Words: Meryl Cubley
One Saturday morning not so long ago I took myself and an annoying head cold to the New Theatre, Cardiff, to a class hosted by Miss Tempest Rose, the director of House of Burlesque, a company which she owns and has been running for over four years.
I am told by the box office clerk that 40 women are signed up for today’s class, held in Cardiff for the House of Burlesque nationwide tour of Shipwrecked, a Burlesque show featuring tropical burlesque beauties, pin-up pirates and vaudeville superstars! Phew!
TR is firmly on the burlesque map, having worked in Paris, Italy and Las Vegas and now, with two residencies in London at Madame JoJo’s and Volupte.
The critically acclaimed and award winning ‘Circus Burlesque’ was House of Burlesque’s ground-breaking, flagship show, an award-winning burlesque extravaganza, complete with sold-out seasons and five-star reviews in London and at the Edinburgh Festival.
Circus Burlesque was said to offer irresistible sinful delights and sophisticated sensuality, a heady mix of the best in art-house burlesque and breathtaking circus acts…Whilst the burlesque extravaganza that is Shipwrecked features comedy, exotic and erotic cabaret, unforgettable songs, dazzling choreography and cabaret.
Shipwrecked has been a great success and celebrated in the press. Time Out calls shining international star TR a ‘Gratuitous Show Stealer, (a) burlesque performer with devilish charms’ and ‘‘Tempest Rose is indeed a woman who oozes so much sex appeal she is probably illegal in several countries’ says Recognise Magazine. To say I am intrigued would be an understatement.
Soon a gaggle of girlies of all ages, shapes, sizes and physical attributes begin to gather in the lobby. The excitement in the air (or oestrogen) is palpable. Particularly when, dressed in a fetching Minnie Mouse-esq red and polka dot dress, perfect creamy skin only on show from the most amazing arms I have ever seen (move over queen of the toned Michelle Obama), legs that seem to go on forever, encased in black opaques and towering heels – TR herself walks through the foyer carrying the most fantastical feathered fans which are just breathtakingly beautiful. I later find out that they are ostrich feather fans, which she made herself! To buy, these exquisite fans would be around £700, going up to £1,500 for Maribou feathers.
Feather fan dance
The feather fan dance originates from 1930’s and 40’s Burlesque; and was made famous by Sally Rand and her Hide and Reveal game; and I find myself immediately attracted to this kind of tease. I resolve to find out more, but in the meantime: The room audibly sighs and murmurs in pleasure and longing as we all watch TR and her feathers leave. I check the time, five minutes to go until we can get started…The atmosphere around me has moved up a notch. One woman tells me that burlesque is so amazing because it’s like a great big dressing up box for adults who get to play. Her eyes contain a gleam usually procured via class A substances. It’s not quite fever pitch yet, but it’s obvious it’s going to get there.
Forgetting my own fever by mainlining Lemsip capsules, I follow two casually elegant and well-preserved women of indeterminate age upstairs via a magnificent sweeping staircase. I am feeling rather drab in comparison. They take pity on me and ask if I’ve been to a burlesque class before; and when I tell them that this is my first time, they exchange knowing looks and tell me that I will ‘get the burlesque bug.’
Once everyone has grouped, in a variety of outfits – from tracksuits to dresses, heels to flats – and put their handbags, coats and jackets to one side; and gathered themselves, TR stands and warmly welcomes everyone. I like her immediately. My instincts tell me that she is one of us. The women who are here for the class obviously agree as they respond to her with an enthusiasm and friendliness that TR says she doesn’t always receive. Perhaps this is down to regional culture. The women in Wales, particularly South Wales, are not known for their wallflower credentials.
Still, there is a little nervousness in the air. I wonder how she will get 40 women from here to ‘there’ (there being us putting on a little show of our own) smoothly.
I need not have worried. TR starts by talking about positive body image and the ridiculousness that is the size zero ‘ideal’ for women: “women are not made to look like this!” she declares, “we are women and we are proud!”
It’s an inspiring start.
The art of striptease
We are told about the art of striptease, the female body, sensuality, sexuality…“Burlesque empowers women!” TR tells us. “It is a performance art that illuminates, inspires and expresses human sexuality and all that is related.”
