By: Ina Joseph
It’s been over a year of pandemic living, and we’ve all but exhausted the more mainstream COVID hobbies—bread baking, cloud coffee crafting, etc. Rather than look to Pinterest or Tik Tok for the next big thing, we spoke to international Burlesque performer Mika Romantic for our potential new pandemic pastime. What better way to add a bit of sparkle to these darkest of days than with the glamour and seduction of Burlesque?
The Rise of Mika Romantic
From a young country gal to an international star, Mika’s story could be your classic “rising star” coming-of-age storyline. She was raised in Zionsville, Pennsylvania, her family being the most diverse in the small-town, rural countryside.
“Me, my brother, my sister – we’re all mixed, so we were the most ‘ethnic’ looking in our area. We had to go through what you'd expect, being someone who looks different. That just gave me a craving to go out and... rebel a little bit,” Mika said.
Fast-forward to her mid-twenties, Mika experienced a break-up that left her longing for self-exploration. Looking back at movies that had stuck with her —Moulin Rouge and the cabaret scene in The Great Mouse Detective — Mika’s gut told her what to do next. She found the New York School of Burlesque and quit her day job to start her career as a Burlesque dancer.
Mika Romantic in Amour Caché's Cristal Wireless Pocketed Bra ($69) & Hipster ($22).
At first Mika’s family was skeptical. But as she continued to grow as a dancer and performer, managing to get bookings even while living in “cow country”, they realized just how committed Mika was to the world of Burlesque. Mika also attributes her family’s acceptance to this new career path to their being a group of strong women “who have been through hell and back”.
“I didn’t really have any males or father-figures in my life growing up,” Mika said. “[There was never] that male guilt of, ‘No daughter of mine is going to be this kind of way.’ I always had positive female energy around me. We talked openly about sexuality; it was never something to condemn.”
Eight years later, Mika has toured the world and created her own burlesque troupe, The Looking Glass Revue. Above all else, she continues to share the beauty and wonder of Burlesque with anyone willing to listen - with an open mind, that is.
Burlesque and Body Politics
“The art of storytelling...while taking your clothes off!” is how Mika would simply (and cheekily) describe Burlesque in a nutshell. More broadly put, American Burlesque is a performance art-driven form of adult entertainment with a rich history rooted in literature, theater, music, and extravaganza.
Media depictions like the 2010 film starring Christina Aguilera have over-simplified the world of Burlesque. In fact, according to Mika (and many other Burlesque performers), Burlesque is more so a depiction of Cabaret than actual Burlesque, whose genres range from Neo-Burlesque, to cosplay-inspired Nerdlesque, to gender-bending Boylesque.
“There’s something for everybody,” Mika said after listing the various subgenres of Burlesque. Her number one suggestion to those attending a performance for the first time? Keep an open mind and a positive attitude. “It just goes back to [Burlesque being a] performance art; you never know what you’re going to see.”
What you will likely see, though, is a lot of skin. Part of this art form’s allure is its raunchy near-nudity, which is one of Mika’s favorite parts of Burlesque. “As a viewer, I love watching the female form. I think it’s beautiful in all its different shapes; I love how no body is the same,” Mika said.
The shameless display of diverse bodies is not only seductive, but it’s also inherently political – subverting social norms and rejecting what is “respectable”. Therefore, the liberation of performing naked onstage does not come without its conflict. Although Mika’s empowered upbringing has emboldened her to bare it all, she still faces scrutiny from audience members who aren’t as comfortable seeing so much skin.
"I never thought stripping or being naked was a weird thing until I would start to hear [audience members] say things about your body. It is very political because [in this] country we have a very skewed idea of women and what a woman should be and look like, and I think a lot of the Burlesque audiences, they’ve come to understand that,” Mike explained. “You can tell [who is] a newbie audience member compared to someone who’s seen a couple shows and understands, and almost enjoys, the fact that there's women of all sizes and shapes and colors... [and] they’re not going to stop what they're doing just because you feel uncomfortable.”
More Than Glitz & Glamour
That feeling – the feeling of being unstoppable – is what Mika tells herself and her students to cherish while experiencing whirlwind performances, whose venues can be just as unexpected as the performances themselves. No matter how small the stage or how cramped the backstage, the magic and color of Burlesque never fails to keep Mika “in awe”.
That said, Burlesque is not all glamour and partying. It’s hard work to be a performer, and it’s even harder when a global pandemic halts your career. Despite missing the wonder of live performances – that spark while on dancing stage, “looking out, and seeing people smile” - Mika hasn’t let COVID-19 keep her from making the most of her profession and all the lessons it has to offer. From the power of communication to how to bring business etiquette to every situation, Burlesque has taught Mika so much more than how to dance (and strip) with charisma. Beyond granting Mika life-lessons for herself, Burlesque has shown her what truly inclusive spaces look like.
“I can definitely say the Burlesque community has been very proactive. They’ve been understanding how to listen if a performer comes out and says, ‘Hey, we’re seeing the same types of bodies in all these shows, can we have some diversity?’” Mika said. “Recently everyone’s been stepping up, and it's really great to see that the community doesn't shy away from [body diversity]; we want everyone to feel included and I think the community definitely keeps fighting for it - for equal representation for everyone.”
Burlesque is Always the Answer
Whether it’s how to love and accept all kinds of bodies or how to shine professionally and personally, the world of Burlesque has a lot of insight to offer. It’s changed Mika’s life for the better, and she’s sure it can change yours, too, no matter who you are or where you come from,
"I always had positive female energy around me. We talked openly about sexuality; it was never something to condemn.”
“If you're not doing anything else, if you want to develop a new relationship with your body, if you want to make new friends, if you want to be automatically accepted into an environment, if you love being a showboat, if there's something inside you that needs a dramatic change, I would definitely recommend Burlesque. Because you will change overnight!”