Monday, May 24, 2010

From Gumboots to Glitter

Biologist by day and burlesque performer by night, Champagne Sparkles encourages women to find it in themselves to don a pair of pasties and learn to shake their tatas.

Portrait shoot with Champagne Sparkle, one of the founders of Cheesecake Burlesque. Written by Cassandra Grant.

Champagne Sparkles has a new routine, and a new outfit to go with it. “It’s based on a song from Camelot the musical,” she says, wriggling into a bright green corset before pinning feathers to her curly blonde crop of hair. “Do you know it? The Lusty Month of May?”

Aw heck, I knew I should’ve brushed up on my musical trivia. Not to worry: Champagne’s vivid description of the routine (involving a chastity belt—of course) is a literal take on the song title. Apparently it goes something along the lines of “Tra la! It’s May, the lusty month of May! That lovely month when ev’ryone goes blissfully astray! Tra la! It’s here, that shocking time of year! When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear!”

Thrilling! And appropriate! Since May is the month that the annual Vancouver International Burlesque Festival is held, which I’m sure gives many people the chance to experience their own merry wicked little thoughts. And it’s the reason why Champagne Sparkles is here, in the middle of Chinatown, changing costumes behind the makeshift screen of a car door and a parasol threateningly hefted to distract the curious passersby.

Champagne is in town for the weekend because the Victoria-based Cheesecake Burlesque Revue, of which she’s a founding member, is a headlining act in the Burlesque Festival. Her website describes her as cheeky and cute, the ‘extra glittery girl-next-door’. In real life she’s pint-sized and as bubbly as her name suggests. “I make my own costumes,” she says as she shakes out a sea-froth tutu. “Well—not the corsets—I embellish them and make them nicer, see, with the ribbon and lace.” She steps into a pair of sequined heels, wraps her floral-print dressing robe tighter, and looks expectantly at myself and Jess the photographer. “Right!” she says, batting her glittery eyelashes. “Let’s go!”

We walk to several different locations, and make several return trips to the car for hasty costume changes. Throughout the shoot Champagne pouts and preens and kicks her legs like a regular can-can dancer. In between the compliments she brushes off from passing admirers, she talks about how she’s by turns an environmental consultant and biologist, and a jet-setting burlesque performer who’s toured from Vegas to Berlin and places in between.

“Burlesque for me is a passionate, creative part of my life,” Champagne says. “It gives me balance to the other things I do, and has connected me to many wonderful people I would never have met otherwise. Through burlesque I’ve discovered a love of performing, and my self-confidence has grown!”

The one thing that Champagne Sparkles stresses is the freeing nature of burlesque performance. ”I think burlesque is a fun and sexy form of entertainment,” she writes in a follow-up email. “It focuses on the tease (rather than being overtly sexual) and provides a place for humour within sexiness. Burlesque offers an alternative to homogenized mass media images of women (and men) and is a unique platform for people to develop a wider perception of sexuality.”

In between solo performances and working with the Cheesecake Burlesque Revue, Champagne Sparkles also hosts burlesque parties for birthdays and stagette nights; it’s an alternative to celebrating in the usual drunken fashion—”Not that it doesn’t happen at the parties!” she adds. The whole idea behind burlesque is that it accepts performers of all ages and body types, appealing to the women in the audience who see someone they can relate to. “It’s fun to live vicariously through the women they see on stage,” says Champagne, “and I think it often inspires them to ‘shake it’ a little more themselves - either at home, with friends and sometimes even to take to the stage!”

We wrap up the shoot as the sun sets. Champagne Sparkles wraps her dressing robe tightly around her last costume change and smiles her glittering smile at us. I’m reminded of the first corset she wore, for her Lusty Month of May routine. It borrows old history and pop references, as most burlesque performances do, relying on nostalgia and titillation for its success. I ask Champagne what kind of future she sees in burlesque. She looks thoughtful. “I think there are an infinite number of possible directions for burlesque to go”—here I’m thinking of the shock tactics of gorelesque—”but I think it is important to recognize the history of burlesque and to reference it, to thrive and grow in new directions.”

I guess we do that already, every generation of women changing the face of burlesque: young, old, curvy, slim, all ethnicities, classically trained or heading in radical new directions, they’re all taking old corsets and adding their own details and making it all their own.

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