Taking off your clothes on stage isn’t for everyone…

Last fall, I decided to take a burlesque class. Yup.  One of those take off your clothes, on a stage, in the light in front of a bunch of folks classes.

A friend asked if I wanted to join them in this burlesque class and I said yes – having visions of doing readings, perhaps watching a few videos and doing a study of the history and perhaps parsing out the meaning of what burlesque has become today.  When my friend casually mentioned the date of our class exhibition, I was thrilled.

“Oh cool, we get to go to a burlesque show as part of the class. How well organized!” I told them.  They cocked their head, as if in awe of my naivete.

“We are the Burlesque show, it’s a class teaching how to do Burlesque.”

“Oh hell.” I replied.  

I thought for a minute, recalling I had already paid the class fee.

“Well I’m still in.”

The average American adult woman, According to the Centers for Disease Control, is five feet four inches high, weighs 168.5 pounds, and has a 38.1” waistline.  I am 35, five foot four, and my weight has settled at around 190 pounds.  It is not new news that I am large. Everything around me made me aware I was large. I came of age in the 1980s, a time of wisp thin models and cocaine and wonder diets. The images of women I grew up with were delicate, thin, long and lean. They were gazelles to my alpaca, I knew I was fluffy.

That message from the world hasn’t changed too much now that I am a grown woman.  I wear 2X in women’s style T-shirts. I can very rarely find well fitting clothes in most stores, and often things that fit come from the maternity section.  My attempts to date via the online market of “swipe for love” have reinforced this. While chatting with someone, I have then been informed they only date “athletic folks” or “women with healthy looking bodies”.  In order to avoid this in the future I simply put my clothing size in my profile. I received far fewer matches after I did.

The world has made clear that my size is big. Too big. For standard clothes.  For dating. Just all round too big. As a woman in my mid thirties, I don’t care as much about what the world tells me anymore. It’s one of my favorite things about getting older: I care less about the stuff on the outside and that gives me space to listen to the stuff on the inside.  I don’t think I am too big. I actually like my body quite a bit. Primarily it carries me through this crazy world with ease, and supports me constantly.

This is what I carried into my first burlesque class.

That first class was about how to move around.  Things to consider. Always have lightly flexed hands.  Always think about your face and your expressions.  Look slightly above your audience to keep your chin and face up.

We would be choreographing, costuming, and performing in about a months time. I left knowing two things for sure:  1.) I had not asked my body to work with me, move for me, in that way in a very long time. 2.) This class would become a mission of reconnecting with my body as it was our solo numbers.

I decided that I wouldn’t attempt to shed pounds or firm up jiggles during the class. I was going to go on that stage and reveal – piece by piece – my actual body. The one I live in, that carries me, and that I love.

I felt behind every class.  I didn’t quite have my costume done.  I didn’t quite have all my song choreographed.I didn’t quite have my chair work memorized.  But still, I glued dozens of rhinestones and sewed sequin trim. I made my own pasties.  Tassels. Shimmy belts. Pants that zipped down the legs to be torn off in a dramatic flair.  I bought a chair to practice moves on and I put rhinestones on that too.

The week before the show in my spare bedroom I was stomping about in heels, draping myself over a chair, unbuttoning my shirt over and over so that I could look at the audience as I did it and not put my head down.  I didn’t feel ready or confident. But I knew I had all the pieces.

My solo number was the opening act. I was terrified. My hands shook most of the day.  While I did my makeup. Put on huge false lashes. Packed a bag with any and everything I thought we may need in a burlesque crisis. I still don’t know how I managed the drive from Durham to Raleigh without being sick.

Made up. In costume.  Back stage. I felt like I had no idea what I was getting into, and I felt like I did as a small child before a piano recitals.  I was terrible at playing the piano.

5 minute curtain call.

Then it was time.

Time to go out on that stage in the light.

I didn’t know if I could do it.

I took several deep breaths.

My song started and I stumbled on stage (part of my number), feeling quite small.

I found my place in the music, and started my choreography. I remember it being very quiet, with just the music seeming loud and large in the small space. That changed the moment my hand went to my blouse to undo a button. ..

The room erupted in cheers, and they never stopped throughout my entire number. The place was packed from the little I could glimpse past the stage lights. And they were loving it.  They were loving viewing my body. I felt that I had filled this space with joy and delight and brought that out in others. I felt big then. Wonderful. Powerful. And light – all at the same time.

In that space, I didn’t feel big as a label from the outside, pressing me in to be smaller and less, less of myself. Big was a feeling from within me, pushing me, calling me to be as much of myself as I possibly could. It changed how I felt immediately. And that feeling didn’t go away. I woke up the next morning feeling more whole than I had in awhile, more powerful, more…me.

I’m glad I stayed with the class, even though it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I’m glad that I chose to not stress over changing myself for the performance. Because now that body that I live in, is also the one that opened a Burlesque show, and did a darn fine job of it.

I haven’t always loved my body, growing up it was more of an advisory than a comrade. Thankfully aging allowed me the understanding and compassion to embrace my full self, body and all, with acceptance and love.

Burlesque gave me something different.  It handed me – perhaps for the first time – a social approval of my body. Taking off your clothes on stage isn’t for everyone, however it gave me a gift I didn’t even realize I wanted. What I felt going through it wasn’t bravery, it was love. I loved myself enough to share myself and my body as I am now. And Burlesque showed me that in some places, the world would love me right back for it.

about the author

Alison Trott is a native Durhamite in her mid thirties. She is currently gainfully unemployed, but her background is in the study of human genetics. She received her B.S. in biology from UNC Chapel Hill in 2006 and is a graduate of the N.C. School of Science and Math.  She still lives in Durham with her four black cats. She is passionate about building community, spending and investing locally and finding really good Italian food.