In September 2019 full of curiosity, I found myself spending Tuesday evenings at Marlene Von Steenvag’s Berlin Burlesque Academy. At the time I had no idea where The Secrets of Burlesque course would take me, it was just a great deal of fun. Little did I know that my interview with Marlene would be so inspiring and the world of burlesque so intriguing that September 2020 would find me back at the Academy learning moves to take me on stage and perform as part of the Berlin Burlesque Festival Emerald Esmeraldas! Last night October 17th saw a very special show curated in line with the ever changing Covid-19 rules bringing a variety of performers together to share this art form and ensure culture takes place even when its difficult.
Beautiful, intelligent and naturally charming, it’s a true pleasure to bring you my exclusive interview with artist, performer and entrepreneur Marlene Von Steenvag.
So what actually is Burlesque?
It’s an exploration of feminity and movement and story telling, often a way of exploring fantasy, desire or an alter ego. The Burlesque we teach is sophisticated, it’s high end, but still erotic and sensual, it’s all about elegance. I think this combination excites interest from a variety of people. During our classes, we ensure that our guests never have to do anything they are uncomfortable with and that it is never vulgar. The performer is the subject in Burlesque. They are in control and can create the act they want to, restricted only by imagination. You see a character, you see a personality and what they have to say.
In Berlin, there was a big 1920’s scene and it was very provocative and usually completely nude. Burlesque, as we understand it now, actually comes from the US in the 1940’s, where they created a law that you couldn’t show any primary and secondary sexual parts, so the nipples had to be hidden and the string panties had to be on. So what performers did was put glittery and sparkly things on those parts, actually drawing people’s eyes there! Burlesque is much more moderate than what we saw in the 1920’s. It’s an art form that is sensual rather than sexual. Obviously, within a true Burlesque act, you are expected to remove some clothes. The how and the what and the amount is down to the creativity and confidence of the performer.
What do you actually do? As an artist, I design shows that feature topics that are within me – topics that I want to bring out. Inspiration comes from varied sources and are always very creative and imaginative, well researched and I hope, inspirational.
My Academy opens the art of Burlesque to people who seek to realise an aspect of their personality in a safe and welcoming place. I strive to empower people to feel good about their bodies, their desires, their spirits. Typically, people seek to explore burlesque for a multitude of reasons. We offer sophisticated, elegant, quality instruction that allows people to feel at harmony with themselves and their thoughts and their wishes.
Sometimes you might have a sexual desire and you don’t feel good about it, or you might have a problem with your body, you might think, “my thighs are too big” and then you have someone standing in front of you with big thighs oozing confidence, or you have this feeling of wanting to be the centre of attention and you don’t allow it to yourself. My classes encourage people to be free and to explore and express themselves and this is what I do because I really believe in it.
Alongside the classes, I teach 1:1 with all types of people. People who want to be on stage, people who don’t feel at home in their bodies, actors preparing for a role or women seeking to be more feminine. Sometimes also people seeking to unleash an aspect of themselves that they had kept hidden. In short, men and woman of all ages and sexuality come to our Academy.
What sparked your interest in the Art of Burlesque?
I always wanted to act, but I came from an academic background, so it felt like I should not do that. At the end of my studies in Literature and Linguistics, I was offered to do a PhD and I thought that if I did this, then for the rest of my life I would just be carried around by my head separate from my body. So I thought about what I really wanted to do. I was too old for German Acting School, so the best option was to go to the UK and I found a school I liked and successfully auditioned.
To help finance my studies, I worked part-time in a restaurant. One day, the owner, who knew I was studying Acting, asked if I could create a programme for a Friday night performance. With just 5 days to create an act, I decided to sing text by the author Bertolt Brecht. And to make my performance more interesting, I started to change my costume and thereby created the character Marlene Von Steenvag! The experience made me realise that I actually liked this type of performance more than simply acting. It triggered my love of creating shows and opened my eyes to other forms of performance. I knew if I really wanted to develop my art, I needed to go to Berlin, so that’s what brought me back to Germany.
What motivated you to start your own business?
When I moved to Berlin, there was hardly any Burlesque, so I designed shows and started creating Burlesque events. Then, people came and asked where they could learn Burlesque skills. There was so much interest that I actually founded the Burlesque Academy when I was pregnant! I stopped performing at around three months pregnant and then I started offering classes and established an agency for other performers to offer classes. I enjoy teaching – it’s a real pleasure to share the knowledge, I’ve worked so hard to gain.
I love Burlesque as it makes me so free and happy in my body – when as a child, I was so self-conscious. This liberation is something I want other people to experience.
To give both Berlin and International Burlesque Artists a higher profile and broader audience, I founded The Berlin Burlesque Festival in 2013, which I manage with my business partner Elsa Edelstahl. The festival gives the opportunity to artists to perform in two beautiful locations, to meet other performers from around the world and showcase their skills to a different group of Burlesque lovers.
What’s your biggest entrepreneurial challenge and how have you adapted to the restrictions that have been put into place due to Covid-19?
Dealing with unprofessional people on a professional level. It’s a small and highly competitive industry dominated by highly creative people which can cause its own issues. As such, we have even created a course to help people learn about the business of Burlesque should they wish to create a career in the industry. The course includes finding ones USP, the art of story-telling and even writing invoices, doing taxes plus professional behaviour.
I’m a pro-active person so though my industry has been rocked by the situation, we were quick to work with our fantastic teachers to find a way to keep moving forward. Our weekly classes are now available online with a strictly limited number of participants allowed in the studio space. Else Edelstahl and I co-founded the Berlin Burlesque Festival and plans for the 2020 edition were already in place before the April – June lock down. We have a great working relationship with all of our venues, sponsors and collaborators so we’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to continually adapt to the ever changing situation, ensuring our artists and the public are safe and protected. We strongly believe it was essential to ensure the festival could go on to demonstrate that culture endures regardless of the challenges faced.
What inspires you to get out of bed every day!
The desire to create art and performance that makes the world a more beautiful place. Whether I make breakfast for my child or whether I have a nice time with my husband or I teach or I plan a show, that’s really what I do.
What does the word ‘style’ mean to you?
Style is unique to each individual, It’s nothing to do with fashion or any kind of rules. It’s just what one person decides to implement to represent oneself. My own style is definitely very feminine. Simple dresses in quality fabrics matched with beautiful jewellery, I do love eye-catching accessories.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs and women in business?
Surround yourself with the right people. If you have good people around you, you can manage everything, you can go through every crisis and you can celebrate success together.
Berlin Burlesque Academy
Griefenhagener Str. 64
10437 Berlin (Prenzlauer Berg)
This is an updated and edited interview originally published in November 2019