Burlesque seems like a divisive art form. The one time I witnessed a performance I was at a music festival in the UK. Half the crowd walked away but the other half stayed, entranced by the vivacious, talented, and often hilarious dancers. It seems incongruous then that since burlesque is not a widespread phenomena, even in the West, that there is a troupe of burlesque dancers in a country like Korea, performing the seductive art semi-regularly. With WhiteLies Burlesque Revue’s final fling of the summer coming up this Saturday, we spoke to leader Nell Fox about female empowerment, burlesque, and its reception in this still-conservative nation. Oh, and she totally convinced me to go to the next show.
Warning – this post may not be appropriate to read at work due to the
slightly very risque photography!
Chincha: For any readers who don’t know, can you explain the concept of burlesque?
Nell Fox: If you asked any of us what exactly burlesque is we’d say it’s “the art of tease”. This also means that while we enjoy the strip tease part, it doesn’t mean that all our girls strip, or that they all strip down to the same amount of clothing. Some might remove only gloves, others may strip down to bras and panties, others may strip down to their pasties. The important part is to tell a story and to be sensual while doing it.
Tell us a little about the history of WhiteLies Burlesque Revue.
About two years ago a woman named Robin Pullman started a burlesque group called Frills n’ Thrills Burlesque Revue. As far as I’m aware, it started mostly on base (many of the women involved were spouses of soldiers), but they began to branch out into the Itaewon and Hongdae area.
When the leader of the group left about a year ago, Rachel Balkema decided to try to keep the group running, and renamed it WhiteLies Burlesque Review. Whereas Frills n’ Thrills was more focused on the classic style of burlesque, Rachel wanted a more modern style. When she left about 6 months ago I took charge of the group and went even further, making WhiteLies into a neo-burlesque style.
What does neo-burlesque entail?
What that mainly means is a change in music style, as well as in types of acts. Today our acts include things like spinning poi, strip tease, painting calligraphy on audience members and doing borderline contortion acts. Also, we don’t keep our music limited to strictly 1920s jazz or early rock like Frills did. Our acts now have a variety of styles, ranging from jazz to bamboo flute to dubstep and even electro swing.
Nell Fox by FraiseVinyl
Can you take us through a typical burlesque act?
Our acts can incorporate nearly anything. I’ve had my girls in the past perform a sexy pantomime act, hoola hoop, and we’ve even had an act performed by one of our old girls Sheila Blidge where she would get two men in the audience to hold up a clothesline for her and she would wash “dirty” clothes for her act and end up stripteasing from behind her washed garments. The audience always loved that because she would not only tell great stories, but get them involved as well. If you ever sat front row during that act, you were guaranteed to get splashed with water and suds. One of our most well-relived acts currently involves one of our girls basically unwrapping a cake and sitting in it. The trick is to do it but to tell a story. Also, I’m sure that inviting people to eat the cake off of her doesn’t hurt either.
Who is currently involved in the revue?
We have about nine girls. We only use our stage names for these kinds of interviews so that no one risks and problems at work. Currently we have myself, Emerald Bijoux, Strawberry Cherie, Amber Exticy, Kitty Folie, Lacy LaSoie, Honey LaRoux, Poison Ivy, and T. McGee. If you asked us to describe ourselves we would say that we are all sexy and modern-day, liberated women. We are sensual and celebratory of that fact. Some people might argue that strip-tease is degrading to women, but we say it’s quite the opposite. To us, burlesque is liberating. It’s being able to celebrate our bodies and our actual selves as well.
Strawberry Cherie by Kim Saeho
Is this what inspires you to keep it going?
I want to keep this group going for several reasons. Living in a society where people can be quite conservative, I think it’s great for people to have the option of letting loose, so to say. I think that it’s a great outlet for a lot of people here in Korea, be they participants or viewers. It’s a great cultural exposure and genre of entertainment that could do well here, given time. It’s a chance to help women feel more confident and sexy. In today’s society (Korea and otherwise) the importance of “stick thin” bodies is heavily exaggerated to women if they want to be considered beautiful. What’s great about burlesque is that we celebrate sexiness in all body types. As Baby Doe once said “It doesn’t matter what size or shape you are. Burlesque is about feeling positive about who you are, about knowing how to shake what you have and being proud of it.” Finally, it’s just downright fun. Again, to quote Baby Doe “People love burlesquetoday because it incorporates all the old-school glamour, satire and highlights the female form — it’s something that many women can actually see themselves doing.” It’s a great way to feel good about yourself and to have fun with music and dance as well.
As you mentioned earlier, Korea’s still considered to be a conservative society. How is the burlesque revue (and burlesque in general) received here?
I think we still have a long way to go. We get both good and bad receptions, regardless of nationality. I’ve had Koreans love the idea of burlesque and foreigners tell me to “get some respect for yourself”. Similarly, I’ve had foreigners get so excited at the fact that there’s burlesque in Seoul, and had Koreans back away in fear, unsure of what kind of show exactly I was trying to convince them to come see. I think overall it’s just whether or not people know what burlesque actually is. The only negative reception to it that we’ve had so far is people either not having any clue what it’s about or assuming it’s something similar to a juicy bar.
Emerald Bijoux by FraiseVinyl
Six members of WhiteLies Burlesque Revue (as seen in the published photographs) will be performing at Myoungwolgwan in Hongdae this Saturday night. Doors open at 9:30pm and entry costs 10,000won. For more info check Facebook.
What do you think of burlesque? Is there a place for this artform in Korea?