At the ‘Fish & Whips’ soirée in Berlin, a beautiful princess carrying a wicker basket comes onstage. She slowly reveals what is hidden in her basket, and then, as the act continues, she reveals what is hidden underneath her clothes. She sports a chastity belt that conceals her precious ‘flower’. The audience laughs at her unusual attire and her playful teasing. The end of her act reveals her nearly naked body, with only pasties and sparkling pants to cover her. Who is this princess? She is a dancer of the new burlesque. She bares it all at destinations all around the world. New burlesque has become mainstream thanks to the media success of Dita von Teese. It’s ‘new’ because, unlike the burlesque of Las Vegas show girls, new burlesque is returning to the root of the art. Champagne Sparkles, a Canadian performer, tells Sensa Nostra what led her to the glamorous career of burlesque dancing.
My background isn’t glamourous. I used to be an ecologist. The nerd that I used to be always wanted a glamorous life, but before I became a burlesque performer, I could only express this part of myself through my clothing. I had no idea what was in store for me. The only burlesque performance I had ever seen was Catherine D’lish, a beautiful yet rather typical artist in the field. My personal connection to this art form came by accident in 2006, when a close friend of mine asked me to join her in attending a burlesque workshop in Victoria, British Columbia. I fell in love at first shimmy (a traditional burlesque move). I remember my first performance. It was a horrible experience. I had stage fright to the point that my whole body was shaking and my heart was beating too fast. After that first performance, the symptoms remained the same, but the reason for those symptoms changed. I suddenly felt excitement! Initially, I thought it would be difficult to strip in front of all those people, but I realized that this act allowed me to control my thoughts and feelings. I knew that burlesque would have a huge impact on my life. Very quickly, I created my troupe: the Cheesecake Burlesque Revue. The troupe was composed of my friends exactly as they were, whether curvy or flat-chested, twenty or forty. It took us six months to become professional performers in Canada, even if we only performed at parties.
I developed a love for the audience. I learned I had to direct the public. They come to see what I’m offering, but I like to show them what they don’t expect to see. Even if I don’t strip completely at the end, I’m not to blame. It probably just didn’t suit my act. (Although, I really enjoy the stripping part!) I don’t deny the fact that burlesque is sexual—I like to play with this as well—but my first purpose is to have fun. I use my five minutes on the stage to create a story through music, costumes, gestures, and sparkles. The story is so engaging that I often find myself naked at the end.
Champagne Sparkles is my stage name, as you might have guessed. Being a burlesque dancer requires that you create a really strong character. This character supports you while onstage. Champagne Sparkles is my trademark. But before becoming a burlesque performer, I’d had no experience with theatre or show business, so it wasn’t immediately obvious to me that I had to create an image for myself. Last year, when I decided my character was going to sing onstage, I didn’t know what type of voice she had. After a few theatre courses, I got to know Champagne and a lot of these sorts of questions were answered. I knew her favorite color, her moves, her way of winking, but I still couldn’t find her voice. In burlesque, this usually isn’t a problem because we are mime artists. Nevertheless, the more you know about your character, the more the public is going to understand your world and respond to it.
All this research explains why I need a lot of time to prepare my shows. Finding a song, rehearsing, creating a unique costume, contacting agencies and finding places to perform—that’s a lot of work. If you want to make a living from it, you have to be persistent. But it’s so worth it! Imagine the joy of the public when you are shining on stage! I love to see them smiling at me after the show, although often they are too shy to speak. Since I don’t have a background in dance, I put all my energy into the preparation of a good story. My sources of inspiration are films and cartoons. That’s how I came up with my successful Muppet Show act. I use a famous puppet as a prop in order to get the attention of the public. I’m a funny artist. I use all the tools modern communication gives me to make the audience laugh and react.
As I mentioned, one of the most difficult parts of my job is managing myself. I have to market my troupe and myself in order to perform. I’m generally quite happy, because the burlesque scene is a really open environment, but the big contracts are still only being signed by dancers who meet commercial standards of beauty. Luckily, there are still a lot of opportunities for people who don’t fit the status quo. You just have to bring a unique charm to the stage, be able to move your hips in rhythm, and play with the audience. I’m far from being perfect—I choose to play with my imperfections in my shows.
Burlesque is a place of acceptance. There is no place for competition, because we are all supportive of each other. When I first came to Berlin, I discovered an important international burlesque community. It is the reason why I decided in January to stay here for good. Lady Lou, one of the most influential dancers in Berlin, happened to be organizing a burlesque meeting. Every performer was asked to present themselves and their projects over the last year. Everyone was supportive of Scotty the Blue Bunny and me, both new in town. I slowly made friends. That’s one thing I love about burlesque: we present ourselves as we are. Honesty creates a deeper connection. This support was important to me as I had just left my troupe in Canada.
My family has also been an enormous support. I don’t mind hard work because they give me the energy to keep on track. They have never doubted me. My husband is my number one fan. When I told my dad what I was doing, he was sceptical at first, replying, “What is this thing?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. I think that it is sheer ignorance to confuse burlesque with striptease. But, every time I meet a sceptic, I just have this answer: “Come and see the show!” There is a way to strip that isn’t inspired by Las Vegas. We follow a storyline, and the way that we strip has become an art: the art of body language. After all, it’s a feminist project. We are totally independent in this work, from the beginning to the end. I have the right to reveal my body, and nobody is going to tell me where and how to do it. It is also the most amusing way I know to accept my body and my personality as it is. Nobody has the right to change who you are when you are on stage.
I see such a bright future for burlesque. More and more women are willing to show a new side of themselves. I want to see more crazy routines. I don’t think that simple, ‘beautiful’ strips are the way of the future. While it is true that we still have a lot to learn from the older performers, the ‘new burlesque’ has to find its own path. One important thing that we have to do is to educate the audience. They sometimes act disrespectfully by filming or taking bad quality pictures during our shows. I don’t mind because I can’t see them doing it, but they just kill the magic that we create onstage. They also disturb other audience members. To educate the public is one of our new objectives. We want to make them understand that burlesque is all about being real, being alive, and living in the moment.
Now let’s go shimmy in rhythm!