What Does It Mean to Be Queer-Friendly?

What Does it Mean to Be Queer-Friendly - shayaulait.com

I found myself disappointed the other day when I googled, “What does it mean to be queer-friendly?” The search results only yielded articles, think pieces and click bait that attempted to define the word “Queer.” But, googling “what does it mean to be queer-friendly?” got me pretty much nowhere. I was looking for a checklist that gave me all the easy answers to life. But its just not that easy.

What Does It Mean To Be Queer-Friendly? - www.ShayAuLait.com
Photography Credit: Dennis Manuel

I googled that phrase because I had recently received a message with a simple question that threw me down a rabbit’s hole for a few days.

“Can you recommend a pole dance studio in NYC that is queer friendly?”

That’s such a simple ask. An associate said she had a friend who pole danced but was new to the NYC scene and they wanted my recommendation on studios that were queer-friendly. That was new to me. I’m often asked for pole dance studio recommendations but its usually with other prerequisites. I wasn’t sure how to qualify a studio as being “queer-friendly.”

My initial response was, “From what I’ve experienced, every pole studio is queer-friendly. To narrow your choices, you’d need to decide what more you’re looking for as they all are different. I recommend taking an intro class at S Factor, Body&Pole and Incredipole. Based on your experience decide which one suits your preference. I’ve always taken classes at every studio. Right now my favorite is Incredipole in Brooklyn. Honestly, I’m not sure what qualifies as “queer-friendly” for you, so it would be hard to make recommendations without knowing more of what you’re looking for in a queer-friendly studio. I’m bisexual and identify as queer and every studio I’ve taken classes at have felt queer-friendly to me. But what that means for me may be different for you.”

There’s so much ignorance in my response but we will get to that later. What I will give myself credit for is recognizing my own ignorance. As my response to her felt a bit off, I turned to a few friends and google.

“What does it mean to be queer-friendly?”

I asked myself that question so many times, that I began to think the question itself was ignorant and borderline offensive. Imagine googling, “What does it mean to be black-friendly?” or “What does it mean to be woman-friendly?” Does one have to actually ask that question? Rephrasing it shifted my views and definitely the search results. Ultimately what I was after was guidance on how movement and fitness spaces could intentionally be inclusive, specifically for those who identify as queer. So after changing my search terms, I happened upon, “Queer 101: Identity, Inclusion and Resources.

In the article, the first thing they do is define the term “queer.” I appreciated the numerous ways they broke the word down. I identify as queer but I haven’t been able to articulate why and I always felt I wasn’t “queer enough” for the community, but still I identified as queer. To be honest, I’d always just say I was, “other.” One of their definitions that helped me articulate myself was the following:

Queer (adj.): not fitting cultural norms around sexuality and/or gender identity/expression.Queer can be a label claimed by a person who feels that they personally don’t fit into dominant norms, due to their own gender identity/expression, their sexual practices, their relationship style, etc.

– Unitarian Universalists Association

That specific definition fits my queer-ness. I identify as a woman. I’m also bi-sexual. I’m also poly by blood but am in a monogamous, hetero-normative relationship. I’m also deep in kink and have some quirky to outrageous fetishes. Gas masks, anyone? Latex rubber dolls? No? Add into that that I’m black. I’m a pole dancer and burlesque dancer. My entire life is TABOO. And yet what feels the most taboo is that I’m in a monogamous relationship with a somewhat conservative man, who goes by Savage. So yeah, those things and more have always made me feel queer.

The next thing the article addressed was “10 Ways to Be More Welcoming and Inclusive of Queer People.” I think that’s the closest I was going to get to a google search of “What Does Queer-Friendly Mean?” I encourage you to read the article.

The next thing I did was a google search for “queer friendly dance studios” and “queer-friendly fitness studios.” I happened upon, “Queer-Friendly Gyms Grow in the East Bay.”

“You’re not going to go to the gym if you don’t feel comfortable, safe, included, or welcome,” said Huerta. “Going to the gym alone for any person can be a challenge, and then when you layer that with not feeling safe in the locker room, or being gendered at the front desk, that’s a lot of barriers.”

