2008. The concept is the brainchild of New York illustrator and sometime life-drawing model Molly Crabapple, who held the first event in 2005.

After having spent two years posing nude for "about 15 an hour", she realised there must be a better way both to make a living and to provide models for wannabe artists. With help from a couple of burlesque dancing friends, Dr Sketchy was born. Since then Dr Sketchy has gone global, with franchises in places as far flung as Australia, Denmark, Portland and of, course, Scotland. In fact, it's in Glasgow that the "anti-art school" sketch club has really taken off. As staff scurry around adding more tables and chairs into the already crammed space, Frodo announces with gusto that with nearly 80 people taking part, Glasgow's Dr Sketchy is now the biggest in the world. Bigger than New York. The crowd hoots in response.

Burlesque has roots on both sides of the Atlantic, from late 19th-century vaudeville in the US, when it was a collection of sketches and variety turns, to the British music halls of the 1840s. The term itself comes from the Italian word burla, meaning joke.

The nipple tassels appeared when, under threat from the appeal of the silver screen in the 1920s, the lure of breasts was seen as the answer, and striptease was incorporated. Nipple displays were against the law so they were covered with the tassels (or pasties if you're in the know) that many performers still wear.

Made famous by people including American fan-dancer Sally Rand in the 1930s and former vaudevillian Gypsy Rose Lee in the 1930s and 1940s, burlesque included comics, singers, jugglers and magicians. By the 1950s, though, striptease was the last remaining popular burlesque entertainment. In their own way, with their rendition of showtunes and some rather dodgy jokes from Frodo, the Glasgow Dr Sketchy is doing its bit to revive a long lost art.

The revival in burlesque has been driven by performers including Dita von Teese, whose stage acts hark back to the 1940s rather than reflect the 21st century, as she strips in a giant Champagne glass.

That vintage aesthetic, so key to burlesque, is in evidence all around Dr Sketchy. As Frodo announces there are 40 seconds left to capture Lucille's first pose, you can hear a pin drop as the audience, affectionately known as "art monkeys", hurry to finish.

Lauren MacColl, 31, on her first visit, is adding the finishing touches to a charcoal sketch of the reclining Lucille. "I was quite sceptical about coming along when my friend asked me because I don't really go to burlesque clubs and I have no skill as an artist," she says. "I was expecting a real Glasgow Art School crowd, but it's not like that – it's a total mix of ages and I could see from people's sketchbooks that some of them were really good and some were really crap. As soon as I walked in I felt like I wanted to have a go.

"I think people are sometimes put off going to clubs because they don't necessarily want to get all dressed up but they want to go and watch the show and see what other people are wearing. I'm like that. I like the look of it, the vintage aspect of it, but I wouldn't want to dress up. Here I can come along wearing my jeans and trainers and I'm still involved in it."

Glancing around the candlelit room, there's certainly a fair number of what Frodo calls "burlesque scenesters", but there are also scruffy art-school types; women who look as though they've just nipped in from Marks & Spencer; and those who can barely hide their adoration as the model following Lucille, Miss Mia Miaow, prances around in leopard-print heels with only two huge satin hearts to hide her modesty.

Regular Dr Sketchy attendee Dolly Tartan, 24, knows how it feels to be onstage. After coming along as a paying customer only a couple of times, she plucked up the courage to ask if she could perform and lo, Miss Tartan was born. "It was very nerve-wracking but it was great," she says. "I was dressed up as a cowgirl while playing my violin, then I did a wee strip before posing. It was great fun."

And what about modelling, standing stock still as a room full of strangers gawp at you? Terrifying? "I like performing because it's fun, it's a bit of showing off and you can have a laugh with people. Cabaret and burlesque let the audience participate much more than in theatre, which I really like. It feels like an eternity when you're up there but you just try to listen to the music and relax into it."

Sitting to one side is Daiquiri Dusk, 22. Dressed in a fake fur coat, she has two piercings on her face that catch the light as she talks. Daiquiri (she tells me I can call her Tricia if I want), a student at Glasgow University who is writing her thesis on the neo-burlesque, knew pretty quickly that she wanted to perform. "I couldn't really afford all of the stuff that I wanted to wear for performing so I started making things," she says. "I bought some pasties from eBay and took them apart so I could see how they were made and make them myself. I did a corsetry course earlier this year so I'm hoping to get that off the ground in the summer, so I can do full costumes.

"When you perform you get so many girls in the audience who come up to you and ask you how you got into it, or whether you think they could do it too. They seem to pick up the whole empowering thing. They see the girls on stage and they think they're just like them. For the girls on stage, the thrill of doing the routine, putting the costume together and getting people's reactions is really nice. I'm quite a shy person generally, but as soon as I put on the corset and nipple tassels I just become that character."

We've been here for nearly two and a half hours by this stage, and hardly anyone has left. Eyes are still glued to sketch pads, pencils strewn across tables and dropped on to the floor.

"I can't draw at all," says Louise Glasgow, 23. "I give the models a horse face, but I'm quite happy with it because I can just play about. It's really nice here, it's relaxed and it's just something different to do on a Sunday."

The next Dr Sketchy is at The Arches on Sunday, 9 March, 4-7pm. Tickets 7/5 concession. Visit