Surrounded by suitcases bursting with incandescent crystal-laden braziers and fluttering ostrich-feather fans, trays of pasties, and women decked out in the best of pin-up vogue, it was like I had stepped into a different era. A warm era, with soft curls and hard eyeliner. I spoke with a handful of next-to-naked women of the Great Canadian Burlesque (GCB) troupe, getting ready to trade their bodies for applause and whistles that night at the Mod Club. I was dazzled by the flashy costumes, so delicate and intricate up close; and by the dancers themselves, who were stunning, with confidence and charisma any stage performer would aspire to have. I settled in to watch my first burlesque show, unsure of what was to come. By the end, I was cheering louder than anyone, completely caught up in the electrifying atmosphere and the sex that filled the air. However, I did manage to learn a thing (or 10) during my time with the talented ladies (and men) of the GCB.
1 // More is more
When it comes to burlesque costumes, you can never have too much of anything. Performers adhere to the three S’s like religion: sequins, shine, and shimmer. “The flashier the better,” says Fionna Flauntit, GCB performer, founder, and producer. Costumes are over the top, both in theme and application. There’s more Swarovski crystals at a burlesque show than a Michael Jackson impersonator convention (Miss Mitzy Cream’s Glamophone outfit has over 43,000 of them, trimmed with plenty of 18-ply ostrich feathers). “In any other application it would be cheesy as hell, but in the burlesque world, it’s perfect,” laughs Flauntit. But performers exaggerate the theme of their characters, too. Ms. Chaos Divine’s black widow costume, whose black nail polish was drying as we spoke, incorporates a spider web-cut leather corset and garter belt, a spider’s nest fascinator, complete with floralytes, a bouquet of roses I’m assuming for the funeral of her not-so-dearly departed (and digested) husband and a spider perched on top. Oh and spider-web pasties just for good measure.
2 // Face time
Makeup is an important part of every performer’s ensemble. It can contribute thematically to the character, like in Cherry Typhoon’s geisha routine, or simply enhance the drama of a performer’s look, like the seductive Sassy Ray. Performers sometimes paint themselves from head to… well, you can imagine… in which case makeup is one of the most prominent features of an act.
It gets heated onstage under the spotlights, so makeup needs to cover sheen, while amplifying facial features with fake eyelashes and gauche blush so even the audience at the back can see. Veteran Miss Mitzy does her own makeup meticulously in a little bathroom above the stage before the show (pantless, I might add), smudging foundation and powder onto her cheeks and forehead, and carefully applying dramatic eye makeup. Some performers like Miss Mitzy use their own products from home, while others have their makeup done professionally. Coco Framboise had her Cleopatra-inspired visage crafted by Stacey Laureyssens, a Toronto-based stage makeup artist and owner of theOriginalFace. The decision to use a makeup artist or DIY can depend on the complexity of the performer’s character, and how big a part the makeup plays during the performance. Hint: Flauntit’s Mystique costume is pretty heavy on the makeup.
3 // Size/age is just a number
Perhaps in response to the rail-thin young white models that grace most of our runways and fashion spreads today, burlesque has joined the ranks of counter-culture, frequently offering up a diverse array of performers that vary in size, ethnicity, and age. From size 2′s to 24′s, GCB succeeds in showcasing women from all walks of life that defy conventional beauty: black, white, Asian and Latin women, PYTs to impressive legends Tiffany Carter (Miss Nude Universe 1975) and Tempest Storm (one of the most iconic women in the industry). I think Forrest Gump once said that burlesque is like a box of chocolates. And he was right.
4 // A pastie party
Pasties are pieces of material that performers use to cover their nipples. The tradition of wearing pasties is about as old as burlesque itself; troupes in the 1920s used them as a way to get around moral laws of the time (no nip, no foul, right?). They come in countless forms—like the traditional conical shape, hearts, stars, X’s, alpha letters, or just plain glitter—and can encompass various features, from dangling tassels that spin rhythmically with any slight upper body movement, to the flaming ones that Tanya Cheex courageously dons. Dancers can buy them online, or locally from women like Cheex or Patte Rosebank, who make them by hand and sell them on platters at events. They are attached securely to the breast using double-sided adhesive tape, or wig-tape, which occasionally can be painful to remove. But it’s better than having them fly off during a particularly intense twirl.
5 // To prop or not to prop
A giant gramophone complete with rotating platform. A feathered crown composed of removable fans. A classic stripper pole. Depending on the performer, acts can incorporate varying degrees of accessories. Some performances keep it simple, involving only a chair or an umbrella filled with rose petals, a choice that puts more focus on the dancer’s choreography. Others lean toward the more sublime of sets, like Divine’s subterranean lair, a world rife with jars full of creepy crawlies, baroque furniture, and gloomy drapery. Coco Framoise included some “sex slaves” as props in her Cleopatra routine, and Sauci Calla Horra used her male volunteer’s (ahem) props to juice some lemons.
