My mother would kill me if she found out, I thought, clicking the bright green BUY! button on Groupon’s website. In 10th grade, my mom caught me reading Dita Von Teese’s Burlesque and the Art of the Tease – a historical and autobiographical account of all things burlesque in Dita’s career and personal life.
“This is a how-to manual for strippers!” she screamed, throwing the book into the recycling bin and barring me from reading it ever again. I was grounded for three weeks. Even though that incident happened years ago, I lied and said that I was taking a Zumba class on Wednesday nights instead.
Two of my co-workers decided to join me for class. Mae had prior burlesque experience, and Kalee had danced in high school. I had been hidden in the back row of every musical performance put on by my college, and was actively kicked out of hip-hop class in third grade for being too terrible to perform in the recital, but I decided to give it a shot. The idea of possibly seeing my new co-workers in nipple tassels was kind of weird, but at the very least we’d have something to giggle about around the vending machine on Monday morning.
Dress for fun, the class description suggested. It helps to feel cute and sexy when you work out – lipstick, ruffled panties, fishnets, heels – whatever you’re comfortable in.
Mae, Kalee and I settled on yoga pants and running shoes and left work early for our first class. We arrived at the studio and tentatively put down our coats. To my surprise, the room wasn’t filled with a bunch of vixens and bombshells, pouting and preening in front of the room-length mirror. There were a bunch of normal looking women of all ages, shapes and sizes just hanging out in leggings and oversized t-shirts on the floor of the studio.
Our instructor, Lady Chardonnay, called us to attention.
“Stand in your showgirl pose,” she instructed, demonstrating with her hands held above her head, wrists slightly bent, one hip cocked to the side. “And repeat after me, I Am A Beautiful and Exquisite Goddess.”
It made me stand a little straighter when I said the words out loud. I hadn’t paid myself a genuine compliment in weeks, maybe months. Over five years and three states, I had somehow managed to gain 30lbs and go from a size 00 to a 6. I was under no circumstances overweight, but I didn’t felt like myself. I avoided mirrors, swimming pools and dressing rooms like the plague. I agonized for weeks over an Instagram of me at Central Park on 4th of July, where I was caught in a group shot wearing American flag shorts and a bikini top. I stuck to a onesie-only policy for the rest of the summer, and tried and failed multiple vegan, low-carb, no-carb, all-meat, no-sugar, non-fat diets. It didn’t help that all I could reasonably afford was dollar pizza.
The class was divided into two parts: an intense, 30-minute cardio workout and another 30 minutes of dance instruction and performance. The workout portion was brutal. I thought that I was going to throw up or die or possibly both at the same time. Crunches, triceps dips, push ups, planks, lunges, you name it. It was rough. Girls were dropping to the floor right and left, and everyone was coated in a thick layer of glistening sweat.
“Every time you catch sight of your body in the mirror, there are only two things you are allowed to think,” Lady Chardonnay proclaimed in the middle of a ruthless set of mountain climbers. “The first is, ‘mmmm’, and the second is ‘nice,’” she said, running her hands along the insides of her thighs and caressing her backside. I tried to laugh, but my abs hurt.
When the boot camp portion finished, we sat along the edge of the mirror to watch Lady demonstrate a dance routine to ‘Big Spender.’ (I totally knew all of the words due to that 2001 episode of Grounded for Life where Lily Finnerty decides to perform a risqué routine for her Catholic school’s talent show.) We watched her bend and shimmy, pop her hips and smile seductively. When the song was over, I was 100% convinced that it would take me at least two hours to memorize the first 8-count. We had less than half an hour to rehearse the whole dance.
“The thing I love about burlesque is that women of all shapes and sizes can look incredibly sexy doing it. This is a time to love your body, your weight, your height and your age. When you look at yourself in the mirror, I want you to smile and wink at yourself. Tease yourself. Dance as if somebody is f**king watching, and that somebody is you,” she said, and began walking us through the steps.
It wasn’t easy, but I did better than I thought I would. My thighs were burning with each plié, and I could definitely feel it in my booty when we dipped. Within fifteen minutes, I was crawling on all fours, whipping my hair and performing dance moves with names like, “The Panty Dropper,” and “The Britney Spears Get-Up.” Unfortunately, no one was actually wearing nipple tassels.
As class wrapped up, Lady gave us our first homework assignment: practice.
“I want you to go home,” she practically purred, “And perform what you just learned for your dog or your bathroom mirror or your partner.”
I honestly hadn’t even considered showing my boyfriend my new moves. I’m a funny girl, not a sexy girl. I can tell jokes and make up songs about my roommate’s cat and do a pretty solid Strongbad impersonation, but I have never really tried to be “hot.” On my most attractive days, I dress like Zooey Deschanel on her way to her grandmother’s house. I don’t own lingerie or black eyeliner. I would literally have no idea what to do. How do you even bring something like that up?
Hey Max, wanna watch me wiggle my booty to some choreographed showgirl moves I can barely remember? We could order a pizza, turn on an episode of SVU for background noise, and make a night out of it!
That wasn’t going to happen.
But Lady had advice. “I don’t want you to approach your significant other casually. I don’t want you to say, ‘Oh, I’ve only been taking this class for three weeks and I’m really awful at it, but here goes nothing.’ I want you to sit your partner down and say to them, ‘I’ve got something really beautiful I want to show you.’”
A few people laughed nervously, myself included. No way. Max would laugh hysterically. My go-to move whenever we we’re drunk at karaoke most closely resembles Uma Thurman’s rendition of the Monkey in Pulp Fiction. He wouldn’t make it through me hitting play on YouTube.
“It might be funny, because funny things happen, but I don’t want you to laugh. And if your partner laughs, you keep going. If you forget the next move, make it up. If you trip over your coffee table, stand up. If you’re having sex within the first thirty seconds, you’re doing it wrong. It’s a tease, after all.” she concluded.
I wasn’t ready then. I wasn’t ready the second week, when Pink Champagne taught us her routine of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, or the third week, when we learned the choreography for ‘Beautiful Dirty Rich’.
But then week four rolled around, and Candy Applebottom announced that we’d be doing ‘Big Spender’ again, and I was ready. I managed to remember most of the moves; the box steps and shimmies, the shoulder rolls and booty dips. It was easier this time. It was sexier this time. I was wearing purple running shorts with a Los Angeles Lakers logo on the side, but I felt like I was sitting in a giant martini glass wearing a diamond-studded bustier and a feather headband.
So, on the way home, I picked up some red lipstick and told Max to come over. And I sat him on top of my messy comforter at the edge of my bed and told him I had something really beautiful to show him.
He didn’t laugh. Not even when I forgot the moves in the middle of the chorus and slipped on my teal fox rug from Anthropologie. I felt sexy for the first time in three years, not because I felt like my boyfriend approved, or because I had put on lipstick, but because I had spent four Wednesday nights in a room full of women, laughing and shakin’ it and celebrating one another for the exquisite goddesses we were.
And that was f**king incredible.
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