“Hey! Sorry I’m late, mind if I smoke?”
Inhaling a deep drag of her freshly lit cigarette, she grinned. She exhaled, smoke dissipating into the bustle of Bloor Street. She let her lighter rest on the small “no smoking” icon of the Starbucks patio table. She had been late because her day job had kept her longer than she expected. She is a babysitter.
But that’s not all she is.
Though Colleen Kunkel uses babysitting to pay her rent, her passion lies with the sultry art of Burlesque.
“Burlesque” derives from the Italian term “burlesco”, which means mockery or joke. When the dancing troupe British Blonds introduced the art form to New York in 1868, women appeared as sexual aggressors and using seduction, a flip on the traditional script of men being the sexual aggressors. As Burlesque continued to develop, this message of empowering women through their sexuality remained at its core. Eventually, it came to be known as the strip tease.
As Colleen put it, “the difference between stripping and Burlesque is mostly that stripping is more business oriented. You don’t go into Burlesque for the money, you go into Burlesque for the art, the performance, the character creation.”
In fact, Burlesque can actually cost performers money, especially at the start (nipple tassels and G-strings don’t come cheap!)
“Most people make their own costumes. I’ve spent hours bedazzling my thong. It takes long, especially when you have a lot of different layers to the costume.”
Colleen’s high school theatre experience helped with her costume creation and character development. It also provided the passion for performing that underlies her love of Burlesque.
“I had been without a passion for any project for a while. My sister had started Burlesque and it changed her life. I went to a show literally at midnight when I turned 19 and my jaw just dragged on the floor all night.”
Quickly, Colleen became immersed into the community of Burlesque. She would stay long after shows to chat with the performers. Eventually, she started “Kittening”. She would help out by collecting the articles of clothing that had been tossed off by performers during the show. Then, she started being a Gogo dancer on nights that she was invited. She would dance at the show’s intermission and collect tips.
It wasn’t long before Toronto Burlesque veteran Belle Jumelles invited her to join her Burlesque classes (information for prospective students here). She learned the basics and started to develop her act.
“Every performer, I think, has to know the why. Like, why am I taking my clothes off, what’s the intended message? My act is what I call an homage to Catholic school. It starts off with me very modest and then eventually I’m down to a thong. Then I bless everybody with blood. It’s fun, basically anything goes in Burlesque. There are no rules.”
It’s that “no rules” mentality that is used to foster a community built on acceptance. The stage is a judgement-free zone and all people are welcome to express themselves as they please.
“Everyone is welcomed and loved in the community. Any body type is celebrated. And that’s so different than what we see in the media. People aren’t used to seeing a fat naked body but when they do, they know it’s sexy.”
The community is one that celebrates weirdness and individuality. It creates a safe space to let women love their sexuality and their bodies, no matter the form. This is the main draw for most Burlesque performers. Burlesque helps women love themselves as they are, in a world that constantly tells them to change. It helps women embrace their sexuality, in a world that constantly tries to use that sexuality against them.
Burlesque is a source of healing. Colleen and her sister both encountered its healing power.
“My sister had an accident and got some pretty bad scars. She hated how she looked, she shutout from the world. Now, she flaunts her body on stage. When I was in high school, I was depressed. I hated my body. I felt like I didn’t have a purpose. I admitted myself into the hospital. I dropped out of school. Burlesque gave me a passion. It helped me love my body, which was something I struggled with for a long time.”
To find your passion for Burlesque, check out the Toronto Burlesque Festival from July 28th to 31st.You can catch Belle Jumelles and many other talented performers at Cherry Colas at weekly Sinful Sundays.
In the meantime, check out these photos of Colleen, aka Lady Bean, during her Burlesque debut: