Bollyesque: bollywood and burlesque dance star Radha Leigh

With my adoration for vintage clothing and music, as well as my fascination with musical theatre, it should really come as no surprise that I love burlesque. Although traditional cabaret and burlesque acts are wonderful, there’s something even more appealing about those acts that push the boundaries and mesh other dance styles with the wit and sauciness of burlesque. Radha Leigh is a phenomenal dancer who combines bollywood and burlesque to create an act that is quite unique. Radha happens to be a friend of mine, and has been so gracious as to answer a few pressing questions I had for her about what it’s like to be a professional performer.

1. When did you start dancing?

I have been dancing since the age of four. I studied ballet, contemporary and jazz ballet until I was in my early 20s. At uni I tried out as many forms of dance possible, especially hip hop, which turned out to be an unexpected passion. I have been dancing in the Bollywood style since 2008 and Burlesque since 2010.

Photo credit: Angela McConnell

2. What attracted you to Bollywood dancing?

I never knew much about Bollywood, growing up in vanilla-coloured Adelaide. But strangely, as a small child I had a fascination with India, mainly inspired by my love of the book “The Secret Garden”. I used to dress up in pretend sarees and put stickers on my forehead! But it wasn’t until I moved to Melbourne in 2005 that the passion really took hold. Almost symbolically, the night before I moved to Melbourne I decided to see “Bride and Prejudice” with my family. I was so entranced by the colour, movement and exuberance. I remember thinking “I have to go to India”

And then, when I moved to Melbourne, I lived in uni accommodation where the majority of residents were Indian. I just fell in love with the culture. My passion for Bollywood dance actually emerged from me ridiculing my friends’ dancing at uni parties. And the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it and the better I got, until I realised that I actually completely loved it. I started taking Bollywood dance lessons with a fellow resident, she joined me up to the performance group she worked with, and the rest is history!

3. What inspired you to branch out into burlesque dancing?

I never really knew much about burlesque, beyond the common perception that it was simply “glorified stripping”. I have to be honest and say that I really was ignorant of burlesque as an art form before I started doing it, as I had dismissed it based on the common perceptions about it.

During the Adelaide Fringe 2010 I met a girl called Chrissie (stage name Lyra) who ran the door at Adelaide’s main comedy venue, The Rhino Room. Rhino Room is THE place to be during Fringe, and everybody knew who Chrissie Brown was. I remember seeing her for the first time and thinking “That girl is awesome. I want to be her friend”. My intuition proved to be correct. One day she overheard me say I was from Melbourne and I was a Bollywood dancer and she started telling me how she too lived in Melbourne, but was just back in Adelaide temporarily, and that she was a burlesque dancer. She invited me to come to her burlesque class in return for Bollywood lessons, and I agreed without hesitation. But to be honest, I went to that first class purely out of the desire to make a new friend.

However, once I heard that classic burlesque music and felt how sensual and elegant the movements were I was hooked. It truly only took about 5 mins of a beginner class for me to know I loved it.

Lyra and I quickly discovered we had a similar way of feeling the music and that we matched really well stylistically. We became best friends and dance partners and by the following year had our own sell out Fringe show at the Rhino Room. Crazy how life works out!

Photo credit: Linda Arfuso Golkidis

4. It must take a lot of confidence to show off your body on stage. Do you ever have any doubts or negative thoughts about your body? How do you deal with them?

The striptease aspect of burlesque was always the one that I was the most conflicted about. In fact, I just found my journal from December 2010 where I was angsting over my feminist background and my interest in burlesque. A lot of thought and self reflection went into my decision to perform burlesque.

In the end, I decided that all I could do was try it, and if it felt wrong, I would never do it again. I honestly didn’t know how I would feel about it until I did it. It seems crazy to me now, approaching my second Fringe show, to think that I was still unsure right up until opening night of my first show, effectively! I remember just getting on stage and hearing the audience respond so positively and not having a moment’s doubt once I was out there. It’s all about confidence and celebrating your body. It feels extremely empowering!

