Burlesque Vanguard 1-Person Show at Tucson Fringe Festival

Photo by Mamta Popat

Photo by Mamta Popat

After all of that Burlesque Vanguarding I did last year, I decided to try to summarize my experiences in a one-person show, which I was blessed with the opportunity to premiere at the fourth annual Tucson Fringe Festival last weekend. I performed it once on the night of Friday, September 12th at Fluxx Studios & Gallery, and again on Saturday afternoon at Club Congress.

This was the first time I’d ever performed a one-person show, and it was the longest I’d ever been onstage at one time. I had M’ed C (the correct past tense of MC, “Mastered the Ceremonies of”) shows before, but that is an accumulation of very short performances interspersed with other performers creations. This was a whole hour of just me.

After my first performance, which was to the best at my abilities at the time, I felt not quite disappointed, but certainly not appointed, either. I was proud that I had done it, but not entirely proud of what I had done. It was the first draft of the live performance (although it was based on the fourth or fifth draft of the written show). I discovered some moments that I thought worked very well to their intended effect, and several moments that failed quite miserably in their intended effects. But this was exactly why I chose to premiere the work at a Fringe Festival, an artistically supportive environment in which to take performance risks. After receiving some incredibly valuable feedback and suggestions from Lola Torch, a fellow burlesque performer I admire greatly for her experience and mindfulness in her own art, I rewrote my show on Saturday morning, incorporating her suggestions.

The Saturday matinee show at Congress was much more in line with my original vision for the show, and I felt it was much tighter and more effective than the previous night’s draft. If the Friday draft was the best of my ability at the time, the experience of and feedback from that performance raised my ability significantly and measurably. If for no other reason than that, I feel that the experiment of my involvement in the Tucson Fringe Festival was a success.

Plus I got some press!

Here’s a festival preview in the University of Arizona newspaper, the Daily Wildcat, which featured a full-page color photo and several quotes from me:  http://www.wildcat.arizona.edu/article/2014/09/annual-fringe-festival-presents-cycle-of-alternative-plays

And here are a few photos of my show in the Arizona Daily Star!  http://tucson.com/gallery/news/features/photos-annual-fringe-festival/collection_0091f25a-3baf-11e4-bb24-8b5fd797b510.html#0

Photo by Mamta Popat

Photo by Mamta Popat

Catcalls for Help

Catcalls for Help

Because the last thing women need is another man telling them what to do, I’ve spent months not writing this, although I feel it’s important. I don’t have the solution to the problem of intersexual violence but I have some thoughts on the subject and I believe that my perspective is valid. So I’m sharing this with the hope and intention that it will do some good.

I used to catcall women, I guess. When I was eighteen, I was sitting on the porch of my friend’s house with a couple of guys near the campus of West Chester University on a warm Friday night. We were having a party and no one had really shown up yet. A group of college kids walked by, mostly girls with one guy. My friend Kevin called out, “Hey, man, you hogging all those ladies for yourself? Why don’t you bring ‘em over here?” They fell quiet and shuffled awkwardly past. I felt kind of gross about how he had addressed the man as if these women were his property. That kind of cat calling continued for a while, even as the party inside the house started filling up with our friends. I stayed on the porch with my friends, Kevin and Nick, to catch up on the months I was away at school. While we sat there, shooting the shit, I saw a young woman walk past that I thought wasn’t wearing any pants. As she passed under the streetlight I saw her pants were pure and crisp white and so unbelievably tight that I couldn’t imagine how any person could get into them. I said to myself, aloud, “Woah! Those are some tight pants!” I watched her go into the convenience store on the corner, mesmerized by her pants clinging to her butt like a vacuum pack. Kevin and Nick and I resumed talking, but a few minutes later she walked past in the other direction and I let my internal monologue fall out of my mouth again. “Hey, there go those tight pants again.”

She stopped, turned to face the house, and yelled, “My name is Elizabeth!”

The guys on the porch fell silent. I didn’t know how to respond, but the silence was terrible. I said, “Hi,” because I couldn’t think of anything else.

“It’s not ‘tight pants,’” she continued, still yelling. “I’m a person, god damn it!”

I was mortified, completely ashamed of myself for having incited such anger in this woman that she felt the need to remind me of her personhood. I could feel my friends on the porch watching me to see how I responded, and I wanted them to think I was cool. I wanted to trot across the lawn to talk to Elizabeth quietly, face to face, safe from the judgment of the other dudes on the porch to explain to her that I wasn’t hollering at her or calling her ‘tight pants,’ that I didn’t realize she could hear me. I wanted to make all of the excuses I could to relieve myself of the blame and responsibility of having made her feel degraded, but I knew that I deserved the blame and had to take responsibility, even if it meant looking like an ass in front of my friends. If I had started approaching her, she’d be unable to see me clearly in the dark of the unlit lawn between the porch and the sidewalk and I didn’t want her to feel any more threatened than she already did. “Elizabeth, I’m sorry.” I thought to begin to explain and to make my excuses, but that would just make me sound pathetic, announcing the details of my foolishness and desperate attempts to be relieved of guilt to the whole neighborhood, which I suddenly realized could apparently hear everything I said from the porch, even at a normal volume. She didn’t need my excuses, just my apology.

“Thank you,” she said, tersely, before turning and continuing on to wherever she was originally headed.

Kevin and Nick were still quiet. “Well,” I said, “I feel like a dick.”

Nick nodded. “It’s one thing to holler at a group and make the guy feel uncomfortable.”

Kevin laughed. “That’s fun.”

“It’s another thing to comment on a woman walking by herself down the street at night.”

I understood the difference, but I also recognized that there wasn’t one. Either way was disrespectful and degrading to these women. Mine had been unintentional and more threatening; Kevin’s had been relatively harmless but intentional and equally dehumanizing. “I’m sorry,” I said to Nick and to the rest of the world. “No one ever explained to me the finer points of sexual harassment.”
Fifteen years later, as a feminist and a burlesque performer, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how my actions affect other people, both onstage and off. Most of my friends are beautiful women who get naked on stage for money and who promote their erotic art form on their social media websites. Every day, I read dozens of posts about these brilliant, powerful women getting harassed on the internet and in the street. The tag #yesallwomen appears over and over in my news feed and I hate to see it, but it needs to be seen. Of course #notallmen harass women, but #yesallmen are culturally conditioned to do it. Men need to recognize how widespread harassment is but more importantly, men need to recognize the effect that it has. To understand the effect, we need to consider the cause. I can’t say from personal experience how it feels to be regularly sexually harassed on the street, but I read enough women’s responses to have a sense of it. I see women confessing that one comment from some prick ruined an otherwise lovely day. I see their anger, frustration, fear, loathing, pain, and most of all, I see their confusion. They beg for an explanation of why men treat them with so little respect and what these men hope to achieve by it.

The ghetto boys are catcalling me
as I pull my keys from my pocket.
I wonder if this method of courtship
has ever been effective.
Has any girl in history said,
“Sure, you seem so nice; let’s get it on.”
Still I always shock them when I answer,
“Hi, my name’s Amanda.”
-Amanda Palmer from “Ampersand”

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
-generally attributed to Oscar Wilde

Sexual harassment is not about sex; it’s about power. But why? If men already have all the power in the world, why do they need to establish that fact to individual women on the street, knowing that it does not in any way bring them any closer to having sex with them? What do they hope to gain from sexual harassment if not sex? The answer is a sense of authority. The truth is that men do not have much power. Institutionally, we do, of course, but individually, we do not. Women, conversely, have unfathomable power on an individual scale, which is why men have banded together to set up elaborate societal, religious, and legal institutions to suppress it. The fact is that men are weak. The masculine ideal is one of indefatigable strength, machismo, stoicism, impenetrable rigidity, the armored warrior, the huge, hard, and penetrating phallus, and fearless aggression. But no man lives up to that ideal. No man can. When one puts on physical armor, builds a muscular shell, or acts outwardly aggressive, it is often to protect a precious and fragile core. A man harasses a woman on the street not to gain actual power, but to gain a sense of power, a simulacrum of security.

There is a debate in the burlesque world about whether or not burlesque is inherently feminist. Many argue that it is because it gives women a sense of empowerment. I say that a sense of empowerment is worthless without actual power, just as a sense of security doesn’t mean a person is safe, or a sense of entitlement doesn’t mean that the world owes a person anything. It’s just a sense, a feeling, a fleeting impression. This is what happens when a man catcalls a woman. It gives him the sense that he’s superior, which temporarily and very briefly offsets his more pervasive sense of insecurity and powerlessness.

A man cannot help but be attracted to a woman (obviously this only applies to heterosexual men, but those are the men committing most of the sexual violence). Men are powerless to control their desire. At heart, men don’t want to rape women; they don’t want to hurt women. On an individual scale, deep down, a man just wants to be loved by a woman. Whether or not a man is loved, however, is entirely up to the woman. This is her power and his powerlessness. Men can only be complete with the love of a woman. And when the woman he wants doesn’t want him, it hurts. Over and over throughout men’s lives, they are rejected by women to whom they’ve made themselves vulnerable, and it hurt them. Men are weak, emotionally. We have not one tenth of women’s capacity to understand our feelings. We don’t identify our feelings; we just react to them. Men are afraid that if they look too deeply inside themselves and realize that the reason for their rejections was because of their inferiority in the eyes of their desired, they will lose hope, lose faith in themselves, and despair for their meaningless existences. So to avoid that painful experience, they build emotional defenses. They try to make themselves invulnerable, impenetrable, stoic, macho, rigid, armored, huge, hard, penetrating, fearless, and aggressive. They blame women for the pain that they’ve experienced, and lash out not to punish women for it, but just to give themselves a sense of comparative authority, a sense of relative power, a false sense of security. Men hate, harass, and assault women because they are afraid of being hurt by them. They are afraid of admitting that they have no power over love and desire, and so they cling to and exaggerate all of the other powers that they do have.

It becomes a battle of fear. The easiest way for a man to deal with his fear of women is to make women more afraid of him. I don’t know if it was conscious and intentional, if men gathered together in secret fraternal orders to write bibles, laws, and cultural standards with the intention of controlling women, aware that their own insecurities were driving their actions, or if it just worked out that way because of men’s desperate refusal to acknowledge their insecurities. But whatever was going through their minds, their actions were guided by what was going through their hearts, or more accurately, what was not. Patriarchal institutions were created by men out of fear of the power of women.

The worst part is that they work. From what I understand from all of the blogs, statuses, tweets, and rants I read from women these days, modern American women live their lives in perpetual fear of men. Comedian Louis CK recently talked about women’s bravery, and I think he truly understated it. Poet Margaret Atwood is credited with saying, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” And yet every day, women muster the immense strength that they have to walk through a gauntlet of harassment, invasive suggestion, and physical violence. They are brave because they face their fear at every moment, but they still feel that fear at every moment. And the war is won thusly. Women are more afraid of men than men are of women, but we are immersed in a culture of fear, which breeds a cycle of hate, violence, and greater fear.

We need to break the cycle. Fear breeds hate; hate breeds fear. They cannot be defeated with more fear and more hate. Hate can only be defeated with love, and fear can only be overcome with compassion.

Here’s where I get nervous as a feminist, being a man and telling women what I think they should do. But here goes.

