Scottish burlesque: 'People associate female nudity with sex, but it can be funny, it can be silly, it can be smart'

“The nudity doesn’t bother me, it’s the emotional vulnerability that I love. I have gotten to really know myself through burlesque,” begins Betty Rose Royal.

In her intimate wooden dressing room backstage at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Rose Henderson, known on the burlesque scene as Betty Rose Royal, comes alive with excitement as she lays bare her life as a Glaswegian burlesque dancer.

Having grown up in the Southside of the city, Ms Henderson, 39, ventured into the industry in 2007.

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She was working for a cabaret company in Newcastle and describes the time as the start of Britain’s burlesque revolution.

Betty Rose Royal. (Picture credit: Vs Anchor Studio)

More than 14 years later, she is headlining and producing her own shows, including Best of Burlesque every night at the Fringe.

She also runs an international burlesque competition, the World Burlesque Games, with her husband Mark, otherwise known as Chaz Royal.

“When I first started, very few people knew what burlesque was and anyone who did generally wouldn’t share any judgement they had to my face,” she says.

“But I remember even just 10 years ago women saying to me, ‘Oh I love burlesque, but I’m a feminist so I’d never go to a show’.

Best of Burlesque is showing every night of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival just after 10pm at Assembly George Square Gardens.

“It has definitely become more mainstream, people are beginning to understand that it is a real job and a real creative talent.”

Best of Burlesque is on every night of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Spiegeltent Palais Du Variete, in Assembly George Square Gardens.

Ms Henderson describes it as being similar to a traditional variety show with a new line-up every night featuring burlesque performances interspersed with other acts, such as comedians, circus performers and musicians, to “keep it fresh and diverse”.

“A burlesque show is pure joy, but I think sometimes people feel a little intimidated by them, although if you’ve lived through a pandemic, what’s the worst that can happen?” she says.

Betty Rose Royal has been performing burlesque for over 14 years. (Picture credit: Vs Anchor Studio)

“We normally fly in lots of international acts, but this year has been a great opportunity to showcase the incredibly high standard of local talent.”

Known for its nudity, burlesque performers tease the audience as they slowly strip away their elaborate outfits. However, as a dancer herself, Ms Henderson believes the physical body is far less meaningful to art form than people often realise.

“The word empowerment gets thrown around a lot with burlesque, and it is empowering, but maybe not in the way people might think,” she says.

“I don’t really agree with the idea that women being nude is empowering, or that it’s brave, I think it’s more to do with the celebration of femininity itself.

Betty Rose Royal started performing burlesque in 2007 while working for a cabaret company. (Picture credit: Samuel Temple)

“People really associate female nudity with sex, but female nudity can be funny, it can be silly, it can be smart. There are a lot of levels to a woman, and a naked woman can be as multi-levelled as any other woman.

“I think that a burlesque show can be a huge learning curve for people who maybe don’t understand that sort of freedom in feminism.”

Unfortunately for Ms Henderson and other performers, not everyone views the industry as positive, with criticisms suggesting it is a demeaning and regressive art form.

“In the patriarchal society, women are so often shamed for their sexuality,” she says. “There is a real feeling that your worth and sexuality are connected, and if you give away your sexuality you are then valued less.

“But a burlesque show flips that on its head because it’s women who are enjoying their own sexuality for themselves, and who are letting others enjoy it too. They are women who don’t necessarily live up to societal standards and in standing on that stage they are making a political statement.

“They are saying, ‘I’m not going to be who you want me to be. I’m not going to be ashamed, in fact, I’m going to bring us all together in a celebration of femininity’.

“People are slowly starting to understand that feminism is more about choice, your own choice with your own body, but sometimes it feels like the change is happening too slowly.”

The vulnerability Ms Henderson mentioned earlier comes up again when she discusses the experience of being on stage.

Unlike theatre and other creative performances which traditionally involve directors, choreographers and other production assistants, burlesque represents the talent of a sole individual.

“All performers need to be willing to have a certain amount of vulnerability when they are on stage, but that is especially true in burlesque, because when you see a dancer perform she has made her own costume, choreographed her own routine, done her own make-up, everything,” she says.

“It’s not just your body you are laying bare, it’s your creative and artistic process.”

Ms Henderson continues to elevate her fellow creatives, making a special mention of how impressed she has been by the spirit upheld throughout the pandemic.

“Burlesque has always been on the edge of the mainstream entertainment industry, meaning those involved are just the most interesting, kind, smart and creative people,” she says.

“It really does feel very supportive, especially after Covid. Live entertainment was one of the first things shut down and one of the last things to reopen.

“I’m working with people at the Edinburgh Fringe who haven’t worked in two years, but they are still here, happy to be here and happy to create, and that kind of spirit is really inspiring to me.”

With just one week left of the festival, Ms Henderson gives a weary laugh when asked about what will come next.

“We would normally have spent five months planning Best of Burlesque, but we only had four weeks this year,” she smiles. “It’s been a whirlwind and I can’t think straight about what might come next.

“But you know, people often assume that my life is much more exciting than it really is.

“By night I'm a showgirl and I love my job, but by day I'm a mum doing the school run.”

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