“This is not your kids’ dance studio!” quips MissE Cloutier, 46, founder of Red Hot & Ladylike burlesque studio in Portland.
A lifelong dancer and instructor, Cloutier was mid-divorce when she took her first burlesque class a decade ago. She was smitten.
“This is not about competition,” Cloutier says. “It’s not about seeing how high you can kick your legs or whether you can do the splits. It’s not about your size or how old you are. Everyone can do this. Some women tell me it brought the spark back into their relationship that they needed. We get older, and we put our kids first, and we forget to take care of ourselves.”
Being sexy, it turns out, is mostly about feeling sexy. Though a Red Hot & Ladylike class is a workout and involves some sweat, the most obvious changes aren’t in the dancers’ bodies but in how they feel.
“I came for the jazz and stayed for the burlesque,” says Heather Hall, a 54-year-old technology professional from Windham. “Doing this has built a lot of confidence. People have commented that I hold myself differently. But it took me a while to tell people I dance with Red Hot & Ladylike. At work, they don’t see me in booty shorts, fishnets and heels.”
One regular dancer had recently lost 100 pounds and wanted to get in touch with her new body—which she does, dancing in a plaid mini-skirt and heels. Others have found a confidence boost after having a baby or getting out of an abusive relationship.
“It’s this really positive environment, just dancing and letting your guard down,” says Vanessa Hill, 31, of Portland. “If you’re needing a lift or someone has made you feel really bad about yourself, coming here is like therapy.”
Red Hot & Ladylike is about sensual empowerment, not stripping—though dancers do shed extra layers as they rehearse or perform.
“My women don’t go down to pasties and thongs,” says Cloutier. “Maybe short-shorts and a bra top. I feel that leaving something to the imagination is sexier. But there’s a lot of sexual innuendo.”
Burlesque shows with more choreographed group dance numbers and less nudity are more audience-friendly and attract larger crowds, Cloutier finds. Red Hot & Ladylike’s annual Give Spanks burlesque show at Port City Music Hall in November featured 50 dancers and 275 tickets were sold. The silent auction raised $1,400 for the fight against domestic violence, split between Family Crisis Center and Vixens Against Violence.
One of the dancers in that show was Kelsey Stephensen, a 26-year-old teacher from Old Orchard Beach who has been taking classes for a year.
“Your body changes,” Stephensen says. “But also, it’s about getting out of the house and finding something for me. Girls night.”
There’s a rhythm to the beginner drop-in classes. Ladies start filtering in a half hour early, pouring glasses of wine, chatting, petting Gracie the studio dog and strapping on their dancing shoes. Soon, they’re learning choreography that includes leaning backward in a chair and running their fingers through their hair.
“It’s about feeling good—and feeling sexy,” Cloutier says. “They embrace who they are and the body they’re in, not the one they dream about.”
Once a month Cloutier also teaches a Bring Your Human Prop class. “We get the men there by telling them they get to drink and sit in a chair while the ladies learn how to do a lap dance,” Cloutier says. But rarely does a man object when, toward the end of the class, they’re asked to perform for their partners. “The women scream because it’s so much fun,” Cloutier says.
Having taught Red Hot & Ladylike classes for nearly a decade, Cloutier has former students across the country who are helping coordinate her Vixens Against Violence fundraising tour next October. Cloutier plans to drive from Maine to California, teaching burlesque along the way.
FOR MORE INFO
Red Hot & Ladylike is on the first floor of 509 Forest Ave., Portland. There’s no Red Hot & Ladylike sign outside the building (“to keep out the creepers,” Cloutier says) but plenty of signage inside. (redhotandladylike.com/classes)
Freelance writer Amy Paradysz left a beginner class all smiles.