Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Stripping vs. Art: Is there a place for feminism in burlesque?

As well as being a freelance illustrator, I am also a burlesque dancer and events organiser. I first started performing when I was 18 and have loved it ever since. I was having a really terrible time, no job, bad relationships that I seemed to stumble into over and over and absolutely appalling self esteem. I hated myself. I don't mean to say that in a melodramatic way, that was really how I felt. I felt like I was ugly, a bad person and ultimately not good enough. I was young. I knew I didn't always feel like this and I knew I didn't want to carry on feeling like a shitty person. I saw an advert for burlesque classes in a local magazine and I decided to join Stella Starr's Vavavoom Burlesque showcase. I'd always loved the idea of burlesque, but being a bit of a tomboy I never thought I would be well suited to it. How wrong I was. I bloody loved it! My first ever performance was at the Sallis Benney Theatre in Brighton in front of 500 people and I was completely hooked! I'd always felt a bit awkward, a bit manly, one of the lads not a proper girl (whatever the hell that means!). Burlesque was my avenue for feeling sexy, empowered, feminine and all in a very classy way. This went against the grain of everything I felt about myself and it was absolutely fucking-fantastic! For some reason I thought being a feminist meant you couldn't enjoy sparkly, glittery, feather, girly things, how wrong I was!
This blog post comes on the back of a very eventful week for me. At the weekend I was privileged enough to put on a wonderful burlesque and cabaret night at a brilliant hidden gem of a local venue, The Arundel Jailhouse. My partner in crime Dawn Gracie, the creative and all round fabulous madwoman behind Dawn's Vintage Do and I were behind all the insanity and glitter and the event was a sell out and very successful. The reason for me saying this is not to boast, but to add a bit of background for what I will say next. So, as I say, it was successful, thus far all feedback was glowing and I'm generally a very happy showgirl. On saturday night the day after my show I go out with my friends. I'm sitting in my local pub's beer garden and one of my girlfriends starts showing footage of the performances on her phone to my friends who weren't able to go. I get up to get a drink and when I return a woman I don't know has joined in the conversation and the first words I hear are, "So what is it like full bush?" She's drunk. Not just a little tipsy, but steaming. She begins to challenge me on what burlesque is about, seemingly genuinely interested, I begin to explain only to be cut off at every sentence. Being drunk, inevitably she then becomes quite rude at which point I walk away and down a shot with my friends to stop myself being so angry. However, I am angry. I can't explain why I am angry, except that I am. Furious in fact. I'd like to say it was the woman's ignorance that made me cross, or the fact she wouldn't let me finish a sentence, or perhaps that I allowed myself to be stung by her words. The real reason is less complex than this really, it was the look of disgust when I was explaining how I believe every woman/man, fat/thin, young/old, sick/healthy should feel comfortable in their own skin. To me, this is without contention, I hate any form of body shaming and will never understand why anyone feels the need to hate on anyone else about something they can't help. I'm not talking about being unhealthy at any weight whether it's under or over, I'm talking about being truly comfortable in your own skin. I love bodies of all different sizes, male or female and showcasing the beauty of them can be no bad thing in my opinion.
I'm not trying to change the world. If you don't agree with Burlesque, you have every right to your opinion. However, what I do ask is respect. In the past 6 years of performing I have had many people hate on me for what I do, sometimes by 'friends' of mine who have 'jokingly' called me a whore. One boy I went to school went so far as to say to me, "I always knew you'd end up on the game Phoebe" Oh well done. How clever of you to make that link because I get paid to take my clothes off, how original you are darling. Yawn. Of course there is an element of stripping involved, did you think you were the first to point this out or even notice? Spoiler alert: you weren't. The art of the tease is just that, a tease. Nudity but never nude. Now this doesn't mean that I am slagging off strippers here, I'm not. That is a choice, one that I don't choose but that's because I don't have much faith in that industry. Feminism plays a big part in burlesque, some say it is demeaning like Labour politician Susan Press who said, "Burlesque is a sexual form of entertainment and it's regressive" a view she is entitled to and actually has more than earned the right to voice as she built her career on feminism. However, I know some amazing performers who would strongly disagree with this viewpoint. One of my close friends, Coco Deville who is an incredible Neo-Burlesque performer, came up with a truly amazing routine called "Bunny Got Back" about a rabbit who weighs herself on a set of scales that keep going to the words 'fat!' culminating in a very funny strip to Sir Mixalot's 'Baby got back'.
This humour and subversion of stereotypes is one of the delightful things about burlesque. You could be watching a very romantic and classic feather fan routine and in the very same show suddenly be confronted with a deliciously dark routine involving a girl writhing around in blood (As is most common with my truly talented friend Dixie Dread) The surprises are endless. I implore any who are unsure to dip their toe in the pool of possibility and new excitements, to come and watch a burlesque show. You never know you may enjoy it! But if you feel uncomfortable and wouldn't want to, that is also fine. All we ask is respect and the chance to carry on doing what we love, without fear of judgement and disdain.
These days I enjoy my body, I like it's wobbly bits, I like the way my thighs rub together, how my boobs sag, how my double chins are, how my belly isn't flat, how my teeth aren't perfect, how my hair can get really frizzy and above all my BIG FAT JIGGLY WONDERFUL BUTT! Something changed when I started doing burlesque, I realised my potential and my self worth. Because baby, if you can get up on stage and take your clothes off in front of hundreds of people, you can do anything you bloody want to! If you want to see what madness I'm up to, don't be shy and look me up! I'm on Facebook and Twitter