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.

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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…

Weeks 50-52 – Marching On…

Weeks 50 – 52 – Marching On

New York is the city that never sleeps. As a result, it seems everybody there is either tired or caffeinated, or both, all the time. That lifestyle is not for me. I’m a morning person and there’s nothing worse you can do to me than keep me up late at night. Of course I realize that I’ve chosen the wrong line of work to be a morning person, but the job is rewarding enough that I make exceptions. And so it was in New York the first weekend in March.

Albert Cadabra, James & the Giant Pasty

Albert Cadabra, James & the Giant Pasty

I was brought to the Big Apple by Dangrrr Doll and Stella Chuuu for RAWR! Burlesque’s first anniversary show. I had never been to a RAWR! show, so I was surprised by the invitation to participate in the birthday, but I was deeply honored. From a purely objective standpoint, the production was incredible. Every other show I’ve ever seen contained some elements that were better than others and some from which I desired more, but RAWR! was unique in that every act was superb and completely satisfying. From Dangrrr & Stella’s Night at the Roxbury silliness to Albert Cadabra’s Rubik’s Cube battle and Trixie Little’s boa-less banana boa strip to Dangrrr’s lap dance for Stephen Hawking, played by James and the Giant Pasty and using Nasty Canasta as a wheelchair, every moment of the show was a delight. On a more personal note, it was an absolute joy to be reunited with these people. In the Show Business, the individuals with whom I perform are not just fellow artists and friends, but they are also my coworkers. And that’s really a huge part of what makes this job so wonderful: I have the raddest coworkers you can possibly imagine. Dangrrr Doll’s passion for everything in her life—including her art, romance, and friendship—is like a glacier; it’s massive, unstoppable, and changes the shape of the world we live in. I think this was part of why each of us was invited to do the show, not just because everyone was a strong and unique artist, but because Dangrrr & Stella wanted to be surrounded by their friends for their baby’s first birthday. It was that kind of party.

Paco Fish vs Femme Appeal

Paco Fish vs Fem Appeal

The next night, I performed for the first time at the Slipper Room and I was really nervous. Not only was this my first time performing at the Slipper Room, where all the other performers in New York end up after their own shows, but James had also asked me to go-go dance between sets. I had never done that before and, believe it or not, I’m always frightened by new things. I wore gold hot pants, gold pasties, gold glittered platform boots, and a gold sequin garter. It was terrifying. The fringe at the bottom of the curtain ensnared my boots, defying me to even remain standing on the tiny stage. It was all I could do to force a smile through my panicked-pounding heart to grind and stroke myself as I crawled around the stage. There were a bunch of middle-aged women sitting in the middle of the audience staring at me with their arms folded. With my hot pants giving me a muffin top, I felt fat and ugly. I felt foolish. Some people tipped me very kindly, but after four songs, my sense of panic became too much to grin through, and I ran away to hide backstage. All in all, it wasn’t that bad. It was kind of exhilarating. As horrifying as it felt, I had survived it and could survive it again if I ever had to. After the show, one of those middle-aged women came up to me and gave me twenty dollars, told me I was sexy, and made me feel better.

The following week I spent in Atlanta, visiting old friends, taking ballet classes, and relaxing for a few days before the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival, in which I was competing. The day before the festival I succumbed to a cold so I spent that time in bed. I was staying at the host hotel, but not in the hotel, just in my van in the parking lot. Not only did that save me money, but it also provided me with a nice quiet hole to crawl into for privacy and peace instead of partying each night.

