A sold-out show with 35 performers in one night, all cheered on by a maniacally enthusiastic crowd. Students at The Cheek of It! burlesque school get a taste of show business adulation – and they haven’t even graduated yet. C.J. Lazaretti talks to beginners and professionals during the most entertaining midterms a lady can have without getting her teachers fired for improper conduct.
The performers at The Cheek of It! Burlesque Revue last March often had to overcome mixed reactions from friends and family in addition to their own insecurities before making their stage debuts. Is burlesque still shocking for anyone? You would be surprised.
“My dad is a cross-dresser,” says Doll Baby, a beginner student performing in one of the show’s two troupes. “He actually watched the show. But when I told my mum, she cried.”
It’s easy to take burlesque for granted in London, where more than 70 variety shows parade bump-and-grinders of all sorts every week. Likewise, the discourse of female empowerment and body-positive imagery that surrounds the genre is not only still a novelty to many people, but a way to address cultural issues that have not ceased to affect women in their personal and professional lives. It’s a strong motivation for most of the students who come to the school.
Take a look at any date of The Cheek of It! Burlesque Revue and you’ll see women of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, backgrounds and degrees of experience in performance. Some, like Lilac Delacey, cherish it as a counterpoint to a day job in a corporate environment where she suppresses her femininity to be viewed seriously by male co-workers. A detrimental attitude towards open sensuality often comes from women too, but most burlesque students do not find themselves prey to the sharp judgment of female peers.
“The support from other performers did come as a surprise,” says Miss Hanky Spanky. “All the performers I met were friendly, accommodating and glad to see new faces in the show.” Delacey has also been surrounded by a welcoming attitude as a burlesque student. “I strongly disagree with the generalisation that girls are unpleasant to each other when they get together. A little healthy competition is fine and expected, but I have enjoyed making new friends who are respectful and supportive, and I hope this will continue.”
School founder and head teacher Lady Cheek testifies to the impact of burlesque in more extreme conditions. In addition to classes in New York and Barcelona, The Cheek of It! has run workshops since 2010 in Serbia and Croatia, where vivid memories of systematic rape in the aftermath of the Bosnian War still make women reluctant to express vanity or sexuality.
“There is a culture of keeping your beauty hidden,” says Cheek. “For those who do express it, it is often in an aggressive and over-sexualised way.” One student compared the experience of learning burlesque to psychotherapy, and Lady Cheek reports a growth in the variety scenes of both countries, with Zagreb having already hosted two editions of three-day festival Red Room Cabaret, as well as a visit from American show Cabaret New Burlesque, backed by the municipal tourist board.
Behind the Glamour: How to Create a Unique Act
Burlesque performance is mostly a small-scale type of show business. That is dictated in part by the small budgets that variety shows depend on to keep afloat. The main consequence is that most burlesque reaches its public in the same intimate, point-blank distance as cabaret, but that’s not all.
A do-it-yourself attitude permeates burlesque behind the scenes, from management and promotion to the creation of a routine, from initial concept to the final design of lighting, soundtrack and costume. Luna Saphire, a jewellery designer by day, found a test to the techniques of her trade in the requirements of a burlesque costume. “Even my Isis wings I made myself, which was a challenge. You have to be multi-talented, and be prepared to learn a lot along the way.”
Moving on to burlesque after jazz classes at Pineapple Dance Studios, Miss Flame spared no effort in the conception of her debut number, an ambitious mix of dance, physical theatre and puppetry following a zebra’s musical journey from exotic Africa to raving Hackney. “I designed a set. I made my own costume. I remixed music. Every part of my show came from inside me.” The belle already has three other acts under development.
The Cheek of It! offers an invaluable nurturing environment for burlesque dabblers regardless of their goals or experience, but even women who approach the course for personal reasons find burlesque a viable career choice once they’ve been onstage. Doll Baby quit her job and started working part-time to focus on performance, while Moorita produced the first night of her own revue, Magic & Puss, only five days after the midterm show.
Moorita embraces the many sides of burlesque in her Cleaver act, where she plays a bored housewife who morphs into a series of archetypal dangerous women (bloodthirsty czarina, contract killer, etc) before exacting revenge on her husband. Singing a parody of Fever, she delivers dark comedy with biting social satire.
Artists from other backgrounds have also chosen The Cheek of It! as a starting point to explore the medium of bump-and-grinding. A musical theatre performer, Lola La Rouge found in burlesque an opportunity to combine her many talents like singing, tap dancing and musical comedy. Her number for the showcase, an accomplished stripping choreography accompanied by live singing of Whatever Lola Wants, boasts sure moves and expert vocals. Lola could have put all those skills to great use in musicals, of course. Why does Lola want burlesque?
“Audience interaction and reaction,” explains the entertainer. “The genre I’m used to often involves just some nice clapping at the end. Even the British, known around the world as a polite but appreciative audience, are loud and proud as a variety audience.”
The school’s reputation as a spawning ground for professional acts is strong. Previous graduates from The Cheek of It! have become regulars in London’s burlesque scene, including Miss Amarettease and Carmella de la Minx. Shirley Windmill, winner of a newcomer award at the 2011 London Burlesque Week, has recently starred in The Life and Times of Shirley Windmill, a solo show produced by Finger in the Pie. Hotcake Kitty has performed internationally as well as in established London shows like La Rêve and The Tassel Club, and is premiering The Dressing Room, her own variety show, on May 24th.
It takes more than dance skills and creativity to carve a successful niche in live entertainment, and burlesque is no different. The Cheek of It! helps career-minded students with the first steps in promotion. Graduates willing to publicise a solo act of their devising have the option of finishing the course with a professionally edited DVD and photos.
“The buzz of the night is amazing, and the experience these ladies get is fabulous, whether for fun or to start their burlesque careers,” says Lady Cheek. “And less then a week later, eight of them have already secured their first gig outside the Revue.”
But Is It Art?
Of course, you need something worth publicising before you start plugging your act. In burlesque, as with any other art form, the proof is nowhere else but in the pudding.
Graduates from The Cheek of It! demonstrate a wide range of styles. Singing, pantomime and clown join nimble fan dances and glamorous striptease on the same stage, and they all come from the guidance of the same educator. Do these diverse and personal acts have anything in common?
“A good burlesque act is entertaining, and the performer must have presence, poise, rhythm and charisma,” says Lady Cheek. “It’s about doing whatever it takes for the benefit of those who have left their homes and paid money for you to entertain them.”
Judging from the high-standard acts that have graced The Cheek of It! Burlesque Revue and the opinions of the students interviewed, both graduates and audiences are getting their money’s worth.
Want to catch the burlesque starlets of tomorrow at the start of their careers? The next batch of cheeky graduates hits the stage at Madame Jojo’s on June 17th. Tickets for The Cheek of It! Burlesque Revue sell out fast, so book early. See www.cheekofit.co.uk for more details.
Correction: this article was emended on May 18th. It previously gave the next date of The Cheek of It! Burlesque Revue as May 27th. That date has been cancelled.