A Foray into Burlesque (Or, How Quickly Can I Take My Clothes Off?)

I love burlesque. I love the shows, the dancers, the atmosphere. I love the bodies, with firm and jiggly flesh, curves of hidden breast, vaudeville expressions and the whoops from the crowd.

I would go to shows and always think: I can do that. I WANT to do that. I wanted to have the eyes on me, I wanted to be the character, the seductress.

So, a couple of months ago I decided to take myself up on that and give it a try.

I’m not a stranger to performance. I was in plays, musicals, choirs, piano recitals and then dance shows throughout high school and university. This form of exhibitionism felt powerful: by performing on stage I could control who was looking at me, when they could look at me and what they were seeing. In retrospect, this provided a panacea to the awkward/awful teenage female realization that your changing body was now something that was going to be consumed by the stares of men. Constantly. And you couldn’t really do anything about it.

So, it was in this spirit that I signed up to Burlesque 101 classes. I needed performance in my life. And I wanted to amp up my level of exhibitionism, as a kind of fuck you to the male gaze, as a bit of self love and as a confidence booster that yes, I could really be one of those enchanting women on stage.

The 5 week series was held at the Toronto School of Burlesque, a dance studio perched above the chaos of the Chinatown Queen and Spadina intersection. We started with a group of around 12 women. Red Herring, burlesque dancer, studio owner and our teacher was a whirlwind of attitude, bright red glittery hair, in-jokes and boobs that she could move independently of each other (skillful!). She threw stories, advice and instructions at us like confetti. Some of it stuck.

However, over the few weeks, my confidence in my ability started to wane. I assumed that I could show up, wiggle my butt, don the title of ‘Burlesque Performer’ like a scarlet cape, wrapping it around my shoulders, whipping it over my head, flirtatiously smiling as I passed it across my face.

In reality, burlesque wasn’t quite this straight-forward. (I laugh now at my beginner’s confidence. For when is anything you try for the first time straight-forward?!)

Two things challenged me:

  1. I’ve always had trouble with other people’s choreography. My body knows how it wants to move, and when I try and move to someone else’s idea I feel wooden.
  2. I find wearing a lot of makeup and shopping for costumes – the trappings of creating a character – expensive and boring.

All I wanted to do was take my clothes off and dance! I dance from the inside out, half closing my eyes and feeling for how my body would like to move. It’s spontaneous, unrehearsed, responsive, authentic. It makes me laugh, relax, breathe, smile out at the world.

I don’t know if there is room for this in burlesque?

img_20160630_232449
Learning Burlesque Makeup: “So the drunk people at the back can still see your face.”

I decided to create my own sort of burlesque process. Practicing the week before my final performance, I put music on and freestyled in front of the mirror, turning myself on and enjoying all the silly things I could do with stockings. I chose the easiest to remove costume I could come up with: a nightgown, stockings, kitten heels and pasties. The only thing letting me down was music, because I didn’t really have a character, I didn’t know what story I was telling. Because I didn’t know what story I was telling, I had a entire world of music that was great for taking my clothes off. I landed on Ida Maria’s “Whatever You Like.” It was short and slow and kind of sexy. It would work.

Final performance day, I rushed to the studio after work. It was a closed performance, for class participants only. The energy was light, bubbly, intimate: a room full of women who are about to get naked for each other. One by one each woman performed with varying levels of confidence and skill, but with high love. We were all so proud of each other!

My turn came, and everything that I had “practised” totally went. I was shaking, nervous, dry mouth and as the music started I stood there, frozen. What was going on? I was such a confident, natural dancer! I thought I could freestyle this, flirting with my audience, shimmying around the stage, basking in my exhibitionism.

I can’t really remember what happened for the first half of the song, only that I got naked much quicker than I had anticipated. I was at one minute 30 of my song, only half way through, and had nothing else to take off! So I launched into the big burlesque-y boob shake, one of my pasties (stuck down quickly with double-sided tape) flew off into the audience. I gasped in surprise, and then laughed! This was ludicrous enough to break my fear!

For the rest of the song I danced all over the stage in one green tasseled pastie, enjoying the power of showing my body on my terms, feeling the cool air playing down my back, the cheers and whoops of appreciation creating a bubbly feeling in my belly.

It was so fun. Afterwards, basking in our camaraderie and intimacy we toasted each other with cupcakes and wine, giggling and beaming. As I left the studio, stepping out into the sticky heat of Chinatown I felt daring, confident and buoyed by unconditional female support. The best.

I have a whole new appreciation for the burlesque I watch. There’s a LOT more to it than wiggling your butt and taking your clothes off. And I haven’t completely given up on it yet. There’s a Burlesque 102 series coming up, and I’m contemplating signing up. I figure that if I can get one character sorted out and learn a few key moves, then I can do all the sexy improv and dancing within those boundaries.

I’d still love to perform in front of a bigger audience. I’d like to be under the lights, hearing the audience hold a collective breath as I look over my shoulder and slowly remove my bra. Laughing with me as a flying pastie falls in someone’s beer. Orchestrating their attraction, their entrancement…as the ringleader of my own circus.

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