After years of struggling with body image, I auditioned for a burlesque dance troupe
No one has ever looked at me and thought, I bet she’s a dancer.
This body has carried two babies, survived one nearly fatal car accident and several smaller ones, and, despite all my time in ballet class, has never quite learned how to be graceful. Also, I’ve never been one for performing in front of an audience, unless you count juggling groceries, a diaper bag, a cranky toddler, and a 5-year old’s attitude at the local supermarket (it’s like some weird interpretive dance we’ve worked out).
Needless to say, when I first had the idea to try out for a local burlesque troupe last year, at first I thought maybe I’d just spent a bit too much time at home with the kids. It was a case of mom-brain, I was sure, brought on by the intoxicating perfume of Play-Doh and mixed berry yogurt. This was a temporary descent into Bad Girl Land after years of being the responsible one. I told myself it would pass and put the idea up on a high shelf, right beside the jeans I’d promised myself I’d fit into again someday (we all have a pair).
But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but infinitely more appealing was the idea that I’d be claiming my own body back. I’d spent a good chunk of my youth overweight, and when I finally got to a space where I felt good about myself physically, I found myself in an abusive relationship. I was lucky to walk away from that situation and go on to marry and have two perfect little babies, but after a lifetime of having my body seemingly at the mercy of others, I was ready to take it back. Also, I really, really wanted an excuse to wear clothes that didn’t have spit-up stains on them.
Because I’m a huge nerd, the first thing I did was research some well-known burlesque performers and check out some of their shows on YouTube. I needed to be prepared, and I didn’t think a partial viewing of the Cher and Christina Aguilera movie Burlesque was gonna cut it.
After watching a few performances by Dita Von Teese and a local troupe, the first thing I learned was that the art of burlesque isn’t just about taking your clothes off. It isn’t just about sequins and feathers and pasties, either, although all those things play a big part in just about any show. Burlesque is an attitude. It’s body language and the look in a dancer’s eyes when she’s ready to reveal whatever she wants to show you. It’s owning a room, just the way any strong woman does when she walks in with confidence.
Unfortunately for me, I was lacking in just about all of those things. The upside was, I had already decided to be game for anything because if I was going to do it, I was going all in. After putting together a disc of slow jams to dance to, I armed myself with fishnets, a sailor girl costume that would be easy to peel off, and a fearless attitude, borrowed from Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. Using a chair, I worked out some simple choreography. I didn’t want to try anything too complicated, in part because I’m clumsy but also because I didn’t want my nerves to get the better of me during the audition. I had anxiety dreams about that scene in Dirty Dancing when, in a fit of nerves, Baby forgoes the lift in favor of that embarrassing thing she does with her thumbs. I repeated to myself, “That will not be you. That will not be you.”
When the evening of the audition arrived, I drove alone to the dance studio and pumped myself up in the car to some ‘80s music, Dwight Schrute-style. Inside, there were about six girls waiting to show off their moves to several members of the troupe. We were all interviewed separately (where I charmed them with my choice of stage name: Amanda Hugginkiss), then were told we’d be auditioning in front of everyone.
Everyone?! A collective squeak rippled through the group. It helped somewhat to see that all the other young women were just as nervous as I was, but something amazing happened once each dancer took her mark and the music began — the nerves floated away. There’s just something about taking control of a room with only your body that is so empowering, and it showed on all those hopeful faces.
When it was my turn, I ignored the gooseflesh on my legs, snapped my fishnets into place, and dragged a folding chair onstage. There was no spotlight, but the studio lights were hot and bright. I took my mark and waited for the music to start. Ten seconds into the dance, my stockings got snagged on the metal chair. I didn’t even mind. I still owned that stage.
I’d already decided I would only get down to my underthings — a cute, frilly pair of boy shorts, my fishnets, and a spangly bra —but by the end of the dance, I didn’t so much throw caution to the wind as I just sort of chucked it under the bus. After all, what was the point if I didn’t get a little wild? I slowly teased my bra off, much to the delight of the group, and was shocked when my face didn’t even so much as flush with color. Later, when I had time to reflect upon the evening over a celebratory Big Mac with my husband, I realized that after surviving a car accident, my early ’20s, an abusive lover, and an episiotomy, taking off my clothes for an audience was cake. Our greatest fears lie in anticipation. I think Don Draper said that.
I didn’t make the troupe, which I was totally okay with. I had done something completely out of the realm of my comfort zone and proved to myself along the way that I don’t have to be afraid of my own body. Plus, they travel a lot for shows and, let’s face it, I’m not going to give up precious Walking Dead time.
Or being with my kids, of course.
Kentucky native Amanda Crum is the author of The Fireman’s Daughter and Ghosts Of The Imperial, and her short work can be found in publications such as SQ Magazine, Bay Laurel, and Dark Eclipse. Her first book of horror-inspired poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow, made the preliminary ballot for a Bram Stoker Award in 2015. She is also an artist and is preparing for her first gallery show this summer. Check out her author page here.