Choosing to use props can depend on the context of the routine: they can get in the way of choreography-heavy performances like those of troupes (the Harlettes, Glamourpuss Burlesque), but they can add to the laughs in more comedic acts. I’m certain old Will Shakespeare would approve of the glitter shower Akynos (the Incredible Edible) gave herself on stage, or Miss Mitzy’s baby that poops and vomits crystals.
6 // The show must go on
What happens if a performer steps on her hem and her whole outfit unravels, or a pastie flies into the crowd? “You just roll with it and make it look like it was meant to be,” says Flauntit. It helps that burlesque is rooted in comedy, but having to stop to wrench open a zipper mid-act sort of kills the mood. Not many women have the issue of unfastening a zipper (it’s generally the opposite we struggle with, trying to fit into too tight jeans). But Divine has experienced that one. “I think the mark of a seasoned performer is one who can manage a costume mishap, because it’s going to happen,” she says. And there’s always wig tape and safety pins for quick fixes. Worst case scenario, a performer pulls a Janet and the audience gets an eyeful. But something tells me they wouldn’t mind.
7 // Howling at the moon(s)
Wolfman, like his time-honoured shark fin suit(?) that he purchased at Winners for Girlesque 6, is a mainstay within the GCB organization, though he came into his role almost by fate. Playing off a nickname bestowed upon him by bullies in his adolescence, Wolfman had pitched a song to the fledgling company to use on stage. Back then, GCB was spookier (Miss Mitzy “Scream” was a vampire, and founder/producer Chris Mysterion, a local mentalist, hosted the shows), and the werewolf thing kind of fit. Before long, Wolfman started hosting due to a chance double-booking, and the rest is history. Like many others in the industry, though maybe more appropriately, he moonlights at the burlesque shows, and graces the stage of many other events locally, emceeing everything from rock shows and magazine launches to animal rescue events and fundraisers. Awoo!
8 // The stuff characters are made of
A sexy song, an entertaining figure in the media, an especially inspirational fabric: burlesque performers’ characters are born in many ways. Flauntit found a particularly hideous dress in a thrift shop (crushed velvet, lime green, over $300 of crystals sewn on). But with some alterations, it was perfect for her Green Lady performance. Divine is occasionally motivated by chakras and energy, or deep emotions like heartbreak, but more often by the costume itself as she pieces it together. “The character usually develops as I start creating the costume and start rehearsing,” she explains. “It’s funny how I can feel myself changing into something else, and embodying whatever I’m doing after I put the costume on.” Sometimes the performance is entirely about the costume, like Miss Mitzy’s self-described look at my pretty outfit routine. But each performer has an extensive rotation of characters they can embody on any given night. Miss Mitzy has over 65 different acts, each with its own costume. You can imagine her closet!
9 // Hand-made-ens
It’s rare that a performer can find exactly what she needs off the rack. There is a strong DIY culture in burlesque, as women often need to alter a fantastic thrift shop find to fit their measurements, or adorn it with crystals or bows. There are performers on a shoestring budget who you would never guess shopped at Dollarama, thanks to their darn-ed skills. Some performers are quite talented seamstresses, like Divine, who has been sewing and putting on fashion shows since she can remember. Most of her outfits have dual purposes, starting as one thing and then transforming into something else. “I like having versatility in the way I look,” she says, and like many performers, she would not wear something straight off the rack. Other performers may not have the skills themselves, and so employ others in the industry to create their costumes based on their direction. “I’m horrible at it, I’m hopeless at making costumes,” admits Miss Mitzy, whose glamaphone outfit was created by fellow performer and costume designer, Patte Rosebank. Alternatively, performers can shop at various specialty stores, like Danger Dame or Lip Service, and piece together an outfit like a puzzle.
10 // All the dance classes in the world…
When it comes down to it, a burlesque performance isn’t just about one thing. It’s about the way the costume, the makeup, the choreography, and the sex appeal all come together. “It’s the whole package, it’s about how you feel on stage and how you come off on stage to the audience,” says Flauntit. It takes guts to get up on stage in a room full of people and take your clothes off. It’s seemingly simple, but it’s hard to do well, in a way that makes the audience laugh, get turned on, and widen their eyes in awe at the same time. “You know, you have to have the charisma, and the audience loves to see when you’re enjoying yourself,” Flauntit emphasizes. “You could have the most elaborate costume, but if you don’t have stage presence and the personality… Personality is the one thing you can’t teach people.”
photography // Claire Ward-Beveridge