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Debilitating stage fright caused me to change my college major from theater to communications, where I was safely behind the scenes. I didn’t wear a two-piece bathing suit until I was in my mid-20s, and even then, it was an extended high-waist tankini. At the end of a long workday, I slip out of my sensible office slingbacks and into Keds for the commute home.
And yet in my 30s, I find myself shimmying in sequins and rhinestone heels in front of a purple velvet curtain while slithering out of a net bra as my audience hoots and hollers at my feet. How does this happen? Friends, I’ll tell you: Your body is a wonderland of conundrums.
The New York School of Burlesque has been written about so many times that I’ll pause here to allow you to do some Googling. Go on, I’ll wait while you take in the personal essays of shock and awe, of first-timers figuring out their bumps and grinds, of giggles and bachelorette parties, of very good girls shedding their inhibitions. The tl;dr is that this academy of ecdysiasts is responsible for birthing the careers of some of the most popular performers neo-burlesque has produced this decade; the instructors themselves carry accolades from performing with Dita Von Teese to holding the crown of Miss Exotic World.
The school headmistress can be found clad in leopard print, a waterfall of red hair carving a path behind her as she ushers students in and out of the dance studio. Her second in command (whom Racked was lucky enough to tag along with a few months ago) oozes charm and personifies a cannon of glitter wherever she goes.
And me, in black leggings and Champion sweatshirt, not a stitch of makeup disguising my pale features or the fact that I could use a few more hours of sleep, psyching myself up for an afternoon of complete creative freedom using my own frame as my canvas.
To look around the studio of any NYSB class is to look at a roster that seems almost purposely random. Students from all walks of life, family, and career; from varied backgrounds, heritage, ages, and identities. During class, we discuss the ideas we want to share on the stage, from picking songs that move us to sharing costuming tips on applying appliqués and snap tape. Often we run through acts, often clothes are stripped off, sometimes too many clothes are accidentally stripped off, but being nude is just a small piece of this part of the process.
The common denominator is the overwhelming need to stop feeling apathetic toward our bodies and to marvel in using them as a creative force, the tentpole in a work of art. The real magic of burlesque isn’t that we’re nearly nude, but what actually is on our bodies. And so on more than one occasion I’ve taken the R train uptown to the Fabric District to invest in rolls of elastic sequin trim, slices of fringe belts, and enough flower clips to make a garden.
I’ve carried my plastic baggie of tinsel home and begun the painstaking and extremely calming act of fastening jewels to $10 Yandy underwear with E6000. With each one, I feel a small measure more in control of my life and surroundings. Red jewel. I made this. Blue jewel. I created something. Silver jewel. It is completely my vision, and I will present it as such to the world.
During lulls at work, I log on to Etsy and search for the very latest in pasties; I’m partial to rhinestones and tassels. To come up with a costume that fits both your specific act and your larger personality, as well as hides the magic of quick clothing removal, it takes a combination of premade purchases, sequin stringing, and adding lots of snaps by hand.
You’re so brave, my friends swoon when I send them photos of the red shimmy belt I’m interested in for my current act. So brave to take your clothes off onstage! That’s the kicker here, and the reason testing the glittery waters of burlesque is so tantalizing: It’s brave to be a woman existing in a body, and to be unashamed to exist in that body without covering or configuring it in a way that is unobtrusive or inoffensive.
To have a female body is to adorn it to appear smaller, quieter, easier to get along with, weaker, subdued and agreeable. Smiling as you remove your clothes, showered in attention-drawing sparkles or proudly dancing under a spotlight laced up in latex, whatever act you can perform without shame, is brave. Body-as-canvas is automatically political, heavy with the weight of all those things a female body represents. In burlesque, your entire frame is your performance — and so, of course, is your costume.
That infamous penultimate scene in 1962’s Gypsy with Natalie Wood on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee (queen emoji here) sends a very clear message about the symbiotic relationship between clothes and body, working together to create a performance. Gypsy slowly peeled off a single glove for 20-minute productions, filling the time onstage with jokes and songs and current events. By the time she took off a glove, though, the audience was so enraptured with her conversation and performance that she could afford to spend 20 minutes on the other. “Reverse striptease,” in which strippers who were already basically bare-skinned got dressed during their act, was thought of as sexy, though the tease was putting something on instead of taking it off.
Throughout history, other performers have cloaked themselves in everything from snakes to silks to second heads. The act of shedding those layers slowly enables performers to keep and release attention and focus the collective gaze on their own terms, telling the story they wish to tell.
As for the story I want to tell, my pre-show ritual is as such: I pack a backpack with my sparkly costumes and glittery makeup and stage props, taking special care to apply my false eyelashes at home instead of in the cramped backstage area. I sit in a corner of the small dressing room with everyone else who will be performing that night, as we share one mirror and several cosmetics. I spend the next few hours shaking in my high-heeled boots, applying sequined layers in total emotional tatters, but still with a smile on my nervous face.
Yes, it is terrifying to put yourself out there physically, but even more so creatively. I prefer not to think of performing as solely brave or sexy or funny or sarcastic or illuminating, but instead all of the above, like the performers themselves, and their costumes. It’s pretty amazing how the simple act of gluing a gemstone or tearing away that fringe can make all those definitions of your body melt away, leaving a small, beautiful act of confidence in its place.