Confessions from the life of a Burlesque Dancer
- Singapore’s first burlesque artiste, Indian-origin third-culture kid Sukki Menon, shares a unique perspective on the 16th-century performance art
In the oft-misconstrued world of burlesque, whether you consider the ageless bashful allure of Sally Rand’s ethereal feather dance or the perennially sexy swivel that Von Teese perfected atop a life-sized Martini glass, you wonder what grants new-kid-on-the-block Sukki Singapora aka Sukki Menon a permanent niche in the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
Menon employs burlesque as she claims it is meant to be employed on and off the stage as an empowering theatrical act that inspires confidence in women and tips the scales against the still dominant patriarch.
By sticking to her guns and her shock of rainbow-coloured hair, 31-year-old Menon has been able to accomplish something no woman has before: legalise this comedic 16th century Italian performance art in the Lion City, a place known for its stringent laws on public indecency.
Quest for confidence
Over a Zoom call on a grey evening, the artiste/activist makes no frills about the irony that her craft has conveniently masqueraded as coy titillation when it is actually a quest to find confidence in life.
“The spirit of burlesque isn’t to be the best dancer in the world,” she says. “It’s weird, light-hearted and empowers the audience to believe that they have the confidence to do it as well.”
I am endeared by how Menon doesn’t subscribe to playing hard to get in real life. “I am chronically shy and the most socially awkward person. Confidence has never come naturally to me, so there have been moments when I’ve wondered why I am doing this to myself. But then the curtains draw back and it’s like every single light bulb just goes on in my brain. It’s showtime and in that moment I am exactly where I need to be.”
Menon appreciates this feeling, having felt like a misfit for most of her life. “My dad used to say you have the best of both worlds, but growing up, it felt like you have the worst of both worlds. Some kids would cruelly call me a coconut: brown on the outside and white on the inside. It was so racist and terrible. But as you grow you realise that crossing cultures is a benefit that encourages you to exist in harmony with yourself and everyone else.”
Despite her family’s detachment from her professional life – she was brought up in a traditional Indian-Catholic household where she claims the only choice of profession was law or medicine – Menon is still fiercely attached to her roots in India.
“Did burlesque come to us or did we already know about female empowerment… because my Nair relatives, they proudly walked around topless, and the sense of female censorship was brought to us in the south… truly because humans didn’t start out this way,” she says.
Hamming it up
In her dulcet British-accented tone, she calls her passion literally movement that is a movement. “Burlesque is a subtle tool that allows women to boldly reclaim their bodies. It has deep roots in feminism. And it can have a powerful effect on India. Sex taboos have no place in a modern world. To stifle women on the basis that they are too distracting if they are wearing a skirt when men wear lungis all day is preposterous and obscure and needs to change.”
True to her mission, Menon has traversed the world after inadvertently fostering a bunch of young female fans mostly from South Asian backgrounds. “After I started making headlines, my family asked me to stop bringing shame to them. But I now have a responsibility. I have become a role model for so many girls. Going against your family is a journey of bravery and resilience. I don’t want another girl growing up in India to feel the pain I went through. Somebody has to do it, so it might as well be me.”
Even not knowing the art form didn’t stop her. “I’ve always been a fan of sink or swim,” she says.
On discovering auditions for a burlesque dancer, Menon marched over from her lacklustre IT desk and claimed she was one. “I had seven days to teach myself burlesque off YouTube. When the curtains opened, I just went for it. Of course, things went horribly wrong. But I hammed it up and the audience loved it and I got a regular spot!”
On January 31, 2015 (Singapore’s 50th year of Independence), Menon finally won her first major battle: she became the first woman in history to perform a full burlesque routine publicly in Singapore.
Now, if that doesn’t grant her a spot in the Burlesque Hall of Fame, I don’t know what will.
From HT Brunch, September 12, 2021
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