The complex art form of Burlesque: A peek inside London’s biggest Burlesque community

‘It’s uplifting, it’s joyful, it’s a fuckery of gender, it’s a performative tongue in cheek joke about what it means to be a woman unless you’ve seen it, I think it’s really difficult to explain that’ Tempest Rose and Onyx Fatale dive into the complexities of burlesque. Burlesque is women-dominated but not exclusive to the multifaceted art form. Burlesque is an amazing vehicle for feminism allowing people to mix comedy, dance, sensuality and so much more into one performance.

Tempest Rose started burlesque in 2007 getting into it through her theatre background. Loving the art because of its inclusive, well-rounded environment she started her own production house called House of Burlesque in 2010. As the house lives on, they also offer classes and more. She utilizes teaching burlesque to uplift womxn and detangle the ideals of beauty set by society. Tempest is also a co-host of a fabulous podcast called Ginsult. Through her performances and podcast, she challenges the patriarchy by pushing back on societal norms and beauty standards. Tempest’s passion for burlesque and challenging mainstream standards is a force to be reckoned with.

Onyx Fatale, a member of the House of Burlesque is also a brilliant performer. She officially gave herself her stage name almost 5 years ago and has taken the industry by storm. She won Burlesque Idol –run by Tempest Rose– in 2018 thus securing the title of a queen for the year (although you can see through her performances the title remains). Also, in October she started Lounge Onyx, a production that uplifts and highlights black performers. ‘I wanted to pay, black performers and people that identify as black, the money that they deserve to be able to perform in a West End venue…it was just great for me to be able to put out a show I should say that embodied a representation of myself.’ Starting in burlesque Onyx did not see many black performers or people who looked like her therefore making it one of her biggest challenges to overcome. She took matters into her own hands and created a cabaret production that shows you can, ‘feature different types of bodies, different types of acts, different types of genders, and people, and it can be amazing.’

House of Burlesque Dancer: Tempest Rose

Another challenge both Onyx and Tempest faced when starting in the industry was getting over the stigmas around burlesque. Murmurs and questions floated around about why they would want to convey their sensuality. When Tempest first started in the industry burlesque was just emerging as well and there were a lot of questions about what the art form even was. Then the questions evolved into ‘how are you a feminist if you are partaking in this?’ Tempest sarcastically explained how a ‘smart girl’ can’t possibly want to express their sexuality and revel in their beauty and femininity. Onyx encounters this same question about ‘why would you want to take your clothes off for people?’ She claps back explaining that she is embracing how much she loves herself and she is sharing that with her audience. Tempest challenges the notion that women must be one dimensional, but men are praised for their depth. 

‘I think it’s wrapped up in that whole, you know men are allowed to be multifaceted, but women aren’t. And one thing I loved about burlesque is seeing multifaceted women, but we’re always judged based on like, you know, everything. The one thing that you did all of a sudden sets the tone for your entire worth and your identity in a way that men just don’t have that.’

The power and confidence these two women hold exude through their bright personality and creative performances. They are wickedly funny, brilliant, talented dancers that can command a crowd instantly. A burlesque performance is a power-play between the audience and performer and let me tell you these two ladies wield all the f*cking power. Both Tempest and Onyx laugh about their dynamic with their audience making flirtatious comments such as ‘please me’, and ‘should I bother’ referencing their stripteases on stage. Through their taped performances and Instagram, the spirited vibe they create with their crowd is captivating and entertaining. Tempest and Onyx facilitate a strong environment that allows for womxn and other people to uplift each other. Tempest’s favourite aspect about the art is how it allows for connections between womxn to flourish. Whether it is people she works with or the audience she performs for, Tempest explains, ‘I think it’s a healthy mindset to look at your peers and be like, oh, if they can shine, I can shine too.’

Along with building up womxn burlesque also allows womxn full autonomy. The unique art form that is majority womxn gives them full creative power as well as control over the business side of the art. Tempest and Onyx both rave about how empowering it is that they get to control every aspect of their burlesque career. There may be agents or production houses involved but at the end of the day, you are your manager, marketing person, and creative performer. Onyx expresses how setting and negotiating rates is a freedom they can explore in burlesque. The performers set their own boundaries in a fashion women have not always been able to experience in the past. She is grateful for learning to balance the creative and business aspects of the industry through Tempest and Sadie Sinner of the Cocoa Butter Club.

I’ve come to the conclusion that burlesque has a lot within it that can make it a great vehicle for feminism. But the reason that I don’t say burlesque is inherently feminist is because I think it requires active participation from us as performers/producers as a kind of industry or community people to make sure that we’re always on the right side of that line.’

Tempest explains that with active participation burlesque can flourish in feminist ideology. Between the economic factors, creative freedom, and always working to be your best self, burlesque can convey a lot of powerful messages. Onyx reiterates that ‘Burlesque allows us to enjoy a freedom that we had never enjoyed before within our history. And as Tempest says we are not locked down by men, or anyone else to be honest about what we want to portray on the stage.’ The autonomy over both the economic and creative side of the burlesque business creates freedom for the performers. Onyx continues to express the importance of expressing yourself on stage and sharing that feeling with the audience, ‘I feel when you are on stage being a burlesque performer because you are allowing someone to embrace you, how you are, regardless of what form you’re in. And I think that is very important when we’re talking about, not just burlesque in the feminist’s eye but the world in general.’

House of Burlesque Dancer: Tempest Rose

Burlesque can be an antidote to toxic beauty ideals and other societal norms. ‘Being pretty isn’t the rent that you pay for existing as a woman’, Tempest Rose paraphrased Erin McKean’s famous quote. Tempest has been able to learn a lot through burlesque as well as she has been able to teach body acceptance through the art form. ‘No matter how closely you present to the mainstream ideal, you still feel alienated and unworthy and as if there’s something wrong with you and insecure and I [Tempest] think once you understand, that, then it’s much easier to just burn the whole thing to the ground, essentially.’ For Onyx, burlesque helps break down the fantasy of beauty ideals. Although they dress up in this fantastical way with their corsets on and their ‘boobs pushed up to their chin’ the performers are still putting out a reality. No one looks the same and as Onyx mentions if you look at the House of Burlesque performers, they all look different whether it is their weight, height or looks they portray ‘the reality of the world that we live in. Not everyone’s going to look a certain way.’

So, what is next for these brilliant women? Both Tempest and Onyx are excited to get back to business as usual while restrictions ease. They are eager to fill up venues in order to put on smashingly brilliant performances. Lounge Onyx will be back in July to highlight the powerful POC burlesque performers and House of Burlesque is itching for another big production. Keep an eye out when nightlife venues start reopening again. They will continue to do Zoom classes so if you are interested in the art, sign up! To see sneak peeks into different acts and to learn from these confident women follow Tempest Rose and Onyx Fatale on Instagram. I don’t know about you, but art that perpetuates body acceptance, laughter, sensuality, and badass women sounds like something I want to be a part of!  Honestly, about to sign up for a burlesque class right the f*ck now. Get in line to watch these hilariously talented women perform, trust me you won’t want to miss it!