Burlesque is a joyous celebration of human sensuality and sexuality, but Ruthe Ordare of the Mohawk Nation is taking it further. She’s been demonstrating how burlesque can help cultivate strong, healthy communities and rematriate the sexuality of Indigenous women.
Ordare has been a mainstay on the burlesque scene for a decade. She is the artistic director of the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival, which is scheduled for April and will be all-digital. She is also a founding member of Virago Nation – a collective of Indigenous artists founded in 2016 with a mission to “reclaim Indigenous sexuality from the toxic effects of colonization,” reads the collective’s website. “They will show that Indigenous women will not be confined to the colonial virgin-whore dichotomy.”
For Indigenous women, mainstream conventions around sexuality can have incredibly sinister and, far too often, deadly consequences. On a phone call in January, Ordare and I discussed how harmful stereotypes like the “noble savage” are terms that we agree should be removed from the common vernacular but are still far too familiar to Indigenous women in this country. These stereotypes often permeate the realities of Indigenous women, be it from external forces that treat us as disposable or how we can easily internalize such abhorrent sentiments. One needs to look no further than Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as evidence of this. Ordare and the Viragos offer an antidote of sorts, or at least some healing medicine.
“[Our sexuality] is often cloaked in danger. If you’re too sexual, you’re asking for it. You look to missing and murdered Indigenous women; some of them are sex workers. … [They’re] seen as disposable. So for us, it was creating a space where Indigenous women can embrace their sexuality in a way that is safe and feels good to them,” Ordare tells me.
Safety for the participants is a careful consideration during Virago Nation workshops. “We make sure they’re closed to non-participants,” Ordare says, also mentioning that they sometimes specify that the workshops are open to women and femme-identifying people who are open to that setting. “We make sure that it’s about laughter and fun and enjoyment, and not really about putting on a performance. It’s about having a safe space to embrace your sexuality as Indigenous women.”
[Our sexuality] is cloaked in danger.
– Ruthe Ordare
According to Ordare, in the early days of her burlesque career, she didn’t see many performers infusing their cultures and heritages into their performance bios. That’s something that has become common in the past five years. “[Virago Nation]’s been an anchor for other Indigenous artists,” she says. “[They say], ‘Oh my gosh, there are people like me doing this,’ and they see themselves in us.”
Ordare was drawn to burlesque after a childhood training in ballet, jazz, hip hop, lyrical, contemporary – “You name it … I always loved the dance studio and performing,” she says. But it was always the empowering jazz and hip-hop numbers that she enjoyed. “So I was already drawn to that strong, confident sexuality that you see in burlesque.”
When she went to the University of British Columbia, education took priority over dance, but she still choreographed school musicals. It wasn’t until she finished school that she was able to find mentors within the burlesque community. Eight weeks after she started taking classes, she was onstage.
Something unique to burlesque is that the performer is wholly in charge of their sexuality and its presentation. It’s a space where mainstream conventions can be cast aside, and performers can be any size, colour or sexuality. Ordare explains that the audience will consider any act brimming with confidence as sexy.
“I’m interested in what makes you feel sexy,” she says. “If I show you a body roll, that may not make you feel sexy, but maybe rolling your hips does. Maybe shimmying your chest or maybe being a total goofball makes you feel sexy. I want my students to find what makes them feel sexy, as opposed to trying to ‘be sexy’ for the audience, right? Because every single person in that audience is going to have a different definition of what they think is sexy.” That belief is at the heart of Ordare’s performances and how she teaches. It’s also a key component in rematriating Indigenous women’s sexuality.
I want my students to find what makes them feel sexy, as opposed to trying to ‘be sexy’ for the audience.
– Ruthe Ordare
It’s this kind of sensitivity and care that Ordare brings as the artistic director of the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival. She’s been involved with the festival since she came on the burlesque scene, and prior to becoming the artistic director four years ago, she worked with the board of directors. According to Ordare, there was diversity on the board in terms of gender, sexuality and body type, but there was no cultural diversity. “It was an all-white board,” she remembers. She was then brought on as a volunteer diversity and inclusion advocate. One year later, the artistic director job was created – Ordare applied and got it.
As an openly gay and Indigenous woman, Ordare also brings an intersectional eye to the job. This has informed policies that she’s helped implement over the past four years. “There’s been a lot of things that I’ve been able to implement with the support of the board that has really created and asserted the importance and value of diversity,” she says. After a thoughtful pause, she clarifies: “When I say diversity, what I really want to say is inclusion. It’s not just making sure you have a check[list] of people. It’s looking around and saying, ‘Who’s not here right now? Who’s not in the room? Whose voice needs to be here as well?’ And it’s also just not a matter of melanin [in] your skin; it’s your body size, your gender identity or sexual identity, people with visible and non-visible disabilities. All of that just enriches the flavour of our festival when we have proper representation.”
Ordare speaks with such ease and assurance that one could mistake this process as simple, but initially there was some resistance. One recommendation she suggested was a “two year on, one year off” system for performers. This means that anyone who has done a solo two years in a row can only dance in duets or group numbers for the third year. The festival typically runs two nights and has 34 spots divided equally between local and international acts (this year, the festival will only run one night with 14 spots because of COVID-19). With such a limited number of spots, it was incredibly difficult for emerging artists to secure one before the two-on, one-off recommendation. Ordare says that though there was some pushback, ultimately everyone got on board and the festival now has a wider variety of acts, including newer dancers.
“Some of the established soloists got it, and some got really upset about it,” Ordare remembers. “My comment to them was that it’s one thing to say you support inclusion, but the real test of it is when you’re asked to move over. And that’s very hard for some people. [But] we’re asking you to make space, recognizing when you have opportunities that others haven’t.”
As Ordare explains how the recommendation has impacted emerging performers, I’m reminded of the many panel conversations I attended on Zoom last summer around diversity, representation and inclusion in theatre. There is a much-needed reckoning taking place in the performing arts in Canada. A theme that repeatedly echoed through my computer screen was for true inclusion to exist. There needs to be Indigenous Peoples, Black people and People of Colour in all levels of companies, not just the performers. Although the performers might be diverse, it doesn’t mean the company will actually be inclusive or representative.
Many board members and upper management in performing arts companies still lack diversity, and because of that, it can be difficult to ask who is missing and who needs to be included. As an artistic director, Ordare is unafraid to shift policy that facilitates growth.