American women are culturally conditioned to avoid eye contact with men because it ‘invites comment.’ And so most women I see on the street avoid eye contact as a protective measure. I see that to be exactly the same as encouraging women to cover up their bodies so as to not invite harassment. It’s blaming women for being harassed. Avoiding eye contact is not as much a protective measure as it is a submissive gesture. If I, as a man, am walking down the sidewalk, looking into a woman’s eyes as she approaches me, I can control where she looks by controlling where she doesn’t look. As long as I keep looking at her eyes and she keeps avoiding mine, she is acting in response to my actions, rather than in control of her own. Now, it’s a subtle thing, controlling someone’s eyes, but it’s the root of controlling someone’s attention, which is the root of controlling someone’s thoughts. So as long as I maintain eye contact, I am establishing my authority over that woman, until I look away and release her. I don’t want to instill fear in a woman; I want to be loved by one. So when she refuses to make eye contact with me, I feel rejected, and it hurts a little bit. I feel unacknowledged as a person, unjustly perceived as a threat though I have no intention of harming her in any way. I’m aware enough to know that it’s not her I should blame for the rejection, but the men who have made her feel the need to reject my entire existence. A less aware man will blame her for making him feel inferior, and lash out with some derisive comment. If she ignores him and continues on, it send the message that there is a degree of abuse that she is willing to endure without standing up for herself, which confirms in his mind his authority over her. In his heart he feels inferior, in his mind he feels superior, and the more can feel superior in his mind, the less he has to deal with his insecurity of inferiority. I’m not blaming the woman for getting harassed, but for tolerating it. Men will not stop if they are allowed to continue, and it’s not just men who can stop them. They are acting out of fear and powerlessness and need to be met with power and compassion, not with hate and more fear. The ultimate display of power is not needing to display it.

My friend, Sarah, a New Orleans based ceramics artist, told me one day that she had found the most amazing way of dealing with street harassment. She couldn’t believe it had taken her twenty years to discover it. She was riding her bike down the street one day when a car pulled up beside her. The man in the passenger seat leaned out of the window to say, “Damn, Baby, let me get some of that booty!”

Her typical responses to similar harassment previously had been along the lines of, “suck my dick,” or “fuck you.” But on this occasion, she was too tired to muster her aggression and instead turned to look him in the eye, said flatly, “that’s disrespectful,” and pedaled away.

The car caught up to her at the next traffic light and the man again leaned out the window to talk to her. This time, he said, “I’m sorry about how I treated you back there. I was out of line.”

What Sarah had done was maintained her own authority over herself. She hadn’t pretended to ignore, and thus tolerate, his comments, and she hadn’t allowed herself to be emotionally manipulated into anger or upset. She was unmoved, calmly powerful, and in control. Street harassment is like terrorism; it’s only effective in generating fear if the targets allow themselves to be afraid. If women allow their power to be taken from them, they will be made victims. But if women recognize their own power and authority, look a man in directly in the eye, and disarm him with the truth, that is how a woman reclaims the power that she has.

Emotionally wounded men may respond in many different ways, including further aggression and physical violence, but I believe that most men do not truly want to hurt women. So what I think is vital for dissolving this constant conflict is for women to realize and remember that they have the power in these situations, that the men who are harassing them are doing it because they are weak and afraid. Catcalls are not mating calls; they’re cries for help. “Help us, women,” they beg. “Accept us for who we are: weak, afraid, wounded, and ignorant little boys. We need you to take pity on us, tell us that we are wrong, and forgive us for being so weak. This is the only way we will grow into the men we never learned how to be.” Really, men that harass women do so because they need their mommies, and they’re begging you to be that for them.

Women are, of course, under no obligation to acknowledge men on the street or to treat disrespectful men with any degree of compassion. But change will not come from the weak. Only those with power can make change, and true power, not a simulated sense of power, is held by women. Recognize that. Remember that. Don’t let men get away with being stupid boys. They need help and you have the power to help them.

Weeks 61-62 – My Last Leg

Weeks 61-62 – My Last Leg

I came to Tucson to explore my future home, to get my bearings, and to try to get comfortable. Instead, I spent nearly a month’s worth of living expenses repairing the brakes in my van and growing increasingly anxious about my future. I found Tucson to be more sprawling than I remembered it and yet still a smaller town than I thought. I found a burlesque community divided like Verona with two houses, both alike indignantly, with ancient familiar grudges and blood allegiances. There are floaters and peacemakers, and hopefully no one will have to die to reconcile, but short of a Shakespearean-level tragedy, I don’t see it happening and I fear I’ll be swept into it. I also found an inescapable sweltering heat. This wasn’t a surprise, and it’s actually not so bad, but since I hadn’t lined up a place to stay, sleeping in the van was tough. It got down to about 80 degrees at night, so it was possible, but uncomfortable. To solve this problem, I drank myself to sleep as often as necessary.

I also found some good things. Although the burlesque community is struggling with personal drama, the level of performance across the board is exciting, and I’m looking forward to creating quality work with the people here. I also enjoyed some of the social life that Tucson has to offer and am making connections with people that I expect I shall be able to honestly call “friendships.” So that’s exciting. I am looking forward to developing that this summer and beyond.

But the tour wasn’t over yet. I still had one personal journey into natural beauty and one social journey into unnatural beauty to complete first. And so I spent four nights camping in Zion National Park with my friend, Rich, and four nights doing it up at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. The experiences couldn’t have been more different except in the fact that they were both exhausting. In Zion, I biked and hiked, climbed to the top of Angel’s Landing, leapt off of rocks into cool emerald pools of Virgin River, had deep campfire conversations about my deepest desires and fears, grilled and ate steaks on open flames, indulged in fine beer, wine, and locally-made icecream, and gazed at stars so numerous and bright that I couldn’t recognize any constellations (though I spotted Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, several meteors, and even saw the International Space Station pass overhead). It was nourishing for my soul and temporarily restored a much needed sense of peace and belonging, which had been eluding me as sixty weeks of traveling trailed behind me, and several weeks of vulnerable uncertainty loomed ahead.

IMG_1834

After dozens of miles of hiking in the summer sun, and not so much sleeping, despite the cozy accommodations of Rich’s RV, I was completely worn out. I drove like a zombie to Vegas, and when I arrived and checked into the room, I went promptly and deeply to sleep for a three-hour nap. Rich and I had driven across the country to BHoF two years earlier, which was part of the inspiration for me to do my year-long van tour, and one of the things we learned was that an extra day to recover before the shenanigans began was essential. Even after my long nap, Rich and I hung by the pool until the sun went down, and then went to bed early. I took a sleeping pill just to be sure and I’m glad that I did. Once my sleeping schedule gets set, it’s very difficult for me to break it. I get very tired if I stay up late (and very cranky), but I still awake early in the morning, regardless of how tired I am, and then I can’t get back to sleep. This didn’t make BHoF very easy for me.

When the Houston contingent of Dem Damn Dames, their associates, and the crew that’s filming a documentary about them arrived on Wednesday, the party was on. Most of them had never been to BHoF, and many of them had never been to Vegas before, so we got a couple drinks in us and headed out to get the Fremont Street Experience. If you’ve never been, it’s not particularly interesting, just a bunch of colored lights, loud music, and drunk people. But if you’re with the right drunk people, the colored lights are pretty, and the loud music will have you dancing in the streets with Asian tourists taking pictures and filming videos of you. Such was the case with Dem Damn Dames and we had a grand time. When we got back to the Orleans, we found Miss Poison Ivory and MC Newman and someone mentioned that it was $1 bowling after midnight, so we bought a couple lanes and a couple more rounds of beer. At around three in the morning, Norm Elmore and Melody Mangler showed up, who were among the first new friends I made at my first BHoF in 2009. That was their first BHoF too, and it was the year that Melody won Best Debut. I was very excited to see them. In July I had had the opportunity to hang out with Norm at a punk rock karaoke (which is the only kind of karaoke I can enjoy) in Vancouver, but Mels was out of town at the time, so I hadn’t seen her in a year. Drunkenly, I tried to remember how we met and she reminded me that it was in that very same bowling alley in adjacent lanes. We reminisced and sang each other’s praises and I was very excited for my impending fourth round of BHoF memory-making (fuzzy memory-making, anyway).

The next morning, sure enough, I awoke early, but not hungover. I went to the gym to work off the previous night’s calories, and then to the pool for a little sun and dip. I loved seeing everybody trickling in and the hotel slowly filling up with glamorous people, resulting in my growing excitement. Unfortunately, my excitement grew too fast for my body and by the time the show started I was too tired and cranky to really enjoy it. My anxiety about the future started spilling into my psyche and I started to feel like maybe I should just give up on burlesque. Since the completion of my new act for the Lyric Opera House show—the culmination of a decade-long dream—I had neither been inspired nor motivated to create or even think about any new work. I was disenchanted with burlesque. Even the Movers, Shakers, and Innovators Showcase did little to revive my spirit. All of the acts were good, but very few of them were really inspiring. There were a lot of clever elements, including technology like electro-luminescence, LEDs, and hidden automatic balloon-inflators, or puppets, and magic tricks. They were all cool, but even with the use of illusion, I didn’t feel like a lot of magic happened.

Some did, though. Sizzle Dizzle, in particular, performed a piece in a hospital gown, dragging an IV drip stand around with her on stage. She didn’t mock the sick; she brought and maintained a spirit of joy. It brought temporary peace to my agitated heart. A friend of mine once said of a performance he saw that it gave him “a false sense of security,” and I understood that it was the highest praise he could have given. A little muddled in his language, he meant was the same thing that I felt during Sizzle’s act: for a few minutes, I felt like everything was going to be okay. It was transportive, a true celebration of life. In the end, when she removed her wig to expose a bald head, it was, as burlesque should be, a revelation.

James and the Giant Pasty also performed an act that was a celebration of life, but in a more general sense. As a tree, he experienced the loss and withering of autumn, dropping leaves detaching from his long brown opera gloves. When his rubbery-looking wood-patterned tree trunk dress fell to a shimmering white icicle-crystalline flapper dress, he cowered, cold and suffering through winter, and in the end warmed, grew, and opened with a blossoming flower on his lowest bough. ‘twas lovely.

But the final performance of the night created a unique kind of magic. It was Ray Gunn’s step-down performance as King of Burlesque and, as often seems to be the case with step-down performances, it was an act that would never have been accepted if submitted to the Burlesque Hall of Fame selection committee, but revealed a greater range of creativity by the artist than the kinds of things that win festivals. In this instance Ray Gunn portrayed Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem. He didn’t, like most interpretations of the Jabberwocky I’ve seen, merely portray the creature described in the poem, but rather embodied the poem itself and the spirit within it. The Jabberwocky poem is an exploration of absurdity and a celebration of the power of imagination. Many of the words themselves are completely nonsensical and signify nothing inherently, but given the semblance of order and context, incredible visions of monsters are produced. Ray’s costume, likewise, was an assemblage of words on scraps of white fabric that gave the suggestion of a character, but none we could relate to, except by projecting our own meaning onto it (like I’m clearly doing here, ha!). The production, consisting of video projection of morphing words, harsh white lights focused in sharp beams against dark space, an extra elevated platform, and a seemingly disjointed series of sounds, coalesced to manifest something larger than the sum of its parts. That’s what magic is. That’s what the poem does. And that’s what Ray did. It was his vision, and it was unique. In much the same way that a Rorschach test is a completely meaningless launch pad for the viewer’s vision, so the poem inspired Ray Gunn to manifest his imagination to become whatever it was he wanted to be. It was a projection of himself as an artist, as a creator, and it was very satisfying. It was dark and grotesque and pained and proud and bright and beautiful.

