The Sacred Feminine Moves in Mysterious Ways - My Journey with Burlesque
Last year I decided, rather spontaneously, to take an eight week course in Burlesque at “The Cheek of It” school that would force me to perform live. What made me do it? Well, I was seeking to connect to a part of me that I felt I had shut off. I have never felt particularly feminine or sexy, partly due to growing up in a culture (Russian) where femininity has very specific rules, many of which I don’t follow. But more than anything, I felt that my serious working side had taken over, I was constantly focused on my teaching and the train timetable, and what was for dinner, and what needed doing etc. Of course yoga and meditation provided some relief, but even that can be a serious and focused practice. I had a longing to connect to that sacred feminine, which I read and learned about in workshops and women’s circles, but which still felt so elusive. It was time to step out of the box and throw things up in the air a bit!
I remember arriving at Camden Tube station feeling all nervous and excited, who would turn up? What would we do? Would I hate it? Would I make friends? All the usual stuff when learning something new. As I stepped into the hallway of the studio I instantly recognised our teacher. On the sofa in the small and dark hallway sat a woman dressed in perfect 50s outfit, the classic figure hugging knee-length skirt, black fishnet tights and red high heels with bows on them. She had those perfect 50s curls, and of course, she was wearing red lipstick. This was Ginger Cupcake, our brilliant teacher whose own performances are as funny as they are sexy.
The first class was hugely revealing. We were 14 girls, all giggling like crazy, feeling hugely awkward pulling cutesy faces, sexy poses and wiggling our hips. “Damn!” I thought, “this is going to be much harder than I thought”. But the fact that I found it hard is what made want to come back for more. I had watched the school founder’s Lady Cheek’s TED talk and I knew that this awkwardness and silliness had huge potential.
As class one turned into class two and class three, we all started leaving our inhibitions behind and those first awkward poses started feeling natural. We relished in the way that our bodies moved. And it wasn’t so much about the pose, but it was all about bringing it alive from the inside with our own sense of sexiness and playfulness. It’s not about seducing someone, it’s about seducing yourself. Owning my joy – that’s what it felt like. We learned how to strip in a way that was playful, and of course to twirl nipple tassels! I cannot stress enough the sense of achievement when you get them to twirl in different directions!! (I didn’t even know you could do that!) I felt almost as proud as when I submitted my PhD, minus the tears. Learning such skills among 13 other girls leads to endless laughter, and also lots of camaraderie and support. It breeds connection rather than competition. I have experienced similar feelings in a women’s circle, where we share, cry and laugh together. Women coming together and abandoning our roles and inhibitions.
At the end of the eight weeks it was showtime! I felt like being back at school performing for parents, getting all giddy and excited, changing costumes, doing make-up and hair, except of course this was VERY different. I, for some weird reason can feel awkward in a bikini on a beach, how the hell am I going to take my clothes (including my bra) off in front of people I have never met?! Surely this is insane! But guess what, we practiced our routine, we loved it and we couldn’t wait to share it with others. As I stood in the theatre, leaning against a pillar and watching one performer after another practice their act on stage, from funny, to heartfelt, to sultry, to clever, to flamboyant, I couldn’t have felt any more empowered. I had never seen so many women (and men!) in my life, of all ages and sizes, own their inner beauty. I felt so proud to be part of this.
We shook like leaves at the start of our performance but we nailed it, giving each other looks of support throughout. Yes, taking your bra off on stage can be a true act of sisterhood, empowerment and a connection to that elusive sacred feminine. In fact, it seemed none of us actually wanted to put our bras back on after the performance!
What I came to learn is that the mischievousness of the sacred feminine can be found in many ways, not just on a meditation cushion or in a women’s circle, although they are great places to be. What I loved about burlesque is that it doesn’t discriminate. Everyone is welcome, all sizes, genders, ages etc., because burlesque is built on the knowledge that our human collective sense of sexiness and playfulness is unbound. It is not a shape or a thing, it is something much more elusive than that.
One of the major things I learned during my course was the importance of the connection between the performer and the crowd. So often stripping is more about power than joy. Power in the hands of the one who pays for the striptease, and power in the hands of the one that seduces. But seduction in burlesque, for me, is not the seduction of a person, but a play on what seduction actually is. Burlesque invites the performer and the crowd to share the same space and joy. You want the crowd to cheer and shout, rather than silently stare, and they are the other 50% of the act. You’re there together, in the moment.
For me, if it brings joy to the world, if it undermines the status quo of what is sexy and what is not, if it allows us to define our own sexiness, then it is empowering. It brings the erotic out of the darkness to which it has been banished and shows us how essential it is to our liberation and our sense of being fully human. It throws all ideas up in the air and reassembles them with a cheeky grin.