East Bay Express

While everything in the article didn’t resonate with me, some things stood out like that quote. When you go to your dance or fitness class, aside from your own issues that are yours alone to deal with….do you feel comfortable, safe, included and welcomed? Other things that stood out were:

  • Queer Gym, the main studio profiled in the article develops workout routines that help trans individuals prepare and recover from gender reassignment surgery. I never thought about this before. I’m always conscious of a pole or burlesque studio teaching in a way that includes the “male” body, as so much is taught to the “female” body. But what about trans individuals or anyone non-binary? This makes me check myself for biases in my dance curriculum. I account for men. But honestly, I’ve only been taking into consideration women and men. Even my partner, after taking an Intro to Pole class, emphasized the need to not teach towards “men” and “women” specifically but to almost teach in an androgynous way. I think the lesson is to teach in a way that accounts for the fact that we all have different bodies.
  • Every session at Queer Gym begins with members introducing themselves by name and pronoun. I learned from Bernadette Pleasant’s experience at Touch&Play, as well as some speciality training that she took, as well as in completing her Femme! Teacher Training program that I had to take this into account immediately. I begin every burlesque dance class sitting in a circle with my students. In my printed lesson plan for the day, I also have a checklist form with columns like, “Name,” “Pronoun,” “Burlesque Experience” and “Notes.” And then I go around asking each student what their name is and their pronoun. Every single class. Every time. I fill in my worksheet and keep it in my SpeakEasy Burlesque bible. Asking about pronouns is an intentional step towards ensuring I use inclusive language when giving instruction.
  • It appears that its mandatory for staff to undergo Queer 101 training. I think this should be required. Any type of sensitivity or inclusive training would be very helpful to staff, teachers and even students! I think that there are people who are qualified, who should go around the pole and burlesque and other boutique fitness or dance studios offering workshop trainings. If you’re going to have these kinds of trainings, it should come from people within the community who have created safe spaces that center on that particular topic. You can also contact any organization specific to the sensitivity training you’re doing to inquire about their offerings. Doing this internally, in the way I see companies handle it, is honestly a load of shit and just another way to protect biases.

There are certain people who come to mind too, who have a body of work or resources on sensitivity training

  • Roz “The Diva” Mays – She offers a workshop titled, “Coaching Plus Size Athletes.”
  • Rashida Khanbey-Miller – She has an article titled, “5 Tips to End Sexual Shaming in Your Sensual Dance Classes and Studios.” Its basically Queer 101 and can easily be turned into a workshop
  • Bernadette Pleasant – She teaches a workshop titled, “Emotion in Motion” which explores emotional expression, emotional intelligence and emotional healing. Many dance teachers love evoking emotions, especially heavy ones in their movement classes, especially the freestyle ones but they don’t always know how to handle “Emotional After Care” which what they’ve unleashed in their students.
  • Dalijah Franklin – As she is the Creator of Black Girls Pole, I’m pretty sure she could be tapped to lead a training or seminar on inclusivity as it pertains to race specifically.

Just imagine as a studio owner having a weekend of workshops that your staff and teachers take that will help them to be inclusive on all types of subject matter from race to gender to sexual orientation, body types and more! Or maybe that needs to be a conference or a summit. And students should come too.

So lets go back to my shit storm of a response to her that I regret initially sending. After stating that every studio was queer-friendly, I began qualifying things for myself.

Queer-Friendly LANGUAGE

There’s one particular studio that comes to mind that is specifically geared towards mostly heterosexual cis-gendered women. The language they use and how they teach is meant for that kind of women. So while I love them and highly recommend them for other reasons, I can’t say they are queer-friendly. If my pronoun were they or I was trans or asexual, I more than likely would not feel comfortable, safe, included or welcomed.


Now personally, the only representation that I need in a studio are teachers who vibe in the same energy of eroticism as me. I need a place where people hold requim for pleasure, sensuality and a self-proclaimed “floor fucker.” Studios that are focused on technique, training and raise a nose to exotic or erotic movement…they don’t work for me.

If I translate that though, that means is their representation for a queer person in a studio? People think of racial diversity, right. Are there other black students or black teachers like me, a newbie might wonder. Well, I’m sure there are queer students who ask the same thing for many reasons. So I thought back to all the studios and there were some that I could say are “queer-friendly” based on representation alone. There’s so many categories to think about with representation from race to body type to gender and more. There’s one NYC studio where there is representation in the teachers and students. Another studio moreso, has representation in its student-body make up, but not really with its instructors. And the same studio that isn’t queer-friendly with their language…also isn’t queer-friendly with representation.