Despite this magical experience, I felt more ready than ever to give up on burlesque, possibly even on life. I felt so defeated by my existence. I felt like everything I had worked for had brought me to a situation of near-destitution, and that the last leg of my tour had worn me down to my last leg to stand on. I felt like I wanted to die, but I settled instead for death’s minor cousin and went hurriedly to sleep.

In the morning I was awoken by and reunited with a friendly face. The Lady Josephine was supposed to be my roommate at BHoF last year, but was denied access to the country, in part on account of her coming to meet me in Vermont last April to tour together. I hadn’t seen her in over a year and it was a delight to wake to her face. This was her first BHoF, so I spent the afternoon taking her around to get her acquainted and groceries. Having finally gotten a good night’s sleep and spent a day relaxing, I was able to enjoy myself on Friday night. But not only that, the Legends Showcase might have actually saved my life. Watching it, I felt acutely aware of my youth and naiveté. I’m 32 going on 13. Sometimes I feel like I have the whole world figured out, but watching these amazing women each twice my age, so joyfully celebrating and being celebrated for their lives, I realize that I’m not even halfway to where they are. I could live my whole life again in the time that it would take to know what they know, to see what they’ve seen, to be who they are. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and that scares me. There are things that I want that I don’t have—a clown to love and live and learn and grow with, who feels the same way about me and is free to share that, or enough money to buy or even rent the security of not having to beg, borrow, or steal my next meal—but all I really need from life is to have it. All I really need is one moment that’s so beautiful that it makes everything else—all of the fear and insecurity, and drama, loss, pain, longing, loneliness, and sadness—worth it. I needed one moment that revealed all of the splendor and love and joy, compassion, pleasure, beauty, and magic of life and being alive. And I got it. I got it over and over and over as each of these magnificent, sparkling human women displayed, revealed, and gave with unending generosity their hearts to us. They said, “I am alive. I am here. I am legend… and hello.”

I have no grandparents; I know no children. I am rather estranged from my family and also from my friends. I forget myself because I see only myself. These women made me remember, by letting me see them, that I am, and we are, alive. They made me want to celebrate that fact. And so I did. I got drunk and danced at the after-party until I burned holes in my feet. I said, “yes,” and went to the after-after-party. I saw my friends. I met new ones. I finally was drawn enough outside of myself to become part of something, instead of just observing. I had fun. For one night, I lived.

IMG_1863The following day, I took some of the Houstonians to the Burlesque Hall of Fame museum. I was tired from partying but still waking up early and I tried to take a nap when we got back but it didn’t work. Instead I jumped into the shower, sucked down a cup of coffee and dashed off in time to attend the clown-themed wedding of Laika Fox and Holly Von Sinn. We were locked out of the place where the ceremony was supposed to be so we ended up holding it in the hallway by the elevators, making a beautiful mess of the place, each other, and things. It was ridiculous and stupid, as a clown wedding should be. After the service, one bride threw her panties and the other threw her bra; each were caught by two of us, so next year, we’re planning a four-way clown wedding between me, Mary Strawberry, Tifa Tittlywinks, and Donatella MeLies. Next time, I bet we can stupider.

Then it was time for the show! Oh, the show… Overall, I thought it was a notch down from the year before. In the debut category, there were a few acts I could have done without, some of which my memory already has. I know that it’s unfair of me to judge performers based on their bodies, but I have to admit that I was a bit bored with the repetition of so many long-legged skinny dancers (and I love long-legged skinny dancers) but was relieved when I saw a woman with curves. I meant that more as a reflection on the selection than on the women themselves, who cannot help how nature made them. Despite a few disappointing performances, there were several that were very good. The act that won deserved it; Bonnie Fox gave one hell of a performance. It was energetic, entertaining, gorgeous, and sexy. Actually what it was perfect. It wasn’t my personal favorite act, but I’m a weirdo and I like weird stuff. Still, I was satisfied with her win. It was BHoF.

Jeez Loueez also really, really killed it. The lighting operator was a bit slow, so Jeez’s entrance onto stage with a side aerial flip was almost invisible. But from there, she rocked that house, alternating cool kid badass machismo in leather and a black and red Mohawk with androgynous sexy grinding sensuality. She’s known as the Powerhouse of the Midwest, and as such aptly filled that room with energy so furiously that she received a standing ovation on her exit. And then she came running back out and gave some more, bringing the crowd to their feet again on her second exit. And then she came back out again, kicked some more ass, and received her third standing ovation in four minutes with two false exits. Damn, girl. I only wish I had thought of it first.

My personal favorite act of the debuts, though, was performed by Voracious V as a space queen. She really expertly used her body and movements to build tension and then seductively melt it away. I found myself being taken on that journey with her, each time being drawn further in. Her costume was beautiful and original, with sharp metallic lines and angles, coupled with panels of flowing fabric billowing from her hips. I adore these kinds of juxtaposition. The panels of her skirt also detached to become fans, which she used beautifully, before transforming them back into a costume piece as a regal collar. I loved it. Repurposing costumes as props and vice versa gives the audience the experience of making assumptions and judgments about something, and then being forced to reconsider them. I believe this is important, and V really pleasingly gave us that experience.

The group category, which consisted of three duets and one trio, was my favorite section of the show. Each of them was exquisite in its own way. The Land of The Sweets was a luscious piece of erotic theater, consisting of two male servants to some kind of goddess figure. I would have liked to have seen more narrative of the servants’ relationship to either each other or to their mistress, as they did somewhat feel like human props in her story, but hers was the story to which we were treated. Next, Kitten ‘n’ Lou performed a duet as a disco couple drinking Drano (for some reason). I didn’t understand why Lou was feeding Kitten Drano, but I quickly dismissed it when the talent of comedic and choreographic timing whisked me away through a shatteringly entertaining routine. Equally skilled, but more subdued, were Lola Frost and Rita Star as a flapper couple. Rita was adorable as a man, and Lola was, as always, a pleasure to watch. It was just so damn cute. The pairing of two gender-bending time-period style-specific dance duets back to back was delightful. But nothing could have prepared me for the adorable ridiculousness of Circus de Moccos, from Japan. To quote Norm Elmore, “what would we do without Japan?” Gilbert de Moccos and Coppelia Circus played a pair of clowns in black jumpsuits and bright red afro wigs. They seemed to approach burlesque from a completely different perspective than North Americans, one where the sexuality is an inherent and almost accidental component of everything else that they do, rather than either a goal or a starting point. It’s less dirty and more playful when they do it. It’s more innocent. And I loved every moment of it.

By contrast, the troupe section was my least favorite part of the show. Everyone performed very well, but none of it really felt like it had much soul to it. Don’t Blink Burlesque had probably the most, as four women shakin’ they asses to Sir Mix-A-Lot. It was very well structured and fun to watch, but didn’t really do much for telling any kind of story, or revealing anything new. Similarly each of the other troupes danced and stripped as collections of sailors, maybe, or people with umbrellas, or pretty dresses in the colors of the rainbow. It all just felt kind of trite and obvious. Honestly I could have done without the whole category.

The King competition was good, but not of the level of last year. Mr. Gorgeous did what we love him for, which is being an exaggeration of his true personality, but the act had more emphasis on structure and use of his props than what I really wanted to see, which was him. Trojan Original performed a very seductive tease with a red sarong that he never let slip to reveal his privates, even at the end when he walked off leaving us unfulfilled. It was a terrific exercise in tease, but was more suited to small cabaret than to the grand showroom. Eddie Van Glam, as Macho Man Randy Savage, performed his heart out, running and jumping and sliding on his knees across the stage. He fully committed to his character and to showmanship and gave a really fun performance, but lacked the finesse required to really charm a crown out of the judges. And Paris Original performed as a beautiful blue mythical creature, murdered disturbingly, and rising again as a red phoenix-type version of itself. It was a gorgeous costume, ingeniously transformed, but choreography never reached the depth of emotion that the costume and story called for. These may be nitpicking comments, though, because the performances really were all great, just maybe not sublime.

The Queen Competition was as varied as the show was long, which is to say quite, but not overwhelmingly. The second and first runners up were both very classic, very beautiful, and very sexy, sparkly strip teases, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m a weirdo, so neither of them was in my top three. The three standouts to my mind were Midnite Martini, who became our Queen, Melody Mangler, and Ophelia Flame. Midnite’s act was brilliant. She had an eye to production value, opening the curtain to reveal her dramatically suspended in blue fabric, with her legs spread and draped to the floor as if she were on stilts. When she drew back the fabric, she revealed a stepladder as the first of several clever surprises. She then proceeded to use the ladder as a kind of horse for acrobatic magic trickery. The thing that I love so much about Midnite Martini is the thing that I so loved about Voracious V’s act, which I so loved about Tansy’s performance two years ago. Midnite consistently considers objects the rest of us take for granted, and discovers new ways of viewing and using them. Last year she combined feather fans and opera gloves into feather-fingered gloves. This year, she reimagined the capabilities of an ordinary stepladder, and its relationship to other aerial apparati. She even reimagined stocking pulls into a signature move, and then reimagined that to do it fully inverted on the side of a ladder! It’s that kind of ingenuity that I want in a Burlesque Queen. And we shall have it.

Similarly, Melody Mangler presented as a Puritan goodwife, with an enormous petticoat under her black dress belying her beautiful figure beneath. But when she removed it to the tune of Season of the Witch, the understructure inverted to become not just new costume and props, but even scenery, as she flipped flames up and around her. But her performance was not just the grace of great costuming ingenuity. Her presence on stage was precise, perfectly promising a heart and mind full of unrepentant lust for unholy pleasure. I hesitate to be swayed in my imagery by the obvious connection to hers, but falling in line with her performance, I’m giving in to temptation. Her performance was hot as hell and she set the stage ablaze. It was flawless and exquisite.

And then there was Ophelia Flame. Before the show started I expected her to win. She’s competed several times before and is one of the performers I consider to be among the “world class.” A few months ago, Jo Boobs was trying to describe to me something that the legends have or do in their performances, but none of the rest of us seem to grasp. She couldn’t really put her finger on it, or tongue I guess, but it had something to do with nonchalance, I think. I watched the legends performances with that in mind and I saw it, but I can’t quite identify it either. In the Tournament of Tease, I saw it again in Ophelia Flame’s performance. It may be patience, but that’s not all of it. It’s power and self-possession. It’s like Chili Palmer’s character said in Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, “I own you, but I don’t feel one way about it or another.” Ophelia performed with complete authority, where the rest of us still seek approval from the audience, as if she were saying, “I’m doing this. You can watch if you like.” And of course we do, because we want to, but she doesn’t deign to try to make us want to; she just does. When I watch her perform, I feel like I’m completely powerless, just a thing in her pocket. That’s absolute power and she has it.

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Sunday morning I rose early to do a photo shoot with the amazing Eli Schmidt, a photographer shooting a series on male burlesque performers, whom I met at the pool on day one. Afterwards I had breakfast with a bunch of wonderful Canadians and I spent an hour at the pool party before popping off campus for the wedding of Peekaboo Revue’s Cherry Bomb and Kevin Bagby. It was a delightful wedding full of wonderful people. I love the Peekaboo Revue family. They are some of my favorite people I have ever known and I’m grateful to have been invited to their intimate and special occasion. Sadly, I had to flee the wedding, just as I had to flee the pool party, to make it back in time for the Sunday night show, which was great.

