Burlesque: Female Empowerment?

Let me say right now that I fully expected to hate burlesque. When I was about 19 I was taken along to Spearmint Rhino in London and was utterly expecting to be all, ‘yeah, women power, taking advantage of male idiocy’.  I had never had a problem with stripping until I actually saw it, and so I was floored and genuinely shocked to discover that I was disgusted by it. Go figure.

So when the suggestion of attending a burlesque show in Shoreditch came up recently I was understandably sceptical, particularly when those who raved about it used phrases like: ‘It’s really about exploring female sexuality, and feeling empowered’. Sure. Just like the strippers.

Sinner Saint Burlesque, the longest running burlesque show in Seattle, is currently visiting London and performing at the Brick House on Brick Lane, along with a mini photo-exhibition called Electric Burlesque, captured by Greg Holloway, which adorns the walls of the restaurant. 

When the show began, it did seem rather like my suspicions would be justified – the lights were all but turned off and the five girls of the troupe strutted out wearing a series of glow-stick type strings that encircled their bodies rather than covering them. They wiggled and gyrated to a dance track. I sighed.

But then the actual show began.  The ladies came out again, one by one to perform their stripping piece, and suddenly I was paying serious attention.

A curvy and sultry redhead with a particular skill in Middle Eastern-style dancing, swished her hips around the stage, making use of scarves like a rhythmic gymnast. 

A Hollywood starlet – in this case, a Tinselled Tart – used her routine to tell the story of an aging star panicking about her looks, only to rediscover feeling sexy in her own skin. 

And my personal favourite was the lady playing a tramp, waking up after a boozy night, the clothes removal complete with armpit sniffing. Definitely a far cry from standard sexiness, but incredibly powerful.

One stereotype of burlesque is definitely true – the super-skinny/big-tits combo which is so standard in most strip clubs, is clearly not welcome here. These girls, while in great shape, have real bodies, and aren’t afraid to shake them all over the stage. It adds to the intimacy of the show – you feel as though you are watching actual people. 

Added to this is their obvious performance skill. Most are trained in dance of one form or another, and it shows.  Countering these  more serious aspects of the show are the outrageously glittery and ostentatious costumes and the hilarious names – Miss Patty Cupcake, Lolita ‘Ta Tas’ Valentino and Ember Divine, from the original troop in Seattle, leap to mind.

The thing about burlesque is that it is artistic entertainment. The ladies put a lot of thought into their routines, costumes and performances, and honestly, the fact that they get next-to-naked at the end is almost incidental. It’s definitely not about being a turn-on, and while it’s not exactly fun for all the family, it is certainly for both genders.

Apart from the Sinner Saint Burlesque troupe coming to Shoreditch, it would seem that burlesque is growing in popularity. The West End’s Cafe de Paris, CellarDoor in Covent Garden and the Pigalle Club in Piccadilly all put on regular burlesque nights. It’s something a bit different and worth checking out.

The Brickhouse is hosting Sinner Saint Burlesque until March 19 and the Electric Burlesque exhibition is showing until March 24 at:

The Brickhouse
152c Brick Lane
E1 6RU

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