Burlesque embraces sensuality

Madeleine Briggs ’18, pictured above, was one of the dancers in the body-positive and identity-affirming Vassar Burlesque shows this past Friday and Saturday. / Courtesy of Leo Hilton
Vassar Burlesque embraces sensuality and liberates individuals as they celebrate who they are on the stage. This pre-org will hold another workshop in the fall for those interested in joining. / Courtesy of Lindsay Matheos

From a young age, kids who maybe do not fit societal notions of “ideal” beauty standards or don’t fit the hourglass figure are constantly compared to what they are not. This seeps into self-image and causes insecurity, anxiety and more issues to arise. Luckily, ad campaigns and policies are sprouting to promote a body-positivity movement. And now at this campus, there’s Vassar Burlesque.

On Feb. 10 and 11, The Susan Stein Shiva Theater set up a spotlight for the inaugural Vassar Burlesque performance. This special event, presented by The Philaletheis Society, featured a variety of performances, from choreographed dances to stripteases to original songs. Performers adopted burlesque names as aliases throughout the night, with “The Slut Superior” as the Mistrex of Ceremonies. The creative directors of Vassar Burlesque are Madeleine Briggs ’18 and Daisy Walker ’18, and Lindsay Matheos ’19 was stage manager.

The concept for this group originated from talks between Briggs and Walker last spring. Briggs found interest prior to that at Northwestern University, where their feminist theatre group, Lipstick Theatre, performs an annual burlesque show. Both shared a mutual fascination for iconic burlesque performer Dita Von Teese and the empowering core that lied within the theatre style.

Walker recounted the initial development that generated this group: “The more that Madeleine and I talked, the more we realized that this whole burlesque thing might just be a possibility, and a possibility with endless possibilities, at that. Here seemed to be an opportunity to create a space for anyone of any body type, gender, race, ability, age, sexual orientation, or any other identity to explore and celebrate themselves, no matter where they were in the self-exploration or self-acceptance process.”

After getting approved to be a special event through The Philaletheis Society, Walker and Briggs held interviews and established a group of 25 performers, most with little experience in burlesque, but all with a desire to redefine outdated standards of self-image.

Performer Maddy Ouellette ’19 discussed the body-positive elements that inspired them to join: “[Body-positivity] has always been very important to me and having the platform on which I have to creative freedom to display my sexuality and my confidence has been so rewarding. I want other people on this campus to have the opportunity to feel empowered in their bodies and sexualities and I feel like burlesque offers that.”

In order to perform a very vulnerable and intimidating genre like burlesque, it was necessary for the group to have a bond of trust, ensuring that everyone be supportive and open. Besides the group’s weekly meetings, Briggs and Walker held workshops and ran very open rehearsals to familiarize the members with burlesque’s style. Each of the members had the option of creating a Burlesque name, or an alias, to create a more freeing experience onstage. These names, like Cherry Poppins, Charles B. Gangly and Rose Gold, are tongue-in-cheek in nature and a tradition to the burlesque craft.

One of the performers and choreographers Philip Macaluso ’19 enjoyed the ensemble nature that Vassar Burlesque built, saying, “It’s a very collaborative process in burlesque, I haven’t had a theater experience quite like it. It’s very different from anything anyone in the group had done previously, so there’s a great feeling of community and us all having each other’s backs. At the end of the day, everyone wants to put on a fun, sexy and informative show.”

Burlesque may not appear to be inherently political, but the performers in last weekend’s show used this art form as a source for social change. Taking a common staple of the burlesque show, the striptease, the piece “Gender: A Performance” used different ways of dressing and stripping to illuminate the narrow gender roles in place by society. It turned what may on the surface seem like a raunchy presentation into a piece of art. Burlesque may have its dissenters, but Vassar Burlesque shows that the art form isn’t irrelevant.

Briggs spoke of the rewarding experience last weekend’s shows yielded: “I’ve had a lot of fun performing in shows throughout my life, but this was by far the most fun performance I’ve ever been a part of. It was such an adrenaline rush and I’ve never felt so powerful on stage or anywhere else. In addition to being incredibly fun, though, I knew while I was doing it that this is the most important theatre I’ve ever worked on. Seeing and speaking to my fellow performers as they came off stage and hearing how empowered and confident everyone felt, I knew that this performance had a big impact on the people in it.”

She continued, “Having ownership of your own body, your own sexuality and deciding how the audience sees you is remarkably empowering. Weeks of intense rehearsals, self-doubt and nerves about actually going through with the show had quite a few of the performers on edge, but the payoff was huge. I am so, so proud of every single member of this group and the growth I’ve seen in all of them.”

For the future, the group, which has recently applied to make Vassar Burlesque a pre-org, intends on having more performances and workshops. Also, in the fall, there will be another opportunity for students to join the group. While Briggs and Walker will be graduating next spring, they have established a firm group and created an interest in burlesque that they don’t foresee dwindling.

Performer Acacia Willis ’19 further explained the liberating and empowering feelings Vassar Burlesque has reaffirmed: “It’s a medium that is publicly declaring that I own this part of myself. What I’m doing on stage, that is about me, for me. It’s not about being sexual to attract someone or land a job or please someone in some way. It’s simply a public celebration of who I am, and an invitation for people to both share that experience with and celebrate that aspect of themselves.”

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