Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why I Perform Burlesque

At the surface level, I realize that I am suspect numero uno to have been voted "Most Likely to End Up a Stripper and/or Porn Star and/or Burlesque Performer" in high school. I was sexually abused by a male relative as a child, and my father was in and out of my life.  Typical story, right?

There were no real father figures present for me in any consistent way (it's the consistency that counts), and, as an only child, I didn't have a brother to try and fill that role.  My mother was often too busy surviving (by surviving I (ironically) mean working menial, minimum wage jobs) to conduct You-don't-have-a-daddy type self-esteem checks on me.  I don't know that she was even aware that that particular issue might even be an issue, or what to do about it if she found it to be an issue.

So, the idea that I would, as an adult woman, stand (or dance) in front of an audience full of men (and women....actually, mostly women) and take off my clothes (for me, that means down to full-coverage panties and (large) pasties) smacks of the sad fulfillment of an utter cliché.  Doesn't it?

Except that I'm neither sad, nor a cliché.

Allow me to explain.  Here are some really good reasons (at least, good enough for me) that I perform burlesque:

1.)  Crafting.  I make my own pasties.  It is SO much fun.  I can make pasties for any occasion, any theme.  They can be sexy, or funny, or wild, or politically correct apropos - because pasties, and burlesque, allow for all of this!  Pasties are only limited by your imagination, and as my imagination is endless, possibilities abound for me within the nipple-cover industry.  Beyond pasties, there is etcetera costuming.  Whether you buy or sew, there is a lot of opportunity to adjust and/or create a garment, be it installing a zipper or cinching a waist, or raising a hemline.  For an upcoming show, I envisioned and sewed, by hand, my costume in its entirety.  There was a lot of aggravation, a lot of cursing, and many, many trips to a variety of hobby stores, but the pride I feel in the result is much more personal than it would be if I had ripped the dress off the rack. 

2.)  Body Image Positivity.  This is one of my most favorite aspects of modern burlesque.  Rather than simply exploiting the often augmented female body for the pleasure of men's viewing experience, modern burlesque honestly accepts, glorifies and promotes a range of body types, body scars, and body modifications.  I'm talking fat, cellulite-ed, tattooed, small-boobed - it doesn't matter.  It's all good, it's all skin, and it's all celebrated.  Recently, weighing in at an average 157ish pounds, I was fatter than any of the other girls performing at a show.  Did I feel bad about it? Heck no! Because of the environment and culture of burlesque, I knew that I fit, literally, right in.  I went out there and represented the un-skinny, and I didn't have to pump up a diva, huffy, holier-than-thou attitude toward the thinner women in order to do it.  Let me iterate: In burlesque, it's all good - fat, skinny, short, tall.  None of these is better than the other.  Catty statements like "No man wants a bone" are bad medicine for the disease of women and girls' poor body image - it seems like it's helping, but it's doing more harm than good.  With a bevy of women primping and glittering and glossing in preparation to work their flat or lush or wide or what-have-you asses during their set, let me tell you that such statements are unwelcome backstage of burlesque.

For an example of the body positivity I'm talking about, please watch this video where the performer (at about the 5:40 mark), grabs her belly and gives it a healthy shake for the adoring audience.  This video is also an example of the diversity of race and sexualities that are present in modern burlesque.

There are a lot of times when I don't feel pretty.  I often feel overweight, and I see my stretch marks in the mirror and frown, and I see my frown in the mirror, notice my thin lips and scraggly-yet-somehow-also-bushy eyebrows in the mirror and turn away from the mirror and frown some more.  Sometimes it's a couple days before the show and I do NOT, repeat, do not feel like a burlesque queen, but I've made my obligation to do the show, and I make it a point of life or death to fulfill my obligations, so I've got to take my extra few pounds, and my scraggly eyebrows, and my stretch marks and put them in a sexy outfit and get out there and damn well put on like I feel incredibly sexy and showy and confident.  And there's something about taking yourself and putting yourself in a sexy outfit, and applying glitter, and stage make-up that does make you feel a little bit more sexy.  Actually, a lot more sexy than you did prior.  But aside from all the accoutrements, it is, again, the culture of burlesque that allows a flabby-armed girl with stretch marks to feel she can be beautiful for a night. 

Look how confident (I seem)! 
photo by Robert H. Webb

3.) Conquering Fears.  Okay, so I'm a bit of a motor mouth.  Sometimes it seems like I'll say anything, to anyone, anywhere.  I can be loud, and brash and an excessive over-sharer.  But my secret?  I'm incredibly shy.  I'm diagnosable-level shy.  It's right there on my discharge papers from the looney bin - Social Anxiety Disorder.  Though I'm constantly making outlandish comments and describing the inner workings of my bowels to anyone who will listen, that's more to do with my ADD (also diagnosed), because I'm also constantly worrying that I've said the wrong thing, or made someone hate me, or have some strange smudge or stain on the back of my pants, or smell, or am just generally not. right.  Not "right" as in "correct" as in "you always have to be right, don't you?" but "right" as in "okay" as in "I'm not okay, but you're okay, so I don't deserve you."  So getting up on stage and taking your clothes off is, like, a BIG DEAL (in capital letters, yes) for someone with social anxiety.  It might even cause someone to question my diagnosis, but: trust me.  Burlesque is something I do despite of, in spite of, and in confrontation of my shyness and anxiety in order to conquer it - not over all, not for once and for good and for all time, but for that moment (or three minutes and forty-seven seconds) that I'm on stage.  And that, my friends, is a victory. 

4.) Feminism.  I touched on this a bit with the body image positivity, but in case you haven't picked up on it yet, modern burlesque is a very pro-woman activity.  All of my experiences so far have been all about women supporting, encouraging and praising each other.  Because humans are humans everywhere, I'm well aware that burlesque is not a Pro-Woman Utopia where all the women love all the other women all the time and are always right and just and good.  Nothing's perfect.  What I am saying is that, generally, modern burlesque is an "Alright girls, let's go out there and kick ass!" type of venture.  Kind of like roller derby, but more glitter, less bruises (if you're doing it right). And I'm all for that. 

5.) Attention.  I wouldn't be honest if I didn't include this. I like getting all dressed up and having some place to go (be seen). I very much do like the attention, and compliments I receive performing burlesque.  But it's not the kind of attention you might be thinking.  For one thing, many if the compliments I receive are from (straight) women.  I think they admire and appreciate a woman doing something that maybe they'd like to do, too.  I like standing out in a crowd simply because I'm the Most Copiously Covered in Glitter thing in the room.  Also, I like getting a (planned for, expected) laugh from the audience as much as I do a lusty hoot or holler.  Burlesque allows me to be as much of a comedienne as a vixen.  It's a success experience when you can get the audience to do what you want them to with the exaggerated stuffing of a tissue down your top (laugh) or the demanding "give it to me" gesture of your fingers (for the hoots and hollers - see picture above).  Sometimes, life is good center stage.

If you get into burlesque, you'll quickly see that it's a community - a good community to be in.  It's full of artists and freaks and theater geeks.  It's full of boisterous girls who thrive on attention, and shy girls with a sense of humor and a penchant for sewing felt fabric. 

Please notice what wasn't included in the list: not money, or sex. 

Unless you are a top notch professional performer, along the lines of Ginger Valentine (one of my favorites), any fees or tips you receive for performing go right back into it - gas money to travel to the next show, fabric to make pasties, or feather boas (which are ridiculously expensive unless you want to buy the ones at the big chain hobby stores that look like the result of a small, scrawny, molting chicken being stripped of its final dignity).

As for the other, I have never been offered sex as a result of any of my burlesque performances. 

Then again, I'm a novice. 

The point is that, for me, there are deeper, more personal, and better reasons for performing burlesque that may include, I'll admit, but also go beyond the tragic facts of my early life.  It's about dressing up sexy, and feeling confident, and being around fun, supportive women, and being crafty, and sewing, and being proud.  Those are good things.

Also, did I mention the glitter?


Miss Riot said...

Amen to feminism and body positivity. And glitter. Again, I want to be your BFF.

Amber said...

YAY!!! With glitter! Except, have you noticed that some of the glitter makeup makes your eyelid burn?