The shows were quite good, and to be honest, I was a little surprised. From application notifications and leading up to the event, communication from the producers had been disorganized, inconsistent, delayed, and incomplete, which really solidified my expectations for a chaotic event. But on site everything seemed to run more smoothly than expected. One performer that stood out in my mind from the first night was May Hemmer, who was a beautiful, petite woman from New Orleans, and apparently pregnant though I didn’t notice during her act. She moved gorgeously and made great use of stillness for emphasis, but she closed her eyes during her slower and more dramatic reveals. I see that a lot, actually, and it always bothers me. I understand that it feels more sensual to the performer, but it has the effect of excluding the audience from that sensuality. We want to feel it, too, not just observe you feeling it. This got me thinking more about sexuality in performance. I don’t remember who it was, but one of the legends at the Burlesque Hall of Fame was talking about how she puts on a soft, sheer robe after the point at which she’s most exposed in her act because once she’s naked, the robe indicates how that feels. I started thinking about classic burlesque being a representation of the experience of sex. If the performer alienates herself during it, then the fantasy, at least for me, is broken. Just as I wouldn’t like to experience sex with someone who isn’t engaging with me, I don’t want to watch burlesque by someone who isn’t engaging with the audience.

This notion of burlesque representing the sexual act really struck me during a duet by Persephone and Dante Inferno. They presented as traditional female and male characters and there was some sort of seduction with a lot of sexual tension (I don’t remember who was the seducer or if it was mutual), but the end was thoroughly dissatisfying. Persephone gets basically naked and throws herself onto Dante, who is basically clothed, having taken off only his jacket and tie. I don’t care about nudity; I don’t have any particular desire to see a man naked, but I do particularly desire to see a completed story. What I saw (and thus felt) was the male character’s refusal to participate in the sexual act. There had been so much tension built between them with the seduction, but it never paid off. Sure, she got naked, and that was pretty hot, but he didn’t, and so he represented detachment from the experience. As a male-identified audience member, I identified with the male-presenting character, and so I felt detached from the experience as a result. Now, maybe the act was a representation of her uncontrollable desire for someone who’s physically or emotionally unavailable. If that’s the case, it succeeded in making me feel that dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, Georgia Sweetjuggs made me feel utterly delighted. She performed as Betty Rubble from The Flintstones. There was nothing particularly significant about her being that specific character because there wasn’t really a parody to it. It was basically a classic strip tease in a cartoony cavewoman aesthetic. But her sense of tease and timing were excellent. Her presence was strong but warmly inviting, her energy was dynamic, and her personality came through clearly. If I apply the lens I described above, what Georgia communicated was that having sex with her would be a playful delight.

I recognize that my talking about what it would be like to have sex with these performers is potentially triggering and sets me up to come across as a pig. But this is burlesque. This is a sexual artform in which seduction is often part of the intention. I am talking about what is communicated by the performances, which means it’s the personae I’m discovering sexually, not the performers themselves. We all know that the performer and the persona are not necessarily the same; that’s why we use stage names, for starters. So I feel safe in claiming that I’m not objectifying the people; I’m being subjected to the characters. This is where I’m coming from and I feel it’s important to state that here as a reminder.

Although I wanted to take most of the classes the next day, I opted to give myself a break after each one since I was still battling illness. I took Kelli LiMone’s class, Discovering Your Sexy for Performance, because I wanted to do exactly that. I wanted to start to employ this new perspective I’d found about representing the experience of a sexual encounter, to start practicing what I preach, so to speak. Her class was a very good choreographic concepts class about dynamics, breath, stillness, and other important elements in creating an act, but I didn’t feel like it really explored anything about “discovering my sexy.” Although the title was misleading, it was still a really good class and I learned a lot from it. My favorite class of the day was Boo Velvet’s one about floor work. First of all, she was an excellent teacher. She was fun and funny, but also took it seriously and was vastly experienced. But what made her instruction so valuable was that in addition to teaching us a combination, like in most dance classes, she explained to us why we were doing each move that we were doing, what the movement intended to communicate to the viewer, and how it achieved it. It was incredible. In my classes, I teach people the basic tools and how they can be used to achieve any desired effect, but I leave the desired effect up to the students to explore and decide. Many other teachers, particularly dance teachers, decide and successfully create the desired effect, but don’t fully explain why or how. Boo Velvet was the first teacher that delivered both at the same time and it was really effective.

