Interview with model and burlesque dancer, Anastasia Dusk!
Britain Uncovered recently had the pleasure of meeting up with body positivity model and burlesque dancer, Anastasia Dusk! During our discussion, the Dundee-based performer explains why she first ventured into the world of burlesque, how it's helped improve her body confidence, and the ways it has opened doors to modelling projects and other creative endeavours. Joining us was Anastasia’s partner, Oakley Cundall, who was able to offer his own unique insight into how the performer has evolved over the past several years!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Anastasia! It was 2019 when you officially made your debut as a burlesque performer, but how did you first become interested in this art form to begin with, and what was it that most appealed to you about burlesque back when you were getting started?
Anastasia: I was always very much interested in musicals and performance art, but where I was originally located, there wasn’t really anything like that. I actually started uni in 2019 down near Dundee and I discovered their Marvelesque society – which is a burlesque and cabaret society at the university promoting body positivity and confidence. So that’s where I properly started going into burlesque and getting lessons and making the community connection.
BU: Before all of this got going, how would you describe your body confidence journey growing up as younger person?
Anastasia: It was very difficult. I got bullied a lot because at the time, I was a bit on the ‘larger side’, I suppose – and even though I wasn’t uncomfortable in my body, I just wasn’t as confident as I would have liked to have been. But because of burlesque, and the body positivity movement it tries to promote, you get a lot of different body types and a lot of different people joining in. And you can see yourself in other people, and it brings yourself up alongside them.
BU: What was the first burlesque show you went to as a viewer, and what kind of impact did it have on you at the time?
Anastasia: It was actually with the Marvelesque society – that was the first one I properly went and saw. It was shortly after my 18th birthday, so it lined up quite well. It did help a lot because it wasn’t a typical burlesque show; it was themed around Disney and stuff, and it’s not what you'd expect. And you saw the different body types and it felt very welcoming.
BU: I guess because it’s a student community, it can’t be overly raunchy and likely has to operate within certain boundaries – so it sounds like an ideal entry level platform to ease you into things. Having been in this community for over four years now, what would you consider to be some of the biggest misconceptions about the world of burlesque?
Anastasia: A lot of people hear ‘burlesque’ and they think it’s purely sexual, and that it’s designed to get people off, in a way.
Oakley: And for males to ogle.
Anastasia: But you’ll find as well that a lot of people that go to the shows are females, and they find it empowering seeing other women do it.
BU: Although you eased yourself into burlesque by initially taking part in group performances, in 2021, you actually performed your first ever solo show! What were some of the pressures that came along with transitioning from group shows to solo shows, and did being the sole focus of the audience's attention bring about added pressure? Was it a big step to take? How challenging and/or rewarding was this for you personally, and did it feel like a big accomplishment?
Anastasia: It was quite a big jump between performing in group acts with Marvelesque to performing my first solo burlesque act. Especially since I took a wee break between them both because of Covid! From a personal perspective, you do find a lot more judgement on your own part, because all aspects of the act are mostly on you. A lot of the time, it's your own high expectations, from the choreography to the costuming and the actual performance itself. However, one good thing about being a part of a troupe is you can find support for each component within the community, and you almost hype each other up, in a way. Especially in rehearsals before a big show!
I was definitely nervous when I performed solo for the first time, because you worry that if you mess up, everyone will know (despite none of the audience knowing your routine!) After all, all the focus is on you. You reveal more of who you are as a person and a performer when it's just yourself on stage too. But honestly, once I finished the act and the curtains closed, I just wanted to go back out there and do it all again. Anything you're worried about, be it your act or how you perceive your own body… the audience doesn't overthink it as much as you do as a performer. They just come to watch and have fun, just like you’re having on stage! It definitely validated my growth as a performer and reassured me that I could captivate an audience on my own.
BU: When you launched your dedicated burlesque account on Instagram around the time of your first solo show back in 2021, you mentioned in your first post that your involvement in burlesque might be somewhat of a “revelation” even to people who were close to you – but did you end up getting any comments from people who were a bit unsure or not really expecting it from you?
Anastasia: Yes, especially from my parents at the time. They knew what burlesque was, but they weren’t sure exactly how far it went, or that it went down to pasties and stuff. But the longer I’ve been doing it, the more they’ve accepted that it’s a part of me, and that it’s normal and okay.
BU: I think with previous generations there were certain taboos, but younger generations coming through are challenging these norms, and it’s helping to shift perceptions on what is considered acceptable nowadays.
