• Karliea Decker is heading off to clown school in France. (Supplied/ Captivitae photography)Source: Supplied/ Captivitae photography
First Karliea Decker fell in love with burlesque. Now she's putting her career on hold to go and learn to be a clown in France.
By
Alyssa Braithwaite

22 Jun 2017 - 1:02 PM  UPDATED 22 Jun 2017 - 1:04 PM

Karliea Decker recalls the moment she first heard about burlesque like it was yesterday. It was a moment that changed her life.

It was 2011, and the Canberra-raised Indigenous woman had just completed a Bachelor of Arts at Australian National University, and had taken a trip to nearby Gold Creek to do a bit of shopping at a retro and vintage clothing store she had recently discovered called The Darling Sisters

"One of the ladies said to me, 'Oh, burlesque classes start in a couple of weeks, you're going to really love it," Decker recalls. "I said, 'Sorry, what?' And she said 'Burlesque classes are starting, the teacher's name is Deb Delicious, she's this wonderful little Irish pocket rocket and her boyfriend is a strongman and they're just amazing. You're going to have such a fabulous time.'

"And again I said, 'Sorry, what?' And she said 'The burlesque classes are starting and you are going!' And I said, 'oh, alright then. Why?' And she threw her arms open in this really expansive gesture and said 'because you were built for it!'. "And then I think I probably said, 'What's burlesque?'" 

Decker followed The Darling Sister's instructions and has never looked back. Six years on, she has been to a lot of burlesque shows - and been in a lot of burlesque shows.

"Burlesque is the art of the striptease," Decker says.

"Burlesque is an umbrella term for a lot of different things and different styles, but it's really trying to convey a message or a story, or it's satire or commentary, through removing your outfit.

"It's up to the individual performer how much or how little they want to take off. No one is less of a performer if they don't take all their clothes off." 

"Burlesque is the art of the striptease."

Decker found the class to be full of supportive and encouraging people, and she was captivated by the glamorous artform from the get-go.

She loved the way it allowed her to connect with her body - even more than her recent foray into belly dancing.

"I'd always really loved the idea of dancing and I've loved watching old Hollywood musicals with Gene Kelly and all those incredible dancers, but I never felt comfortable dancing," she says.

"So doing those two artforms and learning those two different styles both had a huge impact on me and how I was relating to my body at that time.

"I think men and women should definitely give it a go. The body positivity [it brings you] is amazing. But it's not for everyone and that's absolutely fine." 

She says that removing her clothes in front of an audience for the first time and getting a huge cheer was the most liberating moment in her life.

"It's up to the individual performer how much or how little they want to take off. No one is less of a performer if they don't take all their clothes off." 

"I paid tribute to burlesque legend Toni Elling, a burlesque mega star from the 1960s. She was a protégé of jazz musician Duke Ellington and she was black woman in a cohort of pioneers such as Jean Idelle and Lottie the Body performing in white nightclubs during segregation in America," Decker says.

"I got her contact details through the Burlesque Hall of Fame, got in touch with her and asked her permission to perform one of her routines in tribute. Miss Toni gave me her blessing and her instruction.

"It was thrilling and humbling to be able to honour a woman who went before me and it made the experience all the better for knowing that Toni was in my corner and touched that she wasn't forgotten because a new audience was learning about her."

Decker developed a stage persona that she describes as "intimidating but alluring, kind of fierce and a bit exciting". 

A year ago, while preparing for a show, she decided that character should be a ringmaster - but not a smart ringmaster, she decided. A clown ringmaster.

 

Now she's hoping to develop that character even further, when she starts studying at France's Ecole Philippe Gaulier - a prestigious theatre and clown school outside Paris.

Founded in 1980, it is a theatre workshop set up by the French master clown and professor Philippe Gaulier. Former students include Emma Thompson and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Decker is using her long service leave from the public service to take up her enrollment in clown school.

I've been employed since I was at university, I've never had a gap year, I've never taken a proper holiday, so it was just time to do something for me.

Courses offered include Clowns; Bouffons; Shakespeare-Chekhov; Vaudeville; Writing and Creating a Show. 

"It's a theatre school but they do have clown components, which I'm quite interested in. It would be really nice if I learnt to be a better performer out of it," Decker explains.

"It was just wanting to do something different. I've been employed since I was at university, I've never had a gap year, I've never taken a proper holiday, so it was just time to do something for me.

"If I don't do it now, I'll never do it and I don't want that for myself."

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