Adults-Only Education
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Adults-Only Education

Tired of flower arranging? Try stripteasing. A look behind Toronto’s sexiest learning opportunities.

Each month, Sex-ist looks at topics relating to sex and sexuality in and around the GTA.

A group of Toronto School of Burlesque grads, courtesy of the school's FB page

A group of Toronto School of Burlesque grads, courtesy of the school’s FB page.

When it comes to continuing education, Toronto schools offer a variety. We can sign up for ballroom dancing through the TDSB’s Learn4Life program, build a chair at OCAD, or learn how food bloggers get started at George Brown. We can also learn how to twirl on a brass pole, or how to twerk.

For Esther Edell, it all started with a Groupon. Bored with running, and looking for something a little different from her usual fitness routine, Edell began 2015 in the studios of the Toronto School of Burlesque. “I signed up to do some of the drop-in hip-hop and ballet classes,” she says. “Then I went to a couple burlesque shows.”

In February, Edell signed up for the TSB’s Burlesque Vixens 101 class, a six-week introduction to the art of the striptease. “There’s a multi-step process to removing each garment. We learn stage makeup, and how to choose a name,” she says (she settled on Viola Volta for its literary and musical connotations). She quickly graduated to the 102-level course, which taught more advanced techniques. She learned more complicated clothing removals, like pants (“which aren’t really recommended”) and corsets. She tried her hand at comedy as part of her act. Edell also learned how to “kitten”, or clean up the stage after another dancer is through with her act. “Kittens are hired to pick up your clothes in a cute or sexy way and then bring them to you backstage.”

By the end of the course, which wrapped up this spring, she was ready to perform at the monthly Reveal Me show at the Rivoli, run by school founder Red Herring. “I had gotten this far, and I figured I should do it at least once—end on a high note, or a low one. I put my name into a casting call for the show, and I didn’t hear anything for months.” Finally, only six days before the show was scheduled, Herring called her up: Edell would be making her stage debut in September.

“My mom thinks it’s funny because I’m such a reserved person usually,” she says. But the classes, and the performance they led to, bumped up Edell’s swagger. “I definitely feel more confident in myself. I still struggle with insecurities and body issues, but after the show, I rode a pretty good high.” While Edell has no plans to leave her receptionist’s job for the stage, she is continuing to take classes at the school. Her next workshop, called Demure to Dirty, focuses incorporating strip-club moves into her burlesque routine.

Progressive sex stores like Good for Her and Come As You Are also give new meaning to the term “adult education” by supplementing their sales of sex toys with evening courses on topics ranging from feminine dominance to erotic massage, and more.

“When our co-op was founded in 1997, it would have been pretty counter-intuitive to not host workshops in-store,” explains Jack Lamon, a worker-owner at Come As You Are. “When you look at the history of so-called sex-positive feminism in North America, the roots are so clearly in the sex, health, and body workshop scene in San Francisco and New York City.” Lamon says that many of their staff’s favourite educational books are basically print versions of what were originally offered as workshops. “We all have different learning styles. We offer educational content in as many different forms as possible—books, DVDs, and workshops.”

“Our culture doesn’t really give people good information about sex and bodies at the best of times, and it is really difficult to learn about these things on our own,” Lamon says. To counter that lack of information, Come As You Are offers group workshops focus on one topic—ranging from tapping into the erotic of food, to how to successfully tie up a partner—as well as offering some combination of lecture, hands-on learning, and live demonstration. Workshops at Come As You Are usually pull in between 20 and 30 participants

Most of us have picked up some kind of sex education as adults—one could say that Cosmopolitan’s monthly promise of a dozen new ways to “blow his mind” each month would qualify—but sometimes these new skills require getting out of the house. “I still want to buy a pole for home practice,” says Erika Szabo, who took pole fitness classes at Brass Vixens for more than two years. “I’m not really an athletic person, and I don’t get competitive about sports. I wanted something that was really well-rounded, I wanted to build core strength, I wanted to do dance, and I wanted to do something that was confidence-boosting.”

Szabo was drawn to pole fitness after watching videos of Japanese dance and performance troupe Tokyo Dolores online. “Tokyo Dolores do a much more artistic take on pole. I thought they were really creative and beautiful, and I wanted to see how far I could take it.” She sprang for the unlimited-class option at Brass Vixens, and soon, she was taking up to six classes a week.

For Szabo, the chance to combine fitness with something a little sultrier was a huge draw. “There was definitely self empowerment I got from feeling sexy. I’ve always been in tune with myself in that way, and the further I could take it, the more empowered I felt.” Still, she says that she had to remind people that the classes were for pleasure, not business. “A lot of people asked me if I was going to become a stripper. I was doing it for fitness, and I had to tell people that a lot.” (Shannon Crane, the CEO of Brass Vixens, says that newbies can expect to leave classes feeling sore “and longing for seven inch heels,” not something most fitness classes advertise).

Szabo did consider working in a club—as a dancer, not as a stripper, she stresses—but was sidelined by a tailbone injury in 2014. “We were doing spins, and I lost my grip. It was just one of those things. It took me about a week to realize something was wrong.” Though she’s been taking it easy since her injury, even goofing around on a playground’s monkey bars will remind her of what she gained from her lessons.

“I can still do the complex inversions and the spins,” says Szabo. “Muscle memory is amazing.”

Lamon says that Toronto’s sexy courses are par for the course. “When I was growing up in Toronto, the city seemed pretty obsessed with this ‘world class city’ business, and really, it would be embarrassing for a city of our stature not to have a variety of sexual learning options available locally.” Lamon estimates that nearly 10,000 participants have come through their doors since 1997, and the impact they have on the city might be far-reaching indeed. “If each of those people has had sexual encounters with only two people, that’s like 30,000 that have been directly or indirectly influenced by a sex workshop at Come As You Are. Given how randy many of our customers are—and how many polyamory workshops we’ve done—the impact is surely much more substantial.”

For Esther Edell, the experience is more personal. “It’s helping step out of my comfort zone, and help with my confidence,” she says with a smile. “It feels a little bit like having a secret identity.”

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