The reason I decided to perform burlesque strip tease was that I felt it was a way of really owning my body and my sensuality. Stripping is seen as being for the male gaze and purely for male satisfaction. Burlesque, on the other hand, seems to appeal mainly to women, and often it’s the men in the audience who feel intimidated by it! I have discussed this at length with other performers and I believe that the reason burlesque feels so empowering is because there is such humour and intelligence to it. It’s almost like you’re saying “Oh, you want to see more? I’ll show you more. BUT ON MY TERMS!” and it subverts the male gaze. It’s the humour that makes burlesque so appealing to me. I am a big-time comedy fan, and I feel like I get to indulge my humorous side through burlesque. And at the end of the day, bodies and sex and sexuality are pretty darned funny!

As for body image, one of the most wonderful things to come out of burlesque is to hear how the women in the audience feel inspired by it. You will often hear people say “Oh she has a tummy like me” or “She has cellulite!” with the intonation implying “And she’s still beautiful!” which I think is just magical. It’s funny, because until I did burlesque, I was very self conscious about my body. However, now I feel extremely confident in my skin and my appearance, because I have such ownership of my body.

That said, there have been a few moments where I have overheard negative comments from the audience. When I was stage kitty for the amazing Gypsy Wood in Edinburgh, a woman in the front row exclaimed “Oh she’s FAT!” when Gypsy started to strip. Now, Gypsy is probably a size 6, and the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. But her beauty is not related to her weight. It was distressing to hear comments about weight being used by women to put other women down. However, joke was on that silly woman, as Gypsy jumped off stage and started to kiss her aggressively. Best revenge I’ve ever seen!

So yes, it does take guts and confidence to be able to handle the striptease aspect of burlesque, but once you’ve tried it, you don’t have a second thought. My only worry with it is the wardrobe malfunction anxiety. You don’t want to accidentally reveal TOO much after all!

Photo credit: Angela McConnell

5. Where do you get your costumes? How do you decide what to wear for each performance?

The costume component to burlesque is probably the one that causes me the most stress. Costumes are intrinsic to burlesque. In fact, you need the costume before you can choreograph the routine. Coming from a dance background this took me by surprise. As a dancer, you can choreograph a dance, and then design a costume to suit. It’s almost the reverse with burlesque! And burlesque costumes eat through a tonne of money too. I make most of my own costumes, and the costumes for Lyra and my show. Luckily I come from a dress-making background, so I have the knowledge to do it. But the skill of corsetry still eludes me! Most performers I know buy their costumes custom made.

When designing a costume I have to figure out A) what’s the theme/story? B) how much do I want to take off? And C) how can I make it interesting to take things off? Your basic gloves-and-stockings burlesque can get a bit tedious. I then listen to the music to hear the cues for how to build in the costume removal.

I put a lot of effort into creating layers in my costumes, but doing it in a way that they fit with the story I am telling. I try to never take anything off without reason. Even if that reason is “oh goodness I am enjoying dancing so much my hat just flew off!”

Photo credit: Angela McConnell

6. What is the best part of your job?

There are so many wonderful things about what I do: there’s the experience of being on stage and having the crowd in the palm of your hand. I just live for it! Then there’s getting to play dress ups and be paid for it. There are the wonderful friends I’ve made in the burlesque and comedy industries. And finally the festivals where all these inspiring performers become like your family 24/7 for a month at time.

7. What is the worst part of your job?

Hen’s and bucks nights! Male or female, people are obnoxious when they go out for their last hurrah before walking down the aisle, and the worst of them seem to end up at Burlesque Bar!! However, you want to be careful bringing a drunken bucks night to Burlesque Bar. I have seen the amazing MC Lallah L’Amore reduce a grown man to tears with her quick wittedness. And as for Mama Natalia…well…don’t cross her is all I’m saying!

Seriously though, the part of my job I hate the most is the constant worry about money. Some weeks you have a tonne of gigs and you sail through, other weeks things might be very quiet. You can never count on regularity. As a result, I juggle several jobs, including work in Aged Care as an Art Therapist, teaching and dress making. All of these different things can make life a little fragmented.

But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t have life any other way. I always knew I wouldn’t be able to cope with a 9-5 existence!