Queer-Friendly Inclusive Specific Programming

Honestly, I haven’t seen this at any studio. I haven’t seen queer-friendly programming and seldom do I see inclusive programming of all the sensitivities. This could range from having programming like Queer Gym that has a special offering for those who are pre/post op. But it could also focus on other things too. When I asked around about what it meant to be “Queer-friendly,” one response was….

I think I was a bit spoiled by my classes back in Oakland, which were taught by a queer black woman and were designated for queer and trans people of color only. It was a really special space and my introduction to pole. I have heard of another QTPOC pole class here in New York, but it is only offered once a month and is held up in the Bronx, over two hours from where I live.

– P

For this person, queer-friendly means sometimes having classes that are specifically for QTPOC. I get it. This is probably why organizations and communities popped up like…

  • Black Girls Pole – “Black Girls Pole is an organization striving to diversify the pole community by inspiring, empowering, and educating women of color about pole dancing. BGP is a movement to  both celebrate and introduce new faces to the transformative power of pole. BGP aims to provide a platform for women of color to embrace their bodies, challenge their body, mind and spirit and express their own unique individuality.”
  • Queer Pole NYC – “An inclusive space to connect with other Queer Polers, share our struggles and successes, and discuss how to make the pole world a more inclusive place for people like us. “
  • Queer Pole London – “Pole dancing lessons for people who identify as LGBTQ+. Queer Pole is founded on the principle that pole should be accessible; as such Queer Pole aims to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ people which is financially viable for everyone. The lessons aim to be explicitly inclusive of QTIPOC, trans & non-binary people, and queer sex workers. In order to be as inclusive as possible the lessons run on a tiered payment system with no-one turned away for lack of funds.” They have a bullet point list of how they are being “queer-friendly.” Check it out actually. The intention to use “ungendered marketing” caught my eye.
  • 100% Queer NYC “A NYC based all genders queer pole & sensual arts squad. We curate our own events, add flavor to yours, and collaborate with other pole, aerial, and sensual arts communities.”

Queer-Friendly and Inclusive Marketing

There are many studios who tout themselves as being inclusive and saying everyone is welcomed and yet their marketing speaks to cis-gendered women who like pink. The way you market your brand, business or boutique attracts a specific type of clientele to you and repeals the people who are not for you. However, you can’t say all are welcomed and yet your messaging doesn’t reflect that! That could be in the words, the images and more. For instance, is it possible to have a pole dance studio who’s logo is not a woman on a pole? There are so many design options out there. What is we took both those elements out? As a queer person, if I were to look at your last event flyer, your website or your last instagram post, would I feel comfortable, safe, included and welcomed?

Those are some of the main things that came to mind besides what’s shared in the articles I’ve linked to. I’m sure there’s more but as its clear, I’m working through my own ignorance and I’m queer myself.

I asked others what “Queer-Friendly” meant and here’s an explanation that came via Instagram.

“I feel any form of expressive dance is queer friendly. It’s implied in the  format of the class. Its creating an expressive, emotional, open, loving, and supportive environment. I feel these expressive dance classes help me grow mentally and physically. These classes, in my opinion, have taught me self love, and a willingness to be more open and positive. I’ve also learned how to become more supportive of one another no matter what the situation. The better you feel about yourself the more positivity you can put out into the universe. I feel it’s all semantics, if your intent is to create an open, expressive, safe, loving, tolerant, supportive, and comfortable environment, and I felt you accomplished that, then mission accomplished.”

– C

This works, only if a studio is ensuring that every aspect of their business is inclusive and safe and expressive and open and such. Some places say that are “open” and “all are welcomed” but the language they use or how they act implies something else. Their biases could be subconscious or just plain ignorance. Or it could be the truth of how a person feels.

Imagine going to a studio and the staff, teachers and/or students are giving off the vibe that they are uncomfortable with your presence. So in general, if you’re an “open and safe” studio, that’s awesome. However, there is usually more work to be done.

My mind is still racing as I still feel that I need to explore this topic some more. I want to create a list of bullet points of what it means to be “queer-friendly” or actually “inclusive” taking into account race and other things as well and then I want to honestly evaluate pole studios, burlesque academies and pole and burlesque shows, productions and events. On the surface, it seems like we are doing awesome. But that’s not true.

