Performing burlesque isn’t for the faint of heart, but Tease-able, Australia’s first accessibility focused burlesque studio, is proving disability and mental illness are no barrier.
Burlesque dancing is a form of cabaret, from the Italian word for ‘mockery’. It’s often bawdy and risqué but also aims to amuse.
While it features comedy and lavish costumes, it can address serious issues, letting performers express their inner idiosyncrasies, and parody those in power.
It’s no wonder it holds a special kind of magic for Empress Eyrie.
She is a performer and the head teacher and owner of Tease-able Accessible Burlesque, which started in Canberra in 2019.
Her students have a range of physical disabilities from amputations, broken bones and chronic pain, to some using walking sticks or wheelchairs. Others have anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now the first class of 2021 is ready to make its debut in an onstage showcase.
“I am so proud of them,” says Eyrie. “Watching these students develop has been the most rewarding experience for me.”
The students have worked hard to overcome their fears of performing and self-doubt that stems from facing constant prejudice.
“As disabled people, we’re told a lot that we don’t have the right to feel sexy, that we don’t have the right to be sexy,” says Eyrie, her voice wavering on the edge of tears.
“People see somebody in a wheelchair or with a walking stick and they just see us as weak. They don’t see us as people, especially women.
“We are told that we are not allowed to be attractive.”
It’s clear in her voice that Eyrie is incredibly passionate about representation, and her classes are a safe space for students to explore what they’re really capable of.
“They’re all up wiggling their butts and being so sexy and so happy with themselves, and seeing their confidence just skyrocket,” she says.
“I know seeing the show I’m just going to cry because I will be so proud of all of them.”
Eyrie has a range of conditions including fibromyalgia, arthritis and nerve damage, and uses a walking stick to help her get around.
Before starting Tease-able she wanted to do burlesque classes but couldn’t find any in Australia that are specifically designed to be accessible.
Online lessons were a start, but still didn’t fully fit her needs.
“I found the classes were too high-impact for me, the dance moves were too difficult, and the teachers didn’t quite understand my needs,” says Eyrie. “I felt like a burden.”
It’s that lived experience she feels gives her a deeper connection with her students.
“If you identify as somebody who needs extra help, I’m here,” says Eyrie.
The burlesque routines are custom choreographed to students’ mobility, finding alternatives to traditional dance moves that work for them.
If they’re having a bad day and just want to sit out the class, that’s ok, too.
“Watching them break down those barriers that society has put on them has just been amazing,” says Eyrie.
“People who came in and said, ‘I don’t think I’ll perform [at the showcase],’ have now come back and said, ‘I want to debut as a solo performer.’
“To me, it’s just mind-blowing because these are people who I thought were going to drop out in week two.”
It’s been a big effort bringing the showcase together. Not just training and rehearsals, but finding a fully accessible venue.
“It’s just as important for the audience to access the show as it is the students,” says Eyrie.
“It’s such a unique experience to have that audience support, and it really makes the whole effort feel worthwhile.”
There’ll also be Auslan interpreters, non-alcoholic beer, wine and champagne on offer, and the show will be streamed online, to be inclusive of as many people as possible.
Eyrie says she’s going to be a proud stage mum on the night.
She’ll have a big hug ready, whether they’ve just come off stage or decided last minute not to go on.
They might even inspire a few more students to sign up for next term.
“As disabled performers, every time we come off stage you get somebody in the audience coming up to you and they’re almost in tears,” says Eyrie.
“They just say, “Thank you so much, thank you for representing me, I never knew people like me could do things like that.'”
As for the future, maybe Eyrie will build an empire of accessible burlesque studios.
“That would be ideal, but slowly because I’ve got a walking stick and I only move so quickly,” she adds with a laugh.
The Tease-able Burlesque Showcase is on at Belconnen Community Theatre on Saturday, 3 July, 2021.