Burlesque-capades (Interview Yorkpress 2011)
NATALYA WILSON discovers life is a cabaret when she takes a burlesque course.
PERCHED daintily atop a bar stool in a pretty dotty dress and red heels and with her dark hair teased back off her face in waves, Bella Besame is the epitome of 1950s’ girlish glamour.
But there’s something more than that – underneath her girlishness, Bella oozes an almost sultry sexiness reminiscent of pin-ups of that era such as Rita Hayworth or Jane Russell, or modern day poster girl Dita Von Teese.
Little wonder, then, that her career of choice reflects her image, as Bella has been a burlesque performer for the past 11 years.
“I was a managing director of a telecommunications company, managing 26 members of staff, but I found that I wasn’t happy doing that,” said Bella.
“I have a background in theatre and dance and had done some performances while I worked in a bar at university. I was asked if I could do more and had heard about burlesque, so I thought ‘yeah, okay, I’ll give it a go’. I was totally hooked,” she smiled.
“I went to see loads of shows, spoke to performers and got established and thought, ‘Life’s too short’, gave it all up and thought, ‘Right okay, here we go!’.”
Bella has since built up a reputation as a burlesque performer not only in the UK, but also at festivals and venues in America. As well as performing, she also produces shows and has been teaching the art of burlesque for seven years. This includes in York, where she has been running courses for more than a year, most recently at Basement Bar, in Kennedy’s.
There’s a thriving burlesque scene in York, with regular nights such as Coquette Burlesque and Cabaret Club and the Cherry Pop Affair which have been developed by local burlesque performers, some of which are Bella’s past pupils.
Curious to find out more, I signed up for the six-week course and on the first evening, as I waited alongside my fellow eight or so future Dita Von Teeses and Immodesty Blaizes – all who were different shapes and sizes and with various careers and backgrounds – I had the feeling that the next few weeks would be fun.
From the off, Bella made us feel at ease and introduced us to burlesque, how she had come to it and what we could expect from the course.
We were then thrown straight in and, tottering on the highest of heels, all had a giggle as she introduced us to a couple of basic moves, such as shimmies, which resulted in a few more giggles.
However, following plenty of encouragement and support from Bella, and after plenty of practice, we started to master them and by the end of this first hour-long session, I felt that I had not only learned a few burlesque essentials, but that I had also started to develop a new-found body confidence and found myself looking forward to the following week’s class.
As the sessions went on, and we started to build up and master a number of moves, advancing to glove striptease and striptease with a shirt and gown over our other clothes (don’t worry, there’s no nudity involved in the classes!), all of which was a lot of fun – especially when we were tasked to work in groups on choreography and come up with our own routines to music – something that at first seemed quite a task, but soon became a rewarding achievement.
The classes don’t just involve how to do the moves, however. Bella gave us plenty of tips on music, characterisation (cheeky, comic, or sexy – all are popular in burlesque), props and, finally, we all graduated with our own all-important burlesque name.
I was sorry when the course came to an end – not only had I come away with a new alter ego (did I introduce you to Stella de Soir?) and mastering the art of striptease and how to put together a successful burlesque performance, but a new-found confidence, sexiness, and a few new friendships, too.
‘Sexy, not sexual’
The term “burlesque” came into existence in 16th-century Italy and was used during the 17th and 18th centuries throughout Europe to describe musical works in which serious and comic elements were juxtaposed or combined to grotesque effect.
Victorian burlesque was popular in London theatres between the 1830s and the 1890s, as a musical parody of a well-known opera, play or ballet, often risqué and comedic in style.
When burlesque fell out of favour in England in the Edwardian era, it was taken up in America and developed to often include an exotic dancer.
The transition from old-time burlesque to striptease was gradual, but became a very popular genre of entertainment which eventually fell out of fashion in the 1970s, only to make a revival in the early 1990s thanks to performers such as Dita Von Teese.
Unlike striptease, which tends to focus on the end result (the “strip” part), burlesque performers centre on the “tease”, with an emphasis on stylish, often elaborate costumes and cabaret dance routines, all of which is sexy rather than sexual.
• Want to try out burlesque for yourself? To sign up for the next course in York, email Bella Besame at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit bella.besame.co.uk
link to original interview on York Press web site: