Dien – which is actually Jen, short for Jennifer – discovered burlesque dancing about seven years ago when she heard about actress and burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese. She read books about its history and developed a liking for the 1920s to the 1950s, a period when women began to experiment with sexual freedoms.
Dien’s fascination with burlesque may seem like a case of Middle Child Syndrome. Like Dita Von Teese, she is the middle of three sisters. But the more she spoke, the clearer it became to me that Dien is a woman with an independent mind and a strong will. You don’t tell women like her what not to do.
“My mom flipped out,” laughed Dien, 37, when asked if her family was on board this new pursuit. “She just yelled at me.”
She understood the visceral reaction. “My mom only wanted to make sure my reputation is not damaged,” she said in an interview with The FilAm.
“I really like anything from the ‘20s to the ‘50s,” said Dien. “I started to follow it a lot.” In New York, she discovered that burlesque is “alive and well.”
“I started going to some of the shows. I would watch Jo Boobs, Dirty Martini and these really fantastic dancers.”
Dien is a journalist for an international news agency, working as a graphic designer and social media curator. Her co-workers are aware that she dances burlesque because she enjoys doing it.
“Oh, they know,” she gave a shrug followed by a laugh and a flip of her hair curled at the bottom.
She signed up with the New York School of Burlesque under Headmistress Jo “Boobs” Weldon. I have read Jo Weldon’s “Burlesque Handbook,” and would read about her in the news as an activist fighting for the rights of sex workers. She speaks of burlesque as a “celebration of the spirit of women.”
In school, Dien learned how to dance “in such a way as to emphasize your whole sexuality.”
“What you’re doing is you’re revealing something that you’re keeping mysterious. It’s the way that you present it,” she explained.
She made clear: “I don’t do burlesque for anyone but myself.”
She debuted her act in May and did a couple more shows. She has performed at the Slipper Room, a burlesque theater in the Lower East Side, also at the House of Yes event space in Brooklyn where she played a “stage kitten,” or a dancer’s assistant whose task is to pick up the clothes that have been discarded on stage.
Burlesque may be a form of exotic dancing, but Dien is also a dancer of the classical Indian Kathak. As a matter of fact, she came to know Kathak earlier than burlesque in 2001 as a student at the San Francisco State University. She went on sabbatical from Kathak for years and picked it up again after she made the move to New York.
“The work ‘Kathak’ is sanskrit for ‘story,’” she explained. “Stories are portrayed through hand gestures. It’s heavy in complex rhythmic footwork. It’s a lot like tap dance.” It also uses layers of elaborate costume.
Born in California, Dien has been living in New York City for almost 11 years. Her parents, who are from Batac, Ilocos Norte, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s.
“First, my father on a professional visa, then he petitioned my mother and older sister. I was the first-born American in my family. I have a younger sister who was also born in the States,” she said. Her father, a retired engineer, runs a water business in California, which her mother manages.
“I speak almost no Tagalog or Ilocano! I can’t even understand Taglish or Ilocanlish,” she continued.
As for Lady Mabuhay, she has two reasons for adapting the stage name: “I wanted something not necessarily a nod to my culture but a nod to life, and ‘mabuhay’ means ‘to life.’”
Watch Dien Magno’s interview to learn more about burlesque and Kathak, and how the two disciplines are steeped in controversy.
Video by Anuz Thapa
Photos by Dipika Shrestha
A version of this story was first published in The Filam.net: http://thefilam.net/archives/21988
Cristina DC Pastor is the founding editor of The FilAm online magazine serving the Filipino community in metropolitan New York. The FilAm was featured in the 2014 Newseum exhibit, “One Nation with News For All,” as “among a hundred pioneering ethnic media publications” in the U.S. The exhibit was curated by the Smithsonian Institution.