8. How much work goes into each performance? What do you need to do to prepare?

The work involved in a performance really varies. There are solos, and duo items that can be prepared to perform at your basic revue nights. These items are between 2 ½ and 8mins long and vary in complexity. Then there’s the work in creating a full 1 hour show to perform. Lyra and I are currently putting the finishing touches on our Adelaide Fringe Show “Burlesque Beauties presents: Mostly Glitter and Girls”, and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival show we’re a part of, “Amazons”. Creating shows takes months of work. These shows are pretty epic undertakings and involve the commitment and cooperation of lots of people and a huge input of time. But no matter what the performance, the most time intensive part is always in creating the costume and props.

My “Choli ke Peeche” routine took about three weeks of intensive sewing and choreographing to create, but a lot more preparation than that went in to researching the style and song that I wanted to do and sourcing the fabrics to create the dress.

When preparing a routine, I need to figure out if the music needs to be cut or spliced with another track. My routines tend to err on the longer end of the scale because I like to leave plenty of room for dancing without stripping. I am not adept at music editing, so this part of the process always means begging for help from a more highly skilled friend or relative!

I watch a lot of dance clips on youtube to get the inspiration for the type of movement I want to do, and from there I decide on the costume. Often the music you pick gives you clear images for costumes. With Choli ke Peeche I knew I needed a long skirt, as there is a lyric (albeit in Hindi!) about a beautiful skirt, and I needed several layers of tops, because the title translates as “what’s underneath your blouse?” From there, I thought about what would look good on stage and move well with my style of dancing and then I went about making the costume.

The choreography always comes last, and sometimes I perform with only a few dance moves properly prepared. I look at the music as a map, and I have the points of costume removal as landmarks which I need to reach by certain points in the music. Then there might be bits of music that just scream a certain move at me, and the rest I leave reasonably flexible. I learned early on that the tighter your choreography, the more room there is to throw yourself off if your costume doesn’t come off the way it’s meant to, or the audience don’t interact the way you’d like them to.

Double acts are a different story. When Lyra and I dance together the routines need a degree of tight choreography in order to look sharp and synchronised. I find working on double acts to be far more enjoyable than solos as you get so inspired when you bounce ideas off of another person.

9. What advice would you give to a person who is interested in trying Bollywood or burlesque dancing?

With Bollywood dancing I’d say GIVE IT A GO and come to one of my classes! It is the best fun you can have with your clothes on (haha!) and is just so joyous and uplifting. There are performance troupes around Melbourne and a fair few performance opportunities if you discover a passion for it. It doesn’t provide the same career opportunities as burlesque, but as a hobby, can be very rewarding. It also gives you an insight into another culture, which I find invaluable.

Burlesque is a little bit more personal and difficult to break into. The scene is booming at the moment, with a tonne of newcomers inspired to try their hand at Burlesque after seeing the Christina Aguilera film. All I can say is, immerse yourself in the scene as much as possible before even contemplating a performance career. Hard work, innovativeness and a genuine love of all things burlesque and vintage are respected by the people in the burlesque scene, and you want to be sure that you know what you’re talking about before throwing yourself in the deep end.

So my advice? Take classes. Especially if you are not from a dance background. This is crucial grounding in the style. Classes are great fun and really improve your confidence in a safe environment with other women, even if you never aim to becoming a fully fledged performer. I think all women should give a burlesque class a go at some point in their life!

Next thing is to see lots of burlesque and understand its history. There are burlesque specific venues in Melbourne with shows going on all week. Burlesque Bar in Fitzroy, Red Bennies in Prahran and Bohemia (opening soon!) in South Melbourne are my top picks. Looking back at my unorthodox entry into the burlesque scene I realise how much I could have benefitted from seeing more burlesque before I started performing it, so get out there and enjoy this vibrant and unique subculture.

Radha Leigh will be performing in “Burlesque Beauties Presents: Mostly Glitter and Girls” at the Rhino Room for Adelaide Fringe, February/March 2012 and “Amazons” at The LuWoW, Fitzroy for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, April 2012.

Radha performs regularly at Burlesque Bar, Fitzroy and The LuWoW Fitzroy.

She also teaches Bollywood and Beyonce dancing at The Aegean Greek Restaurant, Fitzroy, where Burlesque and Go Go dance classes are also available.

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