Having a woman stand still in front of me for three hours, wearing eight-inch leopard skin heels and sporting fishnet stockings on legs that never seem to end, is not the way I usually spend a Saturday afternoon. Nonetheless, this is a typical sight for artists attending a Dr. Sketchy’s life drawing class, where on this instalment, the burlesque performer Miss Scarlett James was our model. It was an out of the ordinary yet relaxing experience. On top of everything else, it made me realize just how out of practice my sketching skills are, and was a great opportunity to revamp them.
I was sitting with a group of about 20 people when soon enough, Miss James was introduced to the stage: a gorgeous blonde, dressed immaculately from head to toe in a vintage burlesque costume. James, a native Parisian, wore a suggestive yet charming outfit – which we were informed she made herself out of a sequined skin-tight top and hot pants – accompanied by a petite suit jacket and a tiny top hat with feathers protruding out of it.
The class began with ten short poses from James, all one minute each. I found myself panicking to capture as much of the quintessential beauty of this woman as I could in the short amount of time. Thankfully, the pace eventually slowed down with James holding the next four poses for five minutes each, followed with two ten-minute poses, and finally four 20-minute poses. How she could hold some of those daring positions for that long is beyond my comprehension. Each pose was teasingly suggestive, playfully exposing every part of her body that the roguish costume would allow as she manoeuvred herself around a leopard skin chair shaped like a high heel.
The experience compelled me to question how burlesque performance, which dates back to the Victorian era, endorses society’s standards of feminine beauty. Does it promote sexual empowerment? Or is it just another act that degrades women, presenting them as mere sexual objects? While contemporary burlesque often refers to a sexually suggestive strip tease, it was originally a form of musical and theatrical parody, which mocked high-brow performance culture such as ballet, opera, and Shakespearean drama by giving it a more risqué style.
James said that burlesque sexually empowers women “but in a way that respects women and encourages us to exploit our talents, that gives us the freedom to just tease and leave the rest to the imagination.… Together with many other performers, I am working to bring old-fashioned theatre entertainment back in Montreal. I am dedicated to my cause, doing everything I can to educate the public in appreciating again the art of seduction as it was in the thirties, forties, and fifties. It is not yet as prominent as it used to be, but I am confident that we will get there.”
Is this playful art of seduction a way of celebrating the diversity and beauty of the female figure? Or is it simply another form of entertainment that makes women hesitate when reaching for that extra biscuit to have with their cup of tea? When I asked James what she thought burlesque performance revealed in terms of today’s cultural standards of female beauty, she said, “It shows women how to love themselves no matter how they look…and to feel sexy, to find their inner beauty and, of course, re-establish the play of seduction that we have lost today…. Short is cute, curvy is lovely etc…. We want women not to be victims of today’s society’s standards of Photoshop [enhanced] beauty. We are real women that love beauty, and we love to flaunt it!” While this may be the case, I was skeptical hearing this from a woman whose body would give Barbie a run for her money.
We all sketched the afternoon away to a soundtrack of classic seductresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Edith Piaf, further enhancing the sensual mood. During the class, James judged competitions such as who had the best drawing, and who could best incorporate something Parisian into a sketch. This allowed the artists to interact with the model and created a more social atmosphere compared to previous, more serious life drawing classes that I have attended.
This was a great way to spend an afternoon. It gives you a chance to step out of your everyday life and sketch a persona that comes from a world where being seductively naughty is not just reserved for the bedroom; it is in fact a way of life.
The next Dr. Sketchy’s is on April 18 at 2 p.m. – 5 p.m., Mainline Theatre, 3997 St Laurent, entrance $10. For more info contact email@example.com, and for more local burlesque visit scarlettejamesburlesque.com.