This topic also made me think of my three sisters, as all four of us identify as bi-sexual. Our ages vary and its not like we have all been on a four-way call discussing our sexual orientation. (Though now that sounds like a fun sister chat to have.) I learned my 24 year old student was Bi many years ago when she was still in highschool. She called to tell me. But I had an idea it was coming after seeing that she binge watched, “The L Word” on my Netflix account in one night. Something told me I’d get a call from her soon. I learned my soon to be 20 year old sister was Bi via Instagram while she answered questions via her Stories and was asked specifically about her attraction to women. I learned my 14 year old sister was Bi over the past two years via her instagram too. And yet if you knew all of us, what it means to be Bi or Queer or even a woman of color is vastly different.

I wonder what our four separate responses would be if we all took a pole class together. I’m pretty sure results would vary. There’d be one sister saying how open and inclusive it was with yet another not really feeling it. So in some ways, its also subjective.

Thankfully, there are organizations like the ones I listed above that are more educated and they can speak on this matter. While some of this is subjective, some things are universal and a lot of studios could stand to do even more to be a truly inclusive and safe space for everyone…or for select groups.

In either case, these were just my initial thoughts as I tried to dish out a recommendation for a queer-friendly pole studio in NYC. Right now, place your bets on Incredipole. I’m sure this is just part one of a series of exploring Inclusivity, so just stayed tuned for more. I plan on interviewing a few peeps about this, talking with my sisters and creating this evaluation form too.

The Genderbread Person - www.ShayAuLait.com

Also check out these other amazing resources I found while digging around that cover different inclusivity topics:

  • Gender and Circus Coaching – “A guide to the sometimes complex world of gender, in the context of teaching and mentoring youth in circus arts.” But this can be applied to all forms of art, entertainment, fitness and dance.
  • The Genderbread Person – “A teaching tool for breaking the big concept of gender down into bite-sized, digestible pieces.” This is my favorite thing ever.
  • Genderbread Person, LGBTQ Umbrella and a Lesson Plan – “Using the Genderbread Person as a guide, the activity leads participants to understand the important difference between gender, sex, and sexual orientation. “
  • The Black List by Black Girls Pole – “A list of black-owned Pole and Aerial studios in the United States and abroad so you can support small business owners in the black community!”
  • Black Burlesque Directory – “Created out of a desire to fill more dressing rooms and burlesque productions with black performers, this directory is meant to be used as a tool for both producers and performers.  it is my hope that this directory encourages the hiring of black performers across the globe.  so that on any given day a black audience member can enjoy a show having seen a reflection of their experience and beauty.”
  • The Asexual Visibility and Education Network – “AVEN hosts the world’s largest online asexual community as well as a large archive of resources on asexuality. AVEN strives to create open, honest discussion about asexuality among sexual and asexual people alike.”
  • LBGTQ Resource List via GlaadSelf explanatory resource list via Glaad.
  • Bisexual Resource Center – “BRC is committed to providing support to the bisexual community and raising public awareness about bisexuality and bisexual people.” God, I need to educate myself further on my own sexual orientation. I didn’t know this organization existed.
  • 10 Tips for Bi-Inclusivity – “Ten Tips on How to be Bi-inclusive in Your Programs & Services For LGBTQ Elders” – This can be applied to all forms of inclusivity.
  • Me and White Supremacy Workbook – “Part education, part activation, the Me And White Supremacy Workbook is a first-of-its-kind personal anti-racism tool for people holding white privilege to begin to examine and dismantle their complicity in the oppressive system of white supremacy.”
  • A Guide to Gender: – The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook – “When it comes to understanding gender, it’s best to begin with deep breath, then with section one of this book by social justice advocate Sam Killermann, who uses clear language, helpful examples, and a bit of humor to help the medicine go down. It is a couple hundred pages of gender exploration, social justice how-tos, practical resources, and fun graphics & comics.”
  • Sexualitree -“A comprehensive model to help us see how we experience sexuality in different ways.”
  • The Safe Zone Project – “The Safe Zone Project is a free online resource for powerful, effective LGBTQ awareness and ally training workshops.”
  • Taking Up Space Versus Adding to Space – “Questions to Consider. Unpacking the phrase “you’re taking up space,” and talking about showing up in a social justice framework.”
  • Facilitating XYZ – “A free online resource for all facilitators”

What does it mean to be a Queer-friendly dance or fitness studio to you? And what places would you recommend for pole, burlesque, sensual movement and/or boutique fitness?

Dramatic Aerial Halloween Photography

The first time I attended a Halloween party was back in 2001. I was raised in a religious cult, so ….we definitely didn’t fuck with Halloween. But my freshman year of college, the theater company I was a member of, threw a party and I went as the black Avril Lavigne. There’s a picture floating around somewhere. Really, I just looked like a punk rocker.

