Let’s talk Burlesque. Yes, it’s a lot of shimmer, bright lights, makeup, fringe and a little lingerie but it is also so much more than that. We connected with L.A based Burlesque dancer @JESSTHNDR to pull back the fringe and learn more about the flirty art form we all love and adore. We chatted about what goes into developing an act, representation within the community and how Burlesque is being used as both entertainment and self confidence care.
T&S: Let's start with the basics, what is Burlesque?
Jessabelle: Burlesque is striptease, it’s comedy, it’s sultry, it’s empowering. It’s men, women, nonbinary, disabled and abled bodied people of all shapes and sizes and colors loving themselves and moving audiences. It’s dance, it’s acting, it’s storytelling, it’s all of the above. Burlesque is so many things, and more people need to know about it, love it and support it.
Jessabelle in the Fringe Benefits bralette and Overt Garter
T&S: For someone who has never been to a show, what can someone expect at a burlesque show?
Jessabelle: You can expect to have a great time! A good show will have a variety of burlesque acts so prepare to see things that may astound you, things that might make you laugh or cry. Burlesque isn’t ONLY about glamour—can be circus-y, it can be comedy (the origin), it can be very artsy and make you think, it can even be extremely nerdy, it can be anything you want it to be. I think you should always expect a striptease though so don’t be too surprised when a performer peels off their clothing while giving you a cheeky glance!
T&S: How does your personal Burlesque story begin and what lead you to the stage?
Jessabelle: My love for it all started with a venue called Forty Deuce in LA. I’d read about it in magazines but wasn’t of age to ever go. By the time I turned 21, the LA venue closed but there was still one in Las Vegas. Me and my then boyfriend ventured to Vegas to see the live show full of beautiful dancers and a live band. After that I was obsessed and had to find more shows back in LA. In 2009, he and I went on a family trip to Denver and I was adamant that we see a burlesque show while there. The show ended with a school of burlesque graduate, who was debuting. I leaned over to him and said “I didn’t know that was a thing you could do!’. Cut-to being back in LA. He decided to surprise me with burlesque lessons at a school of burlesque in Hollywood. I was terrified and didn’t want to actually do it but eventually he talked me into it. I ended up having a lot of fun, even though I was awkward, and met a lot of different women, who I still chat with today. When that series of classes ended they offered everyone a chance to sign up for the advanced level, in which you create an act and perform. At that time I was going to school to become a therapist and thought, "I need to learn how to push myself to be more confident and outgoing; I need to push myself outside of my comfort zone”. With those thoughts in my head, I signed up for the class, telling myself that I’d only try it this one time and would never have to do it again. Fast Forward and here I am 12 years later, still going!
T&S: What work goes into developing an act?
Jessabelle in the Fringe Benefits Full slip with patent leather pasties
Jessabelle: For me, it’s all about the music first! That dictates everything for me, then costume, movement, hair, etc. And the type of music never matters to me. The main thing is that the song moves me and makes me feel something; happy, sad, sultry, flirty, silly, etc. When I can connect deeply with a song, my movements become the music and it brings out a side of me that sometimes is buried quite deep in my everyday life. I think that shows on stage when an audience watches me.
T&S: As a burlesque dancer, what legacy do you hope to leave on the art?
Jessabelle: That’s a big question with an answer that’s probably too long for this blog but I want to inspire other women of color through this art form, particularly black women. My whole life I had self esteem issues because I felt that I never saw myself represented as beautiful within the mainstream world. I remember looking through all my favourite magazines and not seeing many or any women that looked like me.
I was obsessed with MTV and music videos, especially boy bands and whatnot and I can remember never seeing anyone that looked like me as the leading lady. This along with other factors in my life really contributed to me not feeling beautiful and always wishing I looked different-wishing my hair moved like my white friends, wishing my lips weren’t as large, always hiding my hips and butt because I thought they were too big and all I wanted to be was skinny. It honestly wasn’t until I got into burlesque that I truly started to embrace myself and find confidence.
When I started in burlesque I didn’t see too many other black performers but the ones I did see blew me away—Perle Noire and Sydni Devereaux for starters. Seeing them on stage, feeling themselves, looking glamorous, embracing their blackness radiated into me. That’s a feeling I want to leave for others. I want to cast my net even wider than burlesque and reach more people-showing them what I do, telling them how I found myself and learned to love myself through this art form and hope that they can see themselves in me and feel empowered. Also, like the burlesque legends that came before me (Toni Elling, Jean Idelle, Miss Topsy, Josephine Baker, Lottie the Body), I want to open doors for those that come after me, whatever that looks like in this day and age.
Jessabelle in the Fringe Benefits bralette and Overt Garter
T&S: What is the number one thing that a burlesque dancer wants their audience to know?
Jessabelle: That it’s not as easy and simple as it looks. There’s so much work that goes into doing burlesque, from creating the act, designing and making the costumes even down to the mental capacity it takes to get up in front of an audience and bare it all. Sometimes people take months to a whole year developing a single act and that act usually evolves over time. One more important thing that I want audiences to know, is that burlesque is diverse. Go and find it because even though it may not be in your face, it’s there! For example, so many cities have black burlesque troupes and/or shows but sometimes they’re not as well advertised or in large scale venues. Go forth and support! Find performers that look like you (in addition to ones that don’t) cause they exist. A few recommendations to help get you started are Jeezy’s Juke Joint, Cocoa Butter Club and What the Funk Festival an all BIPOC festival.
T&S: How can we keep up with you, and your career? Are you teaching?
Jessabelle: You can follow me on instagram at @jessthndr, I’m also on TIKTOK under the same username and I have a website, www.jessabellethunder.com. I teach every once in a while, only because sometimes I feel awkward teaching, teaching and performing are not the same, but I really want people to experience burlesque and find their inner sexy, confident self. With that said, I do need to teach more often! I have a Burlesque 101 class, I’ve taught fan dancing, musicality and I’m working on a class that will teach how to develop stage presence, which can translate well into everyday life.
For more, you can check out @marvelousandmelanated, a burlesque revue co-produced by @jessthndr, @Simone del Mar, @Egypt Blaque Knyle and @Sheila Starr Siani
Images by @jasonkamimuraphoto