Scarlett Vanderwoodsen, Columnist // Illustration By Cynthia Tran Vo
I can’t be the only one to have had the recurring nightmare in which I somehow end up at a social event completely naked. The thought of bearing every inch of your physical existence to absolute strangers sounds daunting as is, and doing it confidently is all the more challenging. Strutting what your mama gave you in front of your mama is rather unspeakable – which is part of my reason for being a closet burlesque performer, among being a daughter, sister and student subject to the constant message that my chosen after-school activity is not generally considered quite so “after school special” appropriate.
Never an overly-confident, feminine nor graceful individual, burlesque had never been on my radar. This all changed in 2015, when I first watched the 2010 Cher and Christina Aguilera film centred on the art. Despite my rock and reggae roots, pop music managed to weasle its way into my adolescence, and with it came the Aguilera craze. In elementary school, I was glued to lyric videos for “Fighter” and “What a Girl Wants”, upon discovering that it was Aguilera who sang that one song in the “bonus content” on my Mulan VHS. Songs like “Dirrty” and “Lady Marmalade” oozed empowerment and confidence, and I could only dream of being that smooth. It was inevitable then that I would fall in love with a movie starring Christina Aguilera herself, singing her heart out, half naked.
It was all so alluring to me – the effortlessly sexy performers, the balconette bras and leather corsets flying off the picturesque bodies, doing a playful dance and teasing the crowd on their way to the stage floor. My admiration for Aguilera’s seamless vocals and Cher’s utter lack of regard for ageing had me fixated on the possibility of experiencing the glamour of the burlesque stage for myself. The challenge was conjuring up the drive to make the first move.
At a young age, my parents put me in ballet and piano in an effort to breed a well-rounded girl with the potential to be a child prodigy. As I was a rather shy kid, this tactic did not work out in the slightest for my parents. Despite having a passion for music and performance, I never built up the courage to showcase my talents to my family. I let myself stand in the way of my own creative freedom, stunting my growth as a person and as a performer.
As a familiar face to mental illness from a young age, I grew to learn more about coping mechanisms over the years. One of these being the formation of a list of goals and life aspirations. Among a few seemingly insipid and futile objectives stood out my curiosity for the burlesque stage. In the thick of restlessness last October, I decided to turn to my list to help push through the haze that I felt myself floating in every day. A few months prior, I had played drums alongside the lead singer of a Vancouver duo whom one of my then-bandmates had seen perform a sultry rock number in a cabaret show. Reaching out to her I got the contact information to set up an audition at the club, and I was lively and I was golden.
Some may think that my performing burlesque is an adverse effect of my mental history. Others could even say it’s one of the sources of my mental state, but really, it’s a remedy.
Like arriving naked to a party, I used to continuously have the dream where I would attempt an escape from my fears only to find myself stuck in slow motion. While the different manifestations of my fears come and go, I find myself in a healthier mindset, accepting my place in the burlesque community. I now find myself dreaming in silk and lace, gracefully outrunning my monsters in a dazzling bra and garter. With beauty comes pain and immense critique. Destigmatizing sexual liberation and the glitz of burlesque isn’t a waltz through the park – or in this case, a strut past the pole – but it’s a step towards understanding. And the conversation’s just begun.