Why burlesque matters.
As most of my dear readers know, I spent much of the last year in India, in a tiny town in a big country, where women are second-class citizens at best. Now, returned and exhausted, I find myself again in a tiny town in a big country. And women here, though worlds above those in Bihar in terms of rights, are still not on equal footing with our male counterparts. Our own country contains unequal pay strategies, blatant sexism both in the workplace and out, objectification of women, and stereotypes that feed distorted body images to a deadly degree. As a girl, as a teenager, as a professional woman, and throughout these stages as a dancer, I have experienced all of these issues first-hand, and they have guided me to my work with victims of sex-trafficking and prostitution.
Two days after returning to America, I threw myself back into my ‘other’ job: running a small burlesque troupe based in Mendocino County. From anti-sex-trafficking activism to burlesque may seem an odd transition, and it is one for which people on both continents, in both of ‘my’ big countries, have criticized me. But I believe, deeply, that they are at heart the same cause. That my work in one arena strengthens my work in the other. That they are symbiotic, even, despite being distinct to their locales. But at their heart they are the same issue, with the same goals: self-empowerment for women and girls, ownership of sexuality, and love and respect for the bodies into which we were born.
Many people ask me how I can claim burlesque to be empowering rather than exploitive, how the act of removing one’s clothes in front of an audience can be anything other than degrading. The answer lies in the intention behind it: we do it because WE love it – not because the audience does. We perform not for a customer, nor even for a loved one, but rather because we love and are proud of ourselves and each other. We, the women on stage in little more than sequins, love our bodies and our sexualities so much, and are so comfortable in our own skins, that we invite others to witness our joy. That is a gift one gives to oneself: being able to say ‘this is my vessel, and it ROCKS.’ And if we believe that our bodies are things of beauty, capable of the extraordinary (not least of which is the ability to make people smile, laugh, and whoop-it-up for an evening), then sharing that with our communities becomes a gift not only to ourselves but to our towns, our friends, our families. That is what burlesque is about: self-love, and the physical, comedic, blissful, and beautiful ways we choose to express it. Provocation is not the end goal, though it is often a ‘side effect.’ And what is titillating about burlesque is only partially the skin; most of the allure comes from the slightly scandalous feeling one gets from watching women have way too much fun. The promise of nudity helps to draw the crowd, undoubtedly, but the ebullient, infectious enjoyment we get from dancing around in our underwear is what keeps the crowd in their seats. Bodies are only entertaining for so long; true entertainment comes from within.
This self-love was what sustained my work in Bihar; or rather, seeing the effect it had on ‘my girls’ was the sustaining drive. To watch Pooja, with cigarette burns on her shoulders, find a well of joy inside herself while practicing isolations on the ‘dance floor’ (read: concrete room) was an unbelievable high, and one that I experienced again and again as my beautiful students used dance to reclaim their bodies and sexualities as their own. Dance is a powerful medium, one which I use to introduce girls and women to their powerful, sexually self-aware selves. In Bihari girls, owning their private selves and sexualities and their own bodies leads to the ability to say ‘no’ to pimps, johns, parents, husbands… and in American women it leads to the ability to recognize the beauty of the female form and embrace it wholeheartedly; the REAL one, not the objectified, air-brushed, and artificial one.
And so I find myself preparing for another show; polishing off my pasties and twirling my tassles, and feeling worlds removed from the squalor of Bihar. And I remember when my students in Forbesganj saw a picture on my laptop – one of me and my best friend, in ruffles and little else, posing backstage at last year’s show. ‘So pretty!’ Kalpana squealed in Hindi…’Like a Goddess!’ Like a Goddess indeed… strong, powerful, beautiful, and naked.