Iowa School of Burlesque promotes body positivity

Queen Anatomic performing.

Andi Schieszler

From wispy, glittering eyelashes and satin gloves to enticing music and seductive body movements, a burlesque performer has complete control of what the audience will experience. The Iowa School of Burlesque works to mold apprentices of all backgrounds into people who are completely confident.

“Burlesque is a way to give the finger to the boxes people are put into,” said Matt Hoover, a graduate of the Iowa School of Burlesque.

Students at the Iowa School of Burlesque are encouraged by the school’s head mistress, Phoenix L’Amour, to use the apprenticeship as an opportunity to fully accept themselves. L’Amour created the apprentice program for people who were serious about wanting to learn burlesque.

Aside from learning the history of burlesque and the dance itself, the program integrates confidence building. Students are encouraged to learn how other people view them and be able to accept and overcome their insecurities.

“[Burlesque] made me do things I was uncomfortable doing,” L’Amour said.

L’Amour designed the program based on what she wished she had learned early in her career. She started dancing burlesque after learning she and her roommate enjoyed the style, and the two formed a troupe after contacting as many established dancers as they could.

L’Amour first started to dance burlesque after a breakup. She was in a troupe with nine members, the St. Vitus Taxi Dancers.

“After my breakup, it made me realize my potential as a human,” L’Amour said.

L’Amour wanted to create a program that was authentic. As she was designing the program she wanted to create a class that was gritty and went back to the foundations for what burlesque actually meant.

Christine Bird, another graduate of the Iowa School of Burlesque, used burlesque as a form of therapy after having a bad experience with a therapist.

As someone whose sexuality is less known, she did not feel included in a single group.

Bird said her therapist tried to tell her she was just going through a phase and that she would be able to get over it and just be normal.

“When you perform, you’re up [on stage] being vulnerable and still are getting positive feedback,” she said.

L’Amour said the apprentice program is all about being vulnerable and uncomfortable so a student can break down barriers they have. She said being on stage, locking eyes with someone and touching yourself is uncomfortable at first but also very intimate for both the performer and viewer.

“For me, burlesque was about taking back ownership of my body,” said April Lausier, a graduate of the Iowa School of Burlesque.

Lausier attended her first burlesque show with her mother in New Orleans at the age of 15, where she became interested in the form of dance. Lausier had suffered from eating disorders and body dimorphic disorder, and while her mother had been body-positive and encouraged self-acceptance, Lausier still struggled to feel comfortable with her body image.

Lausier’s experience with the apprentice program was about showing herself body acceptance. When she initially began the program she kept her body more covered, but now she is comfortable enough to dance in less clothing, making sure she follows the legal allowances for burlesque dance and body exposure.

After completing the program, Lausier has the confidence to stand up for who she is and what she believes.

“If I see something I feel is not right, I’m more likely to speak out about it,” Lausier said.

Lausier’s stage name is Queen Anatomic, which she created because her day job is a nurse. She likes to use her character for social commentary and to create acts based on what is going on in her life.

While not all of the people in the burlesque community use the dance as a form of therapy, it is used as a method of empowerment.

Jasmine Higvay entered the apprentice program after being inspired by seeing Dita Von Teese perform her martini dance in Marilyn Manson’s mOBSCENE music video.

After being in an office job for seven years, Higvay lacked a creative outlet. She had been in theater in high school and wanted something similar in her adult life. After hearing about the Iowa School of Burlesque she signed up for the apprentice program without really knowing what to expect.

“[L’Amour] helps you navigate why you want to do [the program],” Higvay said.

Higvay’s character is Leo the Flash because she knew she wanted her character to be in animal print and over-sexualized. After sitting down with L’Amour, they thought of the name together.

“Your classmates are the No. 1 source of positive reinforcement,” Higvay said.

Students who go through the burlesque program are put into a vulnerable place that is difficult for those outside the program to understand. The other people in the class are the only ones who understand how the program can help, Higvay said.

“In burlesque, you don’t need to look like you came out of a magazine to look beautiful,” Hoover said.

After going to the Iowa School of Burlesque’s VARIETEASE show at Maximum Ames last year, Hoover joined the program.

Hoover adapted many styles for his character, Aleksander Amorphous. Because burlesque is usually adapted to the female body, and the dance moves are based around the female body, Hoover had to find a compromise.

Now that he has gotten more comfortable with male burlesque, which is also known as boylesque, he combines stereotypically feminine dance moves with more masculine ones to show that it’s fun to dance and anyone can, Hoover said.

Hoover likes to use his character to make people uncomfortable. Hoover said a friend once told him that if it makes you uncomfortable, you’ll grow. He does this to make people question why something makes them uncomfortable by pushing their boundaries.

“I think because [burlesque] changed my life so much I wanted other people to have the same change”  L’Amour said. “Everyone’s experience is different because we all work on different things. I am committed to each [apprentice] on a personal level.”

While students are put in a vulnerable place by completely exposing themselves, breaking down boundaries and opening their minds to L’Amour, the program is structured so each student can work on what is important to them.

“In a lot of creative aspects there is always a limit,” L’Amour said. 

Every apprentice creates a profile for their character, a persona they portray on stage. L’Amour encourages every student to extensively research the name they choose to make sure it is completely unique.

Once a student chooses a name, they work with L’Amour on the characteristics of the persona. Past apprentices have done everything from dumping multiple pounds of bubble gum on themselves to biting into a pig heart. L’Amour encourages uniqueness and is open to creativity, especially when it comes to character development.

Anyone over age 21 can apply to the apprentice program through an online application that is posted on the Iowa School of Burlesque’s website. Everyone who applies must pay a $10 application fee. If a student is accepted, they must pay additional tuition, which is currently $250.

Every semester of the apprentice program includes mandatory classes and shows every student must attend. Every student must also attend private sessions with L’Amour, which they arrange on the first day of class. 

The next application period for the Iowa School of Burlesque will open Feb. 27, 2016 and close Mar. 27, 2016.