Burlesque and contemporary dancers work around strict regulations

We are born into this world screaming, vulnerable and completely naked.

From the moment we are placed in our parent’s arms, our tiny nude bodies are swathed in blankets – keeping us warm and hiding our vulnerability.

After that point, for most of us, other people rarely see us in the nude – a social phenomena that contemporary dancer and artist Lauren Cote finds ridiculous. 

“It’s the most hilarious and strange taboo because it’s not like we have many physical differences. They are very limited and inconsequential,” said Cote, who believes people are afraid of their own nudity and project that fear onto others. 

Cote is not alone in her belief that nudity is a natural state that society has learned to repress. Raven Virginia a dancer and actress from the burlesque troupe The Garter Girls – who is using her stage-name in order to protect her ability to work in productions for children – said she also feels that performing in the nude is a liberating form of expression.

However, the two dancers’ different disciplines pursue that freedom in very different ways. Contemporary dancers often view nudity as a form of expression devoid of sexuality, whereas burlesque dancers embrace the sensuality of the female body.  Moreover, the government can treat them very differently when they are on stage.

When performing in a licensed premise, burlesque dancer’s are required to maintain a distance of one-metre between one another during group routines according to AGLC regulations.

Image courtesy of Patricia Rose Photography

Cote, who received her degree in dance at the University of Calgary and performed for two seasons with the W&M Physical Theatre dance company, said that in the performing arts – which includes contemporary dance – nudity is often incorporated to explore the human body rather than sexuality.

“When it comes to dance it all comes down to the intention,” said Cote, who has performed partially nude.

“It is so liberating,” said Cote. “I think the big thing with nudity is that there are ideas of freedom and liberation attached (to being unclothed) that we struggle with.”

Raine Kearns, another contemporary dancer who graduated from the University of Calgary’s dance program this summer, said that nudity can also be used metaphorically in dance – illustrating, for example, vulnerability.

While she doesn’t feel that nudity is necessarily needed in a performance, she understands why it plays a key role in disciplines of dance such as burlesque, which is inspired by the sensuality of the tease.

“The people who do that are women that want to be empowered and feel sexy,” said Kearns, a dancer with the amateur company The SURGE Co.

Kearns, who hasn’t performed nude, nevertheless said, “If I was getting paid by a contemporary company and it was a show, I would do it. It’s your job.”

For her own part, Virginia said that she seeks the freedom of choice to cover up or not too.

“I wouldn’t impose on other peoples’ beliefs and I hope they wouldn’t force their beliefs on me.”

Cote performed a piece choreographed by Melissa Monteros and Wojciech Monchniej with W&M Physical Theatre where she worked for two seasons. She is currently taking some time away from the company to focus on her passion for yoga, pottery and to complete her doula training.

Image courtesy of Wojciech Mochniej

However, Virginia said the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission has put rules into place that often affect the freedom of burlesque dancers – ones that wouldn’t necessarily affect contemporary dancers. 

The AGLC has guidelines for nude entertainment in Class A licensed premises (like a bar or nightclub), Class C licensed premises (such as a private clubhouse) and Class A minors allowed with specific conditions licensed premises (a restaurant). 

These regulations include restrictions on what dancers can wear before they are considered nude.

“They do not even define nudity according the English language,” Virginia said. “They believe that pasties and a G-string count as being totally nude and that is antiquated and unfair.”

In addition, the regulations have other requirements, such as maintaining a metre of space between audience members and other dancers during group numbers.

“The three-foot barrier completely de-humanizes us,” Sara Von Trease said, who is also a member of The Garter Girls. Von Trease is using her stage-name in order to protect the identity of her children.

“We’re zoo animals on a stage – it’s like cats watching a goldfish in a tank. We are not human beings because there can’t be that level of interaction,” added Von Trease, who has also worked in striptease for 20 years this December.

Responding to dancers’ concerns about feeling oppressed by the rules laid down by the AGLC, the commission’s spokesperson Tatjana Laskovic said those “who feel like the nude policy does not apply to them have the option of performing in an unlicensed venue.” 

The Garter Girls burlesque troupe creates most of their own costumes. Virginia (fourth in from the left) said the theft of costume pieces is a big problem because audience members often want a tangible memento. After performances, Von Trease, who is not in the photo, is responsible for finding all the pieces that are from a dancer’s costume.

Image courtesy of Patricia Rose Photography

Indeed, contemporary dancers like Cote can work their way around the strict regulations put into place by the AGLC concerning nude performance. According to Laskovic, while theatre lobbies may be licensed for alcohol consumption, the theatre itself is not – permitting that the theatre requests this treatment. Therefore, the rules do not apply. 

Cote said that she could understand the reasoning behind the AGLC’s rules concerning nudity in venues that serve alcohol. 

“There’s something about the energy of alcohol in the body that can lead to a loss of control. It can open a doorway for disconnection,” said Cote.

She added that viewing a nude performance clear-headed creates a deep connection on stage where you simply view the performers as bodies – maintaining the reverence for the art.

But Virginia said that she feels the AGLC’s rules censor the troupe’s creative freedom.

“It is censoring us as females, because the rules are really specific to women. But in a sexual context, isn’t male and female nudity the same thing?”

Virginia added that while she can understand why the rules concerning the metre barrier have been created to prevent people from getting touched when they do not want to be, “it doesn’t give patrons the opportunity to experience a woman for her personality, her imagination or her inner being. She is only a body.”

Indeed, Von Trease said that burlesque has been under attack for being exotic entertainment.

“You do not sell a lap dance at a burlesque show and you do not create a sexual fantasy for an audience member at a burlesque show,” Von Trease said. “But you do create glamour and beauty. And you do let the audience see women of all shapes, sizes, talents and skills showing off things that they love to do and that they are consenting for you to see.” 

Dancer Raine Kearns said that while she has not performed in the nude, she has performed in a many risqué outfits – especially while competing. “Clothing is used to protect your body and so that you can see you lines of your body,” Kearns said.

Image courtesy of Britta Albrecht Photography

But Laskovic said the commission isn’t in the business of licensing such entertainment. Instead, it just “licenses premises to sell or serve liquor.”

When asked why pasties and G-strings are considered nudity, Laskovic added the commission’s policies “are created with the intention to help ensure responsible and, more importantly, safe liquor service and safe management of license premises” 

As an example of what “safe liquor service and safe management” meant, Laskovic said it included “restricting minors from viewing nude entertainment” – even though those under 18 already aren’t allowed in Class A licensed premises, which is where the burlesque dancers usually preform.

Laskovic made no mention of the rules being in place to protect the dancers – despite being asked if this was the case. 

While Von Trease, a mother of two, said that she obviously wants the law protecting minors to remain in place. But she still advocates changing regulations regarding her creative expression during her performances in front of adults. 

“Neither of my children has seen what mommy does, and if I have it my way, they never will,” Von Trease said.

As for Virginia, she added that because we are a society that does cover up all the time, nudity is considered a scary place – especially for women. However, by embracing nudity some women can relieve that fear.  

“Flesh has a lot of power,” said Virginia, who feels it is an individual’s prerogative to choose to cover up or not too. “If we walked around naked all the time, nudity would have no power.”

The Garter Girls will be performing “The Garter Girls Classy Christmas” Dec. 12 at Dickens Pub

scomber@cjournal.ca