Burlesque 101: Unleashing Your Inner Gypsy Rose Lee

By Silissa Kenney

“The mayor has repeatedly stated that war conditions will not be permitted to lower the standard of morals and of decency in this city, whether on the stage, in literature or commercial vice.”

So said New York City License Commissioner Paul Moss in 1941, referring to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s views on burlesque. Burlesque was hugely popular during the Depression, but LaGuardia banned the shows, determined to stamp out what he regarded as indecency.

Big Apple Burlesque at Corio, a downtown club
Big Apple Burlesque at Corio, a downtown club

These days, a Web site invites students to “learn amazing sexy burlesque moves including bumps, grinds, shimmies and chair dancing, along with hip, shoulder and other body isolations that will tone your torso. You will find and firm muscles you may not have known you had!”

New York City may have undergone another scrubbing, the seedy nightclubs and topless ladies of Times Square replaced with shining beacons of advertising, chain stores and restaurants. But burlesque has made a comeback, full of sizzling and sultry fun. Dancers are once again twirling their pasties and hypnotizing delighted audiences with their theatrics and allure.

I couldn’t resist. There is something pleasingly mysterious about the performers sliding across the stage, so comfortable in their sexuality. So, when I heard about Jo Weldon’s School of Burlesque, I jumped at the chance to learn some moves and signed up for a Thursday night class called “Flirting with Burlesque.”

And after only one class, I can shimmy with the best of them (almost), and if I ever had the nerve to put on a pair of pasties, I could keep them spinning in circles. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I arrived at the Lafayette Street studio 15 minutes early, and as I made my way to the fourth-floor classroom I peaked into other rooms and saw people doing martial arts, rehearsing scenes and dance routines. Even the narrow hallway was overflowing with people. Three pairs of men were practicing what looked like some kind of mirroring exercise. As one moved his hands and arms in a graceful hybrid of tai chi and boxing, the other followed, occasionally pushing the first man’s arms away. I felt like I was behind the scenes of an old-fashioned traveling circus.

Inside my classroom, the teacher was setting up her Ipod and settling in, moving with the confidence and grace of a classically trained dancer. Her name is Darlinda Just Darlinda, a burlesque performer for five years.

Looking at the time, she says she wants to begin.

Begin? I’m the only one there! My heart beats in protest, but I play it cool and, following her lead, sit on my knees. Facing forward, she speaks to me reflecting in the mirror that covers the entire wall before us.

We begin warming up our muscles, rolling our heads, then shoulders in circles and stretching our chests forward and back. As I begin to relax, two young women burst into the room.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” one apologizes. “We ran the whole way here!”

Don’t be sorry, I think, I’m just glad I won’t have to do this alone!

Nini Ayach and Kate Kornberg, both 20-year-old students at Pratt, take their places. Now it feels like a class.

Ayach and Kornberg were inspired after seeing a Monday night burlesque show at Public Assembly, a venue in Brooklyn.

“Kate and I immediately saw how much fun it could be to be a burlesque dancer,” Ayach says. “It seemed like they were taking so much pleasure in doing it.” Unlike me, they were hoping that this would be a step toward taking the stage as performers.

The first thing to remember if you have designs on the stage is that a connection to the audience is essential. It’s all about the eyes, says Darlinda; the audience must believe that you are enjoying every minute on stage. Every movement, even a walk, must showcase that enjoyment.

Pretending to don high heels, we learn how to walk like a burlesque dancer.

“High heels make your butt look higher” and your legs longer, explains Darlinda.

As music plays softly in the background, we swing our hips to the jazzy beat and slide across the floor on the balls of our feet.

“Imagine something you’re drawn to,” says Darlinda, “toward something or someone that makes you feel sexy.” And when you slide your fingers along your arm or leg, let your eyes follow. If it looks like you’re thinking, “Ooh, my arm is sooo sexy,” the audience will think it, too.

My muscles are warming. Leaving the extremities, we move on to a more overtly sexual area-the chest.

