Burlesque dancers and teachers are virtually shimmying into living rooms around the world for a little celebratory sparkle during this scary time.

Experiencing a modern burlesque performance, whether you’re on stage or in the audience, is a visceral, physical affair. Most performances happen in intimate quarters, letting the audience see the performer’s glistening skin beneath the hot lights, allowing the dancers to make eye contact with their viewers. It’s this intimacy that makes a burlesque performance so much more than just stripping behind feather fans: It can be an intimate act of connection between performer and viewer. It can inspire people on both sides of the stage to embrace their truest selves.

So what happens when that physical connection is severed?

The lights are out at thousands of nightlife venues across the country while the world attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19. But burlesque performers are still bringing all of the glitz and glam — with none of the germs — to virtual shows and classes. 

Kellita Maloof, a Bay Area performer and instructor with over 20 years of experience in the world of showgirl dance, is fully embracing the digital burlesque landscape. Her Showgirl Awakening classes, which she’s now offering online at Eventbrite, teach psychological and spiritual wellness through the lens of burlesque. Participants practice empowering themselves in the comfortable, contained space that burlesque can provide—a stage, music, a costume, a routine—and then are encouraged to use that power in the rest of their lives.

Online burlesque classes and events

It’s a safe practice that might be ideally suited for self-isolation, when millions of people are struggling with feelings of uncertainty, discomfort, and fear. “It starts when the music starts, it ends at the end,” she says. “It’s contained, it’s very specific, and then after it’s over, [students] can take [their new-found confidence] out somewhere.”

Maloof has taught digital classes on and off over the last decade and believes there’s something particularly special about online burlesque classes: the camera. More specifically, turning off the camera.

“The whole thing behind burlesque, for me, is being seen on your own terms,” Maloof says. If you’ve ever been intrigued by burlesque but feel too self-conscious or anxious to go to an in-person class, joining an online class and turning off your webcam can be the perfect way to dip your toe into the burlesque pond. “You can’t go into a room and put yourself on invisible, but you can do that online,” she says.

If you prefer to be in the audience, tons of burlesque groups and long-time dancers are going online, too. In late March, variety shows like Bootleg Bombshells and Haus of Olive moved to Instagram, showcasing glamorous acts over live stream. Instead of handing out dollar bills between acts, viewers were encouraged to tip performers via cash apps like Venmo. If performing is more your thing, San Francisco’s Kind of Blue Revue hosts hashtag-based dance challenges for anyone who wants to whip up a routine to their song of the week.

While long-standing club acts and tenured teachers are transitioning to live stream platforms, cheeky performers are applying that signature burlesque sense of humor to bring new experiences to a scary situation. You can sign up for online classes encouraging you to ”shimmy, shake, and shelter in place,” or sit back for the “Quarantine Cabaret” by Los Angeles-based producer Michelle L’amour

During an international crisis, it’s easy to lose track of the importance of art and creation. We’re worried about the health of our friends and family, the viability of our livelihoods, and the future of our societies.

But it’s times like this when burlesque and other forms of expression become invaluable in lifting spirits by inspiring movement, self-love, and sheer joy. Maloof thinks online burlesque events can do more than just help performers pay their rent: they help the entire world cope with grief. “We’re helping people come alive, and by helping people come alive, I believe we can help them figure out the big stuff.”