I signed up for four sessions of Introduction to Burlesque at the Boston Academy of Burlesque Education (B.A.B.E.) with a limited understanding of what the art form really is, and I spent my commute from work to the studio wondering if my clothes were the kind of clothes I would enjoy taking off. What if I was terrible at it? What if I was great? I texted manic questions to my boyfriend, whose interest in my taking burlesque classes ranged from puzzlement to sarcasm. “Are you nervous or excited for old timey take-your-clothes-off class?” he asked. He also said, “Don’t pick Savannah as your stage name. You’ll sound like an old lady.” As we neared Allston, I replied, “Hope there isn’t a huge neon sign announcing Burlesque outside the place. I don’t want the people on the bus to know what I’m about to do.
As it turns out, locating B.A.B.E. is a challenge for those of us who depend entirely on the T. There is no neon sign announcing “Nude! Ladies!” In fact, the building that houses the school looks like something you’d typically avoid. Taking the 66 from Harvard Square gets you to the school’s drab grey and brick building in under 15 minutes. Once you’re buzzed into the building and find B.A.B.E. at the end of a series of long corporate hallways, the real fun begins.
The studio itself looks like a film set from “Moulin Rouge!” It even smells faintly of vanilla, and soft jazz floods into the room, seemingly from nowhere. I was greeted upon entering B.A.B.E. by a young woman draped over a red velvet settee. She balanced a clipboard with the names of her students on her legs, which I realized were wrapped in black fishnet stockings and leopard print hotpants. She looked me up and down and asked me kindly if I needed to use the changing room. I adjusted by hoodie over my leggings and said, “uh, no, thank you.”
I sat on one of those soft velvet couches you only see in Lauren Bacall movies and put my phone away. Students from the class session before mine, a class geared toward flirty exercise and affectionately called BABEfit, draped towels over their shoulders and wiped their foreheads, drinking from water bottles and laughing. I noted they were all wearing retro ankle-strap heels. As my class filed into the studio, we regarded each other with nervous laughter and sat in a circle. Leopard Hot Pants, whose name is actually Mandy, asked us to introduce ourselves, explain our connection to burlesque, and to include an interesting fact. “Or,” Mandy offered, smiling with a mouth of perfect red lipstick, “tell us a secret.”
Some women announced they had studied burlesque before, and many of them gushed about the performers they had seen in the Great Boston Burlesque Expo, which is held annually in February. The Expo showcases a range of acts, including Geeklesque and Boylesque, which are pretty much self-explanatory. Two or three girls in class were visibly uncomfortable talking about themselves. The most stunning woman in the room, wearing a black leotard with her long hair piled on top of her head, told us she had just given birth to her second daughter and wanted to “find her sexy again.”
It’s a weird experience to sit in a drapey-curtained room with a bunch of attractive women who all want to learn how to feel attractive. As the others were talking, I made note of a mannequin in the back of the room wearing crystal-encrusted underwear. I then caught my own reflection in the mirror and noticed all the lit-up tendrils of hair around my face. Mandy laughed and nodded at everyone’s admissions. It felt like a meditation space for our own sensuality, and we hadn’t even done anything yet. The vibe at B.A.B.E. is so pleasant that even the sound of the commuter rail barreling by the studio felt romantic, like I was a 1920s gangster lounging in my flapper mistress’ studio apartment.
The first class session whizzed by, concentrating mostly on “bumps” (a classic burlesque move which involves bending your knees, holding your arms above your head delicately and “bumping” your pelvis in one of four directions) and taking long silk gloves off in a sexy manner. As we put on our gloves, I turned to the women next to me, wiggled my silk-covered fingers, and said, “I feel like a fancy surgeon.” No one laughed.
Mandy was well-prepared to manage our collective nervousness and coax sensuality out of each of us, and I expect the other dance faculty at B.A.B.E. share this trait as well. When the energy in the room got too intense (after learning how to slide our gloves over our body, many of us wanted to practice straight-faced in the mirrors), Mandy started in on the history of burlesque culture in Boston. She pointed to black and white photos on the studio walls while she strutted back and forth to the speakers, changing our music before we even noticed what she was doing. “Some of you will find that you like that brassy, sexy sound, and others,” Mandy said, and I swear she nodded toward me, “will feel most comfortable dancing to slow, jazzy stuff.” I naturally felt my eyes widening when I had to take the floor with one or two other dancers. While other women looked great grinning and flossing gloves between their legs, with so much gusto that many of us clapped for no reason, I fell naturally into a tentative mindset. “Am I taking off my shirt now?” I asked myself, looking in soft disbelief at my reflection. “There goes one button. There’s another.”
According to Mandy and the student resources made available for Boston Burlesque students, the art of “old timey taking your clothes off” flourished in America as the aesthetic died out in the UK, sometime at the end of the 19th century. While much of the culture thrived in NYC, Boston had its own flourishing burlesque clubs, the largest of which centered in what is now Government Center. Mandy told us in class session two, which focused on the removal of buttoned shirts and zippered skirts, that the original burlesque dancers mostly revealed their ankles and wrists to a titillated crowd of men. As American women became more comfortable removing their clothing, burlesque became linked to vaudeville acts and cabarets, the kind of venues that make you think of that “wah wah” trumpet sound.
My favorite of the performers Mandy described to us was Lili St. Cyr, famous for walking out on stage in a satin robe and simply taking a bubble bath in a clear tub. The bathtub trick is easily identifiable in more contemporary burlesque-flavored acts by performers like Dita Von Teese or Christina Aguilera when she went through that whole “Candyman” phase. Most contemporary performers writhe around in a giant, theatrical cocktail glass. As Mandy described, contemporary burlesque tends incorporate more theatricality and baudiness to compete with actual exotic dancers who are not legally obligated to keep a g-string and pasties on while dancing.
In week three, Mandy walked us through what burlesque dancers call “floorwork.” Mostly I got to look at my legs (longest in the class!) and wonder why I’m not able to hold them above my head for very long. The fourth and final session of Introduction to Burlesque involves what B.A.B.E. calls the “ultimate burlesque move,” or nipple-tassel twirling. It’s difficult to describe how huge of a leap this is for me, considering the rest of the moves I’ve learned (including the “grind” in addition to the “bump”) are feasibly do-able in a real-life sexy situation. I have no earthly conception of why one might twirl nipple tassels, but the inclusive, body-positive culture at B.A.B.E. is enough to make a young lady want to try. Who knows? If it goes well, maybe I’ll join some of the ladies in my class for Beyond Basic Burlesque. I hear it involves chairs.
For those interested in “breaking into the burlesque scene,” performer Dixie Douya outlines a lot of the Boston burlesque culture here. Performers and instructors from Boston Academy of Burlesque Education (including my teacher Mandy) perform the second tuesday of every month at The Teaseday Club, held at the Davis Square theatre in Somerville. The faculty at B.A.B.E. is available for parties and private lessons for birthday girls and brides-to-be, and I’d recommend the Study Burlesque program to a woman of any age in the Boston area. To catch a large-scale, more theatrical show, check out the performance-based affiliate of B.A.B.E., the famous Boston Babydolls.