hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture August 2020


Finding healing power — in burlesque

Berkshires-based performer sees dance form as path to empowerment


Anna Brooke, a Berkshires-based burlesque dancer and teacher who performs under the stage name Legs Malone, displays an outfit created by the designer Catherine D’Lish.


Contributing writer


A hush falls over the stage at a burlesque theater in the Tribeca district of Manhattan.
The emcee announces that the dancer about to make her entrance is not only talented but also boasts an impressive 34 1/2-inch inseam.
Suddenly Legs Malone prowls into the spotlight, clad in a black, above-the-knee trench coat and stiletto heels. In tow is a box she coyly sets down on a nearby table as Marvin Gaye croons “Let’s Get It On.”

A tango of desire with the box ensues. Little by little, Legs Malone reveals that the contents are a treasure trove of powdered doughnuts. She selects a white offering, raises it aloft, gazes longingly, then lunges at it with unbridled ferocity. The unapologetic jaw-clamp shoots powdered sugar into the air, where it hovers for a split-second in the spotlight before landing on her face and jacket as the crowd goes wild.
And that’s only the beginning of a performance of the push-pull, tease-and-please art form known as burlesque.

Burlesque emerged in 17th century Italy as a form of comic interlude in theater performances. It swept its way across Europe and, eventually, to the United States, where it became popular in the mid-1800s. Those unfamiliar with the subculture may be surprised to know it’s alive and well, thanks to a tightknit network of performers around the globe and an enthusiastic group of fans.
Legs Malone has been performing at burlesque venues for more than a decade in Manhattan, Europe and, most recently, western Massachusetts. Offstage, she is Anna Brooke, a soft-spoken resident of the Berkshires who came upon burlesque by chance in 2006.

Brooke became fascinated by burlesque after a whirlwind year in London, where she interned at an arts organization. She had hoped to relocate to the United Kingdom, but the need to renew a work visa meant a return to the states. With a bachelor’s degree in art history and a master’s degree in contemporary art, she found herself, unhappily, back in Manhattan.

“Living in London was a dream come true,” Brooke recalled. “Not a single cell of me wanted to be back in the states. I was depressed.”

In an attempt to cheer herself up and pass the time, she began attending burlesque shows.
“Back then, there were performances seven nights a week in New York,” she recalled. “It was amazing to me discover this subculture that was hiding in plain sight.”

Brooke was content to watch from the audience and had no intention of becoming a performer -- until a soul-searching retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge reset her compass.

The retreat focused on developing self-trust, and the curriculum included dancing, which Brooke had secretly loved as a child.

“Since early childhood, I dreamt of bursting onto the stage to share my light and love,” she recalled. “But fear of being judged stopped me.”

That weekend, she broke the shackles of inhibition and danced like everyone was watching.
“On the last day of the retreat, during a guided meditation, the teacher asked what career path would bring us the most joy,” Brooke recalled. “Out of nowhere, a voice whispered, ‘burlesque dancer.’”

Her next stop was the New York School of Burlesque, where her first class was a primer in fan dancing.

“When I realized I wanted to be up on stage, I became a sponge,” Brooke explained. “I wanted to learn everything I could.”

What she was completely unprepared for, however, was that burlesque turned out to be more than unbridled self-expression, an interesting career, or a means to travel the world on the performance circuit. Starting with her first class, burlesque had taken the role of salve for a wounded soul.

“I heaped so much abuse onto myself in my younger years,” Brooke said. “During that fan-dancing class, I took my own breath away when I saw myself in the mirror. What I was thoroughly unprepared for was how burlesque brought me home to love.”


Spectator turns performer
Like Brooke’s foray into the study of burlesque, her first-ever performance on stage was unplanned. One evening in September 2006, as she settled into the audience at a club, ready to be entertained, a manager approached her table and asked if she would be willing to get up and fill in for a no-show dancer. Hesitant at first, Brooke took the challenge and felt triumphant afterward.

The fuse was now ignited. She pounded the pavement seeking part-time gigs and soon was performing five nights a week throughout Manhattan. Eventually, she took her act to Europe, where she headlined in Stockholm and was featured twice at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In 2010, Brooke decided to take her expertise to the next level – as a teacher.
“I taught burlesque technique at first,” she said. “But as time went on, I learned it was about celebration – inhabiting the body with love and intention, celebrating it, and seeing what comes out on the other side.”

Witnessing the inner-transformation of her students, who are both male and female, was more gratifying than watching them perfect a technical skill, she said.

“I got to see people fall in love with themselves,” Brooke said, explaining that getting comfortable in one’s skin is only the beginning of the self-exploration inherent to the medium.
“I invite students to create a stage name,” she said. “It’s so freeing to play with an alter-ego. Yes, it’s you on stage, but you get to inhabit a part of yourself that you have not explored yet.”


