An Interview with Feminist Burlesque Creator and Dancer Mel Lum
Melanie Lum, aka the Velvet Unicorn, is a member of the feminist burlesque troupe RIOT GRRRLS Burlesque Revue, based in Victoria, BC. In conversation with Rebecca Spring, she discusses her burlesque performances, challenging sexual norms, and embracing sexuality.
What was your first experience with burlesque?
I went to Electronica Erotica in Victoria, which was all about reconnecting to your sexuality, and I was so inspired to see a woman on stage owning her sexual power. It made me realize how disconnected I was from my own sexuality, and how much I had surrendered to please men. Right away I was like: omg I have to do this. But also, deep down, I was terrified to take my power back and didn’t know where to start.
So how did you get into burlesque? Did you just start practicing on your own or did you look for a teacher?
I met Miss Rosie Bitts—a burlesque performer and teacher—in the steam room at Oak Bay Beach Hotel and I signed up for her “Learn to Love Your Jiggly Bitts” class in January 2016.
Right away, I felt more connected with my own sexuality. It started with getting permission to be sexy, to touch my own body and move it in whatever ways made me feel sexy. Rosie would be like “ok, now we’re going to do this” and I would do it, even if I felt nervous. The final class was a performance, and ever since I’ve been creating and performing burlesque.
Why was connecting with your sexuality so important to you?
Like I said before, it wasn’t until I saw burlesque that I realized how disconnected I was from my own sexuality. I wasn’t really aware of the patriarchy and rules that had been ingrained in me for so long. I wanted to strip off the layers of conditioning and conformity—how I was supposed to dress, that I should be pretty, but not too pretty to distract men. The burlesque community showed me how important self love and empowerment is, and it helped me break out of those norms.
Now, if I feel like it, I’m going to strip off my clothes and celebrate my body. That doesn’t make me a slut. And even if I was, who has the right to judge?
What do you say to people who think burlesque is demeaning?
I’ve had to end several relationships with people who were so upset about what I was doing that they couldn’t even talk to me about it. The one thing I would ask these people is whether they’ve ever been to a burlesque show. Most people who assume that the practice is demeaning haven’t actually seen it.
I feel like some people are so disconnected from their own sexual power that they are triggered by seeing someone else owning it. So instead of supporting the person who is embracing their sexual power, they try to tear them down. We need to start embracing and celebrating sexuality rather than shaming it.
So aside from empowering sexuality, what else is feminist about your performance?
Burlesque started as a form of entertainment to spoof the upper class and politicians. I believe the very act of getting on the stage and taking your clothes off for an audience is political and feminist.
They type of burlesque performance I’m most interested in creating addresses issues of inequality—specifically the patriarchy—and creates the opportunity for people to think outside the box on many issues. Some of my performances have addressed stereotypes of feminine beauty, women’s rights, and immigration. I had a lot of fear initially of incorporating more serious themes with burlesque, but audiences have responded well to the pieces.
The darkest piece that I’ve created and performed is about my grandmother, who was born in China and lived through the Japanese invasion in 1937. She would dress as a man to avoid being raped or killed by the Japanese soldiers. She was purchased by a man and smuggled into Canada. I wanted to pay tribute to the strength that it took for her to make the difficult decision of leaving her family, culture and selling her sovereignty to some man that she didn’t even know, for the sake of survival. Some people may think that selling yourself is not a feminist act, but I believe that she was fighting for equality on the most fundamental level: the right to live.
Our shows have an MC and a zine, which allow me to set the tone for the audience and explain the inspiration for the piece. Initially I was concerned this piece could come across as glorifying the issue of purchasing women as commodities, but I feel that the performance elements, wrapping chains around my wrists, for example, communicate the issue.
I think many people will be surprised to learn that burlesque can have such strong messages and stories. Did you think of yourself as an artist before you started this process?
I never saw myself as an artist before. But now I do. As an artist I’ve learned that self-validation is so important. I always perform for myself first, to make sure I am happy, before I present a piece to the audience. Before burlesque, I didn’t feel very confident in myself. I obeyed and stayed quiet. Now I’m ready to smash the boxes I’ve been contained in, and show my point of view.