Circus burlesque: The art of tease with added wow factor of flying

Darielle Williams is an aerialist pole dancer in Los Anegeles
Darielle Williams, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, studied dance at the Florida International University in Miami and is now a professional aerialist. PHOTO BY Jessica Moncrief

By Aiden FitzGerald

“I do a very sexy, powerful pole dance,” said Darielle Williams, a dancer in Los Angeles who performs circus burlesque. “If I feel empowered, the audience feels empowered.” 

Williams was the aerialist in Beyonce’s Formation World Tour in 2016. She performed in the traveling circus burlesque Fetish Ball in Dallas and in Torture Garden in New Orleans. She doesn’t strip in performance, but doesn’t wear much to begin with. 

“On a shiny pole you kind of have to be half naked,” she said. “You can’t really wear clothes or you won’t stick.”

Aerialist pole dancer Donna Carnow of New York City, said she feels “super human” when performing.

“I feel like the most actualized version of me and it’s just the most powerful thing in the world,” said Carnow. “Pole dancing singlehandedly changed the trajectory of my life.” 

She began taking classes in college as a dance studies major at the University of Illinois. 

For her thesis she choreographed a 17-minute pole dancing performance incorporating modern dance.

“It’s a humbling, unique collision of artistry and athleticism,” said Carnow, who performs in variety shows in New York and competes nationally, too. Last November she won the Northeast Pole Art championship.

Shenea Booth, who bills herself as Shenea Stiletto, has been performing burlesque-style acts for more than a decade.

“I helped to create the burlesque circus genre,” said Booth, who lives in L.A. and is a veteran of  Cirque du Soleil, America’s Got Talent and So You Think You Can Dance. 

Booth specializes in balancing her body in flexible positions while hand-standing on a rotating platform shaped like a sparkling stiletto shoe.

“Now, everybody in aerials wears stiletto heels. If they want to be sexy, you don’t see them without high heels. It doesn’t matter what gender they are or how they identify — which I think is really great and really cool,” said the two-time World Champion in Acrobatic Gymnastics. 

What separates burlesque from stripping, Booth said, is a line of nudity that isn’t crossed. “But I do see people trying to push that line a bit more. For me, I think if you push that too far it’s no longer burlesque in my opinion.” 

Shenea Stiletto is a hand-balancer and acro-gymnast who specializes in circus burlesque. Photo courtesy of Shenea Stiletto.

Dusty Rose, a man, is founder and creative director of Manhattan’s The Rose Room-Circus Speakeasy and he occasionally erases that line.

“For me, there isn’t a line between circus burlesque and stripping because what it comes down to is storytelling,” said Rose, whose background is theater and magic. “What’s the emotion you’re trying to convey to your audience? What are you trying to make them feel? Is it scared? Is it excited? Is it aroused? Curious? Disgusted?”

“I think that sometimes it’s hard for us to embrace our own power,” said Rose, who emcees shows at The Rose Room in the nude. “I do get naked,” he said. “I give the audience an option and every time they’re like, ‘Get naked!’ And so I do. As someone who doesn’t really love his body all that much, it’s been a very interesting journey as a performer to learn how to do that.”

At the Rose Room, acts include contortionists, aerialists and an upside down burlesque straight jacket escape.

“I think that this new generation of artists, it’s all about shedding inhibitions, those traditional confines, to connect to audiences in a new way because what is more exciting than to be naked and vulnerable and connect with an audience?”

Unsurprisingly, Rose has witnessed increased interest in circus burlesque performances in recent years.  

“I think our values and our intrigue in sexuality has evolved so much,” he said, adding that burlesque performers have had an urge to push boundaries and add a wow factor by learning and incorporating new, circus style skills. “It is not just about dancing around with feather fans and slowly taking off clothes.”

It’s not easy for everyone to be vulnerable, Rose said, but circus burlesque venues help. 

“They have created a space where everyone feels safe to explore that sexy facet of themselves.”


About Aiden FitzGerald 5 Articles
Aiden FitzGerald is a writer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and Rhode Island Monthly, among other publications. Her interests in social justice and her love of nature, art and motherhood drive her work. Aiden received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, where she is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Journalism.