Harmony True danced as a professional ballerina for a decade. When she moved from San Luis Obispo to Monterey County, she called it quits – there was no professional ballet company locally. She was grocery shopping one day when she got a call from Callie McKenzie, another member of the small local dance community. McKenzie, also a ballerina by training, was interested in starting something that sounded as different from ballet as you could get: a burlesque troupe.
At first, True wasn’t sure. “I thought, burlesque means you take off your clothes… what are people going to think of me?”
McKenzie, who was introduced to burlesque by another fellow-ballerina when she lived in Mendocino, had gone through the same kind of questioning. But both women have found that not only are they free of the judgment they feared they might face, they are freed in a creative way they never could have imagined in the world of ballet.
“In ballet, there is an exact way you are supposed to do something, there is a body type you are supposed to be – it’s very rigid and regimented,” McKenzie says. On the other hand, burlesque embraces all body types and styles, and there’s room for improv.
“It’s the most liberating, freeing thing I have ever done in my life,” True offers. “I always thought ballet was my calling. Now, burlesque. I have complete control of the person that I want to be on stage.”
That person for True is Belle Delight; McKenzie is Honey Delight; Vanessa Burkleo is Afternoon Delight. Together they form the core of The Carmel Delights, and after a pandemic hiatus, they are back on stage with more shows than ever. This summer they’ll perform at The Fringe Festival in Scotland, and the Ibiza Burlesque Festival in Spain. They perform on a variety of local stages. And they also teach others the art of burlesque in community classes meant for dancers of all levels, from curious beginners to advanced pole dancers who practice at Ms Tryss Boutique in Monterey.
On a recent Tuesday night, McKenzie guides a group of eight women through a routine to Christina Aguilera’s “Nasty Naughty Boy,” starting out seated backwards on chairs, beckoning with a “come hither” finger wag toward the mirror.
A few minutes later, with everyone lying sideways on the floor and practicing a corkscrew leg move with the knee up then down then up again, McKenzie encourages the group: “It feels really awkward, but looks really good.”
It’s an hour of intensive dance, and by the end most participants have shed a layer or two, many down to sports bras, and one adds high heels for the final run-through. But it doesn’t feel like a fitness class. “It is very slow, sultry movement, so it’s not super aerobic,” McKenzie says. “Because burlesque is supposed to be for all, we want it to be accessible to anyone.”
In her day job, McKenzie works as a therapist; besides teaching, choreographing and performing burlesque, she also teaches aerial silks and plays soccer in a league in Santa Cruz. After exhausting every dance offering at Monterey Peninsula College, McKenzie decided to start her own dance group in which she gets to combine her talents, including fire-eating.
She’s been surprised by her own journey. “I tip-toed my way in,” she says. She remembers starting out and saying: “I’m not going to go down to thong, and I’m not going to go down to pasties.” Now she’s done a number that features 17 sets of pasties.
At 39, she’s older than a lot of dancers, but has found a community who embrace their bodies: “We’re not afraid to put on pasties and a thong and embrace our cellulite.”
That celebration of bodies is part of what dancers say gives it power. “You’re claiming your sexuality,” McKenzie says. “It’s crazy to be able to do the minimal movement of peeling a glove off on stage, knowing that everyone is hanging off the edge of their seat.”
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