Burlesque dancer reflects on the choices she’s made and where she finds herself today

She’s a young, thin woman with elegant features, high cheekbones, not a smidge of make-up and brown hair rolled up in a bun.

Raven Virginia — a stage name she uses to protect her ability to work with kids and in theatre productions for children — looks a lot different than she does on stage. She’s been dancing in burlesque shows since 2009, and has been passionate about it ever since she discovered The Garter Girls.

Together with her three and a half year-old son and husband Sven Bjornsven — also a stage name to protect his ability to work with children — live in a small house in Calgary. Posters hang on the walls of her living room, and toys are strewn across the TV stand.

“There are many different aspects to my life,” says Virginia. “I’m a mom, a wife and an actor. I work in professional theatre mostly. I am a dancer, and a burlesque performer. I own and operate The Garter Girls with my two co-workers. And, I think that’s it.”

Produced by Masha Scheele & Kate Holowaty

Growing up in Ontario, she started dancing at a young age while also attending professional summer dancing programs. Her father, a theatre technician for over 40 years, first showed her the magic of the arts.

“I even remember him teaching me how to put my dance tights on and helping me to get my hair in a bun, because I did years and years of ballet,” she says. “I was never really able to commit to [ballet], because I had this feeling that maybe ballet wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do,” she recalls.

She moved to Canmore with her family, where she struggled to fit in at school because of skipping a grade. She was into the arts, and identified herself as a feminist. This caused her to spend a lot of her high school years alone, skipping class to sit in the Banff library reading badly written sci-fi novels.

Virginia barely graduated from high school and quickly moved to Edmonton to attend theatre school. She stayed there briefly before enrolling at Mount Royal University for theater. After graduation she immediately started acting, doing two to three plays a season, film work, commercials and voice-overs — anything she could get.

Years later she became friends with Bjornsven, whose life she literally tripped into during one of his music gigs at a local bar. “She had this embarrassed smile on her face. I thought that was funny, and we just hit it off,” said Bjornsven about the first time he saw her.

“She was beautiful but she was also hilarious,” says Bjornsven. “I couldn’t really take my eyes off of her and she was making me laugh just as much as I was making her laugh.”

They eloped after five weeks of dating. They were married for a year when Virginia discovered The Garter Girls burlesque troupe, and she was instantly interested in learning more about the art form.

It didn’t take her long to audition for The Garter Girls, and soon she was dancing alongside them.

“I couldn’t really take my eyes off of her and she was making me laugh just as much as I was making her laugh.”

– Sven Bjornsven, Raven Viginia’s Husband

“I put together something that I felt was more what I had wanted burlesque to be, that tied to my theatre arts training and my dance training. I wanted it to be theatrical and emotional and connected,” she says. “I put together my signature Raven piece, and after I came off they were like, ‘Do you wanna join?’ So I did.”

Since 2009, The Garter Girls troupe has come a long way and worked hard to elevate the production value of what they do.

“When she first wanted to do it, I was all for it. Except that they were performing at some greasy venues,” says Bjornsven. “But things really changed. We got a regular gig at a much more respectable venues.”

Almost at the same time that Virginia joined, Bjornsven also became involved. Now, after a couple of years, he is the host of the show.

Some of her friends were intrigued at first, but Virginia said many people questioned her choices. She explains that it was a difficult change for her parents because it looked as though she was leaving the professional acting world for something more amateur.

Every outfit Virginia performs in is handmade by herself, and is just as integral to her performances as her choreographed routines.

Photo by Masha Scheele “My father did come to see me at Lucha VaVoom in Calgary. He was extremely supportive, and it was funny because there were 1,500 people in the audience that night, and I could’ve cared less about that. I was so nervous about performing for my dad,” says Virginia, clasping her hands together.

“I just wanted to dance well, and execute it perfectly because he’s a theatre professional himself. And he was so kind. He said, ‘You’re such a good dancer’ after I was done. I was really happy with that, I think I cried actually.”

Despite the people who questioned what she was doing, Virginia continued. She mentions that after having her son, she stopped caring about what other people thought of her. It pushed her to freely articulate her creative process in her professional career.

Virginia continued burlesque dancing throughout her pregnancy until the last 48 hours before labour, and resumed dancing 10 weeks after her son was born. Her pregnancy taught her a lot of life lessons, she says, and doing burlesque throughout her pregnancy also helped her through many things, like accepting her body.

“I struggled with self-esteem issues after [pregnancy],” she says. “But no matter what I was experiencing, and no matter what my poor husband had to hear me say, I still managed to put that aside and go on stage and show my body off to everyone. And that was important.”

Having a son also helped her to understand more about human connections because she experienced having to take care of someone who relied on her for everything. She truly believes that this helped her to become a better burlesque dancer.

“My son has the most incredible imagination. This morning he was riding his tricycle inside, with mittens on, meowing like a cat — for a really long time,” she says with a huge smile. “Children are whimsy, and there’s no judgment. That’s what you need to be a good artist. You can’t judge yourself. You need to experiment and go all the way.”

Artistically this has taught her not to give up on her ideas while performing. If the audience doesn’t like the dance she is doing, she keeps trying and changing it until it works.

“It’s also a great life lesson,” she says. “Experiencing life without judging yourself is ultimately a pretty awesome existence. Free of negativity.”

mscheele@cjournal.ca

kholowaty@cjournal.ca