Anastasia: Yes, it’s normalised it a lot and my parents have accepted it a lot more. Once they see other people do it, it’s like, “Oh, okay”, and it’s not such a big deal. They haven’t actually seen me perform yet, and although I think I would be nervous, I think at the same time they’d probably find it really fun just to go and see what it’s all about properly.
BU: Due to the nature of burlesque and the requirement for dancers to perform in different kinds of risqué outfits, would you say that burlesque performers are typically quite conscious about their bodies – and if so, can that be a barrier to people getting involved sometimes maybe?
Anastasia: Depending on the show you go to, I think some people might see someone else who isn’t necessarily the same as you, and that can put up a barrier; but especially in the community I’m in, I think it’s not as big of a barrier.
Oakley: You can be jealous of somebody else’s body almost.
Anastasia: Because you’re seeing it in such an intimate way, and you sometimes do compare yourself to them. But I think it’s important to take that step back and remember that they’re probably comparing themselves to you as well. And at the end of the day it’s your own body, it’s unique to you, and when you’re on stage people whoop either way, so it doesn’t really matter. They’re not caring about the differences. They’re just caring about you and your act and your personality that’s coming through in it.
Oakley: There is definitely a vulnerability to burlesque as well though.
Anastasia: And you’re showing that vulnerability to the audience and that makes you acknowledge it, but also accept it at the same time.
Oakley: And it’s not something you show to your friends or to anyone else. That’s the only channel that vulnerability has, and that’s some of the beauty of it really.
BU: How did you feel about Anastasia getting into this, Oakley? Although you were supportive right from the very start, were you curious as to what was involved and what it was all about?
Oakley: I was a bit nervous the first time, because I didn’t know anything about burlesque before Anastasia did it, and I didn’t really know what was involved. We’re both quite quiet people, so the first time I went it hit me in the face a bit because I didn’t realise you’ve got to interact as an audience. So every single bit, every flash, or even just pulling off a glove, you’re encouraged to cheer and whoop, and that’s very much not me at all. But even just after one show you get into it, and again you feel like you’re part of a community. As soon as I finished that first show, I didn’t have any worries at all. It’s not a formal or intimidating environment. It’s just very friendly and fun!
BU: It’s interesting that so many performers can be quite quiet people in their personal lives, and then once up on stage they get into character and have the ability to completely transform themselves. Do you feel that way about your burlesque performances?
Anastasia: Oh yeah, definitely! Even when we were at Portobello Market a few days ago, we started to talking to one of the store owners there who did photography, and I was saying I did burlesque – and they just kind of looked at me because I was dressed very girly and modestly in a long dress, and they were really surprised at the fact because I was really shy and just quiet.
BU: Those perceptions are definitely interesting to see, and it’s almost as if they expect you to be the same animated character off-stage that you are when you’re performing! What are some of the hardest things about burlesque that people looking at it from the outside wouldn’t really consider?
Anastasia: I think a lot of people have assumptions and that if you do burlesque, you might take different avenues as well, even if you don’t. Some people do, obviously, and that’s completely fair, but I’ll get people messaging and asking, “What’s your OnlyFans”? And that’s not part of me. I do boudoir more for the performance, and for body positivity and the confidence it gives me.
BU: How do you deal with those types of comments, and does it ever put you off wanting to pursue this line of work?
Anastasia: I think a few years ago I would have been really bothered by it, and it would really get me down. But I think the more I do it, the more it just amuses me how people can be.
Oakley: And I think the difference is that when Anastasia’s performing, she’s doing so on her own terms. Whereas it’s not when you’re getting those types of messages.
BU: After establishing yourself as a burlesque performer, how did you then transition into becoming a body positivity model and taking part in so many different photoshoots? How did it all come about, and what you made you want to go out beyond burlesque?
Anastasia: Well because the Marvelesque society has connections with a few photographers, it has ended up hosting a yearly body positivity photoshoot linked with the society to promote everything we’re doing. It’s mostly in lingerie and stuff here on the burlesque side of it, but it’s mostly just for the performers themselves.
But recently, I took part in a body positivity photoshoot on the streets of Glasgow that was organised by Robyn Allen (of Robyns Boudoir Photography), who does a yearly thing to try and promote women’s body positivity (although she has discussed doing a photoshoot with men as well). There were 15-20 of us, with models of all different body types, and we did the shoot last November on the streets of Glasgow, in front of Victoria’s Secret.
I was really nervous, so I had a friend come with me because it was the first time I’d done a public shoot. But we got a lot of good comments and we had people coming up to us off the street asking us all about it and saying that it’s really good.
