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The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Burlesque Performer*



I'm going through a bit of sadness right now, which I think is a pretty normal part of glitter-crashing after a big burlesque festival. I've felt exhausted and meaningless, to put it lightly. I know that doesn't vibe well with the glamorous image I display online, but it's the truth.


As I replay last week's festival in my mind, every moment feels wrong (as opposed to how great things felt at the time). I feel like I didn't do as well onstage as I should have, and all my interactions with others, looking back, seem kind of awkward or just plain bad. It's left me feeling really deflated and unsure about lots of things.


Earlier this week, I began to think deeply about my tendency to second guess myself -- specifically, why I have the urge to "throw myself away" when I am not perfect or everyone's cup of tea. I've gone to therapy and fortunately know the root of my issues, and I work hard at combating them. I was quiet and submissive to a fault while growing up, and the result is a lot of repressed anger and frustration that comes to the surface when I least expect it.


I'm a survivor of traumatic abuse. I don't talk about it a lot and don't think I've ever discussed it on social media, because I feel like I'm one of millions of abused souls wandering this planet. I've always told myself that there is nothing so unique about my own specific abuse that it deserves special attention, although I am always supportive when people share their stories because it is key to healing. I try to work through my shit but I can be jumpy, sensitive and anxious in social settings these days, so the result is me pretty much hiding out when I'm not performing.


I often feel like I'm only worthy if I'm smiling. Anything less and I am dangerous, angry, a bitch with an attitude. I'm only "cool" if I keep it light and soft, just like the classic burlesque I perform onstage (and there is danger in this softness, yes... but when am I allowed to be human and experience a full range of emotions??). I am only "a great person" when I'm on my knees, cloying and friendly and open and warm. In my experience, I am hardly ever deemed likable when I'm observing anything from a true position of power.


On the flip side, I also feel that I must put up a "strong" facade. At times, I have to be on guard because I never know who will say something shady or diminishing to me, and I have to be ready to protect my own honor as if I'm on the prison yard or something. If I don't, then I am seen as weak, artless, guileless to a fault, naive. When I allow myself to be diminished by others in any way, I feel trampled and dismissed with no regard. And it triggers all those false feelings that I'm only an "abused victim" and that's all I'll ever be.


I often feel trapped in the middle of this dichotomy, especially as a burlesque performer. I often feel tired of smiling to please others, tired of fighting to protect myself, and tired of being judged for both. Last week's festival brought many of these feelings to the surface, sometimes all within the span of one minute.


Yesterday, I received news that I didn't get into BHoF. As I looked at the the incriminating words on the screen - "Application was not accepted," it read - I waited for the feelings of worthlessness or rejection to hit. Thankfully, they never did, and I think this has much to do with the transformative experience at Jeezy's Juke Joint. 1) I realized that festivals take a lot out of you, and there is mental preparation as well as physical preparation to account for. 2) I realized that I'm not ready to take the BHoF stage, and those judges probably know what they're doing when they are crafting that line-up. When I take the stage, I want to be *ready*. It was fun applying, but had I gotten accepted, I would have had to do a lot of internal work that I am only just now preparing to do. When I do take that stage one day (I'll never stop striving), I am more than likely going to be very different from the girl writing these words right now. The thought of this evolution excites me.


Egypt Blaque Knyle taught me about the importance of having self-love first before engaging in any kind of onstage performance. Thankfully, burlesque gives us an open platform to explore multiple facets of ourselves -- the good, the bad, the ugly, the weird, the vulnerable, anything at all. When I felt profound sadness in the past, I would bury it inside. Now, my instinct is to work through it and explore its depths. And I'm not afraid of what I will find. In fact, I am hoping that it is beautiful.


*This title is taken from one of my favorite books, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's become a shorthand way of describing any existential crisis I am having, primarily because of the novel's philosophical underpinnings of "eternal recurrence" and my personal feelings of meaningless when up against forces I deem greater than my control as a tiny little Earth human. But I digress.


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