That night’s show highlights were Magdalena Fox, Black Mariah, and Siren Santina. Magdalena Fox’s 1960’s go-go dancing turned modern hip hop booty-shaking Batman was thoroughly entertaining, especially because of her patience in building the act to its full richness. She was in no fucking hurry. Black Mariah was a powerhouse, stunningly gorgeous in her costume, and slamming not just her booty on the rock & roll bumps, but also firing an intensely evocative and defiant over-the-shoulder gaze at the audience. Siren Santina radically twisted both the sexy librarian trope and the use of Bjork’s song “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which Siren Sang Karaoke-style. In the act, she didn’t just sex-up the conservative librarian; she fully cut loose like a one-woman riot, throwing books, cursing, and riding her book cart to an explosive climax, all the while recontextualizing the lyrics and the shushes in the song. It was a true burlesque and it was masterful.

I missed most of the Saturday night competition because I was preparing to perform, but I did get to see all the Queen category competitors after me. First up was Delinda D’Rabbit from Salome Cabaret in Knoxville, TN. She performed her namesake routine as a bunny romancing an enormous carrot. I don’t mean like two-foot long, I mean bigger than a person enormous. She worked it pretty hard and gave a solid performance. Unfortunately, I was watching from the back of the room and the stage wasn’t high enough to see anything going on down low. I figured out what was happening by the shadow the spotlight cast, but the poor sightlines were a difficult challenge for some choreography. I had to change mine for that reason. Normally, in my Judge act, I crawl around on the stage to get my gavel, and then do naughty things with it on all fours, but because the sightlines had been so limiting, I had to do my naughty things standing up. Aside from the invisible floor work, Delinda set the bar at a good place.

Following her, though, TIfa Tittlywinks from Dem Damn Dames in Houston, TX blew the bar sky high. I make no secret that I love Tifa as a performer, and her act that night was exactly why. On introduction, she kind of wandered timidly onto the stage, which would normally not be a good sign for a burlesque queen. But, dressed as a hobo with an explosion of frizzled red hair and an endearing gin blossomy brown-tipped nose, she united the audience into one massive swell of silent confusion, a focused curiosity, to which she responded by fleeing the stage in fear, winning her first laughs before the music even began. She reluctantly returned, this time dragging a washboard bass, and proceeded to regale us with a goofy, drunken clown rendition of “King of the Road,” until her bass broke, and the canned music started in with, “Hit the Road, Jack.” In the course of her performance, she played music, sang, danced, stripped, tap danced like a badass, stole a beer off of the judge’s table, and chugged it in one fell swoop, while dropping into a split onstage. And she did it all flawlessly. What really tickled me the most about her performance was how far left field it was from what anyone would expect to see in a competition for Queen of anything. It was a bold choice, kind of a friendly ‘fuck you’ to the expectations of pageantry. And to me, that’s what Burlesque is about. Tifa flipped the table before dancing on it.

Talloolah Love was up next and, although she’s one of my favorite classic burlesque performers to watch because she’s so present with herself onstage and shifts so smoothly from pretty to raunchy, I wasn’t feeling her performance very strongly that night. Yet I couldn’t find fault in anything that she was doing. It was well done but I realized near the end of her act that she was playing almost entirely to the front rows. I was in the back of the house and noticed other people around me feeling equally left out.

Mischa Mischief from Albuquerque, NM performed a tribute to Gypsy Rose Lee, where she recited a speech about what’s going on in her mind while stripping. There were some technical difficulties that caused some harsh popping noises over the PA, and when the music of the backing track finally started, it was very faint. I saw the sound operator desperately holding the talkback microphone up to the speakers of an iPhone and covering his eyes in shame. I don’t know if he was embarrassed about the technical problem, about the solution, or about Mischa having to perform in such a situation. She trudged forward like she had to. I don’t remember much about her act because I was distracted by the tech problems and also because my post-performance celebratory cocktail on an empty stomach after having a cold was starting to take effect. I do remember thinking that the act could have been really strong if everything was working properly, but I questioned the choice of performing a tribute act in a competition. I feel that in burlesque competitions, you only get one chance to express who you are as an artist and a tribute act expresses only who you’re influenced by, not so much what comes from you. It’s like competing in a battle of the bands with a cover song. No matter how well you perform it, it’s not really yours to claim.

