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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Putting the 'Tease' in Striptease

hot burlesque"Keep bouncing, make those breasts work," Miss Kitka says.

It's 10am on a Saturday morning and I'm trying to get my nipple tassles to twirl. My burlesque teacher, Miss Kitka, or Rebecca Gale as her birth certificate reads, says it all comes from the legs.

With feet firmly planted on the ground I carry on bouncing. Looking down I see the two little red tassles, or pasties, starting to swing.

"Don't look down," Miss Kitka says.

Head facing forward, I build up speed. My tassles become airborne. They spin like propellers on an aircraft. A light breeze wafts across my face. My class mates cheer.

All six students, including myself, are new to the world of burlesque - a fancy form of striptease that has its origins in nineteenth century music hall and vaudeville.

But it was in the depression-era in New York that burlesque really flourished.

In the thirties, burlesque was the poor man's follies, offering a cheaper alternative to the more expensive broadway shows.

One club in particular, Minskys, nourished burlesque and the careers of such later headliners as Ann Corio, Sherry Britton and the woman who was to become burlesque's biggest sensation - Gypsy Rose Lee.

"Burlesque was not just about stripping," says Miss Kitka, a Canberra-based teacher and performer who is in Sydney to give this introductory workshop.

"It involved mockery, political satire and humour," she says, halting the tassle twirling to pop in a video of Sally Rand - the famous fan dancer and star of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

Today, Dita von Teese, the raven haired, lipstick-clad glamour girl who once shared her make-up and her life with rock star Marilyn Manson, is the latest in line of great performers stretching back over centuries.

Von Teese, who is well known for her 1940s pin-up look, says her personal brand of burlesque owes much to the showgirls of the Folies Bergere, the Moulin Rouge and the era of the cancan.

In her own words she "puts the tease back into striptease" and is widely considered the main instigator of the burlesque revival over the last decade and is credited with bringing it to mainstream attention.

In Australia, burlesque has been a bit slower in donning its stilettos and emerging from the underground.

"There was not much happening in burlesque when I came back to Australia four years ago after performing in London," says Kass Warner, aka Kaspia Violetta, who directs and produces a Sydney-based burlesque company called Sugartime.

"These days burlesque classes and shows can be found in most of the bigger Australian cities," she says.

Kaspia recently launched Scarlet Debut, a night featuring new talent in Sydney.

"With these nights we do workshop weekends where the girls come with their acts and we give them feedback on their routines - culminating in a show on stage in front of an audience."

Kaspia says burlesque gives women and men - she recently produced an all male show called Scarlet Beaus - a chance to express themselves in whatever way they wish.

"It's not like you have to go to the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and become a trained actor and wait until you get chosen for the Shakespeare play.

"With burlesque you can just go out there and do it."

Kaspia says there is a divide between professional performers and "bedroom burlesquers" - those who learn burlesque for fun, as a creative outlet and to boost self esteem.

Miss Kitka, who is studying psychology at the Australian National University, says the main emphasis of her course is on building up confidence.

"I have all sizes and ages in my class - ranging from 18 to 70 years," she says.

"It's truly amazing to see the way the ladies and men develop."

She says one of the best things about neo-burlesque, unlike classic burlesque, is that it celebrates all body types and mainly adopts the aesthetics of the 1940s and 50s when womanly curves were embraced.

Jenny Coyne, whose stage name is Scarlet Fever, has been a student of Miss Kitka's for three years whilst studying for a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Coyne is a plus-size performer and has a rare muscle condition called McArdle's disease.

"Where else but burlesque would I be embraced and celebrated?" she says.

Coyne says the change in her self-esteem from when she started lessons to becoming a performer and teacher has been phenomenal.

And she says participating in Miss Kitka's shows have not only helped her.

"I have had many women approach me to tell me how much they have appreciated seeing women of larger sizes, and older ages performing.

"It makes the audience feel - if she can do it, why cant I?"

This might be one of the reasons that Australia is now embracing the nipple tassle with gusto.

But for me, I will stick to bedroom burlesque for now - at least until I graduate from Miss Kitka's intermediate course.

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