Oakley: Comments from every age range as well, young and old.
BU: That must be one of the best benefits of a shoot like this in a public space. You can do whatever you like in a studio, but you’re likely still only reaching an audience that’s choosing to find this type of content; whereas when you do something so publically like that, you’re reaching people who may not know anything about the body positivity movement. Were there a range of comments though, and did you get any pushback from passers-by?
Anastasia: No, it was more so keyboard warriors online. That’s when we got the negative comments, it wasn’t in person.
Oakley: There was a massive difference.
Anastasia: And they were like, “You’re exposing yourselves to children”, even though we were outside of Victoria’s Secret which has billboards with the exact same types of photos on. And it’s almost as if they found it more offensive because it was in public and because we were there in person.
Oakley: And you weren’t showing anything more than what you’d see in a swimsuit, for example.
Anastasia: And that’s what actually led Robyn on to doing her next photoshoot, where we posed wearing bin bags. We were completely covered, and it was just to kind of prove a point that people will judge you no matter what you’re wearing, so you may as well just wear what you want, be yourself, and just accept it.
Oakley: And the negative comments still came in online with that one!
BU: When you participate in the body positivity photoshoots, it can sometimes be quite confronting seeing the final images afterwards in the cold light of day. The actual process of being involved on the day, and the adrenaline that comes with that, can be quite far removed from how you see the images in the aftermath. How did you find it when you get sent the photos back, and was it a little challenging at first?
Anastasia: It was a bit challenging, and I think it’s a mixture. In some ways it’s good because Robyn doesn’t edit her photos at all most of the time, unless people ask, and even then it’s just lightly done for lighting and tones. She doesn’t edit stretch marks unless asked to, so you see it in plain light. It is a bit harsher compared to studio lighting and it takes a while to get used to it, but then you look through it and think, “Okay, I don’t look as bad as I thought I might have”, and then you look more and you appreciate them more the longer you see them, almost.
BU: I think that process can really help, in terms of body acceptance, and once you’ve accepted that side of yourself, there’s nothing really holding you back! Having done a number of these body positivity shoots now, do you find this easier each time you do one? And what do you take out of the different shoots now – do you still take away something different from each one, or do you just enjoy doing it irrespective of that?
Anastasia: A mixture. I’ve done a few different styles of shoots. I’ve done typical boudoir, very classy shoots, I’ve done the ones which are more based on body positivity, and it’s interesting seeing how the photos can come across in different aspects and how you perceive yourself in the different aspects. So yes, I’d say I do take away different things. It can be like, “I look a lot more confident in certain situations than others”, but then you think, “How can I make myself feel more confident.”
Oakley: I like photography, so back when I first met Anastasia I was quite keen to take photos of her, but she wouldn’t even let me take a photo of her face. So it’s just been amazing to see the journey from that to now, where she’s getting me to take photos of her in lingerie, all in just four years.
Anastasia: It is funny though, because you judge the photos in slightly different ways. In the past I might have said, “I don’t like the photo because of this, this and this”, and now I might have some photos that are very similar, but I won’t like a photo because my finger’s sitting weirdly. It’s not necessarily to do with my body, it’s composition almost.
BU: But that’s great, because it shows that it’s gone from something you’re just kind of dabbling in, to now where it’s something you’re treating as ‘art’. It’s more like you’re doing a job, in some ways, and you want to do your best like you would do on stage as a performer. How do you see the shoots going? Are you going to continue doing them, and what are your plans for the next year or so?
Anastasia: I’d love to get more into body positivity modelling, specifically, and maybe get a bit more published. I’ve been featured in a few publications now, but I’d like to aim it more towards the empowerment side rather than the boudoir side. But we’re going on a gap year soon, so we won’t be able to for a while.
BU: I saw in one of your posts that you’d mentioned that you find depictions of the body in the media to be quite unrealistic and severe, so is this also a motivation behind everything you’re doing too – and are you actively trying to help overturn those portrayals?
Anastasia: Yes, especially recently. When I was a lot younger, before I started burlesque, I was really self-conscious about not having six-pack abs or being toned, and even just having stretch marks and stuff. But now I’ve started appreciating the fact that I do have stretch marks and that I do have a soft stomach or whatever, because that happens in life. It’s just part of living. It’s just about accepting that and acknowledging that it happens more often than the media suggests.
I think the thing with as well with media is that they promote one good body type, and then overnight it could flip to a different type of thing. And you’re stuck in a crossfire of what’s good and what’s not good, and you could be what the media deems to be ‘good’ on one day and not another, and it puts a strain on yourself.
