Being open and honest about real things that happen to real women is the fastest way to smash taboos and get us all talking about tricky topics. Which is why here, Jayne, tells us the backstage truths about burlesque dancing, periods and that time she leaked on stage...
“I lived and breathed burlesque”
“For over ten years I lived and breathed the world of burlesque. I organised and choreographed burlesque shows in London’s West End, was an agent for a troupe of dancers and also appeared on stage with my own comedy cabaret act that was part of the performance. I earned my living by pimping out glamour and I loved it.
“Burlesque is both a timeless art form and evening of entertainment rolled into one. We’d transport the audience into the mesmerising make-believe world of glitz and girls – there would be dancing, humour, tease, and lots of body on show. The women I worked with were talented and gorgeous, they all oozed kickass confidence on and off stage. But despite the sequins, feathers and thrills of showtime, burlesque backstage is an entirely different vibe. In fact, a girls’ dressing room is the most un-glamorous place you could ever imagine. I’ve spent a lot of time in them over the years, and think I’ve seen everything there is to see – there are zero secrets.
“The prep for a burlesque show is pretty intense. And it’s not just glam hair, elaborate make-up and fabulous costumes that get organised, periods have to be managed, too – going on stage with a tiny costume when you’re bleeding takes some getting used to.
How do dancers handle their periods?
“Often, a girl would have her period and be dancing in just a g-string or even a c-string, which is basically a headband covering your vagina. Almost everything is on show so there’s really no allowance for a dangling tampon string.
“If you’re bumping and grinding on stage, or doing a sequence sat legs akimbo on a chair, where you’re slowly, seductively removing your stockings, the position of the tampon string seriously needs to be considered. One cough and it could be hanging out. There’s no way it can be noticeable.
“I’ve seen girls constantly checking themselves in the mirror before they go on stage, holding their leg up by their ear to check the string isn’t visible.
“If the costume has more coverage, I’ve watched girls wind the tampon string around their g-string and then put the leotard on top; sometimes if you just tuck it inside of you it can slide out as soon as you start dancing.
“Some costumes even caused thrush”
“And it’s not just periods that could be a hassle, the girls would constantly complain about how many infections they’d get because their costumes were filthy. A lot of burlesque costumes are made of very delicate material with lots of sequins, beads, fringing and feathers, so you can’t actually wash them. The girls would be traveling across the country or touring internationally, wearing them, sweating in them, not washing them, and then they’d get an infection. Someone always had a bad bout of thrush.
“Hair removal also had to be navigated. The girls would wax or shave off most of their pubic hair off and the costume chaffing would then give them stubble rash and spots – especially when you’re on your period and the skin is more sensitive. I’ve seen girls with bleeding, broken skin because their bikini lines have got so irritated. Constantly sweating in synthetic fabrics would cause ass acne too. Working the magic down there with a concealer stick and powder was all part of the pre-show make-up prep.
“During my comedy act, I’d talk to the audience and even sometimes get them up on stage with me. If I had PMT I'd ramp up the banter for sure. We’d get a lot of men coming to the shows and I’d either be really, really flirty, or devastatingly cutting…depending entirely how hormonal I felt. I didn’t hold back at the best of times but during my period everything would go up a notch.
“I leaked on stage”
“But the worry of leaking is very real. You’re worried it’s going to run down your leg. Especially if you’ve got bare legs or beautiful seamed stocking and wearing heels – that wouldn’t be a good look.
“There was one time on stage when I was sat, singing on a white leather sofa as part of my routine. I stood up and thought “OMG, I’ve only gone and leaked on it, how am I going to deal with this?” Luckily one of my props was a handbag, so I put it over the stain and carried on with my cabaret chat. I then had to edge off stage and run to the bathroom to sort it out before I was due back on stage in less than two minutes. The sofa was only used for my one scene so was whisked off stage when the curtain dropped and I scrubbed at it with a wet wipe in the wings. This stuff happens.
“I have heavy periods and they were horrendously heavy after having my son. Some of the burlesque dancers in my troupe were also mums and obviously your whole body changes after a baby. There was no allowance for this though and it’s business as usual. I remember one girl changing her tampon four times before she went on stage because she was so heavy and paranoid about leaking. Calling in sick was definitely unthinkable when you had your period, even if you were in agony or super heavy, you’d still be pulling on your costume and getting up on stage. When they were bent over double in pain, the girls would just take painkillers. Most performers are self-employed after all and if you only have a couple of gigs a week, you just can’t cancel. You find work-arounds and crack on.
“Getting your period does mean you can get bloated. In normal life, you’d just undo the top button of your jeans or wear a looser top. As a burlesque performer, you’re in the tiniest outfit ever so there’s no escaping the bloat and yet you’re still striving to look like the pinnacle of glamour and sophistication. You can feel like crap and want to go home, but you have to pull it out of the bag and deliver the illusion. Yes, there are times during the month when you really, really don’t feel like it, but you just have to turn it on. The show must go on.
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