The first act was Koko La Douce, whom I had never seen outside of the film Burlesque Assassins, and I was completely blown away. She was marvelous, performing a balloon dance, within a balloon dance, within a balloon, with a bubble, and a big confetti-filled balloon. Trixie & Monkey did a really animalistic sadomasochistic duet that dripped with sex and Tigger! mimed a striptease and fan dance from an already naked state. There was one act that it took me a little while to figure out, and that was Captain Kidd’s traniwreck act. He was in drag, but in grotesque fluorescent green drag and unshaven, chewing gum obnoxiously and flipping his ill-fitted bad wig overdramatically over his shoulder. I kind of hate that drag notion of a ‘hot mess’ being charming. I would much rather see a drag performer have her shit together. But before long I came to believe that Captain Kidd felt the same way as me and was mocking the whole trashy diva business because of how incredibly exaggerated it was. The thing that sold it was that when he was hooping, his tricks were sharp and successful, rather out of keeping with his character. It felt to me like he was saying, “be a hot mess if you feel like, but you’d better be able to back your shit up when it comes to the test.” And I salute him for saying it. Good on ya, mate! I don’t think there’s anything charming about being crap, and if that’s not what he was going for, at least that’s what I got out of it.

After the show, I got some food with the Canadians (I love those Canadians) and then hung out for a while. I tried partying, but I was a bit worn out from the weekend. It turns out I was worn out from more than just the weekend. I was worn out from camping, and from the week I spent sleeping in a van in Arizona in late May. I was worn out from living in a car on and off for fourteen months. I was worn out from waking up in a different place on Monday than I went to sleep on Friday. I was worn out from worrying about money, my career, and my future. I was worn out from smiling, and from crying. I was worn out from working out and from stretching, and from driving and pushing myself to see how long I could stand living homeless. It had been 62 weeks of traveling, even if I wasn’t traveling that whole time. But I was. I was without a home. I was without a place I could feel safe without fearing that someone was going to break in and steal everything I owned and could not replace. And so, when I left Las Vegas and the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend on Monday morning, without even really having said goodbye to most of the people I knew there, I felt only a little bit of regret, far more filled with a sense of relief. It was over. Now, it was really over. I was going home. I drove all day Monday, arrived in Tucson late in the evening, unloaded the essentials, and flopped into what is now, at least for the next two months, my bed… in my home. And I felt relieved that my last leg, indeed the whole damn thing, was over. It was the relief I craved in my seat at the show on Thursday night. It was time for me to give up and go home.

Now it’s over. And now I’m home.

For now.

Weeks 59-61 – Show Me; Don’t Tell

Weeks 59-61 – Show Me; Don’t Tell

Two things I’ve been doing a lot of lately: writing and smoking pot. I spent a few days in St. Louis hiding out in my van, writing all day in the library, and getting high and pseudo-philosophical. I enjoy smoking pot when I have absolutely no responsibilities and no one to talk to. I get very socially awkward when I’m stoned because, like with any hallucinogen (which pot is, technically), I get all up in my head and my thoughts move faster and weirder than my mouth can relate. I find I also get really mimey when I’m high. I like that, but if it’s not playtime, I get anxious and paranoid. Similarly, writing takes me deep into my mind and feelings and becomes the external expression of deeply personal internal states. If I’m writing about something sad, I find it very difficult to snap out of it and be present, remaining where I left off in my writing. But If I follow an idea or a story to its conclusion, I feel satisfied and experience a sense of peace afterwards. The reason this is important is because after weeks of personal, internal exploration, I was ill-prepared for the four-day party marathon called The Show Me Burlesque and Variety Festival. I spent the night before the festivities at the home of my hosts, SinDee HooHoo and her boyfriend Matt. It was the calm before the storm…

The Thursday night opening gala was in an old warehouse smattered with enormous and elaborate dioramas of settings from Star Wars, cool graffiti, and mixed-media art. Upstairs was a smorgasbord of food and beverages for the performers, not just for the performers in that night’s show but for all performers in the whole festival. The show was long, but exciting throughout, with three sets each hosted by a different MC. Jeez Loueez was really funny on the mic; Siren warned of long-windedness but was much more concise than most drag queen MC’s I’ve seen, and clever to boot; and Foxy Tann was an absolute pro. One of my favorite acts of the night was Eartha Delights’s pyschadelic bump & grind. She was patient, a trait I’m starting to really love watching in certain burlesque performers. If a strip tease builds like sex, which I think it should, I’m growing really fond of the performances that don’t rush toward a climax, allowing the audience to sip, savor, and drink in the sensuality of the act. Like her name indicated, her performance was an earthly, sensual pleasure. Similarly unrushed was Femme Brulee, who appeared as a human loofa, getting clean while getting dirty. With hip hop music and moves, she stripped to loofa fringe and eventually tiny loofa pasties. It was delightful to watch and her joy on stage is irresistible. Rather than irresistible joy, Red Rum’s appeal was her unmitigated ferocity. She performed a send up of 80’s cult Sci-Fi classic, They Live, to the tune of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” I’m always wary of acts that make direct reference to specific stories or films, because an act needs to hold up on its own if anyone in the audience isn’t familiar with the reference. I think that Red Rum’s totally did. For those of us who knew the film, her act was a treat, but for those who didn’t, it was an intense commentary on evil subliminal messages in advertising, with some extremely clever narrative and costuming choices. But the act that brought the house down was the closer for the night, performed by Minneapolis’s own Redbone. She strutted out with a big sparkly afro and some cool gold 1970’s soul sister pants with suspenders, big hoop earrings, and a defiantly confident smirk. She proceeded to bust out some incredible dance moves, hugely powerful personality, and expertly timed comedic elements, stripping off not just her clothes, but even her earrings and wig in preparation to kick some ass. Redbone is like a laser. When she sets herself a target, she fucking nails it with lightning speed and incredible precision.

Afterwards, we went to the after party, and then the after-after party and finally went to bed as the sun started creeping up. I slept for about two and a half hours and then was wide awake, fueled by cortisol and nerves about my act that night. While my housemates slept, I finished repairing my costume, showered, and shaved my head and body, except for the beard I’d been growing for a couple weeks. At noon, I taught my character and emotion class at Van Ella studios to a great group of students. It was valuable for me because it reminded me of something I wanted to accomplish in the act I was performing later that night, which I hadn’t been doing in recent performances. One of my students said she was inspired to reexamine her choreography and try to incorporate the new perspective into her act that night as well. This is the greatest thing to hear after teaching.

There were two shows that night; I was to perform my Werewolf act in the later show but had also volunteered to be in the opening number for the early show. I was very nervous about my act. I had neither performed it recently nor rehearsed it fully, so I was worried it would be rusty and sloppy. Also I choreographed it back before I learned to dance well and hadn’t updated the choreography to satisfy newly raised standards. I did, however, discover a new moment in the act, in which I chase my tail, and I reminded myself to really dramatically shift my energy downward for when I unleash the beast. I ended up performing what I felt was the best performance of the act I’ve ever done. I felt good about it, and relieved that I had done my job well enough. I was finally able to relax and enjoy myself afterwards.

My favorite act of the evening that I was actually able to concentrate on was Eva La Feva’s dashboard hula girl responding to the car radio. It was original, clever, sexy, funny, well-executed, and fun to watch from start to finish. I also really enjoyed Michelle Mynx utterly oozing sex around and on a jungle gym disguised to look like a bed and Ginger Licious’s making tittie tea. I didn’t want to like Ginger’s act at first because of the abundance of props, but each was used really well to create a thoroughly enjoyable act. After the show, a bunch of us went out partying until the bars closed and they kicked us out.

The Saturday night Beggar’s Carnival show was stupendous. The venue was a gorgeous old art deco ballroom and was set up with entertainment pockets and vendors all around the periphery and balcony. There were games, and fortune tellers, a sideshow tent, a posing mermaid, and a photo booth. Once the show started, there was no MC, but giant projected placards to announce each act instead. There was a live band and the whole thing had a feel like a silent film. Each act was excellent, but the three that blew my mind the most were Jett Adore’s peacock act, which I had never seen in person, Lady Jack and Eva La Feva’s duet as a sort of witch controlling an undead subject with the use of an enchanted flower, and Ray Gunn with Rob Racine’s adagio chair-dance duet. Jett’s act is just fully committed to marvelous beauty. It’s breathtaking. Eva & Lady Jack’s duet was immaculately precise in execution, but also told a very satisfying narrative about power and desperation in love. Ray and Rob’s act was not only impressive, but beautiful and powerful. Rob sang, while Ray danced with him, incorporating acrobatics for dramatic and emotional accents with significant meaning, rather than pure spectacle. In the end, their embrace simultaneously dropped the bottoms out of our hearts, and brought our voices out of us in unabashed joy and gratitude. It was stellar.

And from that inspired and romantic space, we all went to get bombed at the afterparty. In Lola Van Ella’s packed studio, I felt really awkward and out of place. We were recommended to wear circus-style clothing, and I went with a totally roustabout costume—overalls with beaded fringe and a flannel shirt—rather than a that of a performer. I had been charged with the task of delivering SinDee’s comfy boots to her, but she wasn’t there, so I popped my beer into her boot and used it as a coozy. This really added to the roustabout look, especially with my itchy new beard. At one point I found myself pressed up against and talking to three gorgeous women, Deanna Danger on my left, Lady Jack in front of me, and some other beauty whom I didn’t know and don’t remember. Awkwardly, I took a sip from my boot beer, for which Lady Jack demanded an explanation. I told her, “This is someone else’s boot and I’m looking for her. It’s kind of like a redneck glass slipper.” Their three sparkling and confused faces stared back at me in silence. I felt very uncomfortable in that moment and searched my brain for an exit line. I finally broke the awkward silence with a desperate, “Say! What size shoe do y’all ladies wear?” Deanna laughed and rolled her eyes; Lady Jack just said, “No,” and the other woman kind of sighed and looked away. I took another boot sip and slipped out of sight. The night went on like that, allowing me to play and goof off, but not really endear myself to anyone but myself. With so many personalities, so intoxicated, I felt lost in the pull of human drama, of stories I can’t tell, looks and references I didn’t understand, and feelings I couldn’t handle. Eventually I was able to get away and take some breath in peace. I returned relaxed and sat with Siobhan Atomica for a real conversation until the party closed down and we were all kicked out.

IMG_1713The next day, a bunch of the performers reconnected at the hangover brunch to regale each other with embarrassing tales from the night before and praise for the performances that we loved from the weekend. Once we were brunched and caffeinated, a group of us slipped over to the gem of St. Louis, the City Museum. It’s a 10-story, full city block, indoor and outdoor jungle gym envisioned and created by a millionaire madman. For hours, we played, climbed, ran around, jumped on stuff, and crawled through dark, tight, and elevated nooks and passageways. For a few hours, we were children again, sliding down slides, swinging on ropes, and playing with every object that caught our eye. It was wonderful and exhausting. It restored the sense of peace in me that I had lost throughout the weekend of parties and shows. It restored my innocence.

Afterwards, my Baltimore homies, Kay Sera and Rich Just, took me out for a luscious Peruvian meal down the street. After such a wild weekend, the farewell was sober and sad. I’d see them all again three weeks later in Las Vegas at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, but three weeks was a long time. And I had nothing to do in that time. I had nine days to kill between St. Louis and Denver, which meant wasting a week in Kansas, before my last gig of this tour. I couldn’t muster the motivation to go to Denver for the gig. The Show Me Burlesque and Variety Festival had taken too much out of me. I felt like it was my final exam, for which I had crammed and felt I aced, but now my last week and show were just a formality before summer vacation. I emailed my producer and explained the situation to her, and changed my travel plans to head straight for Tucson. I was done. I was so close to my destination I just had to take the shortcut.

