I’m standing at the door to the Feminine Divine. The email said to wear high heels, but I’ve never owned a pair in my life. Tenille’s dance studio is at the end of a maze of concrete hallways that feel like the bowels of a submarine, but as soon as the door opens, I’m swallowed up into 1920s Broadway jazz and a room warm and crowded with women. The previous burlesque class is running through their final routine, hands in hair, high heels marching in unison. The dancers catch glimpses of themselves now and then in the wall-to-wall mirror. The rest of my 7pm class watches from the sidelines while I trip into a pair of stockings, hoping they’ll make up for my skater shoes.
I peak past the rows of heads and catch sight of Tenille. She’s at the front of the class, guiding the women through the routine with clear, rhythmic instructions. She looks different, but it takes me a moment to figure out why; I’ve never seen her without make-up before.
“Well done, ladies!” she calls, signaling the end of the lesson. We applaud the flurry of women that joins us to unfasten their corsets, take off their strappy shoes, collect their handbags, and pay at the counter where a lone lace glove sits without its other half.
There are pieces of stage, swathes of cloth, and bags of gloves and feather boas everywhere. It takes me a minute to notice the fridge and the kitty litter box too. I realize Tenille’s apartment doubles as her dance studio. Through the white curtains that divide the dance floor from the bedroom, I see Tenille’s wife, Kerry, sitting at her computer with a pair of headphones on.
“Everyone – this is Jo,” says Tenille presenting me to the class with a flourish of the hand, “Jo – this is everyone!”
I beam at the other members of the class and they beam back. We’re tall and short, skinny and voluptuous, young and middle-aged. The email explained that burlesque is about “learning to love our bodies and acknowledging the beauty of the feminine spirit.” I know all of this is meant to make me relax, but I can’t stop thinking about how my classmates are all in slender heels, leotards, tights and high-waisted briefs. I stand out in my shorts and sneakers, and I wonder if anyone thinks I’m being cavalier. I rearrange the stay-up lace tops of my stockings and try to focus on the lesson.
First up – the Showgirl stance. Tenille shows us how to shift our weight onto one leg with the other knee bent and angled into the center. The slight adjustment makes our bodies slip into curving S shapes in the mirror. It’s the kind of position that makes you want to put your hands on your hips. We warm up with Candy Shelves – dipping down and curling up slowly, haunches first followed by the breasts.
“Make the move count,” says Tenille, “It’s all about accentuating the lines of your body. Show me your curves!”
We do V sits on the ground and draw one toe sensuously along the length of the other leg, as if stringing a bow and arrow. We practice the Betty Bump and the Shimmy, and all to old-timey versions of modern hip-hop hits, like Jason Derulo’s Wiggle.
It’s hard work being elegant. The poise takes muscle. I’m starting to sweat and it makes my nylon stockings feel humid. The intimate space heats up and the soles of my shoes stick on the floor a little. Tenille reminds me to walk on tiptoes.
“Hands in your hair.”
I only discovered the term “non-binary gender” recently, but I like it. Discovering the people attached to the term felt like an epiphany – a seeing of the self. A word to help make sense of a lifetime of ambiguity.
I’m on tiptoes now, my woman’s hips that I dislike so much swaying this way and that with every step forward.
I can do this. And it looks good. But I knew I could do “woman”. I’ve known for a while now that, to a large extent, gender is performance, and burlesque feels like a performance of gender. It “plays into the idea of what is feminine,” says Tenille, “We’re just pushing up the contrast.”
I find myself thinking about a conversation I once had with a sexologist. She was my language student in Brussels. We saw eye to eye on everything, but one day she explained her stance on transgendered people. She believed it was a psychological problem that could be cured. She had been to a seminar about how to teach men who feel like women to reconnect with their penises and reclaim their masculinity. It sounded just like trying to pray away the gay to me. I was disappointed.
I wonder for an instant if burlesque classes will teach me to accept the hips I’ll never get rid of, no matter how thin I get. I wonder if my sexologist student would approve, and the thought makes me bridle.
Tenille loves being feminine. She’s circling the class in black leggings and a plain top. Her bare feet have picked up glitter on their soles. I’ve only ever seen her in full burlesque regalia, but she exudes the same powerful feline energy now that she commands on stage as Lady Magnolia. Before coming, I was concerned that burlesque only serves to indulge the codes of femininity. I was concerned it would be just another way to tell women how to be and what’s beautiful, the way magazines and male standards do, but there’s something about Tenille’s strength and the way she celebrates her body that puts my mind at ease.
We run through a set of moves on repeat, peeling off a lace glove and tossing it to an imagined crowd at the end of each set. Just as our muscles begin to burn Tenille says, “I want you to imagine a golden glowing ball of energy right here,” and she places her hands in a V over her groin. The class giggles, but doesn’t stop. “Let it shine. Let it grow and grow until it overflows into the audience. That’s the energy you’re bringing to the stage!”
I feel it. I feel that radiance and I can see it in the faces of the other women too.
