Beginner’s Guide: Tease Your Way into Burlesque
March 31, 2023 @ 10:00am
D.C. burlesque pros discuss the beauty and confidence of stripping down in front of an audience — and tips for those wanting to give it a go.
Beneath the glitter of rhinestones and sheen of pearls, the spectacle of feathers and strategically draped velvet, burlesque is theatrical striptease that can otherwise be almost anything: playful or sensual, comedic or emotional, simple or elaborate. Though performers debate the exact definition, burlesque in its various forms and flavors has delighted and excited American audiences for more than 150 years. Since the rise of neo-burlesque around the dawn of the 21st century, burlesque has re-emerged not only as an art form and profession, but as a space to practice and cultivate self-love: a mental and physical workout fun enough not to feel like one, a mode of creative expression open to people of all identities, a source of confidence that might otherwise be hard to find.
For D.C.-based burlesque performer, shake dancer and rollergirl Bebe Bardeaux, burlesque has always been about finding power in a world where she did not see herself reflected in the beauty standards around her.
“I’m 4 foot, 11 inches,” says Bardeaux, who started performing in 2017 and now goes by the epithet The Doll of D.C. “I’m dark-skinned. I don’t look like the stereotypical pinup. And yet, when I get up there, nobody questions it. People think they know what they want, but they don’t. They will believe what you believe.”
Bardeaux, who performed in her first show a year after having a baby, says burlesque helped her love her body.
“To this day, it’s the most beautiful I’ve ever felt — when I was onstage, rubbing my back rolls with glitter,” she says. “In burlesque, we have a rule: When you look in the mirror, if you see a part of your body you’re embarrassed about, or a part of your body you hate, put glitter on it. Emphasize it. Put beads on it. Massage it. Love that part of your body the most. It totally rewires how you view yourself, what you think you’re capable of.”
GiGi Holliday, a full-time performer, educator and D.C. native, is another burlesque artist who experienced this sense of empowerment firsthand. Holliday took her first burlesque class in the wake of a break-up in 2010. Twelve years later, she was ranked by her peers as the number 11 most influential performer in the industry for 21st Century Burlesque Magazine. She describes her style as a blend of 1950s aesthetic and 1990s hip-hop: “Dorothy Dandridge with a hip-hop beat” who pairs doorknocker earrings and Jordans with pin-up skirts.
Holliday credits the confidence she gained from burlesque for helping her advance in her corporate job before she began performing full time. She says she’s seen changes in her students, too: They’ve made big moves in their health, relationships and careers, propelled by a newfound sense of self-worth.
“That confidence you learn by moving your body ends up affecting your mind and coming out into your everyday world,” says Holliday, who relocated to NYC in 2021.
We asked Bardeaux and Holliday what they recommend for DMVers interested in seeing what burlesque is all about — and who may want to give it a shot themselves.
See a show.
In addition to supporting live entertainment and working artists, seeing burlesque in person is a great way to find out what you like — and what you might want to try.
Check the schedules for venues like Bier Baron, the Birchmere (which hosts a long-running annual show around Valentine’s Day), SAX Dinner Theater & Lounge and The Howard Theatre; as well as D.C.-based troupes like DC Gurly Show, the city’s longest running queer performance troupe, and DMVariety, which produces a regular burlesque and variety brunch called “Yolks on You,” hosted by clown Jim Dandy and burlesque performer Delilah Dentata.
Brush up on burlesque history.
Bardeaux, a historian as well as performer, specializes in shake dancing, a precursor to the striptease popularized by Black burlesque dancers in the 1930s and the topic of the book she’s working on. She emphasizes that learning about burlesque history — understanding what people before you have worked hard to build so you can honor it and build upon it — is key to becoming a better performer.
Intimately tied to queer and punk culture, burlesque in D.C. has evolved into a style all its own: favoring political acts, drag kings and fat burlesque over traditional glitz and glamor.
“You put on a lot of rhinestones here, people may not be impressed,” Bardeaux says. “They really want to see what kind of story you have to tell.”
Find your muse.
After seeing some live shows, look up the performers who inspire you. DMVers who want to try burlesque can find in-person and online classes through burlesque schools across the country, but they can also learn directly from some of D.C.’s top performers. Look into what artists you admire are offering — from Patreons and YouTube series to private or group classes. Even if your favorite performers aren’t teaching, it doesn’t hurt to get in touch and tell them you admire their work.
“Reach out,” Bardeaux says. “You never know. They could just take you under their wing.”
Discover your burlesque persona.
Now that you’re armed with plenty of inspiration, context and possibly even some skills, it’s time to find your very own burlesque persona. One rule: Whether you keep it simple or go big, make it fresh.
“Be the burlesque you want to see in the world,” Holliday says. “I can teach you the moves, but I can’t put the emotion in there for you, babes. You have to find your own story.”
Holliday recommends playing dress-up: Use your imagination and experiment until you discover who you want to be on stage, what you want to say and how.
Put yourself out there.
Bardeaux teaches classes on kittening, a form of stage-managing that involves making a bit of a show while collecting tips and picking up costume pieces performers have dropped. To her, it’s an art form all its own. She says it’s a real opportunity to see the inner workings of a show, to learn about and gain respect for the craft of burlesque.
“You see that it’s not just about five minutes on stage,” Bardeaux says. “You see all the blood, sweat and tears the producers are going through. You see all the panic and anxiety of these people you probably thought were larger than life. But when you see them backstage, you see those quiet, scared moments right before they hit the lights and they turn into this big, bodacious character.”
You can follow Bebe Bardeaux on Instagram @bebe.bardeaux and GiGi Holliday
Local burlesque performers not to miss
Queer drag and burlesque queen with a passion for vintage style // @bettyohellno
Fire dancer, choreographer, erotic author and mental health advocate // @evamystique
Fox E. Martin
Non-binary, queer burlesquer, model and pole dancer // @foxemartin
Baltimore-based disabled burlesque performer, disability activist and the first to compete in a wheelchair for a title at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender // @jacquelineboxx
London St. Juniper
Tattooed Ph.D., writer and burlesque performer with a sideshow bent // @london_st_j
Award-winning international cosplayer, burlesque performer, erotic artist and producer of the International Nerdlesque Festival // @makirollofficial
Mermaid Chè Monique
Founder of Chocolate City Burlesque and The Society of Fat Mermaids with a purpose to remind people who look like her, “You are more than enough and deserve to live a joyous life full of magic.” // @mermaidchemonique
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