Show Me What You Got: Burlesque and a Broken Heart

All the metaphors you’ve heard about stripping making you free, are a LOAD.

Well, that’s not quite true. I adore burlesque. I want to have glittery, feathery children with it. I sacrifice sleep, hard-earned dough, and most of my social life for my art. (And that’s exactly what it is. Don’t let anyone tell you different.) I balance a day job with a gig in a nerdlesque parody and am paying my dues with a cabaret troupe. I lead a double life and I love every exhausting minute.

But burlesque isn’t just about flinging off your undergarments and hootchie-cootchieing for an appreciative crowd.

It’s work. It’s sweat. And most of all, it’s strategy.

It’s a lot like love. Stupid, stupid love.

Both burlesque and love can be liberating. There are the highest of highs, the sparkly rush, the breathless anticipation. There’s definitely something freeing about baring your boobs, and baring your soul.

But always, always there is strategy. What do you show? What do you keep on your person, what do you cast off first? As my teacher constantly asked, what’s the story? Because there always is one, even in the simplest of routines or relationships. A beginning. A middle.

An end. When you’re mostly naked except for your glitter. And sometimes that’s phenomenal, and other times it sucks ass.

Two months ago, I was cast in a troupe and I fell in love. The former was the result of countless classes and months of work. (Maybe some hotness on my part.) The latter I didn’t see coming.

Except I kind of did.

We met when we were teenagers, again in our mid-twenties. There was always a pull, always overwhelmed by life’s complexities. Eight years had passed since I’d heard from him at all.

The first thing I cast off, like shoes or gloves or a trench coat: my hesitation to accept his friend request. That took all of ten seconds. He still looked absurdly good, dammit.

Several months later, as he bemoaned yet another birthday, I gave him my number to make him feel better. “There,” I said, “now you have a number from a pretty lady. Life ain’t so bad.” Showing him a little more, giving him something to look forward to, but far from baring it all.

That would come later.

As we texted and Facebooked I teetered closer to the edge, sliding down the zipper of a dress, flashing a garter belt, uncovering faster and faster while trying to remember what the hell I was doing. I wasn’t someone who got attached. I had too much going for me to end up some overly vulnerable crybaby when the inevitable rejection happened.

Then the visits happened. Two weekends, one at my place, one at his.

Did I mention he lives several hundred miles away?

Just like I carefully plotted out my audition routine – my first solo, which I continue to perfect for its eventual debut – I agonized over every step of this relationship. Every text, every call was planned. Just frequent enough so he knew I was thinking about him, but not annoying. I live in constant fear of being annoying. He was returning my affection, dropping hints like whoa: how he wasn’t completely happy where he was, how he missed his family (who happen to live – surprise! – not far from me). How our pets would get along. That’s the tease that really got to me.

Then during an ordinary conversation, he mentioned his absent father. He does not talk about his absent father.


I imagined things, let my mind go to the future tense that usually has me screeching in protest. I never thought I’d remove a corset onstage in a crowded bar. I never thought I’d fall in love again. When I was young, I worried I’d have one lusty feeling and go completely over the edge. Now I feared I’d become the vulnerable crybaby I hated.

After a weekend of strategizing, choosing the exact right words, I brought up the possibility of long distance. He couldn’t wrap his head around it. He had to be physically present to take the next emotional step. He was rational, and genuine.

I couldn’t hate him. I could even see his point. I said I understood and I almost meant it.

I’ve seen costumes rip, or fall off too early, or stick to the dancer’s body. I nearly lost my G-string during my nerdlesque audition. Big reveals don’t always end in glory.

In my case, it ended in lost sleep. Barely concealed tears. A resignation. My well-meaning friends asked if he’d move here, eventually, to be closer to his family. “I don’t know,” I replied, “but I can’t think about that right now.”

I never told him I loved him. Kept on the pasties, as every burlesquer does. And as I try not to remember how much his dog liked me, or the way I felt when my plane landed in his city, I’m doing my best to shimmy offstage in style.

About a month ago, I was backstage with a fellow stage kitten (basically, we set up others’ props and pick up discarded clothing in our scanties). I told her my stage name, how I’d come up with it, how much it meant to me now.

“Emma’s like the superhero me,” I said.

She paused in her glitter application, and looked at me. “But you’re pretty much a superhero.”

I’ve probably learned something from all of this, become open-minded in the ways of love and all that jazz.

But for now? Just call me the Woman of Steel.

By 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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