It’s funny when someone gets to a certain point of notoriety that other people change their behavior to accommodate her. I sensed this kind of disappointed relief from performers and audience alike when they spoke of Jeez Loueez competing for Queen. It was basically presumed that she was going to win. What makes that not as fucked up as it sounds is the knowledge that if she did win, it would be because she earned it. Jeezy’s pretty much a force of nature. You can’t stop her; you can’t even pretend to try. All you can do is gawk in awe at her destructive power as she tears up a stage and slays a room full of people. And so that’s what we did. She entered slowly, hidden under a large hat, the calm before the storm. And then she worked it, hard, ferociously with sharp, deliberate movements contrasting warm invitations to the audience to feel her with their eyes. It was stupendous.

Last to compete was Iris L’Amour, from Dallas, TX. She was also fierce on stage, doing impressive bendy tricks, including an upside down split in a headstand on a table. It was spectacular. But I felt something was missing from it. I think that burlesque is an art form of personality. We want to get to know the performers, or at least their personae. I felt like, as astounding as Iris’s performance was, it communicated more ego than personality. High marks all across the board, but I didn’t get a sense of soul from it.

The show stopper, though, was the step-down performance from last year’s Queen, Lola Le Soleil. People sometimes jokingly refer to giant props as “production value,” but Lola clearly understands the true meaning of production value, and without giant props. The lights dropped in the house and a crackling, villainous voice came over the PA, proclaiming that we would all be exterminated. Then the door burst open and a shaft of light shot through the room, casting a silhouette of some kind of robotic monster. Deep bass dubstep boomed through the house, shaking the walls as the creature entered, and although I don’t think there actually was smoke flowing past her, that’s how I remember it. Then she lit up from within as the music changed and she made her way to the stage, where the lights came up to reveal her as a Dalek. The audience was screaming like at a rock concert; Lola indeed was a rock star. And she, too, took her sweet time in giving herself to us. We, of course, lapped it up.

After the main competition show, there was another show, but I don’t remember any of it. I was in the back eatin’ chicken wings and drinking. I saw the show, and remember having fun, but I didn’t watch it, nor do I remember much of anything else. The afterparty started then, and continued way late into the night. At one point our party invaded a wedding reception, which was well-stocked with food and booze, so we supplied them with strippers. Eventually the younger members of the newlywed’s family took notice, so we brought the wedding folks into our party down the hall. I remember a squad of showgirls in mint-colored nighties and table dancing for the maid of honor, who busted out some hot moves of her own. I remember a lot of people making out with a lot of other people and one showbo and I spitting into each other’s faces. There’s a lot more that happened that I don’t remember, and a lot more that I do but will continue to claim that I don’t to protect the guilty… mostly me. One thing I can say with no hesitation or doubt is that the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival afterparty was out of control.

The festival wrapped up with goodbyes, and see-you-soons, and a big hangover breakfast at Waffle House with Sunny Sighed, Bal’d Lightning, Tifa Tittlywinks, and Kiki Maroon. When Tifa & Kiki departed for Houston, where I’d see them again in a week’s time, I took Sunny & Bal’d to the airport and headed to New Orleans.When I got to NOLA, I had one recovery day, which I spent catching up on business emails and promotions that I had let slide during the festival. And then I was immediately thrust into a routine of four nights of shows in a row.

The first was a Wednesday at Siberia, a smoky dive bar with an apparently fantastic eastern European restaurant in the back. The venue staff was very friendly and helpful, but it was kind of a shit show. It started at like 7pm on a Wednesday night, didn’t cost anything, and paid out of a cut of the bar sales. It also wasn’t promoted very well; the venue website didn’t list our show and the producer hadn’t done much to spread the word either online or with posters around town. It gave the general impression that she didn’t really give a shit about it, which made it really difficult for the performers to give a shit, which made it nearly impossible for an audience, potential or present, to give a shit. One of the performers got too drunk to work and dropped out, but the rest of us did our jobs, took our meager pay, which only about covered the cost of dry cleaning our then smoke-soaked costumes, and went home disappointed. After the high of winning an award at a three day festival, the low of that first show in New Orleans felt more devastating than usual.

