Finding freedom in fishnets at the burlesque academy

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In a newly designed Midtown studio, dancers of all ages and levels, dressed in their finest fishnets, enter to explore the mystery of sensuality through a modern take on one of history’s most misunderstood yet brazen art forms: burlesque.

Burlesque Fusion dance class, taught every Thursday evening by the Sizzling Sirens burlesque dance troupe, creates an open space to unleash your inner imagination and confidence, all while providing a healthy workout. The potential for personal power and feminine freedom afforded with the dance intrigued me, and I wondered, could this be my new catharsis?

So this January, charged with curiosity, I stepped out of my comfort zone and my usual sweats and plunged into something a little more daring, a mesh menagerie of sensual style: a black brazier, lacy leggings and, for extra icing, green suede boots pulled up to my thighs.

With this outfit I would no longer walk, I would swagger. I would no longer flirt, I would seduce. It’s foreignness sent butterflies to my stomach, a lifetime of reserve suddenly challenged.

Peppering my shyness with some extra sass, I strutted into the plush P Street studio. Feather boas, whips, tassels and velvet and satin costumes saved from the last stage performance draped in the corners. As I was welcomed with a smile, I took off my coat and hat and joined four women spread on the wooden dance floor, along with our instructor Jessica Carter, known on stage as “Meowie Wowie."

Stiletto stems, delicate lace and sparkling jewelry abounded. But somehow, I felt comfortable, invited, cozy. We loosened each limb, climbing over one leg at a time, soft music whispering from the stereo. Once our blood and joints warmed, the intensity heightened, and the smell of sweat and perfume coated the air.

Carter turned up the speakers and handed each of us a cane, black with a white tip. We were about to rock out to the indie grit of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Broadway style. I imagine singer Karen O, a siren in her own right, would approve.

“Gold lion’s gonna tell me where the light is!” Her voice rasped and we brusquely shook hips to the staccato beat.

“Take our hands out of control.” We bent down with our knees above the floor, swaying in an upward movement.

“Take our hands out of control.” Carter slid her hands up her body, over each curve, then encouraged us to do the same.

“In burlesque it’s more freeform. You can do what you want,” she said. “You can touch yourself. Look at yourself in the mirror. Feel your body move.”

Antique rococo mirrors of different sizes framed the walls, and I found myself blushing.

“Inside, outside, I must have done a dozen each…” We circle the cane, inside and outside. “Ooh ooh, ooh ooh, ooh ooh, ahh ohh.”

An invincible combination, the choreography finished off with a sensual slide of our hands down the canes before using it as leverage to push our bodies back up like a cat. We began to cool down, but my heart was still racing. “Thud thud thud.” The room still seemed alive with its own rhythm though the music had stopped.

Stacy Hayden, designer and manger at Deep Art and Yoga, walked in the room to take the next class of the evening.

“When I first heard burlesque, I immediately thought of stepping out of my own usual routines and exploring something new,” she said. “I looked forward to trying something new that would connect me directly to my femininity and sensuality.”

As Hayden and the other students warmed up, Carter joined me after the class to discuss the experience. Our conversation enlightened me on the history and meaning of this elusive art form, and how burlesque not only boosts endorphins but confidence as well.

I enjoyed the fusion of rock, belly dance, hip-hop and modern styles that were integrated in the burlesque. I was not expecting that!

We’re taking some strong elements of burlesque with the movement and fusing it with other elements, different areas of dance and styles of theatricality. It changes from week to week. Sometimes I’m in a Broadway mood, and sometimes I feel jazzy or belly dancy. Sometimes I’m sad and sometimes happy. I try to take the emotion and turn it into choreography.

You’ve said that all the Sirens form a certain personality with her character. Describe "Meowie Wowie’s” personality?

When I first started doing this, I took a workshop with the founder Jay Siren, and she had us stand in front of a mirror and literally do 10 different personalities and listen to music and make faces and learn how to really be comfortable with yourself, and touch yourself.

I think through that you really discover who you are within burlesque, so for me personally, my characters are sexier than I am in real life. They’re more out there and crazy and ready to do whatever I want to do. I’m not a very sexy person in real life. I’m more cute and modest. But when I’m on stage, I want to be sexy. I want to be a woman.

Do you feel that by exploring burlesque, you’re letting out a side of your personality that would otherwise be repressed?

You keep some of it with you, but you also explore the elements that you don’t know are there. And you don’t know they’re there until you do burlesque. Burlesque helps you discover a whole different part of you.

I definitely discovered a bit of that. What do you think your students get out of the class?

As someone who has started here as a student, it’s taught me a completely new sense of confidence and comfortableness with myself. I personally think you are your own worst enemy and you are your own best friend. Burlesque personally helps me feel confident about my body, my personality, myself, and I think that’s really important for women.

I just want to be happy, and who doesn’t want to be happy? What better thing to do for yourself than to give yourself a sexy workout that makes you feel good? I think that students come out of here and think, “Wow, that was interesting,” because people here a lot of the times have never heard of burlesque or have done burlesque, and so this is a totally different world. And we try to keep it like a burlesque clubhouse, like your little place to come play and feel comfortable, and I hope that we do that for people.

Have you experienced any negative reactions to this form of expression?

There’s nothing more that I hate than when someone says something about relating us to stripping, because it’s not stripping. It’s a strip tease, but we try to keep this very classy. Even though burlesque is fairly new to a lot of people, I think that hopefully with more time, they’ll see that there is a theatricality that goes into it. There’s a lot of hard work and dedication, and I don’t think a lot of people know how hard it is to get up on stage. Yeah, you’re taking your clothes off, but you’re dancing and you’re doing a theatrical performance. I hope that with time that people come to accept that it’s an art form.


The burlesque dance class is held every Thursday evening at 2014 P St. Intro classes run from 7 to 8 p.m., and the beginners’ classes run from 8:15 to 9 p.m. Each session costs $15 or $10 for 215 Patients.

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