Part of the thrill of burlesque lies in the way its performers turn being-looked-at on its
head. Stripping becomes an act of empowerment.
To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful!
-- Agnes DeMille
When she was nine, Olivia saw the movie “Gypsy” with her parents. “That was the first time I realized that you could get paid for taking your clothes off,” she says matter-of-factly. “And I thought that was weird.”
But a little over a year ago, a Olivia, a newly-arrived freshman at Marymount College in New York City, happened across an ad for a last-minute burlesque replacement. “This was after I’d seen a few burlesque shows,” she explains, “and I’d been looking to get involved in burlesque. I had a dance background; and it seemed like such a good way to get back into performing and get dressed…and get undressed.”
What made her choice all the more interesting was that back in high school, Olivia had been a practicing Muslim, hijab (head covering) and all. In fact, she still considers herself one. “But there’s a lot of turbulence happening in the Muslim community in New York since 9-11,” she says. And in the wake of Arab Spring have come a lot of “new ideas. It’s kinda like a Populist movement in the Middle East [with] the rise of young people….I’ve been kinda trying to step back a bit and be less involved than I was because there is a lot of turbulence.”
Burlesque gave her the chance not just to step back but to step into another world. Not into Narnia, of course (although somewhere someone is probably choreographing a really interesting version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), but into one with its own element of playfulness and fun. The history of burlesque intrigued her, too. She ended up becoming a resident performer, working in the city, Long Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. She choreographed several routines of her own. The first one was done to a Weird Al Yankovic song (“I like Weird Al a lot.”); the second was what she calls her “Marijuana Burlesque” and “got a lot of laughs." And the third had a World of Warcraft theme and involved “a lot of hip-hop. That was the most tiring one – I busted a lot of moves during it – but that was my favorite one.”
Olivia even produced a show at the Stonewall Inn. It was, she says, very much like a variety show with performers “com[ing] in with routines of their own. And they basically run through their routines. I don’t choreograph. I just host and make sure the music’s played on time and everybody gets paid. It’s very rare that the producer sees the acts in advance.” It was an exciting night for her; it was also an “incredibly stressful” one, and she has no intention of producing another show.
Actually, she’s on hiatus from burlesque altogether because “it’s a very time-consuming thing to be involved in. And the money I got paid wasn’t equivalent to the energy I was investing.” Her focus is more on pin-up modeling right now, something that she was initially doing just to promote her burlesque act.
We talk about how she sees what has been called “the gentle art of striptease” – although burlesque does not necessarily equal stripping. There’s nothing off-the-cuff about her responses: clearly, Olivia has given the subject considerable thought. “A good way of defining burlesque is that it’s not so much about sex or stripping as it is about entertainment. I mean, nine times out of ten, you’re taking off your clothes, but it’s not in a way that’s meant to be arousing to men but entertaining to both sexes.” In fact, the neo-burlesque movement has really been “a way to backtrack a bit. It’s almost mocking what smut has become because it’s one of the few things that hasn’t been infiltrated by the male gaze.” Part of this revival of interest has to do simply with our love of retro, she thinks: “once something goes into antiquity, it becomes fashionable.” Burlesque has also been given some additional oomph by highly visible performers, such as Dita von Teese, “the Queen of Burlesque” and ex-wife of musician Marilyn Manson.
But to Olivia, a lot of burlesque’s appeal lies in the fact that it’s “one of the few art forms that women can be glamorous and take their clothes off in, but they’re not being objects for male arousal.” It’s empowering. “I think I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my own skin by doing burlesque. Definitely, my consciousness level has been raised.” She was used to performing, she adds: the difference was in “trying to perform with the awareness that I was removing my clothes in a way that looked choreographed and dancerly and not just taking off my shirt.” And what a difference. Dancerly is definitely the word.