‘I’m a mum, a churchgoer and a burlesque dancer’
Jun 12 2009 Laura Kemp, South Wales Echo
Busy mum Stephanie Gawne-Hamza leads an extraordinary double life. TBy day, the 33-year-old is a dance teacher who runs a business and a home and makes sure she takes her four-year-old to church every Sunday morning. But as soon as she’s tucked up her daughter in bed, the petite brunette steps out into the night to perform as a risqué burlesque entertainer. Exit Stephanie, enter her foxy showgirl alter ego, Foo Foo La Belle, complete with nipple tassels, feather boa and long gloves. It may seem bizarre, but the Cardiff performer insists her two lives sit comfortably side by side…
I began burlesque dancing two years ago but I’ve been a professional dancer since I was 19.
I did cabaret, theatre, circus acts – I can get on and off an elephant in high heels – and my work took me to Japan, Sweden, Russia, China and Hong Kong. I was also a belly dancer, I still perform and teach.
Then there was a burlesque revival five years ago and I went to see a show, I loved the theatre, the Vaudeville feeling and the tease and I thought ‘I would love to do this too.’
I set up Burlesque Cardiff and we put on shows which include live music, a comedian, plus a chorus of dancers, some of whom I have trained. They’re women from all walks of life who come along to my classes and take part in the shows, we’ve even got a 63-year-old in the line-up.
I’m very influenced by the musical Cabaret, I love the decadence, the tragedy and the comedy – my showgirls aren’t all legs and skinny, we’re a bunch of real women, some with great bums, some with great figures, some with a great look, who the audience can relate to. But my chorus line dancers don’t strip, it’s not a smutty show, women who wouldn’t walk in to a pub in St Mary Street feel they can come to Burlesque Cardiff shows, it’s a very woman-positive environment. Some of the audience come dressed up too, as divas or harlots in corsets and fascinators and the men wear top hats and tails, and military uniforms. It’s dressing up for adults.
Burlesque is pure escapism – it’s smoke and mirrors, it’s creating an illusion. Burlesque dancers have a rule – we never show our nipples, we go down as far as pants and pasties, that’s what we call the covering on our nipples, and that’s it. I have a number of characters I play, Marie Antoinette, which I do en pointe, Honey the Domestic Goddess and Little Red Riding Hood. It makes my act more theatrical, I like to come up with an original act.
I’ve never really had a day job, I work as a fitness instructor and I teach pilates but I mainly do belly dancing and burlesque classes and performances. I’m a single parent and my four-year-old will be going to school in September. My days are taken up by teaching, fielding calls, responding to e-mails, working on routines, general admin and running a household. I also choreograph Miss Wales and Miss Universe UK and I go to Istanbul to take part in the Gypsy Festival every May. To relax I like to be with friends, watch films – my favourite is Some Like It Hot, which I’ve loved since I was eight – going out for meals and people-watching.
I can reconcile being a churchgoer and a burlesque performer because what I do is an art form. I’m not a stripper – burlesque is theatre, my act is all about what you’re not showing, it’s the tease, I’m playing a character, an alter ego. It’s a performance and a livelihood. I wouldn’t want to do it in a pub, it has to be within a cabaret context, part of an extravaganza. It’s occasionally erotic, yes, but it’s never pornographic, it’s a union of comedy and sexuality.
I’m a Christian. I love the theatre of going to church, the sermons, mass and the buildings themselves are lovely. I believe in God, I believe in the divine spirit, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
I go to church every Sunday, there’s a real community there, being a single parent I feel very welcome and part of things there. Religion gives me a sense of peace, God loves me. I’ve been going to church since Christmas, I just had a tipping-point when I realised I wanted to be part of it. There is a lot of good in the church system, it provides a social structure, it’s a circle of friends for you and your child.
I find it really comforting and really nice, it’s beneficial to me. I sit and let the power of the Almighty enter me, you just go with God and life’s much easier.
I’ve always been spiritual rather than religious but, like most people, I went to a church school and when I was growing up my father was quite high church. I would sit in church and get really overwhelmed by it all. But I wasn’t scared to go back to God, I really wanted to embrace God, He’s always there, I believe you can’t stay at home to worship, you have to go to God’s house, these rituals cement society. God is like sport and times of national crisis, they all bring people together.
The people at church know I’m a dance teacher, but they don’t know about the burlesque aspect, but I don’t think they would consider it a problem because of the nature of it, I’m not a lap dancer selling sex.
My mum knows what I do and she sees the costumes but she’s never seen my act, we don’t really talk about what I do, she’s happy her granddaughter is thriving and she knows I’m a big girl, all grown-up, and it’s my choice.
My daughter knows I do burlesque and belly dancing, she knows the difference and she just takes it in her stride. Would I like her to do it? I just hope she will do something she’s good at, she finds happiness and peace and she has an academic career. A dancer’s life is really hard, you’ve got to be at the top of your game, you’ve got to adapt your act, you can’t just do the same old thing night after night.”
* This story cannot be reproduced without Laura Kemp’s permission, email@example.com
You can catch Foo Foo La Belle and many other local burlesque performers on June 25 in her new show Sexy Kittens at Fat Cats, Grosvenor House, Greyfriars, Cardiff. For information and tickets go to www.cardiffburlesque.co.uk