It’s nighttime in the West Loop. The studio smells of aged brick, the wood floors have been scuffed by dozens of pairs of four-inch heels and pictures of burlesque dancers hang on the back walls. As the clock ticks towards 7:30 p.m., girls enter the mirrored room, laughing and joking around before class. “Michelle doesn’t sweat, she just glistens,” they remark.
Michelle L’amour walks gracefully into the studio and begins directing warm-ups for her ‘Beginning/Intermediate Burlesque’ class. The former Miss Exotic World (2005) is Dita-esque in appearance, petite and pale with short, black hair and dark red lips, and she wears an ornate feather clip in her hair, shaped in an apropos heart. She swings her hips to the sultry beat, leading the girls in the “sexy walk” warm-up, and talks all the while, making splits and turns look effortless. The atmosphere in the studio is fun, playful and very comfortable, despite the blatant sex appeal.
L’amour, 28, recently opened Studio L’amour — The Dojo for Your Mojo — in Chicago’s West Loop where she teaches the art of burlesque dancing to students of all ages and skill levels. This studio opening is just one in a greater trend of burlesque revival that’s been seen across the country. And although the comeback has been largely based on the coasts, Chicago has become home to several burlesque troupes and plenty of individual performers.
Over the years, burlesque has become somewhat synonymous with stripping, giving it an undeserved stigma. Although burlesque usually involves some kind of striptease, it originally began as a way of satirizing classical works of performance art and is deeply rooted in the comedic. It has also become associated with old-time Hollywood glamour, as was popularized by the likes of Bettie Page and renewed by women like Dita Von Teese. As more and more people are becoming interested in burlesque, studios like L’amour’s offer an easy way to learn more.
L’amour, an Orland Park native, attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and majored in finance but had been studying dance for years and knew it was what she really wanted to pursue. After college, she was approached by her now-fiancé, Franky Vivid, to dance and choreograph her first burlesque show and “got hooked.”
“There’s no turning back after you show your ass in public,” says L’amour, laughing. “Not much more you can do after that.”
L’amour did not learn from any class or instructor but rather developed her own style away from outside influences. Once she started working, however, she realized that she had been training for burlesque her entire life. Everything from classical dance lessons to making pretty poses in the mirror came into play.
“There’s a lot of pageantry and theatrics involved,” says L’amour. “A lot of intelligence put into it as well. I like being able to portray sexuality in a clever, intelligent way.”
Unlike some performers, L’amour does not approach burlesque from a political or feminist point of view. For her, it’s about the entertainment and getting people excited about burlesque. L’amour is known for her fan dancing and her tag-line, “The Ass that Goes POW!” because “people don’t expect it when I turn around,” she jokes.
In 2006, she performed her trademark “Snow White Act” on America’s Got Talent — a G-rated version of the act she performed to win Miss Exotic World 2005. Although she said she had a good experience on the show, she felt anxious knowing that she was on the show purely for the controversy.
“I took it as a challenge to represent burlesque and make a mark for burlesque,” says L’amour. “I felt I had to represent it well, so I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I was pretty pleased with the outcome.”
Like many burlesque performers, L’amour is hurt when burlesque is looked down upon, but she appreciates the rise of neo-burlesque, attributing much of this new-found nostalgia to the crazy level that sexuality has reached.
“It’s loud, dumb, in your face and not what people are looking for,” says L’amour. “Burlesque brings some realness to sexuality, and I try to make it a very genuine experience on both ends.”
For some women, the novelty of a fun and exciting workout draws them to burlesque. Suzy Boyle, 25, commutes from Whiting, Indiana to work downtown but makes time to stop at Studio L’amour on a weekly basis.
“It’s a fun environment and a good work-out,” says Boyle, whose aerobic instructor actually recommended the class.
Others, like Greta Layne, appreciate the costuming and creativity of it all.
“I loved the idea of old Hollywood glamour and bringing it to life,” Layne says.
But for both Boyle and Layne, the studio’s biggest selling point is the great environment that L’amour provides.
“I love this place, it’s like a second home,” says Layne. “There’s a definite family feel here.”
For beginners interested in trying out burlesque, L’amour offers a very non-commital four-week session for $50 where you will learn the basics of burlesque — the walk, the bump, the grind and the shimmy. L’amour is currently working on creating a “L’amour Method” of burlesque instruction, with standards and an outline, in order to help legitimize it as an art form. When it comes down to it, she simply wants to get people excited about the “bump and grind.”
“It’s accessible to anybody,” says L’amour. “There’s not a time when it’s too late to get in touch with your sexuality.”