Defying expectations
The heart of the burlesque routine is a choreographed striptease, but Brooke said this shouldn’t be confused with stripping.

“A lot of strippers use some of the tropes from burlesque, but at strip clubs, you play to one person at a time,” she explained. “In burlesque, you play to an entire room. Rather than just being about the end game of the big reveal, it’s much more theatrical.”

Because one of burlesque’s hallmarks is the removal of clothing, Brooke often has students begin with a little rudimentary stripping as a sort of get-to-know-yourself-better exercise.
“I tell them, ‘Strip to yourself first. Do a slow, glove-peel in front of the mirror and keep eye contact,’” she said. “We are our own worst critics. If we can begin to perceive ourselves differently, literally, it’s the softening of the shell.”

Her students are a mix of those with professional aspirations and those who simply want to break the wall of inhibition.

“Play is a big word in what I do,” Brooke explained. “Sometimes I notice someone hiding in the back of the classroom, and I invite them to come forward and play, please play.”
Rooted in the Italian word burla, meaning “a joke,” burlesque’s essence is playful mockery, Brooke said.

“It’s sending up stereotypes,” she said. “And there are lots of different ways to play that out, as I do when I literally get it on with a box of doughnuts to turn around the toxic message of, ‘How dare you want donuts?’ And burlesque has always been about turning around the message of ‘How dare a woman be sexual?’”

The triad of fun, play and permission has proven to be powerful in the personal transformation of her students.

“Amazing things happen when you’re willing to pay yourself a compliment in the mirror,” Brooke said. “I’ve seen women cry, break out in sweat, and have huge releases of energy. I encourage students to not just face fears but dance with them. Fear is a giant neon finger that points toward what you need to do.”

Manifesto for a medium

Brooke’s experience with burlesque as a tool for personal transformation inspired her to write “Stripped Down: How Burlesque Led Me Home,” a book she describes as “part memoir, part manifesto.”

The book opens with a candid account of her own youth, which Brooke says was scarred by crippling self-doubt, confusion and disordered eating.

“I had no idea who I really was, and I felt like I was water, taking the shape of whatever container I was currently poured into,” she writes. “Dieting became a default remedy for both mitigating shame and feeling more in control, only it had the opposite effect.”

Brooke said she hopes the book is judged not entirely by the cover photo of the author in full burlesque-glam of red lips, red shoulder-duster earrings, a red flower in her hair, and a coiling red-feather boa that both covers and reveals her body.

“My publisher initially said the Midwest won’t go for it,” she recalled. “I told her, ‘If anyone chooses to be terrified by this image, it’s their path.’”

“Stripped Down” takes the reader on Brooke’s journey from self-loathing to self-loving and describes how the medium of burlesque proved to be the best therapy of all -- “a practice of healing through performance, seduction, glamour, and self-love.”

“My book is for anyone who has ever let their perception of their body get in way of what they do,” she said. “So many people hold themselves back based on what they look like, and none of it is true.”

When she’s not teaching, Brooke also works one-on-one in the healing arts. She’s a certified breath worker, an ordained minister, a reiki master and an empowerment coach.

“I work with people to identify areas of wounding in their lives to create an empowered life, and burlesque parlays into that,” she said. “I would love to work with middle-school-aged girls and tell them how wonderful they are. The ‘you’re only as valuable as you are attractive’ message is so toxic.”


Staying provocative online
In response to the emotional and economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brooke has been doing daily live “Quarantine Self-Care” broadcasts on Facebook and Instagram. The original intent was to give people stuck at home a boost of encouragement at the height of quarantine, but she said the response has been so favorable that she’s continuing the daily gatherings indefinitely.

“Some of my friends in the burlesque community lost their income, their savings, and were fighting demons,” she explained.

Brooke’s academic background in art often makes its way into her broadcasts, where discussion topics range from modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis as a role model for befriending the body to the idea of eating comfort food without self-recrimination.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I can go online to remind people they are loveable and to forget the external chaos for a bit and return home to self,’” she said. “If we want to create a world of compassion, we have to do that to ourselves. … It’s a practice.”

The Covid-19 crisis has tabled in-person burlesque workshops for now, but Brooke is considering resuming them online. She also hopes to hit the lecture and book-signing circuit once pandemic-related restrictions are no longer an issue. Until she can resume in-person teaching, she said she hopes the book and her YouTube videos will provide some provocative food for thought.
“All you need is a body to do burlesque,” she said. “You don’t have to look like Jessica Rabbit. Christopher Walken does an amazing striptease in the movie ‘Pennies From Heaven.’ And it’s for everybody -- all sizes and ages. I was at a striptease annual reunion once, and a 70-something blew the roof off the place. It has nothing to do with what the body looks like. It has everything to do with spirit.”


Visit www.AnnaBrookeHealing.com for more information about Anna Brooke, her burlesque workshops and her book.