“It’s… a means to introduce women who are shy about their bodies to enjoy the power of playful and/or confrontational exhibitionism, as well as creativity and self- expression through self-initiated performance.”
““ Jo Boobs Whedon
[Slightly NSFW pictures after the cut.]
I’ve spent the better bulk of my life in a constant state of anxiety and fear. Call it the “once a poor, Southern, white-trash kid, always a poor, Southern, white-trash kid” syndrome. It’s a reaction to life as opposed to an embracing, a response that is buried so deep in my core, I don’t think there’s any getting rid of it at this point.
Now, this is great to joke around about after a third glass of wine, but the harsher mental state it produces can wear a bit on the spirit. This last year, I felt myself consumed by this anxiety, whether it related to my job, my writing, my body, my relationship, my finances, or my emotional and intellectual growth. I was always certain that I was just coming up short, that at any moment, people would discover my authentic self, that tangled-haired, buck-toothed kid, with the shoes too small, who hid in books and would punch your lights out because that’s how polite southern women do. Somehow being adequate for everyone else took an ungodly precedence in my life and the only way I find myself coping was to continue denying myself the things that I loved – even without knowing why I loved them, because of said continually-felt inadequacy. It was so much easier to love things from afar, fawning over them for what they were, never considering myself as a potential part of it. And of course, in this case, when I say it, I mean burlesque.
Burlesque, or as its known these days, Neo-Burlesque, is music, comedy, and the attraction of sex, thats kept America audiences laughing from 1868 and into the 1960s. Burlesque originally existed as an umbrella term, combining many forms of entertainment, though as culture shifted into the pre-prohibition Victorian era, burlesque became an art that combined sexuality and erotica with over-exaggeration and striptease shows. Brought from the U.K. in the late 1860s by performer Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes, burlesque spoofed theatrical productions, spinning itself into satire, comedy, performance art, music, and “adult entertainment,” all with the help of beautiful women in delicious, ornate lingerie and costume. Variety shows became packed with troupes and individual performers, piggybacking on travesty, vaudeville, music hall culture, and unfortunately, the minstrel show. Performers like Lili St Cyr, Toni Elling, Gypsy Rose Lee, Bettie Page, Kitten Natividad, Josephine Baker, Little Egypt, and Tempest Storm filled the circuit and became names on the scene, even while some historians have omitted them.
Without question, however, burlesque’s principal legacy as a cultural form was its establishment of patterns of gender representation that forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage and later influenced her role on the screen… The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the “place” of woman in American society.
– Robert G. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture.
These days, Neo-Burlesque is an offshoot on burlesque, reviving the traditional forms by encompassing full-on comedy, dance, and dark humor, all with a dash of the absolutely fabulous. As with the earlier burlesque, neo-burlesque is more focused on the “tease” in “striptease” than the “strip.” While burlesque’s emphasis isn’t necessarily about nudity, there can be nudity, though its usually insinuated by the idea that there is something else there. Something hidden behind the lush costumes and dramatic surrounding, beyond the sparkle and extravagant glamor. Burlesque has also opened the doors on the types of performers and its endless. Sure, everyone knows burlesque poster girl extraordinaire, Dita Von Teese, but there is also Alotta Boutte (one of the founders of the first all-black burlesque troop, Harlem Shake Burlesque), Tangerine Jones, Margaret Cho, Viva La Muerte, Calamity Chang (who now runs Dim Sum Burlesque), The Dirty Martini, Vagina Jenkins, World Famous Bob, Tura Santana (rest in peace), Sui Cidal Lilly, and Selena Luna. Hell, Cher and Christina Aguilera took a swing at it in the aptly-named 2010 film, Burlesque, where a small town girl ventures to Los Angeles and does all the things a small town girl trying to make it in the big city normally does and voila! Cher! Sequins! Jazz Hands! Burlesque!
Okay, so the film may have not been so successful, but it shows that burlesque has seen a revival since the early ’90s when it popped up in New York in places like Billie Madley’s Cinema, The Dutch Weismann’s Follies, leading to troupes like Cabaret Red Light, The Velvet Hammer, The Shim-Shamettes , even Boylesque (an all male troupe), in places like Berlin, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Burlesque MCs like Murray Hill, Diggy Bones, and Feisty Strumpet have become crucial to acts and there are even annual burlesque conventions like the Miss Exotic World Pageant and The Vancouver International Burlesque Festival. While it may still fly under major radars, its certain that burlesque is here to stay, that is to say, if it ever really went away.
I’m starting at the center of the action: The New York School of Burlesque. Led by headmistress, Jo “Boobs” Whedon and staffed by performers like Gal Friday, Jezebel Express, and Peekaboo Pointe, I’ll be going the beginner’s route, getting all the history, choreography, costuming, makeup, theatrical skill building, and of course, confidence building, that a brand-spanking-new lady like me needs. And I need it. I need to move beyond the computer screen, from behind the curtain, to stop worrying if I am taking up too much space or talking too much or hiding behind all the things I hide behind. I need to feel comfortable in my own skin, comfortable making waves and being a bit of a show off. I need to be comfortable being me.
Of course, I’m terrified of letting go and being judged. But I want to, no – I need to let go. I want to stand in front of everyone, in the smallest, sparkliest pair of pasties, nipple tassels, and g-string, and bare the birthmarks, the pudgy tummy, the self-harm scars, the fear, and the authentic, tangled-hair, buck-toothed kid, with the shoes too small self, who hid in books and would punch your lights out because that’s how polite southern women do, and just let go.
Maybe these lessons will get me there, maybe not. Either way, it’s the first time I have had the feeling of being utterly terrified and energized, and for all the feminist intellectualizing I’ve compacted into my brain, I’ve yet to really apply any of it to the person I want to be. It’s time to move beyond the limits I set up for myself, one small sequin at a time.