Turning the corner of the fourth floor of Western Washington University’s Viking Union on the night of Jan. 12, cheering, words of encouragement and music fill the hall outside room 464. Here, the burlesque club is learning the choreography for “Partition” by Beyonce.
The routine is full of body rolls, poses and hair flips, while smiles adorn the faces of dancers. The erotic choreography performed by the burlesque club allows members to express sexuality in a healthy, comfortable environment.
“There is a whole taboo around anything sex work, anything to do with your sexuality and sensuality,” said Kristin Rawle, communications officer of the Western burlesque club. “Specifically for burlesque, a lot of people will think, ‘Oh, it's just stripping’ or ‘Oh, you're just strippers.’ But that's not the case. There's a huge artistry behind it.”
Presiding as an officer in the burlesque club, Rawle has found a new confidence in leading and in her ability to accept new challenges and experiences.
“It helps me just kind of understand and practice my choreography skills, my teaching skills. It helps my interpersonal connections and talking skills … It can help with memory retention, so it's not just like a fun little thing,” said Rawle.
The healthy expression of sexuality is vital to leading healthy conversations on the topic. Burlesque has a culture and history of artistic and comedic relief intertwined with the sexual.
Despite burlesque being a historically feminine and female-led art form, the burlesque club creates a safe space for people to explore both femininity and masculinity. The Western club wanted to stay true to this history while also creating a progressive and inclusive space.
Sexuality is complicated for many people, both individually and with others. Jenn Mason, the owner of local sex shop WinkWink, offers classes to help individuals take charge of their sexuality. She recommends asking yourself two questions when starting the journey of discovering your sexuality.
“What have I learned about sex? What do I want to keep and what do I want to release?” Mason said.
Mason also teaches a sex education course at WinkWink. The goal of this course, Uncringe Academy, is to teach a foundation of sex education at a young age and to help individuals embrace their sexuality. Topics covered include relationships, sex, gender and consent.
Mason believes negative reactions to her course may be a result of people’s discomfort when speaking about pleasure within sex education programs. Oftentimes, people find the topic of sexual expression taboo. The topic requires vulnerability, which is difficult for many.
“I know that for a lot of people, conversations and their relationships can feel like the most vulnerable place, and so for folks that are really nervous, I really encourage those conversations to start in professional settings,” said Mason when asked how to gain confidence in discussions of sexuality.
Speaking with your doctor or employees that work at sex shops like WinkWink are good starting steps. Whether learning more about bodily anatomy, STIs, or even pleasure, there are many resources available.
However, Uncringe Academy was not accepted as a positive resource for the community. Over the summer, Mason faced backlash for the course. Bricks were thrown through the storefront’s windows and emails expressing differences in belief and criticisms were sent.
Mason believes sex education for younger ages including the topic of pleasure is behind these passionate reactions of discomfort. As shown in various media and as proved by the reactions WinkWink has received, conflict is likely to arise as a result.
“To me, those reactions are just an indicator of how [many] more conversations we need to be having about sex, not less,” Mason said.
Diversity and openness are also important to Western’s burlesque club. Anyone with any background is welcome to come and express their sensuality.
“When we formed the club, we made sure that we had a very solid position statement of making sure that everyone was comfortable in their own skin and building something that they could feel comfortable and confident in,” said Rawle.
Cybele Olsen's journey in the burlesque scene began with an internship at 17. The designer created costumes for strippers, burlesque performers and others.
At 21, Olsen knew they wanted to pursue performing a form of dance again. Burlesque was their way of entering the scene with fewer restrictions, assumptions and constraints of other dance cultures.
In Olsen’s experience, the sex-positive burlesque communities have less of a history of gatekeeping than other types of dance. The burlesque revolution, as Olsen calls it, is instead centered around body positivity and inclusivity.
Olsen said they felt more authentically connected to themself while a part of the burlesque community. They are now a performer and burlesque instructor at Presence Studio on Cornwall Avenue in Bellingham.
“[Burlesque is] a really welcoming culture and a space for people to connect with each other. Because of my classes, I've also just realized how hungry so many of us are for that, especially through the pandemic. So I guess I'm really inspired to create a space for people to grow closer to themselves and closer to each other,” said Olsen.
Ava Boorn (she/her), 21, is a second-year student at Western majoring in visual journalism with a minor in art history. Spends almost all her time practicing vinyasa yoga or continually collecting books.
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