Kitty and I pop our heads into a brightly lit, mirrored room at the McNabb Community Centre. A group of little girls, no older than six or seven, perform for their parents while their dance teacher leads them enthusiastically from the side. Their class runs over, spilling into our time, but we can’t exactly turf them out. So we wait.
There is a girl in the back who is a little bigger than the others. She isn’t the most coordinated of the bunch, but she’s doing her best to keep up. I was that little girl once. Freakishly tall, my pastel pink leotard scrunching uncomfortably as I vainly attempted to follow along with the other girls – and one boy, there’s always one boy – who seemed to get the steps so effortlessly. Even then I knew I wasn’t destined for the Bolshoi. I was far happier in overalls, practicing my free throw in the driveway. I resigned myself to the fact that I just wasn’t graceful.
“The foundations of burlesque are; bump, grind, shimmy and shake, then there’s the walk, and posture. Posture is key!” Kitty explains after the kids clear out. “We’ll start with the bump.”
And with that, I have decided to leave my ego at the door and put all my faith in Kitty Kin-Evil (obviously not her real name, but how awesome would it be if it were?) who began teaching burlesque at the Ottawa Burlesque Academy in the Centretown community centre in early January.
So far she has not disappointed. With jet black pin-curls, scarlet lips and a body-hugging tank-top replete with silk fringe, Kitty doesn’t just look like a vintage burlesque star, she has the moves too. She’s also sweet and friendly with an easy laugh that cuts through any misgivings I might have had about bumping, grinding, shimmying, and shaking in a community centre on a Tuesday night.
Before I can learn the “bump,” I stand beside Kitty and attempt to follow her “pin-up pose,” which is just how it sounds: my legs are together, but I slide one foot forward and slightly bend the knee to mimic an “hourglass” figure. One long-gloved hand rests on my hip, while the other reaches over my head. I point my hand outward like Kitty’s. I think I look like Jessica Rabbit.
“Relax your hand, you’re doing this weird claw-thing,” Kitty gently corrects, and the mirror proves that, yes, it appears as though I have rigor mortis. This is our first move and already I’ve fallen behind.
Thankfully, Kitty is a skilled dancer and a patient and generous instructor. She plans to teach me a whole routine in an hour, which frankly makes me a bit skeptical considering my recently proven inability to stand properly.
“The first time I ever took a burlesque workshop I was the shyest girl in the class. But then, as soon as I started dancing, I busted out of my shell,” Kitty tells me.
As if to prove her point, Kitty cues up a cover of Nina Simone’s classic song Feeling Good, and I begin to feel less intimidated. I quickly realize that burlesque isn’t about being graceful —it’s about being confident, about being yourself. The natural by-product of this is a whole heap of fun.
Learning how to be a burlesque dancer might not be the strangest way to spend an evening. Some of us are familiar with old-school burlesque performers, like Gypsy Rose Lee and Blaze Starr, whose acts combined elaborate costumes and bawdy humour with a flirty strip-tease. It was popular entertainment in North American from the late 1800s until the art form fizzled out in the early 20th Century. But more recently, performers like Dita Von Teese and Tiffany Carter have helped bring it back into the mainstream. Festivals in New York, Vancouver, and elsewhere have revived the tradition of burlesque for a growing number of fans. Ottawa, too, has embraced burlesque, with many solo performers and troupes hosting shows like Evening of Sin and Burlesque Wednesdays — even a burlesque brunch.
Kitty has been performing for five years. She started as a “stage kitten” – clearing props and costumes from the stage during shows – and quickly worked her way up to become a sought-after solo performer at cities all over the continent. She caught the burlesque-bug when she attended the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend in Nevada several years ago and has since become a featured performer at the event. Kitty has made burlesque entertainment her career. When she’s not performing, traveling, pin-up modelling, or designing costumes, she’s teaching others how to shake what their mama’s gave them via her newest venture at the McNabb Community Centre.
For the next hour Kitty leads me through a basic routine and I surprise myself by actually keeping up. I train regularly, and as far as physical workouts go, learning to shimmy and shake is right up there with learning how to do a Turkish get-up: it’s unnatural and confusing at first, but after you’ve done it a few times it starts to feel more comfortable.
For some reason I’d worn a sweater, a decision I soon regretted. I had mistakenly assumed there was no way I’d actually break a sweat. In this class, the only clothing that gets removed is during the “glove-pull,” another move that is tougher to execute than it looks. But now I know the real reason why burlesque performers strip down to pasties and g-strings. It’s out of necessity.
In an age where the average Kardashian Instagram is more sexually explicit than an old episode of Bleu Nuit, the art of burlesque seems positively quaint by comparison. I wonder aloud if taking burlesque classes will become the new “pole dancing class,” the kind of activity that attracts groups of friends celebrating a bachelorette or birthday party.
“I hope so!” says Kitty, “I want to get away from the stigma that burlesque is shameful. Burlesque is for everybody. The classes are co-ed. Yes, Boy-lesque is a thing! It does not matter what size you are. I am a curvy girl and I’m proud of that because as women we’re always so hard on ourselves. [Burlesque is about] feeling better in your own skin, confidence. And it’s fun!”
By the time our session is up, I’m no burl-expert, but I’m certainly feeling better about my skills. I feel confident, sexy, and yes, a little sweaty. But I’m on a high from having learned an actual dance routine in an hour, something I never thought I could do. Mostly I’m just amazed that I don’t feel like that gawky little girl in the back of the dance class anymore. Kitty agrees with my sentiment. “When I’m off stage I’m a klutz, I walk into walls and trip and fall. But the second I turn into Kitty I’m this glamourous, demure, fancy lady. It’s a different persona. It gets me out of my head.”
Ottawa Burlesque Academy opened in January 2016.