The big reveal

Calgary burlesque community comes together for international festival

Burlesque performers take the stage at Backwards Stage on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Photo by Amanda Richter/The Weal)

Burlesque performers take the stage at Backwards Stage on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Photo by Amanda Richter/The Weal)

Much like the art of the tease, Calgary’s burlesque scene, while thriving, has been one of the city’s most tantalizing secrets.

This year, however, performers at the Calgary International Burlesque Festival (CIBF) are getting set to reveal a little more after the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) changed its definition of nude entertainment in November of 2015.

Previously, female burlesque performers were prohibited from showing even the side of their breasts, and were required to wear bras throughout their performances—the traditional nipple pasties being deemed too risqué.

“There was the body shaming that came along with it, when they were telling us to cover up, and that they considered our breasts to be nudity, that pasties weren’t sufficient coverage,” said Daisy DeVille, one of the co-founders of the festival, and of Burlesque Burn, a fitness class aimed at teaching the fundamentals of burlesque.

“I’m spending all this time telling my students that all bodies are great, and that we should be empowered, and then have to turn around and say, ‘But you have to wear this bra to perform,’ because apparently our gender makes this taboo.”

DeVille said that one of the most gratifying aspects of teaching burlesque is seeing the personal acceptance her students’ first big reveal offers them, but said this was often dampened by the AGLC’s rules.

“Bras took away that big step they were taking to do this public performance,” said Deville.

“For a lot of them, that striptease aspect ends up being that cathartic moment where they’re reclaiming their bodies and empowering themselves. Having them cover up for the shows took a little bit of that away from them.”

The freedom of the body that burlesque encourages could also be said to allow for a freedom of the mind.

DeVille said she’s had students use that sense of empowerment found in burlesque as the boost they need to make major life changes, including quitting a job to follow their dreams and go back to school, or leaving an oppressive relationship.

“That boost might be accepting themselves, learning to love themselves, stopping that constant inner dialogue of criticism that we often have for ourselves, and just that braveness. It does take courage, and it does create that shift in people.”

That shift can also make everyday challenges seem a lot less daunting too, said Deville.

“People start to think, ‘I can take my clothes off in front of 200 people, that meeting I’m worried about isn’t going to be nearly as terrifying.’”

Sara Von Trease, a burlesque teacher, and performer in this year’s festival, said that one of her classes is devoted entirely to embracing vulnerability.

“There is that fear of letting an audience take you in, and the incredible vulnerability from standing in front of a room full of people and risking being judged.”

Von Trease said she has encountered students who felt such shame over one part of their body that they would build an entire act around hiding that part.

“I’d see them a couple months later, and that number now draws attention to that thing they used to be afraid of exposing. As if they were saying, ‘I’m not afraid of me anymore.’”

Von Trease said Calgary’s burlesque community has managed to thrive despite challenges like the old AGLC restrictions, because it’s built around passion, support and encouragement for one another.

“It’s like a self-feeding fire that you don’t see anywhere else, because we can see all of each other’s vulnerabilities, but we make it safe to be inspired by other women,” said Von Trease.

This year’s festival features Judith Stein, who, at 68, has been performing for over forty years, as well as international headliner, Perle Noire, “one of the most emotionally impacting performers you will ever see,” said Von Trease.

Both DeVille and Von Trease encourage those who have never seen a live burlesque show to attend the festival, or any of the number of shows held in Calgary throughout the year, and experience that sense of bravery, acceptance and community firsthand.

“It’s like you’ve opened up the doors to your house, and you’ve invited all of these wonderful strangers in, but they all have the same values, and mores, and respect and love that you do,” said Von Trease. “And now we’re going to spread it all over town, and share it with everybody.”

The Calgary International Burlesque Festival runs Oct. 14-16 at various venues throughout the city. For tickets or more information, please visit: www.cibf.ca

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