Vancouver Burlesque Co: Teaching, surviving and serving in a pandemic

Holli Mae Johnson
Vancouver Burlesque Co teachers and students, by FUBARFOTO

How do you juggle a burlesque teaching business, hoards of students, newborn babies, and manage to stay sane in a global pandemic? One Canadian burlesque company and its three intrepid directors is making it work.

The Vancouver Burlesque Co. was founded in 2011 by co-directors Cherry OnTop and Lola Frost, and Ariel Helvetica came on board as studio director. Over 1000 students have benefited from the expert instruction of the directors themselves, local talent including Ruthe Ordare and Portia Favro, and US guest instructors Dirty Martini, Ray Gunn, Ginger Valentine and Perle Noire. 

After two years of searching for a new, sustainable space in the city, the VBC directors finally found the perfect home for their thriving burlesque school. Ariel and Cherry, while heavily pregnant, renovated the new space with the help of their local community and proudly opened for business.

Then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. 

“The pandemic threw us for a huge ride,” says studio director Ariel. “Lola, who had been away for over three years working in another province, was meant to have the spring to reconnect with the studio while Cherry and I had time to be moms with new babies, but 2020 was not having that!

“We all had a very stressful, intense spring, like everyone else. Our March Student Showcase happened the night before our province shut down and we had no idea what would lie ahead.”

Ariel Helvetica and students in class at the Vancouver Burlesque Co. summer workshop series
Ariel Helvetica and students in class at the Vancouver Burlesque Co. summer workshop series

Undefeated, the determined trio looked for a solution.

“To be safe, we moved all upcoming classes online, using Zoom,” the trio explain. “We did tests with each other over Zoom for sound and navigation. We watched Youtube tutorials. We drank wine and cried. We had already sold most of our Spring curriculum classes and reached out to our students to ask – are you ready for a ride? If not, no hurt feelings, here is a refund. Most of them were up for the challenge and it challenged us to think outside the box and adapt to the way we teach and learn.

“We would highly recommend having an in-house tech person who has knowledge in this medium so you don’t have to struggle or fail,” they add. “We weren’t financially able to have a person like this, so we did it ourselves.”

Vancouver Burlesque Co. instructor Lola Frost teaching students in Italy via Zoom.
Vancouver Burlesque Co. director Lola Frost teaching students in Italy via Zoom.

Although virtual classes felt strange at first, the students and instructors had fun and met the virtual challenges head on. 

“Cherry and Portia ran classes that lead to performance. Students learned and rehearsed on their own in their homes, then everyone came together for a virtual showcase, filmed with appropriate social distancing. It was strange and fun and wild!”

There are benefits to teaching online, however, which the team soon discovered. They can now reach a global market, and students who don’t feel comfortable learning in a studio with other people can take part from home. They can also teach from anywhere, which means Cherry, who has moved out of town, can teach from home instead of driving 1.5 hrs to film.

Another important benefit is that Vancouver Burlesque Co. can offer more sponsored BIPOC spots, as they can only fit ten students safely in-studio, but Zoom spots are unlimited.

The final Vancouver Burlesque Co. showcase before the Covid shutdown.
The final Vancouver Burlesque Co. showcase before the Covid shutdown.

The team is keen to offer the same high standard of instruction and support to their online students. 

“We find the instruction must be slowed down considerably so everyone can catch what’s happening virtually on their screen. Slow and steady wins the race with Zoom!

“Everyone learns differently, so being as consistent as possible with the students is key: having the same setup each time so the background/camera angle is the same, plus staying consistent with whether your image is mirrored or not (this is a tough one as students all have their own preferences).

“One thing we have learned is it can be hard for people with learning disabilities to concentrate, so classes are always recorded and can be downloaded by students if they prefer to watch on their own at their own pace.”

Vancouver Burlesque Co. instructor Cherry OnTop teaching an online class.
Vancouver Burlesque Co. director Cherry OnTop teaching an online class.

Naturally, the team has concerns about surviving financially in the long term.

“So far we have been able to scrape by for rent, even though we are only just welcoming students back into our physical space. This is naturally concerning, especially with the possibility of another shutdown. We have not been able to get government assistance or a rent freeze, so the struggle has been real!”

The pandemic has affected Cherry, Ariel and Lola on a personal level as well.

“I gave birth in January, so the pandemic was both challenging and a blessing,” says Cherry.  “My friends and family couldn’t come to see and hold the baby (which was heartbreaking) and we couldn’t travel anywhere or do much of anything. Homeschooling SUCKED, and I have a six year old who was in school. But because my partner was laid off from film work, he was actually around to spend time with us. I was lucky I hadn’t planned much for spring as a producer/performer – I didn’t have to cancel endless shows like my peers sadly had to.”

