Still not sure what I was getting myself into, I made my way to 440 Lafayette Street, the location of the first class in the series “Essential Burlesque,” offered by The New York School of Burlesque.
A sign in the lobby said the studios were on the 4th floor, and nothing else, so once I exited the elevator I wandered the halls of the plain, typical old New York building. I peeked into the small window of each generically marked door, but all seemed the entry to what looked like typical dance classes. When none of those classes looked like they featured a feather boa or at least satin gloves, I started to fear I’d wandered into the wrong place. I finally asked the only man I saw, sitting behind a small desk in an equally small office where the burlesque classes took place, and walked into 4C, where I found a petite redhead lying on the floor, stretching her legs.
“C’mon in,” she called out when I opened the door. “I’m just stretching. You’re right on time.”
I surveyed the room. Other than the redhead on the floor, there was one other woman there, seated in a metal folding chair against the wall, in the far opposite corner from me. There was a piano behind me, a few other metal folding chairs nearby, and directly in front of me, mirrors encompassing the entire wall. This was very obviously a dance studio. The woman I assumed to be my classmate was older, a bit frumpy, and wore a bandage on one knee.
As other women slowly filed into the room, I noted the group was pretty varied. A few were older, a few looked pretty young, a couple were skinny and one or two were heavy. Of course I was the palest one. At least two women there fit my definition of “rockabilly” style, with even stronger Bettie Page bangs than mine (I’m growing mine out for the time being). One woman wore lush false eyelashes and heavy eyeliner on an otherwise nearly bare face.
The redhead rose to her feet and introduced herself as Gal Friday, as she sipped her large iced Starbucks coffee, and I was instantly relieved when I noted that a) she’s a member of the “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” like me, and b) as my mother would say, she “curses like a sailor” in ordinary conversation. I immediately liked her. She taught the way I would teach, and spoke the way I would about her subject: honestly, and with humor and real-life experience. Sometimes that means you say “fuck” a lot. Sounds like me, all right. Gal Friday has apparently performed a lot, because she had great tidbits of information about what actually happens on stage -- what’s important and what’s not, and what you can get away with as well. Out of the nearly 12 women that were in the room, at least two had never even seen a burlesque show, when Gal asked for a show of hands. One woman said she’d seen the movie, to which Gal replied that the movie is nowhere near what real burlesque is. This I knew, without ever seeing that piece of crap Cher and Christina Aguilera was in. In her overview, Gal confirmed a few things I knew about burlesque: It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you think of your body, you can still WORK IT OUT. You also don’t have to be a dancer. In fact, dance moves can look kind of odd in burlesque. She gave us an overview of what we’d be learning in the next two hours, and explained that the class we were having today was actually class two or three in the series, rather than the first. School of Burlesque headmistress Jo “Boobs” Weldon is out of town, and she usually teaches the essential burlesque moves as well as tassel-twirling in the first class. We would be skipping ahead and then going back, meeting Jo next week.
We began with glove peels. Gal opened one of her many bags of tricks inside a large, leopard-print rolling suitcase and produced opera-length, satin gloves in multiple colors. She tossed a pair of jade green gloves at me (which I caught), and said she’d be throwing out pairs of gloves to each of us in colors contrasting what we were wearing.
“Don’t be shy,” she told us. And she made it easy not to be. This is supposed to be fun, damn it. And it had only just begun.
I was told Saturday night that there was a chance a friend of mine would be joining me in class. She and I used to work together, and she performs rather regularly as Stella Chuu. Sure enough, Stella joined the class around 15 minutes in, and I was happy to see her. The feeling was mutual. She whispered in my ear that she wanted to learn classic burlesque moves. I think she’s a great performer.
Removing long gloves in a sexy manner is harder than it seems. But assisting us were those tried-and-true tips and tricks Gal shared with us... within minutes I’d removed and tossed aside my right and then my left glove in what I thought was kinda a sexy way. At least my reflection in the mirror looked a bit like what I’ve seen on stage at burlesque shows. Gal demonstrated a few different ways to cast off gloves -- all of which accent your body and build anticipation of the Big Reveal. If you’ve got ample boobs, one way... if you’ve got no boobs (like me!), BAM! Another way! Hot move! Gal even shimmied a glove off her Itty Bittys... I was impressed. I appreciated the advice for being able to peel gloves off in a sultry manner, even when you’re sweating and the gloves are stuck to you. “It’s always too warm when you’re performing,” she said.
Speaking of warm, the studio wasn’t very cool, and it wasn’t because of the shimmying. Gal said she had to unplug the air conditioner in order to plug in her little boom box for music. I was definitely shvitzing.
Next was stocking peels. I’d had quite a bit of trouble finding stockings, not thigh highs, which can even be found in a Duane Reade. I’d spent my last day off wandering around the East Village in search of stockings, which are hose you wear with a garter belt to keep them up. And then I spent $15 on a pair I found in a tiny lingerie boutique. Of course by the end of class I’d gotten ideas on where to buy stuff -- for much less money -- in the future. I think I did well with the stocking peels. Again, there was a little trick to it -- because it’s a little harder than it seems to peel those suckers off in a sensual way. My first peel sprang off my big toe like a slingshot... not exactly sexy. (I’m such a dork/not sexy) But I could see that with practice I could do much better. Gal reminded us that some burlesque performers never do stocking peels, and some never do glove peels either. She said that if gloves and/or stockings don’t work with your act, then don’t use them. She emphasized creating your own routine, using moves that make you feel most confident and sexy. You’re never going to look good trying to move in ways you’re not comfortable with. This was proven to me when we moved into learning about chair dancing. I figured out how to slink into a chair pretty well, and even one of the squat-like moves was difficult for me, but I could see how I could make it work. But at one point, Gal showed us some moves on the chair that involved raising both legs off the ground, and in that moment I realized I have absolutely NO core strength whatsoever. These bitches have to be a bit in shape to pull off some of this shit! But again, can’t do that particular move? Don’t do it. These were ideas and some basic moves, meant to get our minds to think about what‘s possible.
It was with the chair dancing that we finally had some music to accompany what we’d learned so far. It was typical classic burlesque “bah-dum-bah” stuff, and it made me think about choosing music in general for an act. I asked Gal Friday about it, and she said you could choose nearly anything and WORK IT.
We even ran through our chair “routine” at this point, using all the moves we’d learned thus far, and with music. I liked Gal’s verbal “coaching” during it, as she bumped to the music and shot a look to her “audience.” Things like, “YEAH, BITCHES, FUCK YEAH!” She was really cracking me up. I think these may be the things she’s saying to herself in her own head when she performs.
My natural clumsiness came out when it came to transitioning from a seated position on the chair and rising to my feet in a graceful manner, and I felt myself getting a bit discouraged. But I really have to remember how unrealistic it is for me to expect that I’ll master something after the first try. I’m a perfectionist, and far too hard on myself. And this may be the most forgiving class I’ve ever taken or will take.