Photography by Rachel Silvey
Photography by Rachel Silvey

The Best of Burlesque

March 3, 2023

Burlesque. The word evokes a certain image — attractive women dancing in lingerie. While Millikin’s Burlesque Underground proudly celebrates this risqué dance tradition, the student-run organization means so much more to its members and audiences alike.

Beauty standards have historically been exclusionary by nature. Those who do not fit society’s unattainable ideals of beauty often face body shaming. Behavioral Science Professor Linda Collinsworth notes that girls and women are especially scrutinized for their appearances, often internalizing these standards. 

“You can see the damage that it does to have people’s expectations be something that is unattainable. It’s absolutely harmful to self-esteem and body satisfaction,” Collinsworth says. 

The Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report, which surveyed roughly 11,000 females over 13 countries in 2016, found that 60% of women said they felt pressured to fit societal beauty standards. 

Burlesque Underground combats these societal expectations by spreading body positivity. Body positivity refers to the wide-spread acceptance of all bodies regardless of size, shape, gender, race, and physical ability. Head Choreographer Avery Hoffman notes how joining Burlesque has changed her self-image for the better. 

“I spent all of high school just completely in a place of self hatred and body dysmorphia, and just viewing my body as the enemy,” Hoffman says, “Eventually, if you pretend enough, it starts to become true… the more that I was like ‘Yeah, I’m hot, I’m sexy,’ playing a character in Burlesque, the more I was like ‘Yeah, I am hot and sexy.’” 

This atmosphere that celebrates all body types gives members control of their self-expression. Burlesque Underground Treasurer and choreographer Skylyr Choe says that being a part of Burlesque has provided them space to explore their identity and strengthen their self-image. 

“It’s a lot about just being confident in your movement,” Choe says. 

Beyond boosting the members’ self-confidence, Burlesque Underground also promotes body positivity to the larger student body through their performance. Addressing the taboo nature of burlesque dancing, Burlesque Underground President Hannah Magy says the group aims to challenge societal shaming of physical self-expression. 

“Why do it? Because people don’t want us to, because we want to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable… what is largely a result of misogyny and oppression” says Magy. “Burlesque goes against… all of the taboo that surrounds seeing your body.” 

The Dove Report showed 69% of women cited pressures from the media as a driving force behind appearance anxiety. Collinsworth says Burlesque’s body-positive message reflects a larger cultural movement to combat these harmful standards. 

“When you do these kinds of anti-body shaming things, you send a message to other people that it’s okay to be in your body and to be proud of your body… [it’s] a very nice intervention,” she says. 

Burlesque’s diverse body representation also helps those who see Burlesque shows feel more empowered. 

“Even just seeing people who reflect not the ideal body type… doing their own thing and clearly being confident in themselves and everybody else cheering [them] on… that’s rewarding and healing to a lot of people,” Hoffman says.

Choe also emphasizes Burlesque’s aim to promote body satisfaction, saying “regardless of whether or not you fit into traditional standards, there is beauty in the way you carry yourself and the way you support others around you.” 

The atmosphere of Burlesque shows spreads this feeling of support. Audience members often dress in the Burlesque spirit and clap along to the music. The absolute joy and energy of the Burlesque performers becomes infectious. The shared experience lets audiences celebrate with the dancers.

In addition to promoting body acceptance, Burlesque aims to destigmatize sex and empower people to take control of their sexuality. 

Magy highlights the importance of starting this conversation, saying “in the dark, more dangerous things can happen with it. And there shouldn’t be any shame associated [with sex].” 

Members of Burlesque also talk passionately about spreading sex-positivity. 

“It’s something everybody should be aware of. And everybody should know how to do it safely. And I think by bringing attention to it, Burlesque is inspiring that conversation to be had,” says Hoffman.

Dancing in Burlesque empowers members to feel in control of their sexuality. Magy describes how the dance group has aided some members in healing sexual trauma. 

“It’s really empowering because so much of what’s damaging about sexual abuse and sexual trauma is that the power is taken away from you,” says Magy, “So Burlesque is really able to give people the personal agency to use their artistry and their sexuality… [Burlesque] puts their sexuality in their control.” 

Women in particular face a lot of criticism for sexual expression. Providing dancers and audience members with a safe space to express their sexuality is part of Burlesque’s appeal. 

At the same time, the group emphasizes that their performance goes deeper: “It’s not just being sexy. We do care about things beyond that. And that goes to LGBTQ acceptance and more conversational space about… being able to explore identity,” says Choe. 

Burlesque’s latest show, Shagadelic, highlighted the 1970s fight for equality and LGBTQ rights in a protest number that Choe choreographed. Members emphasize the importance of celebrating diversity and providing a space for self-expression. As a nonbinary person, Choe feels Burlesque has given them an outlet to explore their gender identity. 

“I’ve been in and choreographed masc[uline] numbers…so being able to explore my identity through movement and the ways that physicality is portrayed, in terms of masculinity and femininity has been really cool,” they say.

Members of Burlesque love the sense of community support the group provides. “It’s so beautiful,” Magy says, “Burlesque is kind of a paradox, because it’s like the most vulnerable thing you can do, but it’s also the safest environment… as a member I’ve felt really empowered to explore my sexuality and do the more vulnerable part of my art.” 

Magy also believes the group’s open-mindedness has been critical to their accomplishments. 

“It’s because we keep continuing to strive and grow and push boundaries. That is why we’re successful,” she says.

Burlesque Underground promotes body positivity, destigmatizes sexuality, and provides a safe place for identity exploration. But beyond that, Burlesque provides another essential service—fun. When students go see Burlesque, they can expect incredible dancing and a great time. 

“The best thing about Burlesque is its connection to campus and the students… and I really hope we continue to maintain that as we grow,” says Hoffman.

Be sure to check out Burlesque’s upcoming shows on May 6th, 2023 at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m.

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