Before this weekend all I really knew about Burlesque was that it was a form of performance art that combined dance and taking off one’s clothes. I knew some people feel that it is awesome and empowering, others feel that it is degrading. Basically I knew very little, mostly because I was too intimidated to seek any more information out on my own.
Luckily for me Momentum offered the opportunity to attend Sense & Sexuality: How Taking it Off Empowers the World with N (“The Only Letter in Burlesque”) and Lillith Grey. I was a little nervous at the start of this workshop, but as soon as we started discussing glitter and its many, many (endless, really) uses, I knew I had found my people. The session passed quickly, with stories shared about burlesque history and legends, how-to books and samples of props (like boas and hats and pasties) passed around… it went by so quickly, in fact, that I found myself entirely unprepared towards the end of the workshop when N declared: “I’m going to do a little performance for you now!” (Lillith was injured and, thus, sadly unable to perform as well.)
Uh-oh. N moved a chair to the middle of the room, as I quickly tried to understand the feeling of anxiety shooting through me. You have seen naked bodies before, I reminded myself. This is not a big deal. N tossed on a dramatic mask and a blonde wig, getting read for the show. She does this all the time, this is her job, she enjoys doing it… there is nothing wrong with being in this audience. N told the intern to turn the music loud. Before I had time to deal with my strange gut reaction there was a real live burlesque performance happening not three feet from my face.
I had no fucking clue what to do.
Other people were clapping. Do I clap? I wondered. N paused for a moment and used her arms to encourage the cheers. I guess I am supposed to clap. As I clapped, I felt mself shifting in my seat, averting my eyes every few seconds to take note of how the rest of the room was taking this in. At one point N made eye contact with me, through the mask, and I honestly felt a tremor run through my body. I felt… I didn’t know how I felt. Uncomfortable? Excited? Intrigued? Terrified? Out of place? Thrilled? Yes.
I felt all of those things, all at the same time, because suddenly, I got it. Before she ever stepped into her performance N had spoken with as, at length, about the insecurities that naturally come up when starting burlesque. “What if I take my clothes off, and the audience wants me to put them right back on?” She posed this question to us, her audience, as something that is common for people starting in burlesque to wonder. The power, she later told us, is in learning that it doesn’t matter. Both N and Lillith stressed the concept that burlesque is about loving your body enough to stand up in front of a crowd, just one person, or even alone, and perform. Burlesque gives all of the power to the performer: she/he decides what they want to show the audience, when they want to show it, how they want to show it and so on… the audience just gets to sit there and appreciate what they are being given.
This is not the same performance that I saw… but this is a performance by N, and it is hysterically funny on top of being really awesome. I put it here to give you an idea of what I experienced!
So, I appreciated. For the first time in my life I was watching a confident woman stand naked, save for some crystal-covered pasties and a merkin, in front of a room full of people. She was beautiful, and seductive, and confident… but more than that I was struck by how little she cared about what we thought of her body. She was just there, in this room full of people, using her body to create something beautiful, a performance laced with meaning about narcissism and self-love (her own description), that we were free to take in however we pleased.
Its funny that, with all that meaning woven into her performance, I was most struck by how N took her time walking to the front of the room when she had finished her performance, and just let her body be for a few moments before covering up with a cute purple dress.
I have made a great many strides in my personal quest for body acceptance. Most days I feel like I look cute, maybe even beautiful when I go out in my carefully crafted outfits. More than that, I can look in the mirror at my own naked body, (jiggly tummy,uneven boobs and all) and not feel like shit. What I don’t do, however, is spend any significant amount of time naked. I am naked for functional reasons: showering, changing, and so on… but when other people talk about sleeping naked or just having “naked time” because its fun, I don’t know what to say. I don’t do that because deep down, I don’t like seeing the way my tummy crinkles up when I sit, or the way that the hair grows down my thighs, and so on and so forth.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get up in front of a room full of people and strip. I don’t even know if I’ll sit naked and alone in a room for more than a few moments. But I do know that what I experienced in that room on Saturday changed me in some small way, opened my mind up to this whole other level of self-acceptance. I may not be any closer to getting to that level just yet, but for now, maybe just knowing that its possible is enough.
Thank you N and Lillith for being so candid and open and downright awesome during that workshop! I truly admire both of you for your confidence, your presentation skills, and your fantastically feathered and glittered attire!