It ended up being longer and more adventuresome than I expected. Outside of Oklahoma City, I picked up a hitch hiker. He was an 18-year old kid from Baltimore, of all places, biking across the country to raise awareness for Williams Syndrome, with which his brother lives. I was vaguely familiar with Williams Syndrome because it is identifiable through cytogenetics, which I used to do. The kid had broken his collar bone when he was blown off the road by a passing truck. I put his bike on my bike rack and his trailer and gear inside the van. I offered to drive him immediately to a hospital, but he said it could wait until he got to his doctor friend’s house in Albuquerque. I was going as far as Amarillo that night to spend the night with DomestiKate, a burlesque performer I’d met a month earlier at the Texas Burlesque Festival. He said he had a place to stay in Amarillo, so that was where we would go. The following day I had planned to visit Roswell, NM to check out some alien shit, but I saw that Foxy Tann, Redbone, and Jeez Loueez’s tour had a show that Friday in Albuqueque. I changed my plans and offered to drive the kid, who called himself Chance, to Albuquerque the next day. He agreed and we exchanged numbers when I dropped him off at his campsite.

IMG_1726I would have offered to house him at DomestiKate’s but I had only just met him, and had really only briefly met Kate once before. She turned out to be really rad, taking me all around town to show me what’s to do in Amarillo. We accomplished it all in about three hours. We went to the Cadillac Ranch and spraypainted some old Cadillacs stuck in the ground with a giant holy vagina, had a beer at the Big Texan, and talked our way into a backstage tour of the defunct viewing booths at the XXX porn barn, where there are holes below the windows for patrons to tip the dancers through. They looked like glory holes, but the guy that worked there insisted they were too small to fit more than just the tip. Then we watched the sun set and met up with her troupemate, Crystal, for drinks and a few games of pool at the venue where they perform in the back room of the hip rock and roll dive bar. Afterwards, we watched burlesque videos and went to bed.

In the morning, Kate cooked me a delicious breakfast and I went to pick up Chance. He was hurting a little bit more from the broken collarbone, so we smoked way too much hash on the drive to Albuquerque. I had planned to take him to see the burlesque show, but it was strictly age-restricted to 21 and up. I dropped him off at his friend’s house and went to stay with Kitty Irreverent, who very graciously opened her home to me. Kitty and I went grocery shopping, made dinner, and hung out with her husband and amazingly derpy and sweet pitbulls.

The last time I was in Albuquerque, my friend from New York was on tour with her band, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks and our tours happened to overlap so I surprised her at the venue. This time, the burlesque show was at the same venue, so I showed up seemingly at random and surprised my showbo friends again. This time, I just wanted to watch the show, but I couldn’t help but take notes of new ideas. Of course, I was too stoned and feeling awkward, unable to remember the names of people I’d met before, people with whom I’d been lately talking on Facebook, and slightly shy and embarrassed about it. Also my notes didn’t really make much sense. But the show gave me some great ideas nonetheless. It was really fun. Foxy as an MC is incredible, really bringing the energy and manipulating it in the crowd. She’s funny, sharp, remembers details, and is also a really good salesperson when she advertises merch, classes, or upcoming shows. It doesn’t feel like we’re being sold to, but informed of things we didn’t know we were really excited about. Redbone’s classic tease as a joint was amazing. It worked on levels as basal as raw sexuality and beautiful seduction, and also as clever symbolism that provided a fresh perspective on things like fans, visual puns like a “grass” skirt”, and poignant commentary about how pleasurable marijuana can be. If I wasn’t so awkwardly stoned, I’d have really been sold on it, and maybe that’s how I have been lately. Jeez Loueez also killed it. I noticed that she really skillfully manages dynamics in energy levels. The act began with the music playing at least four measures before she even appeared, which, when she did was slow and controlled. Over the course of the act, she adroitly raised the energy from that trained patience to a frenzied flurry of flesh and ferocity. It was a great ride to a blast of a crescendo. Those girls have got it! The show had a grand smattering of newer performers—each doing different things really well but needing guidance and experience to round out their skill sets to be really strong performers—and more seasoned performers from several of the apparently nine troupes in Albuquerque, with additional more circusy artists coming down from Santa Fe.

I decided I needed to quit on the pot for a while, as I was slipping deeper into anxiety about my future, and the pot was making it worse. When I got to Tucson it was hot, I was hungry, and I felt very lonely. I wondered if I made the right decision choosing to settle here. It’s a much smaller city than I thought. It’s far away from anything else, and the heat and dry air could be paralyzing. I need to find a job that will pay enough to rent me an apartment and afford me the freedom to pursue my art, but I haven’t looked for a job in over a decade. I haven’t held a job in almost two years, and all of my experience isn’t immediately transferable. I’m a wandering stripper clown, and broke. I know that I’m capable and that I will figure something out, but I also feel fear and doubt about it. For the first time in fourteen months, I don’t have anything ahead of me. I’ve been driving thousands of miles, looking forward through the windshield, and now I’ve stopped and feel like I’m casting about. I feel the habitual urge to flee, to get on the move, to keep my momentum up. But I can’t. I will settle into this for a little while, think of a new project, make a plan, and get to work on that.

But this is it. I’m done with that living-on-the-road thing for now, where every day was a new adventure in a new place. Now every day will be a new adventure in the same place. I’ve got a lot to figure out, but I do have some time to do it, the rest of my life, really, so I’ll see you all there, and keep you updated as it develops.

Here I stay, but away we go!

Weeks 56-58 – Recollecting Home; Work & Play

Pat I: Week 56 – Recollecting Home

With the completion of my decade-long dream behind me, even by only a few hours, I left Baltimore. The seats to my van had been sitting in my friend Rich’s garage and I figured that I might need them. Once this tour was over and I was renting an apartment in Tucson, I’d like to turn my minivan back into a normal vehicle again. So in Rich’s driveway, I pulled everything out—the bed, the storage tubs beneath it, sleeping bags I hadn’t used but might need, my stilts, a borrowed camping stove that I returned to Rich because I hadn’t used at all, the refrigerator, the drawers full of clothes and office supplies, and the floor mats. I spread everything out in the sun, shook it out, vacuumed it, and then put the seats back in. This was a new puzzle for me to solve. How do I fit everything I need into a smaller space? With some careful tweaking, I managed to do it, except that my bed, once a full-sized flat futon mattress, now looked like a fully folded up Craftmatic adjustable bed (only it didn’t adjust). I still needed to live in the van for another seven weeks, but I guessed I’d be sleeping in my car like a normal person that has to sleep in a car, instead of the relative luxury to which I’d grown accustomed.

Fortunately I had other options along the way. In New York that weekend for the New York Boylesque Festival, I was staying in Lefty Lucy’s roommate’s bed. In Pittsburgh I’d stay on Macabre & Nick Noir’s couch. In St. Louis and Vegas I’d have a hotel, so it would only be a few scattered weeks of van dwelling.

4-29-KidPacoIn Pennsylvania, I paid a visit to my old stomping grounds to retrieve my childhood memories. I grew up in three places in PA, each just a few stops from each other on the same train line. I was amazed at how little Paoli had changed. That was where I lived from birth through fourth grade. It’s an historic little town full of adorable boutiques for rich suburbanites and stuffy grannies, but it didn’t always cater to that crowd. When I was there, it was the early 1980’s and it was much seedier. Maybe I just had a seedy childhood, but I remember picking up all the gossip around the town about what neighbor was arrested selling drugs, who was caught prostituting out of her house, and when they finally figured out who killed and cut up that guy that was found in a trunk. Maybe it was still like that, but all under a nice, clean, shiny veneer.

I took a drive around the ring road that created my neighborhood. There was a little stone wall at the entrance, where I used to wait for the school bus with my brother. I was amazed to remember the names of the neighbors who had lived in the houses I drove past, but that information was still neatly filed away in my brain. The red house I grew up in had been painted white, and a beagle sat on the front stoop barking at me to move along. A lot had changed; the tree I fell out of was gone from the front yard, along with the fence at the end of the driveway, the gate of which I absentmindedly left open the night that my first dog, Carla, ran away and literally ate herself to death in the neighbor’s trash can. I dealt with that guilt for a long time.

IMG_1650Behind the house ran a stream, which connected all of the back yards on that side of the neighborhood, and of the next street over. My brother and I used to hunt crayfish and set up obstacle courses in that stream. It became a sort of highway for the neighborhood kids. In the backyard of one of those houses, I saw two girls, aged about six and eight, overturning rocks in the stream and squealing with delight at the things they found beneath them. I watched them briefly, thinking about how they were the modern female version of my brother and me, and I wondered where their lives would take them. One of them might grow up to become a stripper like me or go into business like my brother. I was delighted by the thought of all the experiences they had ahead of them that would shape them into the adults they’d become. I thought about all of the experiences that shaped me, that brought me to the point at which I am presently, a starving artist about to start a new life far from everything I’m familiar with. A typhoon of memories crashed through me, full of joy, pain, embarrassment, pride, love, and fear. I envied these girls’ innocence and mourned for its inevitable collapse, yet was vicariously excited for all of the formative moments they would get to live through. In that same neighborhood thirty years earlier, I was innocent for a time, lost it, and have been seeking it ever since. The two young girls noticed me and stopped hunting crayfish. They looked at me suspiciously, the strange man in the white van watching little girls play. Perhaps their innocence was already starting to crumble. I wanted to preserve it, not corrupt it, so I smiled, waved, and drove away.

The place we moved to when I was in fourth grade was really where I grew up. I lived in the house in Wayne until I went away to college. I spent part of childhood, all of adolescence, and my teenaged years in that house. It was a weirdly designed, upside down, 1960’s swinger party pad built into a hill. It had also been red when I lived there, and had since been painted white and grey. It also had a stream that ran through the back yard, but it basically started in the next door neighbor’s yard, so it was more of a wet ditch than a stream. I didn’t play in it as much, but it led all the way to my elementary school, so sometimes I used it as a path to go there. My first year at that elementary school was also my last, but that was where I met Nick Chapman, who became my best friend for many years. He had moved back into the neighborhood and happened to have the day off from work, so we met up for lunch and spent the afternoon reminiscing about growing up together and remarking on how much had changed.

I had turned Nick onto heavy metal in fifth grade and he turned me on to hardcore years later. We used to smoke pot and skateboard behind the movie theater that had since burned down. We’d hitchhike to the mall to buy expansion packs for Magic: The Gathering, or take the train to Bryn Mawr for comic books and used CDs. Nick lived sort of behind the library, where we both used to work shelving books after school. One day he told me about the amazing Visions of Disorder/Stormtroopers of Death show he went to. He said I should have been there, but while he was at the show, I was busy losing my virginity. He asked why I hadn’t told him sooner, and I said I was telling him then. We were shelving the romance novels at the time and laughed too loudly about it, until the librarians shushed us. I’m jumping around in the chronology, but it was in the park at that library where I took my first bong hit, and not knowing any better, put my mouth around the whole thing. The older kids teased me about hitting it like I was sucking a dick. Coincidentally enough, in that same park was the first place I ever did suck a dick. I remember being disappointed with how bland it felt and tasted in my mouth. I used to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night to meet up in that park with my drug buddies and girlfriends to terrorize the neighborhood in silence. We broke into abandoned houses and partied in them. One time I broke into my friend’s house while her family was on vacation, looking to steal their beer, but finding none I ended up just masturbating in her bed.