BU: Earlier in the year you posed for body positivity artist, Jazmine Saunders (who we interviewed earlier this year), and in one of your Instagram posts about your participation you mentioned that you “still have a big journey to go on”, as it relates to body confidence. How did you find the process with Jazmine compared to everything else you’ve done lately?
Anastasia: I think it was really different. I’ve done life drawing before, in a burlesque setting, and that’s a lot more posed where you have to stay still and stuff. But for Jazmine, it was just a selfie with a camera that you send her, and it’s not as instantaneous as that. It’s just you and a mirror, not posed, just sitting there – it’s a lot more natural almost.
BU: How did you respond to seeing Jazmine’s work of you, and what was it like seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes?
Anastasia: Yes, it’s a different perspective. The photo I sent Jazmine showed my underwear cutting into skin, so you could see the body rolls. But I’d never seen myself from that perspective from a distance, and it made me appreciate it more than just seeing it in a photo where you’re just judging it. It was a real step back.
Oakley: She was so pleased when she saw the final piece!
BU: You mentioned that you had also participated in some life drawing classes – were you the model, and if so, how did you find that experience?
Anastasia: Yes! It was definitely different, because it’s a lot more posed and you’re holding your poses for a while, so you almost become more conscious of your different body parts and how you’re sitting. But it’s not necessarily negative. I think because you’re holding your pose, you can take the time to acknowledge it. Some poses were two minutes for quick sketches, while some lasted for up until half an hour.
I was really proud to have done it though, and obviously you could such a different array of art being done by the artists and what they focus on and how they perceive you. It’s really interesting to see that side of it.
BU: What do you make of the body positivity movement in general, and do you think it’s going in the right direction? What else still needs to be done to make it more inclusive or helpful in any other way?
Anastasia: I think it is good, especially for future generations, because even with this generation there is a lot of doubt in different body types, and in yourself – but by acknowledging it through the body positivity movement, it’s kind of opening it up for the future, and I think it’s less so for now, if that makes sense. You know that your own children, or whatever, they can accept themselves better. But compared to even when we were younger, it has come on a long way.
BU: That’s a nice, forward-thinking way of looking at it: that what we’re doing is almost like a gateway to what generations below us can do, and I think that’s an element that’s overlooked sometimes. As we bring things to a close, what advice might you give to someone who isn’t feeling confident, and would you suggest they go down a similar path to the one you’ve been on?
Anastasia: I’d say definitely explore the options, because there are so many different ways to learn to accept your body, and it doesn’t have to be public – it could just be in your own bedroom dancing to music. It doesn’t have to be on stage. And it’s just a lot of trying get to know yourself, almost, in a different light, and more personally.
But if you are interested in doing burlesque or body positivity movements, go and see a show and get talking to people. There’s a lot of different troupes that are promoting it, in the sense of body positivity, and you don’t have to perform with them – you can benefit just by going to the lessons and being around that community. I didn’t go straight into performing; I was a ‘stage kitten’ behind the scenes picking up the costumes and hats, and then I went into doing the group act, and then I started doing the solo stuff.
Oakley: Each step was quite a big moment.
BU: It’s nice that you felt so at home within the burlesque community, and that over time you could ease yourself in and gradually grow into it to get to the point you’re at today!
Oakley: The whole process, and every facet of Anastasia’s body positivity journey, has been very organic. It’s not been structured in any way. It’s just kind of gone hand-in-hand with Anastasia’s growing and personal growth really.
BU: Finally, are there are avenues that you might wish to explore beyond burlesque and photoshoots one day?
Anastasia: I just finished university where I did a degree in psychology, and so there’s a few different avenues I’m looking at. There is acknowledgment there that you can use psychology and therapy to try and help body image and people’s perspectives of that, through dance and creativity, so it would be nice to see how that could be incorporated into it to help other people in that sense.
- Our conversation with Anastasia and Oakley took place on May 29, 2023, over a cup of coffee in the calm and spacious surrounds of Hay’s Galleria, a redeveloped wharf and a mixed use facility just a stone’s throw away from London Bridge.
For more on Anastasia, head on over to the performer’s official website at anastasiaduskburlesque.wordpress.com. You can also follow Anastasia on Instagram, @anastasia.dusk.burlesque, and on Facebook by clicking here. Meanwhile, you can also keep tabs on Oakley’s photography work by following @oakleycundallphotography on Instagram.