TR explains the importance of always smiling when performing. “Burlesque is there to make you happy and entertain you, it is not like strip clubs that are there to arouse – but that’s not to say that Burlesque isn’t sexy – think of Dita Von Teese in a Martini glass; or my favourite, a mermaid in a bubble! How magnificent!”
Talk of strip clubs puts me in mind of the ones I have been in, with gyrating girls and their sad empty eyes. It is a stark contrast and I wish that the strip club girls could be here with us here now where there is already a lot of joy and celebration. TR’s energy is wonderful, effervescent, and addictive – and it’s apparent that the whole room is hooked.
There is applause and cheers.
“Burlesque is a cartoon! The cartoon version of yourself! You at your very, very best – you exaggerated, enhanced and beautiful!”
Origins of burlesque
We hear how burlesque in the 1800’s, was used as a joke, to tease and play with the hierarchical forms of culture – such as ballet and the opera. How its roots can be found in belly dancing and the most important part is to make it risqué and sexy; with outré dress.
We talk about gimmicks: Original era burlesque gimmick was by a performer who walked the stage in a fur coat only to whistle and reveal the coat was made of live mink that would run away from her! Wow. Legend also has it that the g-string comes from burlesque, as it was something that a performer could wear – without taking everything off – and leaving something to the imagination.
“Burlesque has to be entertaining, uplifting, happy – and it must show the best of a woman’s body,” says TR. “Think of a girls’ changing room – “isn’t it funny that we have these breasts!”
We are shown the headdress from the Shipwrecked show and she shares her penchant for crystals, crystals; and yet more crystals! Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but it would seem that these stones are precious to TR!
Burlesque style such as leopard print 50’s bathing costumes are discussed, as well as the joy of vintage. TR tells us that UHU glue and glue guns are a burlesque performer’s best friend – “Most of us don’t know how to sew!” she laughs and goes on to say that if any of us are getting married and want to know how to do it on a shoestring budget – ask a burlesque girl. I immediately make a note of that. Not that I’m getting married, but I know you’ll want to have access to a burlesque girl’s guide to vintage and customising…later I ask if she would be in agreement and the lady of burlesque says yes – so keep checking back readers!
Learning the moves
We start with some gentle warm up exercises. Heels off. Shaking out our arms and swooping! Then comes the music, with some great 50’s sounds.
We listen as TR discusses how to display the body in the best way and that in order to do that we have to also make sure that the body is warm enough to be flexible and sensuous.
TR now teaches us The Shimmy (how to shake your tic tacs). This is brilliant fun and everyone joins in. Another move resembles milking a giant cow with arms above the head whilst shimmying at the same time.
The room is now in full throttle, women having a great time.
Next we look at hip sliding and locking into place, whilst pushing the top tummy up and out. I love this and have been practising it at home as a benefit is that pushing the top tummy up and out slims the silhouette and makes the most of those breasts!
Pasties and tassels
Talking of which: TR emphasises that there is no nudity in burlesque – when the breasts have had all appendages removed – pasties or tassels still remain! We are told it is important to learn how to use them. She ask how many women have them at home?
Over half the room owns up.
TR tells us about how she has a pair that has MJ’s face on them. There are also ones with spiders and dark lace for the gothic – to ones that light up! A performer, Slinky Sparkles we are told, bends over in the backwards crab position and with her breasts to the stage, swings her tassels in perfect symmetry! “There’s more to it than you think ladies! You have to make them work!” This is met with lots of laughter and I suddenly feel a strong urge to buy some tassels.
Next up is bump ‘n’ grind, which surprisingly comes from a jazz style of burlesque from the 40’s and 50’s burlesque. I wonder whether the girls in the strip clubs know this.
Back to fantastical frippery and we discuss ‘Bump Belts’ that are decorated with sequins and hanging beads to add interest and movement to an already deeply enticing spectacle. I want one.
There is some very impressive bumping (have you ever seen a room full of women bumping their hips? You should. It’s an awesome sight) we play around with a little hoola-hoola movement, knees a little bent, swishing arms up above the head; and shimmying those breasts for all we’re worth as those hips continue to bump. There is more applause and laughter and whooping. Now I understand why the two women on the way in told me I would catch the burlesque bug. This really is a brilliant feeling – and in addition to the general fabulousness of TR – it has everything to do with being in a roomful of women, on an equal playing field; joined in celebrating being a woman and all that that involves.
