My Burlesque History

Everyone has the story of what led them to burlesque and right now, it’s my turn to share my burlesque history. Depending on what context in which you know me, it more than likely turned into quite a surprise but not a shock when “out of nowhere,” I was touring full-time as a resident burlesque dancer for a pop erotica variety show.

My Burlesque History - shayaulait.com

The first thing to know is that I’ve always been a dancer. Though not a classically trained ballerina, I have been in dance classes all of my life. Dance as a form of expression and connection has also been a part of my family and communities growing up. Also, I was raised very religiously and yes, I was on the praise dance team. I used to dance specifically for Jesus. Throughout my childhood and well into my life now, I’ve always been known for my intensity and presence when on stage. Burlesque involves dance and movement and I think it matters to know that movement and dance has always been a part of my life, even if it wasn’t formal.

Another note about my childhood specifically is that I was hung up on epic, dramatic stories with my barbies. I didn’t just “play” barbies. I held extravaganzas and travesties that would last days upon days or involve five other girls during my infamous sleepovers. These dramatic episodes would take place all over whatever apartment or house we lived in. Telling stories as dramatically as possible has always intrigued me. Especially when you could dress the doll up, change her hair and change her name or story…depending on the day.

This “ridiculous” way of playing barbie translated into a natural love of theater, which I formally studied in college and immediately began a professional career in as a stage manager spanning over 13 years. While I mostly focus on stage management, I have experience in acting, writing, box office management, and directing too. I LOVED the theater. I still do to this day. I’m naturally an artist, performer, creative and entertainer and I found the entire world of producing theater filled my gigantic mind and dramatic storytelling desires. I had the opportunity to study theater in Berlin, Paris, and London and the entire experience of my life in theater has been completely fulfilling. I’m grateful for always having outlets to express my imagination in any way possible.

During college, it’s also important to note that somehow I was naturally pegged as a flirt. This seems par for the course for someone who is a burlesque performer and instructor, however, I still considered myself deeply religious. Therefore, I saw it as an insult and called home crying. In less than a year, I welcomed the word. There was something natural about my energy and my ways that lent itself to being the biggest flirt on campus. And by flirt, I mean that I oozed in the juices of my own yum. I knew how amazing it felt to be alive reeling in my passions and I let that spill onto anyone within 100 feet of me. I didn’t want anything from anyone. I had nothing to give anyone. I just enjoyed my own presence so much in such a charismatic way, that others were drawn to it and started asking me to teach them how to live embodied as a Flirt.

This meant that I started teaching friends and actresses how to walk and especially how to walk in heels. I would give these quick private lessons and literally the next day, I always received a message or saw it happen live where someone would compliment them on their walk. I would give casual posing lessons. For the everyday person, it meant I was giving body language tools and techniques and for a dancer or actor, I was giving power posing lessons. (If it helps to know, I was also a competitive cheerleader and on the dance “pom pom” teams during college too.)

After college, all I did was club like my life depended on it. (I didn’t during college because it was forbidden and I was underage.) However, after college, I worked in the hospitality industry and therefore, we were encouraged to be active in the “lifestyle.” Basically be enough of a party girl, that you influence others to party at specific places. It wasn’t a formal thing. I was a training manager in the corporate sense. But we got kickbacks and VIP treatment for partying at establishments and sending people to them. (This is long before being a social media lifestyle influencer was a thing.) So from 11pm until 7am on MOST NIGHTS OF THE WEEK, I partied from one club to another just dancing. On a good night, I never had a single drink. But you couldn’t rip me off the dance floor. Whether I danced by myself, with my best friend, with my colleagues or a new fling, there was something about being big and sexy and subtle on the dance floor. Sometimes I’d pick a victim and give him a lap dance that snatched his soul. Then right when he’d probably want to sweep me off my feet and give me an epic kiss….I’d walk away. I wouldn’t give my name, my number…nothing. I danced them into submission and carnal desire…and then I walked away. (I was such a budding burlesque dancer, can’t you tell?)

