So You Think You Can Burlesque?
Part I: The Birth of Kitty Padi
Can burlesque “strip” an introvert of her inhibitions? At the end of 2016, a member of the JUNK team (Myers-Briggs type: INFP) participated in burlesque workshops; invented a burlesque persona; devised a 3-minute burlesque piece; and eventually performed it at Foreign Bodies, a burlesque revue for the 2017 M1 Fringe Festival by Skin in SIN. Here is her story.
13 weeks to performance
I am squished into the corner of the neighborhood hipster coffee joint with my boss, and my friend, Eugene Tan. It’s a work discussion, but somehow, the topic of conversation has turned to how I, intrepid journalist that I am, should participate in Eugene’s latest project, a burlesque revue for the 2017 M1 Fringe Festival. For no other reason than the fact that two people at the table take perverse delight in the idea and they outnumber the one person who doesn’t. For the story, you understand.
How did I become the focus of this conversation? I try to be all like, “No thanks, hehe”, but my boss and Eugene are already happily discussing workshop dates etc. Everyone is excited except me. I think Eugene’s mission in life is to uncover that uncomfortable grey area in you where you don’t-really-want-to-do-something-but-maybe-it-would-be-interesting and then somehow, YOU’VE ALREADY AGREED TO DO IT. Two minutes later wish I could take it all back. Too late, girl.
HOW DID I GET HERE, AGAIN?
Thursday night, somewhere in Bishan: I am in a rehearsal studio tucked away in an anonymous warehouse complex. The 2001 edit of “Lady Marmalade” is blaring on the sound system. I am dancing, in the company of 18 other men and women I have met for the first time tonight. We are all in our underwear. It’s surreal. It’s kind of okay. It is the beginning of my neo-burlesque journey.
There is an undeniable amount of personal embarrassment involved in disrobing in a room with 18 other men and women (at least for me). But as we shake our booties to the rhythm of Lil Kim’s enthusiastic grunts, the embarrassment I feel also seems to be tempered by the awareness of a shared discomfort. As it turns out, communal disrobing equals democratic awkwardness.
I studiously avoid looking at my and/or anyone else’s body, and try to dance without really thinking about what I’m actually doing. Instead, I start thinking about the weirdness of this Communal Underwear Dance Party happening a few hundred metres away from a quiet residential area. The idea of other people continuing with their daily lives, maybe having dinner, maybe surfing the net, and ignorant of us, boogieing in our boy-shorts and boxers just a stone’s throw away, strikes me as absurd and inherently comic.
Later, I think that maybe my entire burlesque experience could be summed in this moment of tension. On the one hand, the wider world of synchronous daily routines, which follows its own expected order with reliable regularity, oblivious to the little anomalous hiccups happening not so very far away. On the other, this mini-world of unsynchronized dance routines; a shared little bubble of disruptive abandon, collective self-questioning and pushing the limits; of challenging your own status quo – freely, but not without discomfort.
Of course, that’s an over-simplification, but it works for now.
The first time I step into the studio, I’m welcomed by Madge of Honor, an exuberant neo-burlesque performer from Boston who will, over the course of two weeks, teach me and my fellow baby burlesque-rs things like: how to remove a glove onstage. How to own your walk. How to theme a performance. How to twirl them tassels. (First spoiler alert: I can’t.)
I look around and see faces of different colours, bodies of different shapes and sizes. Singaporeans, non-Singaporeans. Asians, non-Asians. Taped onto the back wall are sheets of paper scrawled with a set of community guidelines for Skin in SIN, which is the name given to the burlesque troupe we are all about to collectively birth.
The guidelines are simply a set of affirmative principles for how we will choose to interact with each other. They say things like, “No shaming”, and tell us to offer positive feedback, support or encouragement to one another. They remind us to speak from our own experiences, and not to presume to know anyone else’s story but our own. They are a pretty awesome template for basic human decency.
The words “safe space” come up a lot... in an actual physical room with 20 other people, it becomes something affectingly real.
As the workshops go on, we don’t talk about the community guidelines very much. They come up once or twice, maybe as an addendum to a point somebody is making, but we don’t police each other by them. There is never an instance where someone is called to remind someone else, “Hey, no shaming!” – because we’ve already internalized the idea of what we want these workshops to be.
The words “safe space” come up a lot. It’s weird, because on the Internet, the idea of a safe space can seem a little trite. But in an actual physical room with 20 other people, it becomes something affectingly real. We don’t know each other well at all, and the day-to-day of our lives is pretty opaque – I don’t even know what most of them do for a living. And yet, we willingly, repeatedly expose ourselves to each other. Not just physically (cough), but through a series of increasingly intimate and honest conversations about identity, meaning, and belonging.
We share, we listen, and quite quickly, we realise that, collectively, we are making something incredibly precious. And I don’t just mean burlesque. Because when we speak the words “safe space” to each other, we know that we’re not talking about the four walls of our little rehearsal studio. We mean that we – living, breathing, other people – are each other’s safe space. The knowledge is scary, powerful and addictive.
11 weeks to performance
ALL THE FEELINGS
In this period of workshops and rehearsals, I am multiple people at once. At work, I am cavalier about my “burlesque project” and coolly laugh it off when people ask me why I’m hurrying out of the office. On the way to workshops, I am pensive, emotional. This shit is getting to me!