The next day really picked me up, though. I spent it with some of the people that I had met on my first visit to New Orleans, just a few months earlier, who somehow felt like old friends. I was struck by how generously hospitable they all were. There was an openness and honesty to their affection. When we met, we hugged, and when we hugged, we meant every second of it. With them, it’s as if New Orleans isn’t a city where everyone lives separately, but one giant house where everyone has her own room. There may be a thousand different restaurants and bars, but to the locals, they’re all just the kitchen. I had breakfast with Remy Dee, lunch with The Lady Satine and Jo Boobs, dinner with Bella Blue and Peekaboo Pointe, and drinks and a show with Ben Wisdom and Vinsantos. Of course, we were the show, in Bella Blue Book at Lucky Pierre’s on Bourbon Street, but in each other’s company, we were just a band of friends having a goof with some drunken strangers that wandered into our house party. It was lovely.

I was also fortunate enough to be performing in Gogo McGregor & Dr. Sick’s Clue show at the Allways Lounge. It’s a monthly burlesque game show, where each of the acts is booked based on the color of the costume, and has to incorporate one of the game’s deadly weapons. I was cast as Colonel Mustard because I have an awesome yellow-gold sequined suit. I created an act to Bosley’s song, “Just Like You,” which sings, “I’ve been looking for a lover just like you, but there ain’t nobody just like you.” I developed the act as a classic seduction, but with a twist at the end, where I reveal a particular kink, so it shifts from general sexiness to a very specific sexual act involving choking myself with a rope while I masturbate. I thought I had called dibs on the rope for the show, since I was building it into my act, but I must have forgotten to, and then Jo Boobs was cast to do a Shubari rope bondage act. I couldn’t go all diva on Jo, so I opted for the candlestick instead. I tried to cram it down my pants but the base was so big that there was no way I could maneuver it where it didn’t look like I’d shit myself. Then Kitty Kaos came to the rescue by suggesting the base might unscrew, and it did! So I taped the base to my crotch, and tucked the candlestick into the back of my pants. Onstage, when I pulled the candlestick out, I tried to stand it up on the table but it fell over. I jerked it off and tried again to no avail. Then I fellated it, but it still wouldn’t stay up, so I just stuck it upside down on the table and continued stripping. In the end, I revealed the base taped to my crotch and then screwed the stick on, but I realized that if I let go it would fall off, so I kind of had to awkwardly scoot my way upstage to the ottoman and take a reclining final pose.

Photo by Moose Kustra

Photo by Moose Kustra

What was originally supposed to be a classic seduction ended up being one of the most ridiculously infantile clown pieces I’d ever done, and for the first time in a very long time, I actually had fun performing. Normally, I’m so focused on what I’m doing, paying such close attention to giving the audience an entertaining experience that I don’t get to enjoy it for myself. But finding myself in a situation where I had no other choice, where I had to scrap my original plan and discover one on the fly, I played. This was new territory for me. I grew up in a household where everything was a competition. As the smallest and the weakest, I learned very young that to play meant to lose. So out of necessity, I learned never to play, and though it may not look like it on stage, I take everything very seriously. But I’ve been searching for the playground throughout my entire performing career and most of my adult life. That night, I set foot on it and was one step closer to discovering the quality in me that I had lost so long ago, and which all clowns must recover to fulfil their destinies—innocence. I felt it, briefly, and in that moment, I was more at peace, more free, and ever so slightly more complete that I’ve ever been. I am working to recover my innocence. I think, in retrospect, that’s what this whole journey has been about. Perhaps not coincidentally, that night was the first day of the second year since I left my old life behind me. Spring had come. The birds returned from their winter vacation and I had crawled out of my winter stasis. The road, the future, and my heart were opening up before me like the wildflowers beside the highway, which rushed past in growing streaks of yellow and purple, as I headed for two weeks in Texas.

