The feminism of Burlesque: A glimpse into Calgary’s Burlesque scene

This year, Vamp was lucky enough to be able to attend the Calgary International Burlesque Festival. Spanning three days in October, CIBF features renowned performers from across the globe, including the best and the brightest from our own city. Before Saturday night’s Flame Central showcase, contributor Morgan Cairns got the chance to talk to five local burlesque stars about what their art means to them, and how burlesque is a bad-ass body-positive movement.

Holly Von Sin, AKA Howard Van Sant

Holly Von Sin on stage. Photo by Morgan Cairns.

Holly Von Sin on stage. Photo by Morgan Cairns.

Donning fake eyelashes, fake stubble, and a curly rainbow bush, Holly/Howard probably isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of burlesque, but that’s what makes her so fantastic. Bending the rules and expectations of gender, Edmonton-based Holly is one of the co-founders of the Edmonton Burlesque Festival (along with fellow CIBF performer, Arabella Allure) and has been performing her unique brand of burlesque for the past eight years.

“I have a history in clown and theatre,” says Holly, “but I was at a burlesque show, and I was doing pin-up modelling at the time, and my friends were like ‘Hey, you’re a performer, do you want to come do this?’ and I was like ‘Sure!’ and a month later I did my first show.”

Since starting the Edmonton Burlesque Festival (and performing in the Calgary Burlesque Festival) Holly has seen Alberta’s small burlesque scene grow.

“Between the Edmonton burlesque festival and this festival we do bring in a lot of international talent, and I think people are starting to realize we have something really cool going on here”

On the importance of the festivals, Holly adds “I’ve always viewed festivals as a really great way to bring people together. I think it’s really important for growing the community of burlesque and bringing in a bigger audience.”

And although the burlesque scene in Alberta is growing rapidly, Holly remains grounded in burlesque feminist roots.

“Feminism is at the core of what we do” says Holly. “Neo-burlesque is a feminist movement, it is a queer movement, it is a riot girl movement. It’s having that space for you to express your femininity, and your masculinity, in whatever form you want, and have that be in a really safe, inclusive environment. It’s the heart of everything, It’s the heart of what we do.”

Bella Gold

Bella Gold flashing her feathers. Photo by Morgan Cairns. 

Bella Gold flashing her feathers. Photo by Morgan Cairns. 

In Bella Gold’s CIBF routine, she enters the stage a beautiful caterpillar, but by the time her routine has finished, she has transformed into the sexiest of butterflies, and it couldn’t be a more apt metaphor for her journey into the world of burlesque.

Coming from a dance background, Bella grew tired of the unrealistic and restrictive standards set by her dance teachers. But Bella is a rebel, (“I shaved my head, that was something that made my dance teacher really mad. She thought I did it to spite her.”) and it was her discovery of burlesque that really made things click.

“I went to a garter girls show and I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome, I think I can do this’ and then a friend of mine in the garter girls was like, ‘Well we teach classes you should come and take a class’ and I took the class, and I met all these amazing women, and then we performed together, and after that I was just hooked.”

Bella, who is in her third year of performing, contributes the body positivity of burlesque to be the driving force behind her passion.

“Like a lot of women, I grew up thinking, oh I’m curvy, there’s something wrong with my body. And before the first time I got on stage, I thought ‘I don’t know, maybe I should make my body look different’”, but it didn’t take long for that attitude to change, “when I got on stage and the audience was so supportive, I just realized I have a body that’s worth being seen. I don’t fit this ideal standard, but it doesn’t matter, I have a beautiful body. And it really made me accept my body. It was really moving, it was a really important moment for me, to just be like, there’s nothing fucking wrong with me”

If you want to see more from Bella (and trust me, you do) you can catch her performing as a member of both The Garter Girls and The Rhinestone Affair.

Arabella Allure

Arabella Allure shakes her skirt for the crowd. Photo by Morgan Cairns.  

Arabella Allure shakes her skirt for the crowd. Photo by Morgan Cairns.  

If her angelic Australian accent doesn’t pull you in, then her burlesque sure will. Australian born and Edmonton based, Arabella Allure first got her start in 2012,

“”I debuted in Australia, back in 2012, at the Miss Australia Burlesque Competition. I was very green and had my ass handed to me, but it made me super hungry to learn more, so a year and a half later I started the Edmonton Burlesque Festival.”

Since starting the Edmonton Burlesque Festival, Arabella remarks on Edmonton’s natural fit for burlesque,

“Edmonton has a massive theater community, and Edmonton goers are super keen to get into the theater and see weird, interesting things. Theatre and improv are big, so burlesque has its own little niche as well.”

