Naked and Not Afraid: Finding My Home In The Burlesque Community

Scarlett Vanderwoodsen // Columnist

There’s something so powerful about finding your niche, finding your community — finding your home. Connecting your passion to what you pursue and take action on is what living a full life is all about in my opinion. During my time as a ballet dancer, I learned an astonishing amount about discipline and integrity. A widely-known fact about the dance community is just how competitive and toxic it can be. At a young age, I never quite fit in with the kids at school because of my extracurriculars. And on the rare occurrences that I did, the time I could’ve spent hanging out was spent in a deathly frigid studio doing tendus and padebures for hours on end only to go home to stacks of built-up homework. I never quite fit in with the girls at my ballet school either I’ve never been a highly competitive or aggressive person, which led me to accept whatever was thrown my way, which ultimately took the passion out of it all. I was shy, and while I felt like I had so much to offer, I struggled to express my thoughts, fully explore my creativity and give myself credit for what I accomplished.

My abundant love for the film Burlesque has been a rollercoaster. Initially watching the movie, I was overcome by the glamour and perfection of the highly rehearsed dance routines and pre-recorded vocals. It was once I began looking into becoming a burlesque performer myself, that my relationship with the film turned a bit sour. Every character has visible abs, radiant complexions, charismatic personalities, and above all, a limitless amount of talent and sparkle.

While there are many inaccuracies in the movie, one of the major aspects of the art that totally got lost in the film is the level of acceptance within the burlesque community. Where I feel the film really dropped the ball is how it had the chance to open itself up to the LGBTQ+, boylesque and minority communities, but instead chose to throw in just a couple people of colour (again, all with rock-solid abs) and call it a day and a half.

The burlesque community is so much more than just another performing arts community, and so much more than just a weekend show to drop in on. Given the vulnerability performers must be able to open themselves up to when they’re on stage, a show creates a bubble of acceptance, for both the performers and the audience members.

One of the best examples I can think of is my solo to The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” Dressed in Parisian getup including a trench coat, black and white striped shirt and topped with a red beret — all of which were stripped — I crawled and clawed my way to the front of the stage. The manic agony I presented to the audience wasn’t sexy, in fact, it was pretty horrendous. However, it was the passion that I portrayed and commitment to the creepy character that made the performance an absolute hit. From propping myself up on a small ledge between booths going all in for David Bryne’s harsh cries in the song, to sprawling myself out on an audience member’s table (which was incredibly unstable might I add), the audience was there for it all. No matter how seemingly ugly the number would get each night I performed it, the crowd would still go nuts for my beret-tossing striptease ending, rather than critique the gracefulness and shallow beauty of it. While previous numbers that I’ve performed included “Do Right,” “But I Am A Good Girl” and “Nasty Naughty Boy” have all fed the stereotypes of allure and sexiness that Burlesque showcases, it’s my numbers that work to push boundaries and perceptions of what beauty is, that end up being my best performances. To this day, the mass amount of acceptance I received from my troupe madame, who gave me the green light for the number in the first place, and the crowds those nights continues to rock me to my core when I think back on it.

The encouragement and personal support that I’ve gotten as a performer from my troupe through rehearsals to show nights is what has kept me a part of this community. Outside the club, I continue to be doubtful of what I’m capable of and my talent, and to this day, I question whether or not I’m even cut out to be doing burlesque. But the truth is, anyone can do burlesque. Though you must still be able to bring a level of professionalism and ability in order to perform, you don’t have to be a certain gender, sexual orientation, race or body type. You don’t need to be ultra smooth and sophisticated and mysterious. Though certain companies will look for performers who are willing to mold to whatever production they want to put on, making that executive decision to either stay with a company or be your own boss is yours to make.

I was lucky enough to make a choice that led to me joining a troupe that is a perfect fit for me. The stage is my place for growth both personal and as a creative. Despite the doubts that were instilled in me from a young age, I now feel like I’m enough. In fact, I know that I am, and always will be enough to be a part of this community. And for once, I feel right at home.

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