Do you have a weakness for sequins and rump-shaking? Me, too. Today’s interview with Freya West is fascinating. Below, Freya talks about how silly can be sexy, how her husband feels about her burlesque career, and what percentage of her audience is female – it’s surprising!
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m a burlesque warrior, fire swallower, and teacher. I started my burlesque journey in 2008 while living in Chicago, and moved to Nashville in 2009. I’ve represented worldwide brands including MAC Cosmetics, Dos Equuis and Prilosec OTC, performed on stage and in music videos with rock stars, and headlined Iceland’s first adult circus show.
On the regular, I’m a featured performer at Nashville’s legendary Skulls’ Rainbow Room, produce and perform quarterly shows for an audience of 500+ with Music City Burlesque, and spend most of my days and nights teaching burlesque and showgirl classes at my school, Delinquent Debutantes.
For those of us who don’t know, what is burlesque?
My favorite answer to this question is “lowbrow art for highbrow people.” The longer answer is that American burlesque involves a performer entering the stage in some form of dress, performing an act that is comedic, sexy, acrobatic, and/or dangerous, and exiting the stage with less clothing on. It’s very hard to categorize when it’s good, and much more than a striptease peep show, though those are fun too!
How is burlesque different from stripping?
Technically, burlesque is stripping. You are removing articles of clothing during your performance. For me, the marked difference between burlesque and strip club dancing is narrative. In burlesque, you’re seeing a fully formed character/archetype/concept presented to the audience, whereas, in strip club dancing, the objective is always to please the customer. I like to think of burlesque as taking pop sexuality to 11.
One of my signature acts is to the Typewriter song, and I represent a living typewriter, shimmying in time with the typing, complete with a desk bell on my feathered headdress. It’s big and ridiculously over the top, because silly can be sexy too.
How did you get into burlesque?
I saw my first burlesque show in college in Chicago at a tiny black box theater and was enamored with how unabashedly glittery it all was. It was beautiful and glitzy but didn’t seem to take itself too seriously. I read about classes from Michelle L’Amour (one of the biggest burlesque dancers in the world), had a glass of wine to ease my nerves before class, and danced my ass off. It was so hard and so fun! I took classes for a year, culminating in a student showcase in 2008.
What goes into preparing for a performance?
For Music City Burlesque shows, we always have a theme, sometimes loose and sometimes very defined, so that helps me curate what I want to do. For example, this summer’s show was 70’s themed. I wanted to create a send-up of 70’s fantasy pulp with stunning sexploitative visuals, a la Frank Frazetta. So I deconstructed Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, danced for hours choreographing and rehearsing every bump, step, and hand movement, sewed my costume from scratch, fashioned myself a staff, and wrote an intro for our host. It usually takes me about one month from concept to creation, depending on the idea.
Could you walk us through an average performance?
If I’m not producing a show, I try to get as show ready as possible at home: doing my hair – more is more in burlesque, putting on my “drag” stage makeup meant to enhance the character I’m portraying, always with false eyelashes. On arrival at the venue, I usually get to tech or at least sound check on the stage. Then I head backstage where I apply body makeup to any bruises from errant rehearsals, and glitter up (it’s good to have a friend to help glitter your butt)! I put on my costume and stretch while I nervously wait for my turn to take the stage.
The host will introduce me, the stage goes black, and then I’m up. I’m always nervous right before I step out on that stage, no matter if the audience has 60 or 600 people. I take a few deep breaths, shake off the nerves, and take that energy to the stage. This is where the “magic” of performance happens. I glide, bump and grind myself across the stage, feeding off the audience’s energy, always giving them the best show I can, and after what feels like 10 seconds and 10 hours, my music ends. I hit a final pose in my pasties and gstring, and let the roar of the crowd wash over me.
How has burlesque affected your life?
Well, glitter is now everpresent in my life! It’s been an unexpected journey so far. I’ve met some of the most incredible people on stage and off, and teaching especially, makes me thankful for this safe space to explore sexuality, dance, and art.
When I first started, the nudity scared me. I couldn’t even love my own body, how could other people? But by the time I’d created a full act, I was more worried about remembering my choreography, and the nudity just became part of the show. And learning how to move my body, use my curves, and tassel twirling, gave me a new respect for the shape I was given, and the flesh I live in. Now, I love helping other people feel at home in their bodies. It’s not about projecting “sexy,” it’s about finding authentic movement that speaks to what moves you.
How do the people in your life feel about you doing burlesque?
My husband is endlessly supportive of the gobs of costuming that fill our house before an act debuts, the nervous person I become when producing a show, and of course, the naked on stage part. 😉
Most of my friends are performers of some ilk and recognize it as another form of art and expression. Fun fact: all my roommates of the last five years have become burlesque performers!
My family is supportive and all my siblings (4!) have seen me perform at least once. My parents are the most hesitant about my sparkly life. My mom was a 70s braburning feminist turned stayathome mom, and has trouble getting over the “women in sex are being exploited” mentality. She can’t understand how my feminism is informed by my burlesque, and vice versa. My dad is happy that I’m happy, but he doesn’t want to know too much about it. They’re both really sweet, though and still ask about my big shows and productions, so I can’t complain.
What are the best parts of doing burlesque? Any drawbacks?
I absolutely love the creative control of burlesque. I create my own concepts, costumes, choreography and props, and mix my own music. It’s terrifying and thrilling to put something on stage that’s you’ve created from scratch! I also love talking to our audience after a show (which is usually 70% female by the way). We also get a lot of couples, and it’s the most fun to know that you’re priming their date for a good night later!
The drawbacks are the same as being a woman in any art form. We get dismissed as “not art” just because we use our bodies like any other performance artist would. I’ve had a few unkind comments about my weight (as has every other performer, regardless of their size). And we sometimes get creepers, but I’ve never felt unsafe.
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in trying it?
Go and see as many shows as possible! If they’re good, notice what’s working, and if they’re bad, notice what’s not. If you can, try and take classes in the specific movement of burlesque, which has roots in belly dance and jazz, and make your movement married to your clothing removals. If you’re in Nashville, I will shamelessly promote my school, Delinquent Debutantes, as a great place to start exploring your sensuality.
If you can’t find a local class, there are several resources online. If you have a desire to be in burlesque, not matter what size, shape, color, or gender you are, there’s a place for you! Maybe you can start by working the door or merch for a troupe, or maybe you can be a stage hand, sometimes called “stage kittens.” This will give you lots of stage time plus allow you to view how things work backstage too! Always keep learning.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Freya! Have any of you guys taken burlesque classes? Do you have any questions for her?