Weeks 45-49 – The Vortex of Home

Weeks 45-49 – The Vortex of Home – My Baltimore Residency

As I rolled up over the rise of the highway ramp into Baltimore, I saw the city appear before me and was filled with a sense of disappointment. “God, what a pathetic little city,” I thought. I had been so far from it, geographically and emotionally, that I had lost almost all love for the place I had called home for a decade. I rented out the closed dance studio where I used to work to live in and work on new acts for February. The one thing I missed about having a permanent home was having a workspace for costuming and choreography, so I was excited to have that access again. But the grey winter sky looming over the barren, struggling city recalled the decade of seasonal depression I suffered there.

My first evening in town, I went to the Theater Project to see a Dance Mixer, where all of the local dance companies perform for written critique by the audience. There were two excellent pieces, four good ones, and two that were pretty crappy compared to the others. It was a fun experience, though, and I got to see my friend Martha perform, which I always love. After the show, Martha & I went to my favorite Baltimore rock club, the Ottobar, for a couple drinks and to see a show. The band, Mt. Royal, was an amalgamation of musicians from some of Baltimore’s most beloved bands—the drummer, keyboardist, and both guitarists from Lake Trout (who all used to play improvisational music under the moniker Big In Japan), and the singer from Celebration. It was spectacular and inspiring—a mix of dark, almost tribal, hypnotic rock layered with Katrina Ford’s ethereal vocal melodies. To me, it was the sound of Baltimore – beautiful creative joy rising up from a foundation of gritty, intense darkness. It reminded me immediately of what’s to love.

And so I got to work. The day after my return I was working out at the gym and in the studio, churning through a calculated regimen of pushups, situps, handstands, stretching, Feldenkrais, and dancing. The hardest part for me, at first, was the dancing. I felt shy, ignorant of how to move my body, and embarrassed by that. There was no one else present and the curtains were all closed, but I still couldn’t let myself go. Then, as silly as it sounds, I covered up the security camera and was liberated. I danced for two hours, freely, joyfully. I felt alive. Moshe Feldenkrais says, “life is movement,” and I agree.

In the evening, I went to a Super Bowl party with a bunch of my old student and teacher friends from the circus school, but it wasn’t just any Super Bowl party. It was a naked Super Bowl party. And it was strange, but not because we were naked. I hang out with my friends naked on a pretty regular basis; it goes with the job, but this was different. All of the people there were sexy in his or her distinct way, but I think because no one wanted to make anyone else feel uncomfortable nor accidentally spark an orgy, everyone tried as hard as possible to ignore the fact that we were naked and sexy. I’ve never made so much eye contact in my life! But the result of us trying not to be creepy was the clearest feeling that I was. If I had been able to say, “hey, you know, you’ve got an amazing butt,” or, “wow, nice dick, dude!” I wouldn’t have had to hold it in; I wouldn’t have felt like it was wrong to be thinking it.

It reminded me of something I thought at the Dance Mixer – that there are only really two types of dance: sexy dance and ALL OTHER TYPES of dance. The dancers in the show were trying so hard to move in such ways that could not be construed as sexual, because it was very important to them that the pieces were about things other than sex. I presume this was because the choreographers and dancers were so sick of sex being projected onto them anyway that their choreography became a sort of stubborn rejection of it. I wondered if and where, outside of specifically sexualized dancing like burlesque, stripping, and maybe belly dance, choreographers were embracing and incorporating sexuality into their work without getting overrun by it. Was it possible to involve sexuality in dance without it being the focus? I wanted to see if I could. First, I thought, I should try to involve sexually in my life without it being the focus. There at the naked Super Bowl party, and elsewhere in my life, intentional suppression of sexuality served only to create an obsession with it. But a healthy balance was something I wanted to find, in my life and in my art.

For that first week in Baltimore, I was a powerhouse. Every day I got up early, ate well, and performed my daily regimen of strength conditioning, Feldenkrais training, stretching, and dancing. And in the evenings, I sought inspiration. At the end of that first week, I saw two very different shows, each inspiring in its own way.