Bringing in headliners such as Calamity Chang, Judith Stein, Foxy Tann, and Jo Weldon, there is no doubt that the Alberta burlesque community, and the arts community at large, have benefited from the unique offerings of the Edmonton Burlesque Festival.

“Burlesque never died. People say “Oh, it’s like a revival”, but I think it’s more of a renaissance, it’s just changed and evolved.”

When Arabella isn’t performing burlesque, her full-time job is working as a mainstream stripper. And while the two might not seem much different at first glance, Arabella says it’s burlesque’s subversion of the male gaze that makes all the difference.

“Burlesque is really good for subverting the male gaze. Most of our audiences are women because it is a little bit more friendly. I’m a mainstream stripper as well, and the strip club audience is very much about the male gaze and it is a very narrow view of beauty. Whereas burlesque says, fuck men, we can celebrate everyone. If you want to rock out and be sexy, whatever the fuck your skin is, whatever your identification, come do it! That’s what I love about burlesque. It’s about celebrating the sexy in every person you can”

Smith Weston

Photo of Smith Weston by Morgan Cairns. 

Photo of Smith Weston by Morgan Cairns. 

“So what is your role in the festival tonight?”

“I’m a stage kitten. I help set up all the numbers, I help take down all of the numbers, I take care of the ladies’ backstage, make sure everything’s good to go, and that they’re comfortable and relaxed.”

While Smith may have forgone performing in this year’s festival to lend a hand to the other performers, he is a burlesque powerhouse in his own right. A spectator for three years, and a performer for just over a year, Smith, who had previous performance experience as a stripper, decided to take the plunge into burlesque, “This allows me to express my more artistic side,” Smith says on the comparison between stripping and burlesque.

And while Smith’s previous experience may contribute to his natural ease on stage, he says that it’s the support and love from the community that makes all the difference.

“Growing up I always found more of a kinship with women, because I could be who I am, and they were less judgmental. And being in this community, I’m surrounded by beautiful women. They adore me, and I absolutely adore them. And we’re supportive of every quirk, every different way everyone is, every body shape, size, it doesn’t matter. We love everyone for who they are.” Says Smith.

Still a relative newcomer to performing, Smith offered us some of his best bet tips to starting your Burlesque journey, right here in Calgary.

“Daisy Deville runs amazing classes. Whether you’re a guy or girl, she’s very open, come and enjoy. A lot of the moves are more geared towards women, but you can put a masculine twist on that.”

But his best advice?

“The biggest thing that I can say to anyone that wants to start [burlesque] is to be yourself, be true to yourself, and give it 110%. Don’t hold back. Don’t hold judgment”  

Miss Randi Lee

Miss Randi Lee bares her legs in the name of burlesque. Photo by Morgan Cairns. 

Miss Randi Lee bares her legs in the name of burlesque. Photo by Morgan Cairns. 

“I have a background in dance, and I went to university for contemporary dance. I was working in London, in a cabaret, and so every night I was watching burlesque, and I was just like ‘Holy crap, this is what I want to do with my life. This is the best thing I’ve ever seen.'”

Starting her career in London, England over four years ago, Miss Randi Lee had to adjust when she moved her burlesque career back to her native Alberta.  “London is such a mecca for burlesque, there’s so much happening there, that you can see a burlesque show every night of the week. Here, it’s harder to find if you don’t already know about it.”

But, she turned out to be pleasantly surprised. “Calgary has so much more than I was expecting when I came here,” and she says it’s only getting better. “In the past two years I’ve seen it just expand and expand, and it’s really taking off which is really exciting.”

One of the elements that Randi Lee credits to the expansion of Alberta’s burlesque scene, are festivals like this one.

“The festivals are such a great thing because they’re so available to the public, they’re so much easier to find out about, and I lot more approachable, I think. Not all burlesque is to everyone’s taste, and so when you come to a festival you get to see such a huge variety and you get to see the best of the best. It’s a great introduction into burlesque.”

Like fellow performer, Bella Gold, Randi Lee got her start as a contemporary dancer; but the high pressure placed on a dancer and their appearance made her worry about a career in dance. It was working at a hostess in a London cabaret that allowed her to see her true potential in Burlesque.

“It’s one of the things I love about burlesque. Growing up with commercial dance, you’re told you’re past your prime once you’re in your twenties, and if you don’t have that look, too bad. You’ve got to look a certain way, you’ve got to weigh a certain amount, and that’s how you get a job. So, burlesque really allowed me to see a future in dance for myself and I see that I could do this for the next twenty years. The next forty years! It doesn’t matter what size and shape you are, because it’s about embracing that and loving that.”

For more information about Burlesque events and workshops in Calgary, visit the Calgary Burlesque Events facebook page, as well as Edmonton Burlesque Events for opportunities in Edmonton.