This love of dancing at the clubs meant that whenever I visited NY, as I hail from the Windy City, I would go clubbing with my friends. I remember one night dressing in my cutest outfit and we were at some hip club but people were too cool to dance. With my love of dance and my Brazilian Bombshell close friend with me, we were not having it. We started dancing up a storm as if it were our last day on earth. When we finally took a break to catch our breath, a man came over introducing himself as the manager of the club. He said that our exuberance in dance brought the energy of the club up. He requested that we continue dancing, even suggesting we dance on the platforms they had that elevated us above the crowd. He moved us to VIP, took care of us the rest of the night and even when a strap on my shirt broke, his waitresses ushered me into the back and someone sewed me up and had me back out within 5 minutes.

That night I decided, “I want to be a go-go dancer.” What did that mean to me? That there would be lounges and clubs that would pay me to dance however I wanted to dance which was a bit dramatic, sexy, bold, flirtatious and very moody but extremely erotic. (Please note that’s not quite the definition of a go-go dancer. That’s just the definition of what I wanted to do.)

So what did I do? I moved to NY and …. worked on Wall Street. Making a shit ton of money that I’ll never see again in quite the same way. And my creative life and my body were so unfulfilled. My bank account and my intellect and health benefits were awesome. But creatively, sensually and emotionally, I felt stifled.

Since I changed jobs and was no longer working in hospitality, it also didn’t work to go clubbing every night and early morning. What I didn’t realize was that clubbing that often and for that long, had organically worked as my form of fitness. I literally twerked on and off for 5+ hours almost every night of the week. Since I knew I wasn’t going to go to the gym, I started taking dance classes as my form of fitness. If I wasn’t dancing at a club, I might as well dance in a fun fitness class.

Thus began an exploration in every movement offering I could find from Afro-Caribbean dance class to Haitian dance class to any kind of Pole Dance class to Core Barre dance fitness class and more. As soon as I started taking dance classes, especially the pole dance ones, I wanted to perform. I needed to be on stage. I wanted to command everyone’s attention. I wanted to control the energy. But in 2010, there were barely any performance opportunities for a “non-professional” sensual and dramatic dancer, that I knew of in the pole community. And I couldn’t figure out how to be a go-go dancer at clubs. And I didn’t know what to google to figure out how to be a stripper. (I hadn’t even considered if I’d lose my Wall Street job if I became a stripper.) All I knew was I wanted to be sensual, sexy, erotic, dramatic and emotional on stage in front of people. And by people, I meant ALL people. As I took more and more pole dance and sensual movement classes, so many spaces were devoted just to women. While I understood it, I wanted to be on stage and in rooms filled with every gender while I danced. As deep as I went into the pole community, four or five years later around 2015, I hit a wall with my desires. Seeing the divide of “sporty pole” versus “sexy pole.” or “women-only” versus “everyone is welcomed” or “exotic striptease” versus “we don’t do heel and stripping isn’t allowed and make sure your entire ass is covered by fabric.” …All of that was just eating away at me.

Its also important to note that somewhere in 2010 or 2011, I took my first “formal” burlesque class. There was a Groupon for it. I don’t remember what teacher or burlesque school offered it. I know it wasn’t Jo Whedon. It was through somebody else and what I now know is they were doing “Cheesecake Burlesque.” I didn’t know it at the time. I just saw a dance class and bought a ticket. And upon seeing the word “burlesque,” I had no idea what to expect. I always knew there were sexy girls who were, “go-go dancers.” And I knew there were ones who were very glitzy. I had seen Moulin Rouge and I considered her a high-class go-go girl. I didn’t realize that could be called “Burlesque.” Or Chicago, the movie or Cabaret, the movie. I thought all those were different types of jazz, modern, hip-hop and any other genre of dance made a bit sexier for pop culture and fell under “go-go dancers.” So taking a “cheesecake burlesque” class, I thought that was all burlesque was. These “wannabe pinup girls” who couldn’t get over the fact that we weren’t stuck in the 1950’s anymore. And their routines were all the same. “Walk, walk, pose, pose, pose. Remove glove. Remove glove. Bump-N-Grind. Now shimmy. And smile.” So I took that one class and never took another. Fuck that seemingly fake shit and dated shit and a nostalgia for a time when more than likely I’d be hung by the noose.

