Burlesque Queens

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“Teach me, mama,” I said as a lithe and toned woman stripped off her black lace garments one by one. Bathed in a low purple light and moving to The xx’s Shelter, what I remember the most wasn’t her sexy dance, or her body being exposed bit by bit, until all she had on was a G-string and a pair of fuzzy nipple covers. What struck me the most was how she was undeniably enjoying herself. It was written all over her coy smile, her very warm stage prescence, and the way she playfully jerked her torso as she snapped off her corset button by button. You could tell she was feeling her big, luscious curls.

Performing sensually in front of an audience may not be for everybody. But to be on fire in your own skin and not be afraid to show it — watching her was realizing you wanted that, too.

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This is one of the main effects of going to see a burlesque show. You realize there are dimensions to you that you haven’t really been tapping into—mostly because polite society doesn’t really give you the space to do that without sacrificing respectability.

“Most of the people in our audience are women,” Joyen Santos, one of the founding members of Manila Burlesque, shares. “And there have been a handful of them who have approached us after performances and remarked how tastefully sexy our shows are. We champion all shapes, sizes, and genders, and we can prove to anyone that any body can be sexy but still classy.”

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Bringing burlesque to Manila

It’s not hard to find pole dancing, striptease, and sexy heels dance classes in Manila, but the art of neo-burlesque goes beyond just dance. Burlesque entails carefully branding oneself as a performer, intense wardrobe planning, and a good deal of theatrics, along with lots of eye contact and (non-physical) interaction with the audience.

It’s an art form and aesthetic that Santos had always been interested in pursuing. “But there were no local resources for this endeavor. Burlesque may already come a dime a dozen in first world countries, but it is a new form of entertainment here in Manila,” she shares, having faced the same problem as a rope bondage artist and overall “muse of the underworld.”

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As luck would have it, events producer Dyshaun Hines flew to Manila from the US on a whim. His first choice had been Bangkok, but seeing that ticket prices were exactly the same to the Philippines, he chose to fly here instead. Burlesque was a popular art form in Philadelphia where Hines was based. He himself had produced several such events under his company, DopeLoco. The two met at a rope event in Manila, instantly clicked, and decided to work together to bring Burlesque to the Philippines.

Santos got to try her hand out at burlesque for the first time with Hines’ experienced eye for it. She supplied him with contacts — from additional performers, to press, and venues — and Hines would “work magic” with them, giving Santos ample time to work on and refine her burlesque persona.

Is Manila really that uptight?

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Manila Burlesque staged their very first show last February 5, opening with Eyes Wide Shut — a monthly series inspired by the Stanley Kubrick film. I walked in expecting to find a fringe/kink group struggling against our conservative culture. But it turns out the show was sold out and attended by a very receptive and interested audience. The same can be said of their second run last March 5. Their last show under this theme will be happening on April 2, Saturday at A Space Manila.

“For someone who has been working on alternative performances for almost a decade, I can say that I am overwhelmed at how accepting the Philippines is of burlesque,” Santos says. “Bondage and sexually-dominant women often get censored here. On the other hand, Manila Burlesque is on a roll after one successful debut show.”

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Indeed, the group has been busy with workshops (they have upcoming Burlesque 101 classes beginning in April), and a string of regular “back-to-back-to-back” performances both in Manila and out of town. They are always on the lookout for new talents, to keep the current ones on their toes, and already have bigger and better shows in development.

Confidence in one’s Own Skin

Burlesque gives performers a superior sense of confidence in their own skin that many art forms can’t provide. “They bare their souls and bodies to the public to help encourage others to be comfortable in their own skin as well,” Hines says.

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“When people watch burlesque, I think they get a sense of pleasure they’ve never quite experienced before,” he continues. “There’s the stimulation that comes from the lights, the music, and the general ambiance of the venue. But the experience of watching someone remove their clothes and then realizing that you’re not sexually aroused by this — but instead in awe of the elegance, grace, and profound confidence of the performers — is a thought process not often experienced. I think people gain a new respect for the human body and for the artists brave enough to sacrifice themselves in hopes of desexualizing it.”

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For updates, look up Manila Burlesque on Facebook.

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Originally published in the Philippine Star SUPREME (19 March 2016)

Photos by Deej Fabian

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