Burlesque has its glitz and glam roots in history, but today the art form is a space for acceptance, where all people, regardless of age, body type, race, or sexuality, can express themselves, share their story, and feel beautiful.
In Atlanta, burlesque finds a home in Metropolitan Studios, a queer-owned studio and venue space out of which the Atlanta School of Burlesque (ASB) and the burlesque troupe The Candybox Revue operate. Through Metropolitan Studios and the ASB, teachers like Talloolah Love and Roula Roulette are sharing the freedom and expression of burlesque with everyone.
Burlesque as a sexy pinup striptease (a la Christina Aguilera in the 2010 film) has its roots in the ’40s and ’50s. Love, who has been in the burlesque world for 20 years, told Georgia Voice that this form of burlesque (called “classic burlesque”) was defined by an exploitative male gaze, as most of the club owners and show producers were men. Therefore, most of the performers were thin white women. However, that began to shift in the ’90s, when professional strippers wanted to add more artistry and theater to their routines. This era of burlesque, known as “neo-burlesque,” created an entirely new art form that steps away from the male gaze and toward sensual self-expression.
“It’s very, very different [now],” Roulette said. “A lot of it has moved away from the male gaze. You’re seeing political pieces, think pieces, comedy, and satire. You’re seeing beautiful dancers bring their own training into this art form and create ballet burlesque and modern dance-style burlesque. You’re seeing people with amazing storytelling abilities. It’s not just the tiny outfit and big headdress and being pretty for 20 minutes onstage. It’s much more theatrical, and there’s a lot more freedom and joy.”
What once was reserved primarily for thin white women is now open to everyone. Even those without dance or theater background can still participate in and enjoy burlesque; in fact, Love herself has no background in dance or theater at all. It was her exclusion from other performance avenues that brought her to burlesque in the first place.
“Burlesque is open to everyone who is open-minded and compassionate and empathetic. I believe that all people have a story to tell,” she said. “I don’t come from a dance or theater background. I got into burlesque because I was told ‘no’ by directors. So, when I found burlesque, I had a fire and passion to be onstage. Even people who are not dancers can come to burlesque and find a way to express themselves.”
That’s why, regardless of time, ability, or interest, there’s a class for everyone at ASB. There’s the Burlesque Academy, a 12-week program split by levels one through four (one through three being a choreography-based course, level four being a solo one-on-one mentorship) that culminates in a graduation recital. However, for those who can’t commit to 12 weeks or don’t want to perform in a recital, there’s also a progressive series that runs concurrently with the academy where people can go through the levels in four to six weeks without the recital.
There are also several one-off drop-in classes weekly: Burlesque Basics on Sundays at 3 p.m.; Boudoir Burlesque, a choreo class all about slow and sultry burlesque, on Sundays at 5:45 p.m.; Tricks of the Trade, a chair and floorwork class, on Sundays at 7pm; Sexify, a workout-focused dance class open to all nonmen, on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm; and several sexy stretching classes throughout the week.
Even though it’s open to everyone, queer people specifically tend to flock to neo-burlesque. Despite not being a queer-specific organization, 75 percent of the ABS’s members are queer. Roulette says this is because burlesque creates space for those who live outside of the society’s norms.
“We’re all weirdos,” they said. “A lot of folks who are artistic are not what society says is the norm. Like gathers to like, and I think in a lot of ways we [queer people] all saw our people and flocked to [burlesque].”
While burlesque is becoming more and more accessible as time goes on, there’s one frontier Love and Roulette say the art form still falls short in overcoming: ability. Movement disabilities and other disabilities that make it hard for people to leave their home to go to venues can make burlesque inaccessible for many. However, there are strides being made to overcome that — especially now with the establishment of virtual shows.
“Something that is incredible to see as a result of the pandemic was the move to a virtual space, which creates a level of accessibility that we didn’t have before,” Roulette said. “Some are still going on even as we’re going back to live shows. If you’re someone who struggles with accessibility or distance to a venue, there’s now a much easier path to stepping into the burlesque community.”
Overall, burlesque offers a unique opportunity for marginalized people who may have not been given the allowance of sexiness and independence by society to connect with their bodies, tell their stories, and find a supportive and loving community.
To learn more about Metropolitan Studios (1259 Metropolitan Ave SE) and ASB and to sign up for classes, visit metrostudioseav.com.