That was the last time I attended a Halloween party. I have no clue what I’ve done since 2001 but I definitely have never been to another Halloween party. This year, that changed. I headed out to The Fit Factory in West Babylon and went as a deconstructed Unicorn. My horn was silver and glittery. My tail was purple and feathery. There was glitter and layers and fishnets and turquoise leg warmers and a makeshift sequin necklace and a pink fringe belt that disappeared…maybe when I was flinging my shit around during an impromptu freestyle. (And because I’m a fucking dramatic burlesque dancer…I spent the most time….1.5 hours on my makeup…just to hide my face behind a camera for majority of the party. Because why the fuck not. There were purple glitter lips. Yes all unicorns have glitter lips.

The only lightroom effect in place was making some of the images sepia tone because the lighting was so dramatic…that I needed to tone the images down. Enjoy the images below.

12 Wonderful Burlesque Archetypes You Need to Know

An archetype is a symbolic motif used as a form of identification and understanding.  For example, what’s your sign? Whether someone says Taurus, Gemini or Scorpio, you already have some ideas in your head about their personality. Each of the 12 astrological zodiac signs have generic and stereotypical explanations of their meaning. There are also deeper and more robust understandings found in them too. At the end of the day, your sign  and any archetype can mean everything to you or absolutely nothing at all.

Within the world of SpeakEasy Noir Burlesque, we use archetypes to explore extreme emotions, nuances, and movement. That’s because we define Burlesque as “extreme parody, emotional storytelling and extravagant striptease.” By associating with an archetype, you can find additional motivation and inspiration and you explore the depths of that “character.”

If you’re shy and an introvert, it’s okay. Perhaps for a performance or a class though, you will be “The Showgirl.” You can just “not be you” …the parts of you that are shy for a short period of time and then you can give yourself permission to play a part. The part of “The Showgirl” in all of her glory. If you’re a Vixen and outgoing, it might be interesting to explore, “The Librarian” or” The Housewife” or “The Ingenue” or whatever the case may be. Archetypes give us generic characters to play with, that we can build complexities upon in our movement and performances.

speakeasy noir burlesque archetypes - www.shayaulait.com

Within SpeakEasy Noir Burlesque, we have curated 12 archetypes that we find specific to the industry and culture of Burlesque. There are hundreds of archetypes but for the purpose of teaching, we selected 12 main ones that have become signature Burlesque Archetypes. We’ve also included additional names for the archetypes. You might, sort of like “The Showgirl” but the synonyms of “The Entertainer” or “The Mean Girl” is really what turns you on. The alternative names also allow for gender neutral, gender fluid and male gender options.

While we give specific archetypal assignments in our weekly SpeakEasy Noir Burlesque classes and privates, you can also choose to take on the persona of anyone for an entire class, just for fun. It deepens your experience of the magic we create in SpeakEasy Noir Burlesque. We’ve also created Pinterest Boards for each of the archetypes filled with modern day people or their fictional characters that fit the role of certain archetypes. Of course, there are overlaps. Of course, we love them all. This is just another tool for play or can be used as part of your wellness and spiritual erotic movement rituals.  

"The Showgirl Burlesque Archetype" - www.shayaulait.com
“The Diva Burlesque Archetype” – www.shayaulait.com
“The Star Burlesque Archetype” – www.shayaulait.com
"The Bombshell Burlesque Archetype" - www.shayaulait.com
"The Vixen Burlesque Archetype" - www.shayaulait.com
"The Femme Fatale Burlesque Archetype" - www.shayaulait.com
“The Harlequin Burlesque Archetype” – www.shayaulait.com
"The Flapper Burlesque Archetype" - www.shayaulait.com
"The Free Spirit Burlesque Archetype" - www.shayaulait.com
“The Sorcerer Burlesque Archetype” – www.shayaulait.com
“The Ingenue Burlesque Archetype” – www.shayaulait.com
"The Savage Burlesque Archetype" - www.shayaulait.com

Anytime you’re in a SpeakEasy Noir Burlesque class and you need a little inspiration or you want to take on an entirely new persona all together, reference one of our Burlesque Archetypes. Detailed information of each archetype is made available to any SpeakEasy Noir Burlesque students and can be accessed in The SpeakEasy. All you have to do is present your Cabaret Card.

