The four members of Beyond Burlesque are clad in lingerie and heels as they strut around a small fitness studio in Lafayette, each striking a sexy, secretive or surprised pose. They practice leans, twirls and synchronized bends for an upcoming show.
One might expect this scene from a group of co-eds but the women of Beyond Burlesque are all mothers in their 30s and 40s -- and unabashedly so.
"I've never been more comfortable with my body. Even when I was 20 with no kids and my body was great, I didn't feel as good about myself as I do now," said Rebecca, a mother of three.
Rebecca has been with the troupe since its inception in November 2010 and has since graced stages in Oakland and San Francisco, performing a variety of dances in what many describe as "the art of the tease."
The body-positive, confident atmosphere of Beyond Burlesque is exactly what choreographer, troupe leader and lifelong dancer Dianna Rowley aims for. While other forms of dance encourage precision and a specific body type, burlesque caters to a performer's individual style and comfort level.
"What's great about burlesque is you get to be you, but you have to get into your soul. You have to dig out that feminine side or that unique part of you. There's no one in the class, in burlesque, that should look the same, dance the same, it's a unique style," Rowley said.
Rowley has been involved in burlesque since 1989, when she began teaching friends the style in her college gymnasium. While many dancers will disrobe to underwear and pasties (though half of Rowley's troupe does not), burlesque is less about being naked and more about how a performer gets there.
"This allows you to be more theatrical and more in character. A lot of people haven't explored that side of themselves but in this class we teach them how to do it," Rowley said. "For all of us I think it's a chance to be in touch with ourselves."
Eight to 10 dancers practice with Rowley and her troupe on Tuesdays, learning how to incorporate tease and sultriness into various forms of dance, including jazz, Broadway and Latin. Those who attend enough classes and express interest can perform with Beyond Burlesque as guests; guests can choose how much clothing, if any, they want to take off.
"My dancers didn't want to disrobe too much. They'd take off jackets and gloves, but didn't want to go down to pasties," Rowley said. "I went down to pasties...and never had before. Once I did it, then a couple other girls said they wanted to and now we have several girls who do."
The Beyond Burlesque ladies try to tell a story while they strip. The troupe danced to Metallica's "Ride the Lightening" at a heavy metal show and acted out a scene of a woman condemned to the electric chair who eventually comes back to kill her oppressors. At a nursery rhyme-themed benefit, the women performed to the cutesy Broadway tune "Bushel and a Peck," where they offered glimpses underneath their petticoats.
Although the burlesqueteers keep their personal and performer lives separate, getting on stage has been no easy task. Each described a moment of panic before performing for the first time, but said the camaraderie of the troupe has helped break down walls.
"(At first) we were a little intimidated, so we were keeping our movements conservative and small," Nandy, a founding Beyond member, said. "Then over the course of the next few months, we became so uninhibited and it became fun and playful."
Support from their families and friends has been integral in the success of Beyond Burlesque and its members. Rowley joked that she's received thanks from several husbands, who enjoy seeing their wives strut confidently in costumes.
"I've invited people (to performances) that I was not sure how they would take it, then I peek out and they're having a great time," Rebecca said, adding that although her children are old enough to know what burlesque is, she doesn't let on that she is a burlesque performer. "My mom was at the first show where I went in pasties. That was the only show she's come to see...she knows me and knew how scary that was for me and she said she was proud of me."
While Nandy's mother also responded positively to a performance, Rowley said response to the troupe is often mixed. Beyond Burlesque performed at the Lafayette Art and Wine festival on Sept. 21 and toned down a few acts for the occasion.
"We're trying to promote women, to say get up and enjoy yourself, don't be ashamed. America's made it like don't shake your hips where in other countries, it's ok to move around to feel good about yourself," Rowley said. "It's really inspiring when you perform at a festival and get positive feedback, that women feel good and want to try it."
The Beyond Burlesque ladies have continued to find strength and camaraderie in the Bay Area's large burlesque community, which favors variety over perfection.
"There you see all shapes and sizes. We have guests that come and say 'Oh my God, I love to dance but never thought I had the body for it, and now I see how comfortable everyone is and how positive,'" Rowley noted. "It's not a place where anyone should come and critique. This is art, this is about loving yourself."