By the end of the class, we’re hot and out of breath. My classmates pull on trousers and jackets over their outfits to head out into the city, where being covered becomes a matter of safety once again. I stay on for a glass of white wine with Tenille.
“You can’t really separate sexuality from anything you do,” she says. “To me all dance has a sexual undertone to it. It’s the most primal way you can express yourself besides having sex.”
Saskia, an elegant Tonkinese, slinks out from somewhere and gives me her head to caress.
Tenille explains how it was a need to freely embrace that “naughtiness” that led her to burlesque. “It isn’t a dance discipline. It’s a performance art. It’s real, a bit raw in a way, and very honest.”
We talk about the image of the golden ball of energy and she says, “One hundred years ago we weren’t able to revel in our sexuality, revel in our beauty, or in our bodies. Now that we can, we should – and have fun doing it!”
Kerry joins Tenille and I at the kitchen table. Together, the couple runs a Rouge Revue show every three months at Truth Coffee, a theme camp at Afrika Burn, Born Risqué – a night of taboo performances – and The Grand Exhibition – an annual event that kicked off this year in Johannesburg and Cape Town and that they hope will grow into a kind of World Burlesque Benefit.
A part of the proceeds of every show they do goes towards Rape Crisis.
“I’m a big fan. I’ve listened to him for years, but during the interview he said, ‘Isn’t there an ‘Argh!” moment when you think of striptease and Rape Crisis?’”
“No,” says Kerry, “He said, ‘Isn’t that a contradiction?’”
The memory still gets the two of them riled up.
“It was very painful,” says Tenille, “He was negating what we do in a big way.”
They found solace however in a passage from a blog post by Rape Crisis about the event:
“Embracing women’s sexuality and the pleasure we take in our bodies as represented in the art of burlesque, reminds us that while rape might steal our pleasure in sex from us, this can be reclaimed.”
The passage perfectly articulates what I’ve been mulling over all night. It all boils down to ownership. “We’re taught by society to hide our bodies from people,” I say, “And if somebody does see you naked, it can feel as if your ownership of your body is lost in some way.”
Tenille nods vigorously and shares an anecdote about how topless sunbathing – a must for any burlesque dancer – is constantly read by men on the beach as some kind of invitation to claim their bodies, through photography or otherwise.
“But what I like about burlesque,” I continue, “Is that it’s nudity, without any loss of integrity, without any loss of ownership. In fact, it’s a heightened ownership. I own my body so much, that I can do whatever I like with it and it’s mine, even if you can see it.”
Tenille fully acknowledges how intimidating it can be to step into a burlesque class. “You’re vulnerable in this space. After all, you’re giving the audience a glimpse into a part of yourself that would otherwise remain unseen. It’s quite intimate.” But time and again she has seen shy students, who often take months to step over the threshold, go through a transformation from baggy t-shirts to fishnets stockings.
“They discover glamour they didn’t know was there.”
She pauses in reflection.
“For me, it was almost the opposite. I found my natural self through burlesque.”
Lady Magnolia is Tenille’s stage persona. “She’s not a character completely separate from Tenille. We’re part of each other. Lady Magnolia is the hyper-femme. The done-up version.”
Before meeting Kerry, Tenille believed that she owed it to all her students to always look impeccable. “I felt that if I bumped into a student at Pick n Pay, they had to be proud to turn to their partner and say, ‘That’s my teacher,’ and that I had to look a certain way for that to happen. So there was always this façade. Back then I was Lady Magnolia 24/7.”
The change came about when, early in their relationship, Kerry said, “If you can’t be comfortable with yourself, how can I be comfortable with you?’”
I can see Tenille reliving the moment.
“It cut me to the quick… I took six months to wean myself off the make-up and not die of shock when I caught my reflection in the mirror. ”
Tenille and Lady Magnolia have become more distinct since Kerry. “Somebody who loves me has given me to the space to not carry Lady Magnolia all the time. I didn’t know I had the choice before. I’ve enjoyed making room for Tenille and only bringing Lady Magnolia out when it’s her turn.”
This talk of alter egos and hidden selves makes me want to try to articulate the thoughts I’ve been having about myself.
“Are there many gender-bending acts in burlesque?”
“There’s definitely room to play with gender. Burlesque doesn’t have any rules.”
I find it easy to talk about Gender, but I begin to falter when it comes to talking about my own. I mumble something half-hearted and inarticulate about “having a little bit of both in me,” but I can’t bring myself to say more than that, and I’m forced to acknowledge that I’m afraid to speak freely. Maybe because in the past, people that haven’t been able to see my ambiguity have brushed my feelings aside.
Before I leave, Tenille hands me a copy of their documentary No Strings Attached, and Kerry escorts me out the building. My cab is waiting outside. As I climb in, I think about something Tenille said: “What people want and what they have the courage to pursue is totally different.”
I make a decision to take that golden energy with me into my own fears.
Writing & photos by @baobabjo_
Front cover icon by Ruby Red Door Photography