Which Burlesque Archetypes appeals to you most and why?

Why do people take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes?

why take burlesque striptease dance class - shayaualait.com

Have you ever wondered, why do people take burlesque striptease dance classes? Considering my history with burlesque, that question did cross my mind when I bought a groupon for 3 burlesque classes. Whether you are considering taking a class yourself, are looking for a gift for someone else or just happened to be deep in some rabbit’s hole on google, here are a few reasons why people do take burlesque striptease dance classes.

why take burlesque dance class - shayaualait.com

Performers take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes

As burlesque is a fine art form of entertainment, there is a demand for burlesque performers of all ages, sizes, races and backgrounds. Also, as there is no formal recognized school of burlesque, such as there are schools of theater, and as there is no industry wide accepted burlesque certification, many burlesque performers and artists take burlesque striptease dance classes from a wide variety of teachers at different studios, schools and more, to continue to train and improve as performers.

Fitness Enthusiasts take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes

There are some people, like me, who like their fitness to have a bit of sass or adventure. So rather than going to the gym, I’d rather train for 2 Tough Mudders a year, take three different types of dance classes and 1 aerial class a week as my form of fitness. You know…. people who do yoga or pilates or spin or rock climbing, or Salsa Thursday or who are open to whatever the latest fitness craze is or upcoming trend will be…those people will take burlesque as a their form of fitness class because its fun, different and offered at their local studio.

Hobbyists take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes

There are people who love burlesque as an industry. They like performing…but in student showcases or locally in their town. They don’t want to be a professional. They like their day job as an accountant or lawyer or marketing executive. They just like also having an interesting hobby. It makes their work-life balance all the more great. It adds a big of passion and play to their life. Its their little secret sometimes. It’s their pretend fall back plan or that interesting tidbit they have to share at a networking event. “Yeah, in my spare time I train as a burlesque dancer.” Those people take burlesque striptease dance class because its a fun hobby that keeps them active and engaged.

Lovers take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes

Lovers take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes too. They do it to spice up things. They do it as an fun gift for Valentine’s Day or Father’s Day or a Birthday. They do it because their anniversary is coming up and a private dance might be something their partner might like. So if they learn a routine, they can show it off later. Doing this makes them feel good and their partner is going to love it too.

Self-Carers take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes

Some people take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes because its part of their mind-body wellness practice. You know, their self-care ritual. For a designated time in a designated safe space, they have the freedom to explore any kind of expression, emotion, movement, or story, even if it manifest in sexual or erotic ways…or even if it doesn’t. Because Burlesque holds space for all of that. Having a sacred time set aside for self expression, allows for greater confidence and personal power. Wanna learn more about this reason? Check out, “Burlesque As a Mind Body Wellness Practice.”

Artists take Burlesque Striptease Dance Classes

Just as an artist would take a clown class, theater class, aerial yoga class, contact improv class and yoga class, it would only be natural to take a few burlesque striptease dance classes. Burlesque explores dance, acting, miming, comedy and striptease within one performance. Having a range of artistic training by exploring burlesque adds so much value to your personal development. Its important to indulge in the extravagant, dramatic and emotional range of your storytelling, striptease and subtext. Burlesque is a fine-art form. It demands nothing less.

Why do you take burlesque striptease dance classes? Or why are you going to take burlesque striptease dance classes? What are you hoping to experience?

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.

What Is Burlesque?

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What is Burlesque? That is the question. In one succinct blog post using my experience, research and tons of links, I’m going to try to answer that question as simple as possible for those looking for a quick answer, and as thoughtfully as possible, for those seeking a more in-depth answer.

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Asking “what is burlesque?” is just like asking “what is theater?” Burlesque is a genre of art and entertainment. I want to explore the concept of theater first, so you can truly understand the scope of burlesque beyond “a woman doing a striptease.” According to Wikipedia,Theater is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place, often a stage.” Fine art, according to Wikipedia, “is art developed primarily for aesthetics or beauty, distinguishing it from applied art, which also has to serve some practical function, such as pottery or most metal work.”

That means to say that theater exists for beauty and pleasure. While it can have social context and change the world, its a fine art in that it acknowledges some things exist for the joy of its beauty and the sensation of its pleasure.

Let’s look at more of the definition of theater. The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music, and dance. Elements of art, such as painted scenery and stagecraft such as lighting are used to enhance the physicality, presence and immediacy of the experience. The specific place of the performance is also named by the word “theatre.”