I’ve got thousands of stories like that, like any person who’s lived thousands of days. All of that time, I was searching for myself and now I’m in my thirties, getting stoned and drinking beers in the same neighborhood with some of the same people, and still searching for myself. I understood or at least felt the magnitude of what I was doing, revisiting the experiences of my life, trying to remind myself of where I come from, even trying to recreate them with the advantage of hindsight. I was recollecting my home before leaving it behind. I retrieved the final Rubbermaid tub of memories I had stored at my parents’ house where I spent my college summer vacations, took a potentially last look, and drove off in the van vaguely towards Tucson, this time with literally everything I own in tow.

The life I’ve lived so far has made me the person I am today, but the life I live starting now will make me the person I am to become. Just as stage fright and the fear of death are really the fear of the unknown, this new adventure, though I have my dreams and plans, is still unknown to me. That frightens me.

Part II: Weeks 57 & 58 – Work and Play, or, Reality and Fantasy

With my life packed up and the end of the road in sight, the last leg of my tour mostly consisted of going through the motions, wrapping up loose ends, and stripping off the costumes of my past and the cloaks of winter. May saw the beginning of a spring, and I rather hurried it along into summer, heading from New York City to Tucson, Arizona in four weeks. I performed my Cheerleader act at the New York Boylesque festival, which was fun. I taught some classes in Pittsburgh, which was delightful. I played a grand high class charity event in Cleveland with some wonderful vaudevillians and a total shit show in Columbus with a bunch of sweet but thoroughly naïve kids. I also caught a cold and spent a week in the library in Indianapolis deleting 1200 Facebook friends to clear my feed and make room for future relationships. Many of the people I deleted were real-life friends I care about and remember fondly, but I felt compelled to set aside, knowing that our paths are diverging. If I deleted you and you feel offended, I hope you can forgive me. We can reconnect later, and I hope we do.

In Indianapolis, I also caught a glimpse of my dream life. In August of 2010, I got my first taste of touring. I was part of a four-person traveling show with music, burlesque, and sideshow, called The Schlapentickle Family Burlesque and Revue. We played nine shows in ten days, covering two-thousand miles. It took four months of planning and we were exhausted before we even set out. I learned a hell of a lot on that tour, which was successful in almost every way. We made money, gained contacts, and I gained valuable experience. I learned about how to book venues, engage press, and promote from afar. I also learned that touring for profit is incredibly hard work and can test the limits of one’s sanity and health. Remembering this when I planned the Burlesque Vanguard Tour, I built in a lot of downtime so I wouldn’t get burned out, but downtime is expensive, and even though I had been given six thousand dollars from investors through Kickstarter, the Burlesque Vanguard Tour still put me in the hole by another ten grand. Don’t get me wrong, that was money well spent. It’s really a pittance compared to what it would cost the average person to spend a year visiting every state in the union. But even though it was worth it, that was my life savings, and it’s about gone. Now I have to think of a new plan, a new project, the next thing to work towards. And in Indianapolis, I saw what I want. I had seen it first on the Schlapentickle tour four years earlier when we played at Indianapolis’s White Rabbit Cabaret, which was by far the best show of that tour.

5-09-WRCBoothThe White Rabbit Cabaret has a bar, plenty of space for tables and chairs or a dance floor, a large stage with simple but variable lighting options, a good sound system, and a lovely backstage dressing room with vanity mirrors and great lighting. It’s a fantastic venue, but that’s not what makes it so enviable to me. What makes it so magical is the people that run it. They are a trio of a burlesque dancer, a clown, and a mime—Alabaster Betty, Dorgan Muncie, and Milroy Muncie, respectively. I long for what they have, not just in their venue, which is going strong after five years, but in each other. The show I did with them this time was The Burlesque Bingo Bango show. It was basically chaos. There was no set plan for what we were to do or how to entertain the audience, just a basic structure for the Bingo game and issuing of the prizes (which included an improvised strip tease for each of the winners). I don’t like not having a plan, but I didn’t even know what music the DJ would pick for me to strip to. Some of the choices I made I thought were stupid, but once I made them, I had to commit to them. I didn’t have time to judge myself. I had no choice but to give in to the chaos and play along. It was ridiculous; it was a lot of work for a little bit of money, but it was fun. Since I’ve been traveling alone for such a long time, I’ve grown terribly lonely. Before I left I had a troupe that created incredible artwork of which I was very proud, but the joy of creation was sometimes overshadowed by my drive for quality. I never used to play well with others—I was very critical and domineering—but I’m learning. I’m trying anyway. And I had a great team in Sticky Buns Burlesque, but now I have none. At the White Rabbit, I got to see a team that not only worked well together, but more desirably to me, they played well together. They’d been friends for decades and they loved each other. They were on the same path, and I long for that deeply.

I hope I can find that again when I get to where I’m going. Alone, I’m pretty good, but I can never be more than myself. With a team of like-minded artists, I can be so much more. And I keep seeing these romantic pairings that create beautiful art far beyond their individual capabilities—Alabaster Betty and Dorgan Muncie, Trixie Little and The Evil Hate Monkey, Mark Jaster & Sabrina Mandell… I desperately want a clown to love and play with. That is my fantasy life and I see it clearly. Can I make it a reality? I don’t know. I will work and wait as hard and long (tee hee) as it takes, but only time will tell for certain.

Week 55 – Waking to a Dream

Week 55 – Waking to a Dream

I was a teenager in The Nineties, when apathy was totally cool. And I bought into it wholeheartedly. As a middle class white boy in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the only challenges I had to face growing up were my own doubts of self-worth. I was bullied by my brother, ignored by my mother, rejected by my father, and outcast by my peers. But I never had to face any real danger of survival. For that matter, I never really had to do anything. I could afford the luxury of rebelling against those who rejected me by rejecting the things they valued: money, material possessions, fashion, status, hard work, dedication. I was bombarded with the notion that these things were important, while being robbed of the things I felt I needed: security, attention, affection. My response, as was common among the privileged outcasts of the time, was to simply not give a shit about any of it. All I cared about was the music of rebellion. Grunge led me to punk, which led me to hardcore, which led me to metal. I was a dancer at heart, but not in training. At concerts, I learned to sway, then to mosh, to skank, to flail, floorpunch, and headbang. Music moved me and dancing to it provided me with transcendent, spiritual experiences. I put my faith in music; shows became my church.

In spring of 2004, a friend of mine turned me on to a little theatrical cabaret torch singer-influenced piano punk rock duo from Boston, calling themselves The Dresden Dolls. That’s when everything started to change. Music was already my religion, but when Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione preached their new kind of gospel, I was born into it anew. They were both about my age and came from very similar backgrounds, having experienced the same cultural reference points as me, and responded in similar ways. Their music sounded like my secret self.

I joined The Dolls’ online discussion board and found a community like I’d never known. In the beginning, the more vocal of their fans were like me, middle-class outcasts in their mid-twenties, but as time went on and the band became more popular, I noticed a shift in their fanbase to younger crowd. Many of the fans that were posting on the web board had only just been born when grunge was at its peak. And there was an incredible difference in their teenaged attitudes from ours. We hadn’t given a shit about anything; these kids cared very passionately, but seemed to feel powerless to do anything about it.

Amanda Palmer, the Dresden Dolls’ songwriter, pianist, and singer, spent several years prior to forming the band touring the world as a living statue street performer and had befriended many fringe, street, cabaret, variety, burlesque and performance artists around the world. At one of the Dolls’ shows in Boston, a local burlesque troupe joined the band on stage to perform a piece involving a puppeteer with giant marionette controls manipulating a woman to strip. As she did, she managed to free herself of the puppeteer’s control, fight back, and conquer her captor. At least, that’s what I think happened based on the pictures someone posted on the web board; I didn’t see the actual performance. But the posting of the pictures was what was important, because that was what sparked the wildfire that would consume me. One of the fans commented on the pictures, “I want to do that!” Amanda responded with (paraphrased), “Okay. Next time we tour, let’s have the fans perform as well.” And thus was born the Dirty Business Brigade.

I had never performed anything in my life. That would have taken too much effort and I was too busy being coolly apathetic. Then all of a sudden I had a reason to care about actually doing something. But what could I do? I didn’t have any talent. I hadn’t bothered to cultivate any. I had seen a friend of mine playing with poi, and I thought that looked pretty cool, so I quickly got some, put some ribbons on them, and set about learning as many tricks as I could before the Dolls’ next tour. I ended up with only a small arsenal of tricks, but it was enough to get started. On October 24of 2004, I went to see The Dresden Dolls play at the Black Cat in Washington DC. I arrived early, dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, with my poi and a little pedestal made out of a milk crate and cloth cover, and took a step across an invisible threshold. I had been pacing all day, terrified to perform for an audience for the first time since I became conscious, since I became self-conscious at any rate. What if I suck? What if they hate me? Who the hell do I think I am? For that matter, who the hell am I? What if I screw up? What if they make fun of me?…

I set up my pedestal in the middle of the room, while one other person from the web board, Lupa, set up her pedestal right by the entrance. When the door opened for the first time and a young couple stepped in, I took a deep breath. There was no turning back now; they had seen me. Lupa leaned forward and held out a handmade paper flower to the skinny, black-clad blonde girl. She hesitated, looked back and forth between me on my pedestal and Lupa on hers, then cautiously took the flower, showed it to her boyfriend, and smiled. Her acceptance of Lupa’s gift gave me the courage to offer one my own, and I began twirling my poi. Stuck on a one-foot square pedestal, I couldn’t move about very much, and all of the energy I wasn’t using to spin the poi went to suppressing my urge to run away. More people came into the room. Some of them rejected Lupa’s flowers, but most didn’t. Some people marched past me to get a good spot at the front of the stage, but some stopped to watch. I didn’t know many tricks, and I feared I couldn’t keep their attention for long, though I was asked by the band to keep it up for twenty minutes. I began engaging the onlookers, smiling at them, winking, making faces. Some of them blushed; some looked away; some made faces back. Some began talking to me, asking questions, like “what’s with the flowers and stuff?” I told them we were just here for their pleasure. It seemed to be a startlingly new concept for them; indeed it was. I had never been to a rock concert with people giving away handmade gifts, or performing silly tricks, and asking nothing in return. They looked at their friends for confirmation, but everyone seemed just as confused as each other, and just as delightfully surprised. They began to smile longer, more broadly, and keep their smiles with them even as they walked away. Their postures changed. They were softer, lighter than they had come in. This softened and lightened me as well. I found myself carrying a smile I didn’t bring with me, but discovered there. The fear of judgment and rejection that gripped me started to loosen, and I began to explore and play. I joked and flirted with strangers. I encouraged them to watch what I was about to do, and then tried a new trick I hadn’t practiced enough.

z003aPacoRibbonsIt failed. My ribbons got tangled and as the poi came around opposite sides of my body, the ribbons ripped apart. With five minutes left in my set, my tools were destroyed, and I couldn’t finish my act. A flood of guilt coursed through me. I had let the band down. I had let the Brigade down. I fucked up. I made everyone pay attention to me and then I made an ass of myself. I felt the sudden need to puke, cry, and run away. But that isn’t what I did. Instead, I looked at my broken poi and frowned to the audience I had gathered. They frowned back; some of them said, “aww.” I shrugged and bowed. The onlookers applauded. They didn’t seem to care that I messed up; they actually seemed grateful for my having tried. That was what was important at the time, not that I had succeeded in some of my tricks nor that I had failed, but just that I made the effort to give people something extra, to make their experience a little bit more fun or beautiful. As long as I wasn’t asking for anything from them, they were grateful for whatever I was willing to give. Generosity became the ethos of the Brigade, and I became its disciple.