As a revue that is being specifically staged as part of a fringe theatre festival, our production isn’t quite the sensational ra-ra striptease act that most people associate with burlesque. Themed “Foreign Bodies”, it was conceived as an exploration of various types of “otherness”, particularly the otherness represented by immigrants, expats, transplants, or simply those who are “alien” to the national body politic.
The diverse cast includes “others” from all over the world, Singapore included, and in preparation for the show, we spend time at workshops sieving through our foreign-ness, body-ness, personal histories, and political perspectives. We check in with each other on our aspirations, share the narratives we want to tell, build on the themes we want to explore, and give voice to our misgivings. The work is spirit-lifting, eye-opening, and a motherf**king emotional rollercoaster.
On paper, I am 100% behind the ambition of the show. Personally, I grapple endlessly with a thousand unnamed fears. There are the pragmatic fears of coming up with a routine (what?!) or even putting a costume together (huh!?!). And then there are the primal fears of being looked at. Being exposed. Betraying my privacy. Of not being in possession of my own body.
Why am I actually doing this? The question rolls around in my mind when I dare to think about the prospect of actually performing in a burlesque production on stage. You see, some people have the secret impulse to perform. But me – eh, not so much.
... there are the primal fears of being looked at. Being exposed.
A lot of people tell me that it’s a “brave” or “cool” thing to do. A close friend characterizes it as “leaning into the discomfort”, which makes me feel bad-ass. But in my mind I also compare it to sky-diving and my morbid fear of heights. Yeah, okay, a lot of other people have fun doing it and consider it a fulfilling, life-affirming experience. But so what? This is not an instalment of Divergent, I am not in Dauntless, and I will not be judged or honoured by the number of fears in my life I have managed to overcome.
Or maybe this is all just a weak effort at rationalizing my fears so that I can scurry back into the warmth and safety of my well-loved comfort zone. I ask myself: can you actually be better than that?
Second spoiler alert: there is no magic moment of epiphany in this story. No moment of awakening where I decide to “embrace the fear” and joyously plunge headfirst into this grand burlesque adventure. I do not come out a more empowered or courageous or even extroverted person. Instead, there is just the slow, terrifying march towards opening day, overcome the only way I am capable of: with a series of hesitant, doubtful yeeees-es. As in – am I going to collect materials for my costume? Yeeees. Have I decided on a song? Yeeees. Am I ready to unleash my burlesque onto the world? Urkk. Yeeees?
10 weeks to performance
THE BIRTH OF KITTY PADI
The choosing of your own name is one of the most powerful privileges of any person, performer or not – from The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, to that girl in secondary school who randomly decided to call herself “Summer” halfway through. So, of course, naming my burlesque alter ego throws me into a semi-existential crisis.
It is the last day of workshops, a session that will crescendo with the introductions of our burlesque alter egos to the group. My worries about being objectified as a burlesque performer makes me feel obliged to pick a name that is feminist, bad-ass, and communicates my status as an Empowered Woman, but nothing really resonates.
I don’t need my name to feel like armour, I just need it to feel like me.
Instead, when the time comes to submit our names, I hastily scribble something I jokingly came up with a week ago and has been lurking in my brain since. It doesn’t make an overt statement about girl power, nor does it sound particularly bad-ass, but maybe that means that, at the end of the day, I don’t need my name to feel like armour, I just need it to feel like me.
Our little roll-call begins, a ritual of self-possession, and even as I am genuinely thrilled to witness and exult in my fellow burlesque-rs as they claim their new identities, my palms, my armpits and my entire body is busy breaking out into a nervous sweat. I realise how much I hate being looked at and how much shit I am in for, if I do go through with the performance. Because the struggle right now is real, and these are people I know and like and trust not to be judging me. So how will I cope with anything more than this? I don’t know?! I’m fucked.
Later on, I realise that though I don’t necessarily enjoy being the focus of attention, I can in my day-to-day life bear it fairly comfortably. For instance, in presentations or when I gave my bridesmaid’s speech at my best friend’s wedding. I get a little sweaty but it’s not like a big gaping hole opens up in the pit of my stomach. Like it’s doing now. So what’s happening to me? I don’t know it yet, but the crucial difference here is being the centre of attention, while I’m not speaking.
Without words, I guess I feel truly crippled? Like, I’m a writer, duh. Maybe I should have figured this out sooner, but it takes me months to realise how dependent I am on having my voice as a means of mediating with the world. That this is why this particular exercise, of EMBODYING a feeling, a narrative, or a point-of-view, rather than speaking it, makes me feel so far out of my comfort zone. That this is the source of my anxiety, where the feeling of being weak, vulnerable and exposed truly kicks in.
And now Madge, in her emcee voice, is calling out my burlesque name. It is my turn to stand, my turn to be named, my turn to twirl, shimmy, and emerge from this 2-week process of discovery and creation. I stand up from my chair and objectively know that people are clapping (for me!), but it’s physically difficult to register anything apart from the awkwardness I feel. My skin is probably a blotchy shade of red and I am not sure that I shimmy so much as wobble uncontrollably. But I guess this is it, regardless. I am born, as a performer. Does it matter that I feel more like a pretender? I guess not. And I guess that’s the big non-secret of all performers. So, here I am. I am Kitty Padi.
Read part 2 here.