So that’s “theater,” whether it be Broadway, Shakespeare or puppet theater.

So what is burlesque? We can explore Wikipedia some more! Burlesqueis a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects.” Burlesque is a parody of theater. At least its origins. We haven’t gotten into what is Neo-Burlesque as a dance genre. I’m simply exploring the original definition of this art form. And by definition, its burlesque is a parody of theater, or just a parody of serious art and culture.

Here’s more from wikipedia. “The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery” Burlesque overlaps in meaning with caricature, parody and travesty, and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza, as presented during the Victorian era. A later use of the term, particularly in the United States, refers to performances in a variety show format. These were popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, often in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and featured bawdy comedy and female striptease.”

That’s burlesque by its most basic and history definition.

  • A grotesque imitation of the dignified or pathetic or serious and comic elements were juxtaposed or combined to achieve a grotesque effect.
  • “Victorian burlesque, sometimes known as “travesty” or “extravaganza“,[22] was popular in London theatres between the 1830s and the 1890s. It took the form of musical theatre parody in which a well-known opera, play or ballet was adapted into a broad comic play, usually a musical play, often risqué in style, mocking the theatrical and musical conventions and styles of the original work. The comedy often stemmed from the incongruity and absurdity of the classical subjects, with realistic historical dress and settings, being juxtaposed with the modern activities portrayed by the actors.” This is why you see the costume silhouettes within burlesque, they were traditional to their specific era in time. They wore the dress of who they were mocking.
  • “American burlesque shows were originally an offshoot of Victorian burlesque. The English genre had been successfully staged in New York from the 1840s, and it was popularised by a visiting British burlesque troupe, Lydia Thompson and the “British Blondes”, beginning in 1868. New York burlesque shows soon incorporated elements and the structure of the popular minstrel shows. They consisted of three parts: first, songs and ribald comic sketches by low comedians; second, assorted olios and male acts, such as acrobats, magicians and solo singers; and third, chorus numbers and sometimes a burlesque in the English style on politics or a current play. The entertainment was usually concluded by an exotic dancer or a wrestling or boxing match. By the 1880s, the four distinguishing characteristics of American burlesque had evolved: 1. Minimal costuming, often focusing on the female form. 2. Sexually suggestive dialogue, dance, plotlines and staging. 3. Quick-witted humor laced with puns, but lacking complexity. 4. Short routines or sketches with minimal plot cohesion across a show.”

You can really get a quick trip down the rabbits hole by exploring Burlesque, Neo-Burlesque, Victorian Burlesque, Striptease, Minstrel Shows, and Can-Can on Wikipedia. If you want to explore the websites that share the history and culture of Burlesque, click here. I curated a list for you. All That Glitters Dance and Academy has a post titled, “Burlesque History” that I found helpful.

Knowing its historical definition and bringing it into modern day context, Burlesque is extreme parody, emotional storytelling and extravagant striptease. Its theatrical (dramatic), political and entertaining. Its naughty and taboo. Its fun and humorous too. Also within Burlesque, there are genres from Classic Burlesque to Nerdlesque to Cheesecake or Neo-Burlesque.

As Burlesque is a form of entertainment, just like Theater, that means people (the audience) go to see it. Thus “Burlesque Shows.” People go to see Burlesque Shows. In the US, as far as I know, Burlesque Shows have manifested in a few ways…

  • Variety Show – a curated night of entertainment featuring all sorts of art forms including poets, singers, comedians, musicians, aerial artists, burlesque dancers and a host.
  • Curated Burlesque Show – a curated night of entertainment featuring individual burlesque dancers/acts and a host.
  • Theatrical Burlesque Show – a theatrically produced night of entertainment featuring burlesque dancers such as House of Perle.

You can experience a burlesque show in a theater, entertainment venue or at a supper club like Duane Park or at an immersive event created by Production companies like Sublime Boudoir. Burlesque may come in the form of Shanghai Mermaid, The Fly Honeys or The Box.

In order for people to experience Burlesque Shows in any genre, covering any theme, that means there need to be Burlesque Performers. Thus the need for Burlesque Dancers, Burlesque Schools, Burlesque Classes and Burlesque Dance Troupes. As the genre gained popularity, those classes were also being taken by the general public as a form of fitness, nostalgia or new fun hobby. And as the industry continued to grow, Burlesque has its own conferences, competitions and more.