A girl dressed head to foot in a nun’s habit stands alone on stage. She presses a flimsy book with a cross painted on it to her chest. Suddenly, music begins to pump out from a speaker, and the girl sways her hips from side to side. She flings the book over her shoulder, and writhes about in front of a gawking audience. She teases them – at first – by whipping her dress above her thighs to flash a pair of black-stockinged legs, and ends the performance completely nude, save for her knickers and two starry nipple tassels.
How do you react? If the crowd in Vodka Revolution last night are anything to go by (gathered on behalf of the charity, Platform), you may experience shock, embarrassment or a touch of self-consciousness. ‘I had no idea where to look, it was so awkward!’ exclaimed one person. Or you may fully embrace the theatricality of the performance and have a ball.
The (fake) nun in question goes by the name of April Showers. She was joined by a host of other performers from the Sheffield University Burlesque Society – Audrey Heartburn, Mademoiselle, and society leader, Freida Sparkles, whose real name is Doris Lowman.
I met up with Doris – a fourth year physics student – the morning after. I was keen to discover a bit more about the niche world of burlesque, which seems to poach aspects from other arts (circus, dance), whilst breaking down sexual taboos. Doris told me that she joined the burlesque society in first year, after being attracted by the colourful and imaginative costumes of the performers. She makes all of her own clothes: last night, she was wielding a pair of vast fans made out of green feathers, which she told me she was particularly proud of. I asked her what she thought the main hook of burlesque is for most women (and some men). “Everyone likes showing off,” she told me – a sentiment that I find it hard to disagree with.
Some people believe that burlesque is just a glorified version of stripping, but – from my impressions last night – they couldn’t be more wrong. The main focus is on showmanship and eccentric theatricality. Doris agrees. She tells me that the point of burlesque isn’t for it to be sexy. The point is for sexual suggestion to be used as a form of expression to engross the audience in the act.
At one point last night, Mademoiselle – a second year History student – entered the stage wearing nothing but her underwear and about a dozen balloons. She toyed with the crowd, stroking faces with a long white feather, and encouraging them to burst the balloons with the sharp end of the feather. For over half an hour after the show, one man could be heard exclaiming to his friends how he had been tricked by Mademoiselle. Apparently she had approached him, tickled his chin with the feather, then swept over to someone else before he had a chance to burst a balloon. It seems she did a number on him.
I ask Doris if she finds burlesque empowering. It seems to be a feminist trend nowadays to invert acts of male gratification – stripping, scantily clad dancing (Beyoncé) – in order for women to reclaim the female body. Doris shifts in her seat when I mention the word ’empower’. She tells me she does find it empowering, but that the word gets flung around a little too often – it’s lost its potency. The most significant aspects of a show, she tells me, is to have fun, and to put on an amusing performance. Comedy is the keystone of burlesque. Her friend is soon putting on a Top Gun themed show, replete with cheesy uniforms and thick stick-on moustaches!
The University Burlesque Society are putting on an end of year showcase tonight, at Bloo 88. Doors open at 7pm, the show starts at 8pm, and everyone is invited.
If you’re looking to get involved in burlesque, you can find a link to the university facebook group here.
Alternatively, there are plenty of non-student burlesque nights out there in Sheffield. Secrets of the Boudior run quarterly shows at both West Street Live and Leadmill which you can find out about on their website. They also hide public and private classes.
Burly Q is another company that provide high quality burlesque events. Over the past four years they have sold out 19 shows, involving some world-class performers. You can find their website here for more information.
Finally, A Pole New Adventure is a studio which provides and eclectic mix of workouts – from pole dancing to zumba to, of course, burlesque. It is run by Gemma Hopkins out of A New Adventure Studios. You can find the website here.
Written by Nick Willoughby