On First Solos and Slow Learning

My first real burlesque solo: three years in the making.

I started burlesque classes just shy of my 30th birthday. I’d studied dance my whole life but found myself in a rut. A friend and former student enthused about her recent glittery adventures. Soon, I found myself wrenching my shoulders in pursuit of the perfect shimmy.

Even after I started dancing in the occasional student show group number, I didn’t think I’d go further. Sure, it was up there with the most fun I’d ever had. My parents didn’t know (still don’t) but all my friends were supportive. Even my best friend, my brother from another mother who’s uncomfortable seeing me as a sexual being, admitted why he continued to attend my shows: “Yeah, sometimes I want to throw a blanket over you, but it’s worth it to see how happy you look.”

But a solo was a whole ‘nother animal: I’d have to choose my own music, make my own concept and choreography, and come up with costume pieces I’d eventually shed in creative ways. I can’t sew for shit (apologies to my late grandmother). I’ve had a mental block for years about choreography. I’m a dancer and actress at heart: good at following directions and going where I’m told as opposed to striking out on my own. Also, how the hell was I going to come up with a stage name? (The whole almost-naked in public thing didn’t really bother me, interestingly enough.)

I decided to try. In the spring of 2012, I enrolled in the studio’s select solo performance class with my teacher’s encouragement. She’d help us through the whole process. I’d performed in the student shows: everyone always looked amazing, and I knew my teacher wouldn’t send anyone out who wasn’t completely ready.

I was halfway through the class, making some progress despite thinking way too hard. Then I found out my job was in danger due to pending state budget cuts. My anxiety went through the roof. I hated, hated, hated the idea of quitting but I saw no other alternative. I couldn’t justify spending money and time on extracurriculars when unemployment loomed.

My teacher understood. I ended up in the student group number (again). I had a blast (again). Later that summer, something tragic occurred involving a formerly close friend. In those dark and depressing days, I found solace in burlesque classes, content with being a perpetual student.

Then a troupe whose weekly show I’d seen and enjoyed advertised for dancers to appear in the closing number of a fundraiser for the Burlesque Hall of Fame. I messaged them, “Will you take anyone?” The next day I texted my friend, “Remember how we bought tickets for that burlesque fundraiser? I’m sort of in it now.”

The moves were improvised and I was among a large group. But something in me shifted.

I signed up for an advanced choreography class, determined to move beyond my mental block. I knew the troupe would have auditions in May and I began to entertain the idea of throwing my sparkly hat in the ring. In March, my friend who’d accompanied me to the BHoF fundraiser sent me a Luke Winslow-King song: nice and easy, bringing to mind Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without all the issues. “I think you should dance to this!” my friend said. I replied, “I think you are right.”

Turns out I had all the costume pieces I needed, minus a pair of stockings. I started putting it together in my mind as I rode the bus to my day job. I ran it past a friend when we rented out the studio late one night. I squeezed rehearsals into my living room as my cat looked on in disbelief. In the meantime, I auditioned for nerdlesque on a whim and soon found myself learning to dance with a ribbon in sequined booty shorts.

And my name? It came to me New Year’s Eve, at the troupe’s special show. A fellow dancer and I introduced ourselves to an audience member new to burlesque as we all waited in the lobby. “I’m Emma,” I said. “Emma Glitterbomb.” After the previous months of agonizing, it just came out of my mouth.

After the cabaret troupe took me on, I worked with their choreographer to perfect the solo. Eventually it passed muster with the director. Still, on August 30th I stressed all day. After all these years, I still wasn’t sure I could do it.

That night, I experienced the fastest, blurriest, and absolute best two and a half minutes of the year.

Even after the hug and, “We’ll do it again!” from my director, the flower from my best friend (with my stage name written on a Post-It and stapled to the wrapper), the congratulations from another apprentice, it didn’t hit me until the next day as I sat on a plane to Atlanta, tens of thousands of feet in the air.

Wow, I thought. That really happened.

I’m still a slow learner. Now I have to put together a holiday solo while also keeping up with group numbers, picking up panties, and oh yeah, working full time. I take classes when I can, to stay fresh and just because I want to. I try to keep my shyness in check so I can make friends with other dancers. I fight my tendency to over think.

But yeah. My first solo. It really, really happened.

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Emma Glitterbomb

Emma Glitterbomb is a burlesque dancer in Chicago. Writer by day and vixen by night, she's a proud company member of Gorilla Tango Burlesque and a founding member of Madame Hatter's Moonlight Marauders. Emma has danced with Beast Women, the Better Boobie Bureau, Festival of Flesh, the Kiss Kiss Cabaret, the comedy show Menage a Hah! and the blues band Miss Jackie and the Sass. Say bonjour at eglitterbomb(at)gmail(dot)com.

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