A new world opened up to me, then. I sought inspiration everywhere, going to see every kind of live performance I could find: puppet shows, modern dance concerts, jugglers, magicians, burlesque shows, circuses, conceptual art performances, mimes, clowns, rock concerts, raves, poetry readings, art openings, museums, galleries… any kind of art, it didn’t matter. People were creating things from their hearts and giving them to us. Now that I had noticed, the least I could do was pay attention. It turned out (I never knew) that it didn’t take much work to care. My apathy was slaughtered, and I was glad of it. I went to see a performance by the Chinese Acrobatics at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore and was absolutely blown away. I had biked past the Lyric a hundred times before, but never set foot inside. It was gorgeous, ornately decorated in gold and red, and the sound and lighting was beautiful. I allowed myself to dream that one day I might perform on that stage. As I watched a man dive through a hoop, somersault across the stage, and leap up to land on another man’s shoulders, I realized I had a lot of work to do if ever that dream were ever to come true.

It took ten years.

The Dresden Dolls and the Dirty Business Brigade had a set of values that the band called Punk Cabaret. They said, “Punk Cabaret is freedom. Drag it out of the trash. Make it big. Make it beautiful.” We believed that you could make people’s day by making them smile, and you could change people’s lives by making their day. I wanted to dedicate my life to that. I wanted to make as many people smile as I could.

I started at the bottom, in a warehouse that reeked of dog shit, cat piss, and pot smoke, where a couple of punks and hippies had built a stage and dragged some abandoned sofas in off the street. I built a set of stilts and taught myself to walk on them. I learned basic juggling tricks, how to engage strangers on the street, make costumes, talk on a microphone, learn and deliver lines, and improvise lines when I forgot them. I took an 8-week class from Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey to learn how to develop an act for stage. It ended up being a striptease on stilts as the grim reaper getting off of work and partying all of his pay and clothes away. It was in that class that I discovered burlesque’s potential as a storytelling medium and fell completely in love with it. I studied under clowns, mimes, and comedy writers, and was given the opportunity to produce shows of my own. I tried my hardest to provide opportunities for people who wanted to perform, just as the Dolls had given me the chance that changed my life. I joined Gilded Lily Burlesque as an MC for a couple of years. We wrote a narrative burlesque show, The Nearly Naked Truth, which was unlike anything else that was going on in Baltimore at the time. It inspired me to start a troupe of my own dedicated to those types of shows. With a core team of five, plus select special guests, Sticky Buns Burlesque conceived, wrote, edited, built, costumed, choreographed, rehearsed, and produced five major productions, evolving from Wednesday night revues in a restaurant, to 200+ attendees at the Ottobar, to a thousand-mile tour. With another small team, I co-produced a tour of nine shows in ten days that covered two thousand miles. I started performing and competing in burlesque festivals, both minor and major. I started winning awards and making a little bit of money. I quit my day job and enrolled in a work-study program at a circus school, learning to ride a unicycle, hand balance, and perform acrobatics. I started taking ballet and modern dance classes, attending conferences, and studying my craft. I started teaching it to others, which really challenged me to learn as much as possible. Eventually, I decided that performing burlesque was the most important thing in the world to me, and I gave up my home, my relationship, and all of my material possessions for its sake. I called upon the fans I had made to help me fund a year-long, twenty-five thousand mile tour with over a hundred gigs in fifty-six cities, in three countries, on two continents.

Then I got the invitation of my dreams. The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)’s Exhibition Development Seminar (EDS) class was taking an academic view of burlesque as a form of modern art. As part of the class, they were to produce an event and they decided, in true Punk Cabaret tradition, to make it big and beautiful. These kids were in their junior and senior years in college, in art school. They were born in the Nineties, and even if they weren’t Dresden Dolls fans, they were of the generation that cared passionately, who had previously felt powerless to do anything with their passion, but stuck to it, as passion implies. Now they were not powerless. They were powerful and capable. It was they who would make my dream come true, just by giving me the opportunity to make it happen. They had booked The Lyric Opera House to be the home of their exhibit, featuring historical artifacts mixed with modern elements of burlesque costuming, promotions, and art. This was, as far as I know, the first academic exploration of burlesque on a large scale. It was an historic event, and for the opening of the exhibit on Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014, they produced a burlesque show, which I got to be a part of.

The EDS students had cast many of Baltimore burlesque’s most notable figures to represent the full breadth of styles and personalities in her scene. Some were performing acts that paid homage to the city herself, some paid homage to the history of burlesque, and some presented the most current and cutting edge acts of the time. I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. Not only was this a decade-old dream coming true for me, but it was also probably the last time I would perform in Baltimore for a very long time. The city had formed me into who I am as a person and as an artist. My story is the scene’s story; we were birthed by Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey, guided by them in our infancies, and eventually left to run amok, to grow into the beautiful and strange beasts we became. I wanted to represent that, to show exactly how I had grown, who I am as an artist at the absolute most current moment. I wanted to perform an act so radically different from where I began that the people who were with me at the start would see how far we’ve come together and get a glimpse of where we were going. I wanted to reach deeper into my heart than I ever had before, to share more of myself than ever with the audience. I had a costume custom made by a MICA graduate and international burlesque star in his own right, Mr. Gorgeous. It was all spandex and chiffon, tight on my body and flowing in the extended space around me. Unlike any of my other acts, there was no character, no clear story. This was to be an expressive dance piece, a journey from within. I chose a piece of music from a Baltimore-based group, Celebration, a song called Diamonds, which not only resonated deeply with me personally, but was also the heartbeat of Baltimore. It is beautiful, soulful, dangerous, dark, and brutally honest.

The week before the event I was in Austin, Texas, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I drove 1600 miles to be there, stopping to teach a class in Little Rock, to perform in Louisville, and to model for a figure drawing session in Charleston, West Virginia, so that I afford the trip. I arrived in town, exhausted, two nights before the show. This gave me one day to choreograph my act. I snuck into the studio I rented in February, propped the blinder up to block the security camera, set Diamonds on repeat, and got to work. I danced, explored, discovered, reached deep into my heart and dragged what I found there out through my body. I spent five solid hours choreographing four minutes of music until I reached my limit. It wasn’t the limit of my energy, nor of my patience, nor my time. It was the limit of my depth. This was everything of who I was at that point in my life.

Come show day, I could barely hold a conversation with my dear friends and costars. I was in another world, coiled up inside myself like a rattlesnake, wiggling, waiting for my cue to explode out at the crowd of nearly a thousand. I really remember nothing of the actual performance, except for one moment when my fingers slipped off of my zipper and I had to look to find it again. Only for that instant did I exist in a conscious space. The rest of the time I was in that new place I’d found, at the limit of my depth, the bottom of my heart. This is what it looked like (video coming soon!):

Photo by Christopher Myers

Photo by Christopher Myers

The music of the outcast had been my religion, and one notable preacher, Marilyn Manson, recorded a clip that repeated, “when all of your wishes are granted, many of your dreams will be destroyed.” On April 22nd of 2014, a dream I’d held for my entire performing life was put to bed. And as fulfilling and rewarding as it was, it was with a splinter of sadness that I kissed it goodnight and bade farewell to Baltimore, sneaking off in the night like a runaway.

Baltimore was a lover with whom I grew up. Her support gave me the strength to be who I am. I loved her deeply, but she suffers too much hardship for me to stay with her. I feel like I’ve made Baltimore smile as much as I can for now. But I’m all out of tricks. My ribbons have ripped. All I can do now is shrug, frown, bow, and thank you for watching.

Je t’aime. Adieu.

Weeks 53 & 54 – Two Weeks in Texas

Weeks 53 & 54 – Two Weeks in Texas

April began with a bang. I arrived in Houston on Kiki Maroon’s birthday, or at least the first day of the week she took to celebrate her birthday. I met up with her and Tifa Tittlywinks at a warehouse venue for the Houston Variety Showcase, where, among others, Eric Odditorium and Zamora the Torture King were performing. They were great, as always. Eric does things I’ve never seen anyone else do with sword swallowing and things I couldn’t even imagine trying. Zamora is a master sideshowman. He presents very calm and quiet, rather than trying to pump energy into a crowd. Unlike many less experienced performers, he’s not afraid of a silent audience, understanding that if they’re silent, they’re paying attention. Then, when he’s got everyone’s attention, he does some of the sickest shit I’ve ever seen. Some of my favorite moments of the night, however, happened during intermission. One of the members of Arcadia HTX, a flow arts guy whose name I can’t remember, dressed in cowboy clown garb and was doing comedy hooping. Essentially all of the hooping I’ve ever seen has either been circus show-off trickery, or sexy flow dancing. It had never occurred to me that the tricks could be performed with a comedic flair, but this guy pulled it off really well. After goofing around for us for a while, he passed the hoop to Kiki, who had a flock of helium birthday balloons tied to her ankle, and when she tried to hoop, the balloons kept getting in the way. Her solution, in pure clown logic stupid genius, was to run all the way to stage left with the balloons chasing her and then run back to center stage and hoop as fast and hard as possible until the balloons caught up. The look on her face was the perfect mix of self-congratulatory pride for her clever solution, rapidly growing terror as the balloons closed in, and devastated disappointment when the hoop began smacking the balloons and falling around her legs. She repeated the process five or six times and it just got funnier every time until finally she freaked out and started beating up the balloons. When they retaliated, she panicked and fled offstage, relentlessly pursued by the helium horde. At the end of the show, we sang Kiki a Happy Birthday, presented her with gifts, and spanked her butt red in a very long tunnel of love.

At week’s end, Tifa & I took Kiki to see Strip, Strip, Hooray!, starring Dita Von Teese, Catherine D’Lish, Dirty Martini, and Perle Noire, and hosted by Murray Hill. It was a fine show. Murray was is excellent form. The Houston audience had no idea what to make of him, so they had no choice but to go along with it, and his shtick killed. He has a knack for picking the right people out of the crowd to mess with – one very normal-presenting straight man, one flamboyantly gay man, and one woman who’d probably be happy to identify as a dyke. He then picks on them all equally, so everyone gets to have a laugh at everyone else, and also has to laugh at themselves. It’s really quite marvelous to watch. As for the burlesque, I would love to have seen more than one act each from Dirty, Perle, and Catherine—who each exude uniquely beautiful personalities—instead of four acts from Dita—who exuded really no personality at all. Her costumes were beautiful; she’s beautiful, but she communicated nothing of herself. I’ve had the same criticism of her modeling for the last decade. It’s gorgeous, but shallow. On stage, she looked nervous. She was holding her breath almost the entire time and a result, the audience held its breath. Breath is very important. It’s the only substance that physically transcends internal and external realities between people. It’s the ship on which the cargo of emotion is transported. When we hold our breath, we become rigid, impenetrable, and unfeeling. And so no emotions were communicated between Dita and the audience. The single most important thing I’ve learned about performing, I learned from Arsene Dupin. He said, “all audiences only want one thing and that is to get to know you.” If for no other reason than that Dita Von Teese held her breath on stage, a thousand people who paid hundreds of dollars to see her that night gained nothing resembling any experience of getting to know her. And since that’s all any audience wants, the whole audience must have been as disappointed as I was.

