“It is NOT you, Alli.”
I was sitting in the office of my new therapist, Lucinda. Our second visit was in its second minute and I was already clutching a tissue, tears and snot running down my face. Lucinda repeated herself and then she was silent. I sat there, sniffling and contemplating the fibers in my kleenex before looking up.
Her eyes met mine: “The problem is that these people you are talking about are complete assholes.”
In my 15 years of being in and out of therapy, I had never actually had someone be so direct with me. It was, as Oprah would say, an “a-ha! moment.”
Lucinda was, of course, correct -- there was nothing wrong with me as a romantic partner. There was, however, something wrong with the way I saw and thought of myself.
While I appeared confident, happy and pulled together, I was actually a mess. My most recent ex had a new girlfriend and was still living in the beautiful home that we’d shared, while I was settling into a dark, tiny apartment elsewhere.
I was also starting to own up to some very harsh realities. I had only been single a few weeks, but I hadn’t had sex in months. I'd tricked myself into believing that my ex really was just “tired” or “stressed.” Deep down it was obvious that he was not attracted to me anymore.
Around the same time I started seeing Lucinda, I received an email from my local adult education center. Right there, highlighted near the top, was a link to a two-week burlesque workshop with someone called Honey Suckle Duvet. I signed up immediately.
By the time I entered Honey’s class a few weeks later I was already in a better place mentally and emotionally, thanks to my regular time with Lucinda. But I wasn’t at my best -- I was still struggling with my self-esteem and with feelings of being unattractive and unappealing. I felt like an unsexy, unsightly, frumpy mess. My ass was too large, my boobs too small, my feet way too big for my body, and on and on and on.
Honey wasn’t going to hear any of that. It was her mission to teach me, and my classmates, to love and flaunt ALL of our assets, and if we weren’t feeling sexy, she would teach us how to fake it till we believed it.
In the second session of our workshop, Honey demanded that we “give some love to a body part that hasn’t been getting any lately.” I looked over my shoulder into the mirror and shook my dupa (that’s Polish for booty). A huge, genuine, smile spread across my face -- I was hooked on burlesque. For the first time that I can remember, I was proud of and OWNING that dupa.
I found more ways to involve myself with the local burlesque community and found amazing friends and connections there. I became a “kitten” for a local troupe, took more classes and helped out as a stage or house manager at other shows. For those of you not familiar with burlesque, a “kitten” or “stage kitten” is pretty much a stage hand... but more.
Being a kitten is like dipping your pinky-toe into the burlesque kiddie pool. You get to dress up in a cute costume, cultivate a character, and be part of the show without being the show yourself. I loved being a kitten; it helped me open up -- and -- it made me remember being onstage as a kid (I was the weird kid always putting on shows in the backyard and trying to get into every school play). I knew I wanted to work it, front and center, like the performers I was assisting.
The first time I twirled a pair of pasties I laughed so hard I worried I’d pop them off. I secretly left them on for the rest of the day (and also stuck them on my dupa the second I got home -- yeah, I can twirl them there too). I crafted a persona for myself and signed up for my first public performance, an amateur competition.
Months earlier I would not have told a soul -- hell, I would not have changed in front of others in a dressing room -- but I happily invited all of my friends to watch me take my top off in a trendy lounge near my office. I was the first to perform, and I was so nervous that I mistimed some of the choreography in my intro. I brushed it off and something amazing happened.
I shimmied (still fully clothed) and people started cheering. I took off the first glove on my construction worker costume* and the hoots and hollers escalated. By the time I revealed my light-up pasties, it sounded like people were losing their minds. The feeling was amazing.
In her foreword to Jo Weldon’s fabulous "The Burlesque Handbook," Margaret Cho writes:
“I saw that happiness didn’t have to be a smaller size; it was an attitude. I didn’t have to diet, I just had to put on pasties! What a revelation! I realized that feeling beautiful had power and political potential.”
During one of our sessions in the summer, Lucinda asked me what it was that I liked about performing. I thought long and hard before answering: “When I’m Allix,” I told her, “I don’t worry about anything. When I’m on stage my mind kind of goes blank and it’s just me and the audience. It’s one of the only times that I experience quiet in my anxious anxious brain.”
I continued, “Allix doesn’t take any shit from anybody. When I’m me, as everyday Alli, well, I’m just too polite and too nervous.”
When I finished, Lucinda caught my eye and asked, “Is there any reason at all why the not taking any shit has to stop once you’re off stage?”
Last week I celebrated my burlesqu-iversary (yes, I did just make up a totally cheeseball term). I also co-taught my first ever burlesque workshop. At the end of our class, one of the ladies whispered to me, “I’ve left my pasties on underneath,” before giving me a hug and heading out of class.
Afterward, sitting at home, I thought of the change I’d seen in this woman during the course of just a few hours, from an attitude of “Oh, I can’t possibly do that. I couldn’t stand like you do, move like you do,” to a pastie-twirling dynamo. It reflected, obviously, the same changes that I’d seen in myself.
As women**, we spend so much of our time being told that we’re supposed to be polite, we’re supposed to use or present our bodies in a certain way, we’re supposed to be a certain type of romantic partner, and, in our day to day lives, we should just accept having a certain amount of shit piled right on top of us.
Burlesque teaches us that everybody -- EVERY BODY -- is sexy, beautiful, and fabulous. Being a “stripteaser,” as Gypsy Rose Lee used to call herself, reminds me that, like all women, I am sexy, powerful, and strong -- whether I’m on stage and covered in glitter or tooling around the neighborhood in my glasses, mullet-y haircut, sweat pants and loafers (OK, I actually go into the office like that sometimes too).
At the core of things, learning about burlesque and performing burlesque is more than just learning some sultry bumps, grinds, and removes. It’s empowering -- whether you use it for the boudoir or the stage. For me, burlesque has been far more than just learning how to love my body -- it’s been recognizing that I have a voice, I have things to say, I have importance.
As Lucinda suggested, I’m working on taking more and more of the self-awareness and confidence I gain through performing into my every day life. It’s not always easy,*** but I’m light years ahead of where I found myself a year ago.
I find that I stand up straighter (maybe b/c I imagine myself still hiding pasties), I make eye contact more,and most importantly, I have started to speak up more -- to take less shit.
My mother frequently says “Attitude is everything!” And right now, I’m glad to say that mine is fabulous.
* For my first piece I did Motorhead’s “We Are The Road Crew” and dressed as, you guessed it, a member of the late night road construction crew. I directed the audience as if they were cars and everytime I instructed them to stop, I pulled off a piece of clothing.
** Of course I don’t mean just women find a voice in burlesque -- I’m speaking broadly. It’s far from just a women’s art form -- there’s boylesque, drag-lesque, neo-burlesque, and on and on.
*** I should also admit, that sometimes I bleed into Allix a bit. I was recently workshopping a piece with my troupe and a friend asked, “so really, what’s the motivation behind this character removing her clothes?” I said, “well, I think it’s so that they don’t get dirty.” After some raucous laughter, my troupemates replied: “no, that’s why Alli would take off her clothes here...what is Allix doing?”