So back to pole. It’s 2015. I’ve now made a name for myself in pole dance. I’m performing all over the place. And I realize a lot of my performances barely involve the pole. I was what was then considered a “Floor Fucker.” Now they call it “Exotic Pole” and “Low Flow.” That’s nice for PR. I prefer “Floor Fucker.” In addition to being a “Floor Fucker,” I was an attention whoere. I saw so many women only wanted to dance in dimly lit rooms and in the corners…during freestyle portions of my sensual movement class. Me, I wanted all eyes on me and if you needed to turn the lights on brighter to see my ass, do so! I wanted a good shot from the photographer. I told you, I was dramatic and I’m a child of the theater.

The more I danced, the more others asked me to teach them my ways again. It reminded me of college when I was asked to teach mostly women, how to flirt in their walks and body language. And so I started hosting, producing and leading retreats and workshops all over the US and there was usually a dance element. I’d lead these sensual erotic movement classes that were co-ed utilizing everything I knew from theater, dance, movement, rituals, woo-woo and always tied it to archetypes, emotions, and values. And if I wasn’t leading a dance class, I was hosting groups at studios I loved that allowed for erotic exploration, welcomed all genders and had a portion where movement happened within community so everyone could bear witness.

And then, I got asked to dance by a producer who said their event didn’t have a pole, even though I was a pole dancer. I told the producer it would be ok because my home pole studio taught us the art of the striptease, as well as pole dance. They taught us how to floorwork, chair dance, give lap dances, strip out of anything, wall dance, use anything as a prop and dance to any song…all the while freestyling in a sensual if not erotic way. So, it didn’t matter that they had a last minute gig and needed a dancer and there was no pole, I could make it work.

I guess I must have did my thing because less than a year later, I was invited to join the production company as a resident burlesque dancer touring full time to 20 to 40 cities every three months with audiences in one night ranging from 100 to 1600 people, dancing at venues like Howard Theater, House of Blues New Orleans and the now-gone Santos Party House.

There was a way that the host always introduced dancers and when it came to me, for the first few months, I told them not to call me a burlesque dancer. I never minded when someone ignorantly called me a stripper. I corrected the mixup but didn’t mind it. I had a special affection for go-go dancers, especially the more dramatic ones like Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge. I was okay with terms like sensual, sexual and erotic. But hold the fucking phone, I was not a damn burlesque dancer. My ONLY understanding of that word was from that one “Cheesecake Burlesque” class I had which was Kitschy meets PinUp meets Way To Cheeky For Me. I was not a fucking BURLESQUE DANCER.

The production company paid me no mind and whatever term I gave them, they read the script appropriately…until one day, I told them they could start calling me a “burlesque dancer.” I’m a curious person. And I’m self-aware to know that often when I reject something with so much emotion and no substance of deep understanding, there is probably something there to explore. That lead to me researching what burlesque was. And that led me to recognize my own ignorance.

Now, …HA, it seems like my entire life has come full circle and the point of it all was for me to be a burlesque dancer. I was quite literally born for BURLESQUE. And I don’t even care about the genre. Now I could authentically and soulfully rock a Nerdlesque number or a Cheesecake number. Education and openness do wonders for liberation and freedom.

So there you have it, my history…or path to Burlesque. Which really was getting over semantics and finally seeing myself for whom I’ve always been.

If you combine Theater with Dance, you get Burlesque. That is so me. That also makes me think…

If you combine Theater with Singing, you get Opera or Pop Stars.

If you combine Theater with Acrobatics, you get Circus or Aerial Arts.

Theater of the Spectacle and Theater & Culture <– two genres of theater that move me, speak to the original Burlesque Travesty and Extravaganza.

Throw in vaudeville, circus, aerial arts, variety shows, and speakeasies and I’m wet with images of Femme Fatales, Flappers, Rebels and the general public’s desire to see and experience everyday gritty art.

I feel like strippers, pole dancers and drag queens really all were inspired and influenced by traditional burlesque.

Literally, as Theater became mainstream years ago, especially as a form of entertainment…especially for the high brow, what came were the rebels… Burlesque.

None of this is here to explain what Burlesque is. Its to give you the path I took to Burlesque. In becoming a Burlesque Teacher, I had to decide what my school of thought was with burlesque as an industry and genre of movement and study. I had to decide what my own personal philosophy was, what my blinders were and more. And in order to do that, you must always be aware of the path that brought you to where you are.

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