We do more stretching, this time the legs and calves to make sure all the limbs are warmed and toned. A lovely little but important thing about the class is that there is no rushing. There are loo breaks a plenty and much chatting and mineral water sipping.
More posture training next. Up from the ribcage, no ‘sitting’ in hips here! We drop the shoulders right down, shake the stress out of the hands; and then place the hands on the hips.
Pin-up or femme fatale?
We are now standing in the ‘pin-up’ style. Standing tall and straight with body presence. “Bring the drama and status to you!” says TR. “Chest out, hand or hands on hips, tighten the waist, curling the knees, tipping in one foot, one knee bent, and voila! We have lengthened legs. “This stance makes you feel great! Own it, feel it, live it!”.
“Be proud of your body! We are all super-critical of ourselves – we all do it every day – and it affects the way you feel – and the way you see yourself. For five minutes every day do this stance in front of the mirror, ban yourself from negative thoughts for anything from 1 minute to working up to 1 hour – and then! Hey! Maybe work up to one whole day! It’s difficult to fall victim of negative conditioning when you are in the standing tall pose!”
Much applause and whoops of joy. This is the advice we should all be listening too – whatever the shape and size you are – and something we all need to employ every day. Sing it loud, sing it proud. We are woman.
We try and walk with the standing pose – and unsurprisingly this is not easy – and ends in hilarity! TR helps out and tells us to think of it as a character that we are embodying. To think of it as how you feel after a couple of glasses of wine, how you feel when you’re at a great party – “This is the extension and magnification of you!”
Next we have to decide – who are you? A pin up girl? Or a femme fatale? TR does both perfectly to the now raucous applause of this crowd of very happy women. I feel like we have all indeed found ourselves at a party, with the wine flowing.
We are told to embody both the pin up and the femme fatale and copy the moves to see which one is more comfortable. The pin up is perhaps Charlotte from Sex and the City, light, airy, fun, innocent, silly…or Marilyn Monroe – ‘oh I didn’t realise that if I stood here over this vent that the air would blow up and oh! now my skirts are flying all about!’
The femme fatale is about the female seductress so we channel Jessica Rabbit, Rita Hayworth, Theda Bera, et al.
We mimic facial poses and there are 40 pairs of bedroom eyes in the room. I am glad that the area we are in has been strictly signed as ‘out of bounds.’ If a man walked in here now he would get a serious case of the vapours and faint. I don’t care if he was machismo or new age. There is just so much female power in this room.
“Remember this is about the journey to the de-robe – not ‘get your tits out!’ but the yes it’s fabulous! You’re fabulous! I’m fabulous!” calls TR.
The audience at shows are encouraged to get involved – the performers need to have a relationship with the crowd. As the flyer says: Cold and wet outside? In here the sun is high in the sky and summer never ends!
Putting on a show
In the last 15 minutes we are now ready to do our very own short routine. All the ladies are in groups – pin-up – or femme fatale. This is a culmination of all the moves taught in the class; and now it involves opera gloves – ‘what glorious, gorgeous silky satin evening gloves. They feel so amazing on my skin, I wonder what’s underneath? Oh it’s my silky soft skin….’
And the sexiness of legs – My god this leg is sexy. This bit of my leg is sexy, so is this little bit here, it’s oh so sexy, and this little bit here too… and oh, this part of my leg, just here, that is very sexy…”
There is a great little routine at the end, where the women now turned performers have their backs on display, head over the shoulder, turning the body in an elegant way, pin up or femme fatale expression drinking in their audience.
TR reminds us of the erotic ‘forgotten’ zones of a woman: the wrists, the neck, the nape of the neck… all along the ladies routine she stands in the back and carries the ladies through – keeping it all flowing – calling out reminders such as “Remember this is about the idea that something ‘may’ come off!”
It’s all about the back – and then it’s all about the front – of the body. 40 wonderful bodies of every shape and size imaginable.
Half of the ladies are doing a routine; and half are the ‘audience’ – there is lots of cheering, whooping, laughing. It is the most fantastic positive atmosphere. I whoop along with the rest of the crowd, my head cold is completely forgotten as I celebrate womanhood with all of my sisters around me.
Miss Tempest Rose runs Burlesque Idol in London for any aspiring performers who wish to make a splash on the professional scene.
Photos: The fans picture is by Andy Friend-Smith and the rest are by Rich Newnham.