Ariel gave birth on March 16th – the week Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic. “Like Cherry, my partner was also laid off work, so we did have the luxury of time with our brand new baby. It was strange because I knew I would miss performing and teaching so much during the newborn phase, but with Covid that wasn’t even an option.”

When the pandemic hit, Lola had just relocated back to Vancouver after three years on tour. “My babes were having babies; I needed to be there to support them physically again, and I missed my city, my students and friends. I was looking forward to teaching full time and being off the road. It was isolating, and constantly being on the move was challenging… so in a way, I got what I asked for!” 

Cherry OnTop (left) with her new baby Maceo, Lola Frost (centre) and teacher Portia Favro at the Vancouver Burlesque Co. 2020 virtual showcase filming. Photo Bob Ayers
Cherry OnTop (left) with her new baby Maceo, Lola Frost (centre) and teacher Portia Favro at the Vancouver Burlesque Co. 2020 virtual showcase filming. Photo Bob Ayers

The trio has thoughts on the future of burlesque education.

“I think the future depends on what each school or company is offering. We have always offered classes that were burlesque-forward, but also added complementary or adjacent styles. 

“Our business model has always been a group of collaborators as opposed to staff, so it leaves room for the individual teacher to create their own offering, with our help and direction. We have always offered styles that can add different skills and layers to burlesque performance and will continue to expand on that model. We have always felt the mainstream or ‘out of our bubble’ students are necessary for the longevity of burlesque-style education; it’s how we have survived for so long.”

A Vancouver Burlesque Co. Zoom rehearsal.
A Vancouver Burlesque Co. Zoom rehearsal.

Now that the studio can reopen under the safety guidance measures in the province, the Vancouver Burlesque Co. are working hard to make the most of both their online and in-person offerings.

“Currently our challenge is doing Zoom and in-studio tandem classes so students can choose to be where they feel comfortable. Not only does it give the students a chance to stay home and take the class if they don’t feel up to coming in that day, but it allows us to expand our offerings globally, which has been a goal for years. 

“Making space both in-studio and via Zoom will also allow a deeper reach to folx that felt classes were inaccessible. We are making it a priority to form a pipeline for more BIPOC performers to have access to burlesque classes and also be able to learn from the BIPOC members of the community.

“The pandemic has also given us the kick to finally offer pre-taped online workshops, which are currently in the works. We are excited about the opportunity to share our instruction with the world!”

Nox Falls with the Vancouver Burlesque Co. students and teachers in December, 2019. Photo Bob Ayers
Nox Falls with the Vancouver Burlesque Co. students and teachers in December, 2019. Photo Bob Ayers

Ariel, Cherry and Lola have advice for new and experienced performers who are feeling lost and uncertain. 

“Now is the time to train and finesse! New performers can work on solos that will be ready when the world opens up again. You now have a world of performers and educators at your fingertips and screens! Take advantage of online classes – there are many that are free or very affordable. Work on studying your history, research costuming techniques, branding, get a photoshoot under your belt – all that time consuming business that often gets pushed aside for the physical work.

“Experienced performers can use this time to figure out which acts to keep or scrap, which to elevate and create. They can also use this time to move themselves online in some way so they can create income virtually. Also, now is the time to lift up BIPOC folx and make space for those performers to thrive, and for those with experience to offer that experience to lift up marginalised people.”

Vancouver Burlesque Co. performer Roxy Reverie in the March 2020 showcase. Photo FUBARFOTO
Vancouver Burlesque Co. performer Roxy Reverie in the March 2020 showcase. Photo FUBARFOTO

Inevitably, with all show venues closed, the team have looked to their other skills and income streams.

Cherry is a certified yoga instructor and works part time as a brand manager for a cannabis topical company, doing design, social media and promotion. Ariel is the owner of Tits and Tops – “a small but mighty merchandise company” – and was previously a costume buyer and stylist for the film industry. Lola is a certified Pilates instructor teaching at several studios in town, and also teaches erotic dance and pole at Tantra Fitness

“For now we have to take it day by day; things are constantly changing and evolving, and new ways of performing and making art are coming from this pandemic. Of course we are concerned; it’s been our livelihood for so long that it was second nature, but now I think we have to accept that it may never be that way again and start opening up to what else we have to offer.”

Ultimately, Cherry, Ariel and Lola are positive and motivated, grateful for the unexpected blessings pandemic life affords. 

“The slower pace of not being overbooked, over committed and overworked. Not having social pressures, instead having ‘social pleasures’. Being able to focus on what really matters, not just what we feel pressured to do. Looking at the bigger picture causes that are shaping our world and aligning ourselves for the improvement of those systems, instead of being focused on the next gig/show. Now we can simmer into what we truly want to create or recreate, and not just settle for the old system.”

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