"Just imagine you're wearing a huge strap-on dildo and you're tracing a circle on the wall."
Zora Phoenix rocks her hips counter-clockwise in front of the class as she gives 14 burlesque wannabes their first dance lesson: how to bump and grind. Phoenix, whose real name is Chris Stewart, stands 6’2” in 5-inch pumps, stockings showing the full length of her legs. She tosses the hair of her red wig out of her face as she turns to the side.
"And remember," she says, demonstrating, "grinding isn't the same thing as humping."
It's Saturday, Jan. 18, the first day of the Rose City School of Burlesque's
most recent course. We’ve gathered at the Viscount Dance Studio in Southeast Portland, a studio with huge windows just like the former Beaker & Flask space next door (Phoenix says the shades will go down “when things get trickier”). Today, the instructors outline goals for the class and get a first glimpse of the raw material they have to work with. Instructor Fannie Fuller is particularly interested in who can move worth a damn—she's choreographing the group performance for graduation in ten weeks—but she's also looking to see who's doubtful and who's determined.
"We carry a lot of baggage with us," Fuller says, after having the class create a seductive dance circle. "Are we sexy? Are we funny? Whatever it is, can we make eye contact with someone and not feel uncomfortable?"
That answer for me is emphatically "no," and judging from the giggles that arise from the sometimes excruciating performance exercises, I think some of my classmates feel the same way.
The class, mostly dressed in black tights, is an interesting bunch. Ages range from 23 to 47, and though most are women, three are men, including one whose fiancée is a graduate of the course. Their backgrounds vary—one's a young belly dancer, one's a stressed out government worker, one’s a former opera singer. Some are performers and want a new skill in their repertoire. Others are looking to be something different.
“I want to be stunning,” says a woman named Siri (yes, like the iPhone voice). “I work at a very conservative job during the day, and it’s very boring, so this is going to be my escape.”
After a lesson on "eye fucking" (the professional term, she says), Phoenix moves on to a mirror exercise. The class walks in rows toward the mirror and, per the instruction, executes poses—lots of chest and thigh rubbing. This is horrific. Turning myself into a voluptuous, bosomed babe is as far removed from reality as the thought of owning a home on a writer's salary. And what's my alternative? Act like Channing Tatum? I am not Channing Tatum.
Oddly, though, when Phoenix tells us to close our eyes, our moves improve marginally…at least that's what the instructors tell us.
"I hope you come here with an openness and willingness to not know what you're doing," Phoenix tells the class, "and hopefully we'll show you something you didn't know how to do."