I admit I was taken by surprise. Honestly, I was hoping that my self confidence would magically rocket into the stratosphere. I was harboring the fantasy that my flaws would fade into the background, as I gave myself over to being entirely present onstage, baring nearly all of what nature gave me.
What I did not anticipate was that the narcissistic teenager in me would rise up from her corner where I tried to banish her years ago, and become so loud and, quite frankly, obnoxious. She wants to be vindicated, and whose inner teenager doesn’t want vindication? I nurture the idea that which is in need of correction can be brought back to an equilibrium. This explains a lot of my latest obsession: burlesque.
The seeker wants satisfaction. Those of us who have bounced from hobby to hobby to hobby know the longing behind the bounce. Last year I was throwing myself furiously at skeins of yarn and knitting needles. Now I pour my energy into a subterranean world where hours and hours of fabrication, self assessment, and rehearsing are winnowed down to a precious few minutes on a nightclub stage. It gives new meaning to the phrase “get your act together,” as comrades in the dressing room spur you on to “pop a pastie!”
I never quite got my act together as much as I would like. When I see the greats Catherine Delish or Girl Friday perform, I know I would need to find a spare 10,000 hours to put into burlesque if I ever hoped to consider myself a peer. Still, if it was all vanity-crushing and bruised ego, I would have passed my corset collection and rhinestoned peek toe pumps months ago. Each act gets a little bit better on certain fronts. And it’s the camaraderie that keeps me going.
When a burly girl friend told me that I had finally managed to hide my stage fright, and that I was “in command” the last time she saw me perform, this was progress. The first time I danced so fast, it called to mind a Buster Keaton silent film. To dismiss this massive improvement would be to pick blackberries in the hard-to-reach bushes, make a glorious pie, and then let it sit molding on top of the fridge without sharing a slice with anyone.
I am embarrassed by sucking onstage, but I will go there. And if you feel yourself invisible, I believe it’s noble to try to banish those feelings. Do not go gently into that good night. Pushing my way into burlesque, in spite of huge discomfort, was a way of being courageous. I would so much rather respect and face my fears, than go to the grave with all of them still vanquished and quivering.
My mother told me when I was young, as did so many other well-meaners, that there will always be someone who is prettier, smarter, and more sparkly. And of course this is true. It was certainly true when I found myself living in Southern California where the moderately attractive feel they should consider having some work done. But even before then, I had already learned the lesson a few months earlier when my best friend blossomed, overnight it seemed, into a stupidly beautiful woman.
This girl looked like a Botticelli painting. Plus, she had a bohemian flair, as if she was the mythical “Sarah” of Bob Dylan’s most lovelorn ballads. She seemed to turn the crank for every archetype anybody fancied; thick and long, curly dark red hair, enormous green eyes, and this crazy luminescent café con leche skin. Her only flaw, if any, was that she was flat-chested. This turned out only to be temporary, as if the gods realized the one blemish in their otherwise perfect creation, and made a quick Photoshop fix.
In short, my best pal left my late-blooming ass in the dust. It was one of my early memories of being invisible to men. It was one of the first, but not the last times this happened, as boys and girls fell all over themselves, asking her to model for them, to travel to Hong Kong to busk in the subways with them, to join their bands. We lost touch when she moved to LA where she started dating Lenny Kravitz.
Meanwhile, these events seemed to slam me like wake waves after my father’s sudden death. As my best friend went off to see the world and begin choosing which of the many open doors to walk through, I was spooked by what had just happened in my own. Instead of rushing to the world, I waited for it to come to me.
And I developed a serpentine logic about personality and looks that defies common reason. I formed an intractable idea that the world treats the beautiful people better than I have been treated. I noticed doors open faster for the gorgeous. I saw men become more charming and generous when the lovely girls came into the room. I’m hardly the first to notice.
One study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15% less per year than a similar workers whose looks were assessed in the top one-third–a life time difference, in a typical case, of about $230k. Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas, has written a current book on the subject Beauty Pays. So, I came to understand that careers can be made on a stunning face. No news flash there. Most frustrating of all though, was that I felt I couldn’t command the male attention I craved.
These dark feelings have only a small place in the theatre of burlesque. The point of this art form is that the audience is eager, even lusting, to participate in the illusion that you are the most beautiful creature in the room until the song is over.
If I lambast or criticize myself without absorbing any of the positive comments I might get, I’m squelching the learning process. It’s a habit to push myself back into the corner where the wallflowers hide but a habit I want to break. It’ll be a lot easier to have a dynamic stage presence if I am less constipated by my flaws.
Burlesquers know that the secret sauce is vitality. False eyelashes, body glitter and smokin’ hot costumes augment the raw material we have to work with. A classic beauty in a sexy costume is a feast for the eyes, but an offbeat beauty who can dance, with a knack for original theatrics and comic timing? That’s something to talk about.
This look under the chassis is crucial since I have a little girl, who now a 6 year old. I want her to see me grapple with my fears and come up the tattered victor, so that she when her time comes, she will believe that, of course it can be done. It girds my loins to hear her singing songs like this:
“Stand in the light/You can be up here/That’s alright, ‘tight/ I want to be that sing-a-long/No one bes the best/Just wanna dance around in my pajamas/We want to be it all!”
I want to be a liberating influence on my girl. And I have been, at least on her songwriting. True, she may one day rebel, and claim she hates all things thespian. That’s OK because the point is that she feels welcome to express a human longing. We all want to “stand in the light.” She can want to be it all without needing to be the best.