Freya West’s Delinquent Debutantes Embrace the Real Girl Power of Burlesque
by Stephanie Stewart-Howard | Photography by Anthony Scarlati
Nobody here looks like a Victoria’s Secret layout, but when they perform, each has a telling confidence, a moment where she’s in total control of the room.
There are people for whom the word “burlesque” conjures images of the musical Gypsy or black-and-white images of scantily clad, oh-so-naughty, 1940s pinups, but burlesque is experiencing a contemporary resurgence. It’s less male-centric peep show than female affirmation of sensuality and sexuality now—not that the sexy bits ain’t happening. Here in the “Bible Belt,” that makes some uncomfortable, but it brings huge crowds into Marathon Music Works and Exit Inn, and local women rush after work to classes to learn how to bump, grind, and strut under the tutelage of accomplished performers like Freya West.
A Chicago native with a diverse dance background ranging from ballet to Highland dance, West got her start in burlesque taking a class with Michelle L’Amour in the Windy City. She was working in a publishing house at the time and bemoaning the lack of physical activity.
“This class was hard, rigorous, very different,” says West. “I was drawn to the intention of power behind the movement, its history in fertility dances, the fact that it was unabashedly sexual, not demure, not ‘arty’.”
Moving to Nashville in 2008, West hooked up with Panty Raid and Music City Burlesque, eventually pairing with fellow dancer Bianca 13 (Gabrielle Saliba, now of Saliba Dance) to found a school, Delinquent Debutantes, in 2010. It has flourished.
On a recent evening, a group of students in the 101 (beginner) class moved through the choreography each has created for herself. Some are accomplished dancers, others neophytes; each is in touch with the rhythms of her body unlike anything at dancercise or barre workout class. There is nothing submissive. The vibe of the class recalls the vivid energy of frescoes of Minoan or Roman temple dancers.
Students ask not to be identified by name. Not that they aren’t proud of what they do, but, unfortunately, there’s still potential for backlash if you’re a woman secure enough to dance onstage in a corset and heels. Embracing female sensuality is too often confused with lewd and licentious practices.
West, usually glamorous in “unabashedly sparkly” costume or in vintage-inspired work dress, stands watching in peach-blonde ponytail, leopard-print tights, a purple long-sleeved tee, and a critical eye. Deb grad and fellow dancer Shan de Leers rests under a warm knit beanie.
As the first student finishes her dance, miming garment removal in partial costume, West reviews her progress. “I think anytime you can tear away your panties, you probably should,” she says with a wicked gleam in her eye. The class totally agrees.
“Tell us what you want us to feel with your expression. You seem to smile most when you’re looking away from the audience; share that delight with them.”
The students have chosen a wildly diverse collection of music, but each moves successfully to the beat of her own drum. And that’s what West intends.
A veteran of hundreds of shows and pinup shoots, West embraces each student for what she is and what she needs. Not all possess her natural vivaciousness, attitude, or fab cheekbones, but they’re learning, regardless of shape, face, or age, to let the wildness and power inside loose.
These classes encourage female expression in a way little else does. Some students use them as therapy—for a bad divorce or breakup, for years of insecurity, to get over a physically debilitating illness. Others just want a chance to break free of their shells and have fun.
Regardless, embracing this dance is empowering. It turns out the notion of “girl power” does indeed include reveling in one’s own sensual nature, and Freya West and Delinquent Debutantes can help make that happen.