Story by Andrea Davis-Gonzalez // Photos by Damon Call
As the sound of techno music pulses, Yaari sways her hips from side to side. She brushes off the strap on her right shoulder, turns, and brushes off the strap on her left shoulder. The audience begins to shout as she exposes more skin. Suddenly, Yaari slips the straps back on, leaving the audience hooked on her every move.
Yaari, the 24-year-old founder of the new Bellingham burlesque troupe Harlequins of Temptation (HOT), proudly remembers her first performance as a burlesque dancer. She says she continues dancing burlesque because it provides an escape from her depression and anxiety. Since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she has been forced to endure a series of psychiatric screenings and hospital stays.
"I needed focus in my life," Yaari says. "Burlesque is my gateway drug to a life less ordinary."
Burlesque is a form of theatrical entertainment that includes comic skits, parody, music, costumes, witty satire and striptease acts. Beginning in Europe during the 19th century, Burlesque originated as an outlet for working-class entertainers to mock high society and politics. In the U.S., burlesque has become commonly associated with striptease and skin is its most powerful element.
"The inside of the thighs, wrists, neckline and bosom are covered in such a way that reveals nothing, but teases the audience in such a way that they want more," Yaari says. "It's about revealing parts of the body that are enticing and suggestive."
Showing skin gives the dancer control over her body and the audience, Yaari says. The less skin the dancer shows, the more the audience is left to imagine, which in turn makes the show more provocative. She says she feels a calming sense of control when participating in burlesque because of her ability to express many of her inner emotions with dance, music and the manipulation of what she decides to show.
"Some people make coffee in the morning. I'd rather take off [some of] my clothes on stage because it gives me energy," Yaari says. "[Burlesque] calms my spirit and helps me with my confidence."
After leaving a mental hospital for the sixth time in 2007, Yaari realized she needed an anchor in her life. She saw a Bellingham Roller Bettie performance in June of that same year, which included burlesque elements, and was inspired to try burlesque herself.
A few years later, Yaari founded HOT in January 2009. The troupe's motto is "We like to tease, we want to please and we love to keep you begging for more." She says the group's name is fitting because harlequins are jesters who provide entertainment and comedy.
"Burlesque feeds me the healing power of laughter," Yaari says.
Yaari credits burlesque as her savior, but for Western junior Julia McLean, 23, burlesque offers a new sense of confidence.
"There's never been any other part of my life where I've felt I could be comfortable in my body," McLean says. "I appreciate the bodies of the women close to me, even though none of our bodies are perfect by any means."
McLean was in a one-time burlesque performance with eight of her female friends at Rumors Cabaret Nightclub in April 2006.
Weeks prior to the Rumors performance, the women practice in McLean's apartment. Amongst the practicing performers in the living room, music lyrics lie scattered around and stacked near the edges of the couches. Half-empty glasses of wine sit on the television. In the center of the room, eight women swivel their hips, shimmy their shoulders and shake their behinds to songs such as "Dance while the Sky Crashes Down" by Jason Webley and "Big Spender" by Peggy Lee.
"I was working nights at the time, so I'd come home most nights to tipsy ladies singing country songs, making props and costumes, working on dances and generally making mayhem," McLean says. "I'd kick off my shoes, get a glass of wine and sing with them or sometimes I'd sit on the couch and watch."
On the night of the Rumors performance, Western alumna Kendra Peterson dances in three-inch pink heels and thigh-high, striped nylons held by garter belts. Her fire-engine red lips are moving to the music of the live band. Her sea-blue eye shadow and false eyelashes gleam beneath the spotlight.
In a following act, two audience members hold up a rod draped with purple curtains. A woman stands in front of the curtain facing the audience in a black fedora hat that rests on her blonde, Marilyn Monroe wig. She is wearing black heels and a black skirt that reaches the middle of her thighs. A set of hands appear from two slits in the curtain and slowly undress her. The hands untie the lace of her black corset and slide off her elbow-length black gloves.
Before the performance, McLean says she did not have the confidence to show off her body in public because she thought she was overweight. She says she was worried at first that the audience would be turned off by her appearance. In reality, the audience enjoyed her dancing. Being part of a sexy performance reduced her feelings of self-consciousness, she says. Because of burlesque, McLean says she feels more comfortable in her own skin.
Peterson says social norms limit how much skin is appropriate to show, and burlesque challenges these boundaries.
"Sexuality, especially for women, is pretty restricted by social norms," Peterson says. "To discover a more assertive or even edgy side to your sexuality is frightening, especially knowing that it is not necessarily condoned in your community. Burlesque dancing provides a safe, creative venue to express your sexuality."
McLean agrees that burlesque allows her and her friends to confront social norms about what an ideal woman should look like. She says burlesque tests women's limits.
Peterson says she felt nervous the day before the Rumors performance. But as show time approached and the performance started, her anxiety disappeared and she was ready to show some skin, she says.
Yaari says feeling nervous at some point before a performance is natural. She says the art of leaving the audience wanting more makes her feel like she has accomplished her duty as a performer.
"I push the boundaries of an audience," Yaari says. "My goal when I'm performing is to knock everyone's socks off."
In anticipation, the audience watching Yaari's first burlesque performance once again sees her slip the straps off both her shoulders. Next, she pulls one arm out from the right strap and the other out from the left strap. Grabbing the top of her dress, she shimmies the garment down to her hips. Suddenly, the music ends and Yaari pulls her dress back up to her shoulders before walking offstage. The audience breaks into applause, and the room gets louder as they request a second and third performance.
When the performance is over, Yaari says she knows burlesque is something she wants to pursue for as long as she can entertain an audience. Since burlesque accepts all body types and does not have any requirements, Yaari can continue dancing for many years to come.