Following Darlinda’s lead, I begin rotating my ribcage. Darlinda asks us to make a fist and place each fist alongside the outside of our breasts, and then to extend our pointer fingers forward. Ribcages still in motion, my fingers trace invisible circles. This isolated movement of the chest is how dancers keep the tassels hanging from their pasties spinning – and keeping the motion steady isn’t easy.

“Isolation movements are so important in burlesque,” Darlinda explains. I’m concentrating so hard, I forget that if I was doing this for real I’d be topless, with twirling strings spinning like helicopter blades off my nipples.

But don’t dare ask her how burlesque is different from stripping. “I hate that question, it’s irrelevant,” Darlinda insists. “We’re all in this together.”

She may not like the question, but it is one that is commonly posed. The Web site of the Seattle-based Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque offers this explanation: “Burlesque’s objective is to call attention to all the moments of revealing, and to tease just shy of nudity. Burlesque also encourages mockery and parody, so tends to be funnier and more light-hearted than stripping.”

Dita Von Teese, one of the most famous burlesque performers of our day, credits Lydia Thompson with the first onstage tease and bringing burlesque to America in the 1860s. As you can imagine, this was a much more conservative tease-tights were worn over the legs! By the 1920s a man named Billy Minsky had burlesque thriving in New York City, owning several clubs. It was he who brought the famous Gypsy Lee Rose to New York.

“During this time, burlesque was shifting from ‘the shake’ to ‘

the strip,'” writes Jane Briggeman in her book,Burlesque: Legendary Stars of the Stage. Burlesque performers continued to push the limits by pulling off more clothes and revealing more flesh. But not everyone was thrilled with the progress, and the law began to crack down on the performances; theaters were refused licenses to operate and shows closed. LaGuardia declared, “This is the beginning of the end of incorporated filth.”

Good thing he wasn’t paid to predict the future! Burlesque today is in full swing and racier than ever.

Burlesque is “amazing and quite ridiculous sometimes,” Kornberg says, recalling a show she and Ayach saw on Halloween called Badass Burlesque. Among the acts was “an obese woman strapping a raw chicken to her breasts and then running off stage!”

Our little class was not asked to go to such extremes, but we did have to step outside of ourselves. We each were to become characters, someone we thought was sexy. Marilyn Monroe screams sexy. Ayach nominated Audrey Hepburn. Kornberg wanted us to channel Scarlet Johansson, a modern-day Marilyn.

Really think about each character, says Darlinda: how would she walk, hold her head, move her body.

Three Audrey Hepburns move toward the mirrored wall, stopping just inches from our reflections, attempting the grace and elegance of Hepburn with a splash of burlesque spice. I feel awkward, and the occasional giggles tell me the others do, too.

“I think this is really hard with the mirror,” Kornberg says, reading my mind.

Our backs to the mirror, we began again, as Johansson, then Monroe.

Escaping the mirror was like having a tether cut. My confidence soars; the giggles grow less frequent. We are getting the moves.

“You should love the music you dance to,” says Darlinda.

Portishead, Kornberg suggests, would be a perfect band to set the mood. Perhaps as a sign from the goddesses of burlesque, Darlinda spins the wheel of her Ipod, puts on Portishead, turns off the lights and tells us to let the music guide us.

In the dark room a woman’s voice sings in a creamy tone, “I just wanna be a woman.” I feel at ease, as if I am alone on a stage. I don’t worry about how I look gliding around the floor. I feel flirtatious and confident.

“That’s why I love burlesque,” says Darlinda, “I have women who say, you look like me, you’re a size 10!”

Maybe burlesque isn’t all that different from everyday life. Radiating confidence and love of self will give you magnetism. People will want you around them. I may not ever be in the spotlight, but I definitely feel more comfortable in my skin.

“It reminds me of a little girl dressing up in front of a mirror, and I love the very theatrical side of it,” says Ayach.

As counterintuitive as it sounds to compare burlesque with a child’s imagination, I know what she means. Walking around in invisible high heels, pretending to be Marilyn Monroe-I take a little of that feeling with me.