What surprised me was that that didn’t seem to be the case. Young women around me were swooning over Dita, telling each other, “I want to be that.” I didn’t understand what about that anyone would want to be. It was nothing more than pretty. Was that what these young women wanted, to be pretty? To feel pretty? I couldn’t relate. Even though I’ve felt ugly most of my life—teased and criticized by my family for being a fat kid, unwanted by the beautiful girls I crushed on, smaller and weaker than most of the boys I grew up with—I have never felt the desire to be pretty. I never saw the value in it. I recognized that pretty people don’t have to work as hard to get the things they want. There’s a power in beauty, but what’s the value of a life of gifts given with the hope of getting something in return? Maybe it’s because I’m a boy. Maybe these women were raised like most American girls, conditioned since infancy that their worth is directly related to their beauty, dolled up and praised by family and strangers alike for being “oh such pretty girls,” and easily abused by little boys that call them ugly and therefore worthless. Even still, what about Dita made these women think that they could ever be her? Was it because she was rigid, emotionally impenetrable? Did they want to be a vision of beauty celebrated and stanch? That seems so empty and cold. It seems sad. Watching Dita ride a sparkling mechanical bull slowly, calmly, coldly, I wanted her to pick up the pace, to push the limit of her abilities, to where it might become exciting, but she didn’t. She just rocked gently on the machine. What Dita Von Teese’s burlesque communicated about the experience of a sexual encounter with her was that it would be metered, mechanical, and boring.

The next day, some of those same young women who wanted “to be that” were in my and Tifa’s classes. Tifa gave us a good warm up, work out, and basic dance tools, and I taught people how to breathe.

In the evening, Tifa, Emma D’Lemma, and I performed at Kiki’s birthday show. I did my new gold act with the original rope ending and my turtle act, which I’ve done so many times that I’ve lost the understanding of why people enjoy it. Tifa did one of her very first acts, but in the process of it, she cut her knee open on something sharp on the stage. There was blood pouring down her shin and the audience was horrified. Kiki grabbed some cocktail napkins from the bar and Tifa quickly wiped her leg off and continued with her act. She took off her bra and was about to start tassel-twirling, but noticed that the blood was again flowing down her shin. For an instant her face shot a look of shocked dismay, and then immediately popped into recognition of a great idea. She kicked her foot back and grabbed it behind her, as if to stretch her thigh muscle. Problem solved, no more blood! No more right leg, but no more blood! And then, standing on one foot, she proceeded to twirl her tassels like a badass. The audience exploded with laughter and cheers. This is why I love her. When she’s on stage she’s completely open and giving, totally committed to whatever she starts, a clown with the best of ‘em. Afterwards, we stepped outside to watch Emma D’Lemma perform a great aerial silk act dressed as Kiki, and Tifa performed one of Kiki’s signature acts, twisting it to tease her for her birthday. It was a long day and a late night, but I was happy and honored to be a part of the loving mayhem. I like those Houston folks. I just couldn’t stand to live there. Houston is a fine city; a person could live an exceptionally normal life there. But I’ve got other plans.

After a lovely recovery day of hot tubbing, barbecue, cocktails, and Cards Against Humanity at the home of one of Houston’s finest burlesque patrons and stage managers, I took my leave. I headed for Austin for some much-needed alone time and to prepare for the Texas Burlesque Festival the following weekend.

One thing unique to TexBF is that the act with the loudest audience response on Thursday and Friday nights gets to perform the same act in the competition on Saturday, which I think is a really cool idea. The opening Thursday Nouveau Nuit showcase was delightful, with plenty of solid performances. The act that won was a duet by Harlet Davidson and ND Licious, in which Harlet prances around with a full unicorn mask over her head, followed by ND in Native American costuming trying to tame her to the tune of Black Betty. Eventually she climbs into a hanging sex swing while he mounts and rides her. In the end, they strip and she removes her mask. It’s a wildly exciting act, full of energy.

When ND first appeared in the stereotypical Native American outfit, I flinched, worried that some offensive cultural appropriation was about to take place, but as the act went, I was relieved that no inappropriate cultural mockery happened. It seemed clear to me that ND wasn’t portraying a Native American; he was portraying a white guy role-playing as an “Indian” for sexual kink. The swing was not disguised as a saddle or anything else. It was undeniably a sex swing, which set the scene not on the American landscape, but in the bedroom. Harlet, likewise, was not portraying a unicorn; she was portraying a white woman role-playing as a unicorn, which was confirmed when she removed her mask. Thus the target of mockery was not Native Americans (nor unicorns), but role-playing kinksters, which, while mocked, was also celebrated. I found it to be a very satisfying, playful, sexual, celebratory burlesque.  Apparently someone complained about the cultural insensitivity and so when Harlet and ND performed the act in the Saturday show, ND was wearing a different costume, one without any specific character whatsoever. I think that was the right thing to do in response to the complaint, but I don’t believe the complaint was warranted. Of course I recognize that it’s not for me, a European American, to decide what is or isn’t offensive to another culture, but here I have stated my defense of the act as it was. The target of mockery was not outside of the artist’s culture (even assuming, which I have no right to do without asking, that ND isn’t of Native descent in the first place).

Immediately after the show I went to bed in my van under a tree in the parking lot. In the morning, I awoke early to attend Bazuka Joe’s jazz dance class. It was intense. I never move as fast as we moved in that class. Okay, maybe in my Cheerleader act, but that’s not exactly choreographed as much as it is me running around and jumping off of stuff. At any rate it was an excellent class. He’s one of my favorite performers to watch because it always reminds me of something that I tend to forget when watching other people I admire. As much as I want to be all the things I’m not, Bazuka Joe reminds me that what I really need to be is myself. It’s in that way that he’s such an inspiration. He’s just absolutely true to who he is and shares that with the audience. All we want is to get to know him, and we do.

Gaige (c) Steve Dement Photography 2014

Gaige (c) Steve Dement Photography 2014

Friday night’s show was even better than the opening night. There were lots of great performances. In the interest of readability, I’ll just mention a few of my favorites. Gaige, from San Antonio, did a very sensual strip and fire eating act. Her deliberate movement and patience drew me in hypnotically. She did the longest tongue transfer of fire I’d ever seen, and without reacting to it, as if her mouth on fire for what looked felt like fifteen seconds was nothing to her. It was sexy, flat out. So was Jet Noir, a male performer from San Francisco, who sauntered out on stage dressed as a gentleman with a black tie, fedora, and possibly the most charming smile any human has ever worn. As he stripped playfully and cheekily, he discovered and donned a black leather hood with a red spiral over his face, and the initially dreamy gentleman took the form of a nightmarish villain. His act explored passionately explored the dark subconscious, evoking both the fear and ultimate embracing of some of our more sinister erotic desires. The most painfully hilarious act of the night was Kansas City’s Big Al Dente and Kinsey Scale performing as a drunken hunter being re-educated by a sneaky deer. Kinsey, as the deer, catches Big Al off guard, and at the business end of his own gun, forces him to strip, tassel twirl, and finally embrace the idea that it’s better to love and play than to hate and kill. Concept aside, their timing was perfect, and the escalating structure of the act was brilliant. I’m laughing out loud in the library as I type this, just thinking about Big Al’s masterful double takes.

The headliners, of course stole the show. Perle Noire, with a special surprise guest performance by Ray Gunn, performed a tribute of Toni Elling’s famous Boudoir act, which was not only aesthetically beautiful, with Perle’s dark skin somehow glowing around the perfect white of her dress, but was also deeply erotic. Perle is known for her fierce, sharp, and big movements that seem to explode out of her, but her tribute to Toni was smooth and sensual. She still had great reach, but it wasn’t explosive; it was expansive. I could feel my body swelling with energy, watching her body swell with energy. Once she started climbing on Ray Gunn, it was so hot we could feel our bones melting. And then the lady herself, Miss Toni Elling closed the show. She looked lovely, bathed in soft light and wrapped in white chiffon. She looked happy. She winked, and waved, and dropped her robe off of her shoulder at people in the audience. And then she laughed when they cheered, delighted. This woman’s entire life, long and full, radiated from her, filling the room and our hearts. Her past felt like it could be our futures; her life, given to us in those few moments, affirmed the validity ours.

The next day, we got to hear her speak. The festival provided brunch for the performers and set up a Q&A session with Toni. She’s such a wonderful woman with fantastic senses of humor, humility, and honor. Some of my favorite things she said that morning were about being true to oneself. When her agent suggested that she try to pass for Latina to work in white venues, she said, “I am what I am; I am proud of what I am. They’re supposed to be buying my talent, not my color.” She concluded her comments with some advice. “You can’t please all the people all the time, nor should you try. You have to be happy first. Do what you’re comfortable with.”

I scooted out from the brunch as soon as Toni was finished speaking to go to the gym for a light workout, shave, and shower before the competition that night, in which I was doing my Judge act. Since, in the act, I pretend to shove a giant gavel up my ass, in the shower that afternoon, I stuck my finger up my ass to clarify how my body responded physically. I discovered a subtle contraction at my solar plexus, which I practiced to accurately represent on stage. I think it was really helpful because that night I performed the better than I ever had before, winning a fabulous Black Mariah Barbie trophy for “Most Original.”

See for yourself video of the performance: youtube.com/watch?v=jJogYAkFndM

Publicly I attribute the win to the new wig I bought in town that week, but I know it’s really because I fingered my butt in the shower that day. Don’t worry, everyone I touched that day; I washed thoroughly.

Tifa, Paco, Blaze, & Goldiefinger. photo by Paul O'Connell

Tifa, Paco, Blaze, & Goldiefinger. photo by Paul O’Connell

Two other winners of note were Blaze (Best Costume) and Ruthe Ordaire (Best Soloist). Truth be told, I don’t really remember Blaze’s costume. What I remember was how unabashedly fierce her performance was. She’s always been strong, and often places high in competition, but rarely wins. But I’ve only ever seen her do very pretty, classic strip tease, and while it’s always great, it’s usually a little bit reserved. On that night, however, she let loose and gave us something startling. She lived up to her name by burning down the house, setting the stage on fire with her passion. I reeled; she absolutely killed it. Meanwhile, Ruthe Ordaire’s performance was wonderful in the exact opposite way. It was soft, gentle, beautiful. She glided across the stage, with the grey fabric of her costume floating behind her. The audience watched in hypnotized silence, drawn completely into her gorgeous dance. It was ethereal. It was magical. The other winners included Black Orchid (Best Novelty/Prop), whom I didn’t see, Franki Markstone (Best Tease Factor), and Tifa Tittlywinks & Emma D’Lemma (Best Ensemble, after winning Audience Choice the night before) for a badass Willy Wonka and aerial Oompa-Loompa duet. After the show, we hung around, drank, celebrated, and got goofy, before crashing out just before dawn at Goldie Candela’s house.

When we awoke, Tifa, Emma, Goldie & I ate bacon pancakes, drank coffee, and squeezed long and hard hugging farewells out of each other. I left around mid-afternoon to cover 1600 miles in a week, stopping in Arkansas to teach a class, Kentucky for a show, and West Virginia to model for Dr. Sketchy’s, before getting back Baltimore to complete a decade-long dream. But I’ll tell you about that later…