Calgary burlesque class encourages bigger-bodied performers to be confident in their own skin

Participants in the burlesque class share why they wanted to give the artform a try. (James Young/CBC - image credit)
Participants in the burlesque class share why they wanted to give the artform a try. (James Young/CBC - image credit)

At a studio in northeast Calgary, six women sit on yoga mats in a circle, listening to Jeanine Petit.

She's been a burlesque performer — under her stage name, Manhattan Wilde — for more than 15 years, and she's teaching a class to students interested in burlesque, some with no experience at all.

The class is called, Unapologetic: A Bigger Body's Guide to Taking Up Space in Burlesque.

"I never saw it as a problem at first. I mean, it was never something that I hated myself for until I got into a certain age," Petit tells the students. "And then there's that first time someone looks at you and says, 'You're fat.'

"Do you remember that?"

The students nod. Going in a circle, they speak about their own experiences, ranging from being stereotyped to bullied to discriminated against based on their bodies.

"[There's] a lot of power in that word: You're fat," Petit said.

"I want to help take away some of that power.… It's just a descriptor. That's all it is. We, I think, are the ones that can give it power. And take that power away and take that power back."

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

It's the first time Petit has run the class as part of Cabaret Calgary's winter session. The aim is to help dancers celebrate their bodies, increase body diversity and inclusion on stage and navigate stigma and stereotypes.

The founder of Cabaret Calgary, Kayla Bigras, said the class is something they thought was missing in the burlesque community.

"Our company tries to ... have everyone feel welcome. So I guess we're always looking for who's not at the table and how do we bring them there?" she said. "We've gotten a lot of feedback about even offering the class that was very exciting."

They hope to be able to offer the class again, Bigras said.

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

Petit hopes it will be the first of many.

"Accessibility is No. 1, whether it be bigger bodies or even disabled bodies or even people of colour," she said.

"I want this class to encourage people to show up as themselves, exactly as themselves, and to be confident in that."

'All shapes and sizes are valued'

Petit said she first got into burlesque after watching two of her friends perform with their own troupe. One day, she decided to audition.

"There's this misconception, I think, about burlesque," she said.

"It's not solely for titillation.… It's comedy, it's politics, it's diversity, it's showing a story through, whether it be striptease, song, satire — and that took me a long time to understand. It wasn't just about getting up there and being sexy. It's so much more than that."

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

Along with her class, she said a recent show in Calgary also included only bigger-bodied burlesque dancers.

Creating these inclusive spaces is a step forward, said Shelly Russell-Mayhew, the director of the University of Calgary's Body Image Research Lab, noting weight bias and discrimination is still common.

"I do think there's more receptivity, perhaps, to this notion that everybody deserves health and happiness across all weight statuses. At the same time, what is also true is that weight stigma experiences are still very pervasive and built into the system," she said.

There's also internalized weight bias, Russell-Mayhew said, which is when people living in bigger bodies believe they deserve to be stigmatized or deserve less. It's devastating, she said, to live in a world where your body is considered not acceptable.

That's where things like the burlesque class come in.

"It seems to me that this idea combines a whole bunch of things: it's getting people moving, it's creating inclusive spaces, it's acknowledging that … women come in all shapes and sizes and that all shapes and sizes are valued."

Boosting confidence

Back in class, Petit has the women stand against the wall of the studio, facing a long panel of mirrors.

She instructs them to walk forward, looking into their own eyes, expressing anger, happiness, then love.

"Take up space," she calls out to them. "Own it!"

With each strut, Petit comments on the change in confidence she's seeing. The women smile, laugh and cheer for each other.

Emma Hricziscse, a participant in the class, said burlesque is an outlet that allows people to feel comfortable and express themselves.

"I am so passionate about sharing space with other humans … challenging the ideas of what we think belongs on stage," she said.

"In growth, there's joy and comfort and peace. And so if I can put myself on a stage, and me, just existing on a stage in a fat body, joyfully, if that challenges people, then I'm happy."

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

Another student, Schantarra Pepin, said the class is different from any she's taken before.

"It's tricky sometimes. Like not being as small as the other girls … it's easy to kind of feel like you stick out in that way to whatever degree. And so when I saw this in the itinerary, I was like, 'absolutely,'" she said.

When the class ends, Petit walks around to each woman. She comments on their growth and their beauty, celebrating their ownership of the studio stage.

She tells the women to believe in themselves.

For Hricziscse, it's worth getting over the initial intimidation to try a burlesque class.

"It's so exciting to have somebody who's terrified join because we know that there's a spark in them that deserves space and light and room to grow and shine."