The first was a production by Happenstance Theater called IMPOSSIBLE!, which was a full circus without any circus. All of the impossible feats occurred in our imaginations. For example, the tight rope walker did her act on the floor, rather than on a tight rope, but her movements and the other performers’ reactions were so distinct that we, the viewers, allowed ourselves to pretend that she was really on a tight rope. There was a full menagerie of animals performed by one man, a hilarious escape artist with an invisible straight jacket, and a ridiculous imaginary knife throwing act. It filled me with delight and joy. And then all of a sudden, the woman that gets fired from the cannon and the handyman’s hands touched and lingered for a moment. The sudden surprise of their attraction and fondness for each other was electric and I was flooded with feelings, all of those feelings of first discovery of love. My heart started pounding and I cried and giggled at the same time. It was magical, so deeply rich and soulful.

The following night I saw a show called Ms. Goose & the Naughty Tails, which was a Las Vegas-style revue, themed on fairy tales and Mother Goose stories. Each of the dancers was incredibly talented and beautiful. They were dancing on the floor, on poles, lyra, ladders, vinyl straps, and on each other. It was very impressive and entertaining, pure spectacle. I thought about this during the Snow White and Maleficent pole dance duet. What was presented was essentially an eroticized fantasy of sexual tension between the two characters. It was very sexy, but it was obvious. It seemed to me like it was presenting a fantasy that already existed, rather than creating some new kind of interpretation of the characters’ dynamic. It didn’t give me anything that I couldn’t give myself, any new perspective. Although it was thoroughly enjoyable, impressive, and arousing, I wouldn’t call it art. I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since. Art is my goal. Pure spectacle is wonderful and has its place, but it’s not what I want to be doing.

This thought, though galvanizing my mission, also began to plague me. Over the course of the next week, in the construction and choreographing of a new act, I started putting so much pressure on myself that I found my ego crushed. I felt underqualified for the standards I had given myself. I began to feel defeated by my own goals, invalidated by my own judgment, and hopeless to be and do who and what I intended. I tried to force myself to work through it, but coupled with the physical exhaustion from the intense conditioning workout I had just endured, I fell into a despairing depression. I stopped eating and stayed in bed all day. I didn’t go out or talk to anyone. And I couldn’t muster the energy to do the necessary work to prepare my act for stage at the end of the following week. I needed something to shake me out of my stasis, and fortunately, I got it.

Valentine’s weekend I had one show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and one in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Once again, the stage saved me from myself. The Pittsburgh show was in some downtown nightclub that looks fancy with the lights dim, but a poorly disguised warehouse with the lights on, where yuppies get too drunk and make bad decisions about who to fuck or fight. Because it was Valentine’s Day, everyone was focused on the former. The show was a spectacle for the generally ignorant, nothing too performance-arty or conceptual, mostly gowns and gloves, fans and boas. I did my Judge act, which is conceptual, but not a difficult concept to grasp and it always seems to win over an audience. That was the intention, anyway, because my second piece had a much greater potential to go horribly wrong. The second act takes occurs in complete silence, and I don’t actually do anything. I choose someone at random from the audience to come up on stage, and follow my silent instructions to strip me out of my suit. This was only the second time I performed the act and I was utterly terrified. I don’t actually have any control over what happens in the act. If the audience member I pressure into doing the work for me decides to do something different from what I want, there’s nothing I can do to stop them. The trick is maintaining the illusion that I have any authority. To make things worse, I was set to close the show, so everyone in the audience was at their most drunken, which makes them more difficult to control. There’s no real method to choosing my victim, so I just chose who I thought to be the best-looking woman in the house. She was perfect, following my instructions with embarrassed enthusiasm after brief moments of excited hesitation. At some point during the performance a man yelled from the balcony, “play some fucking music!” I responded by pressing my finger to my lips to shush him, and the audience all laughed at him. Shortly thereafter, the DJ, put on some unidentifiable house music. I turned to face him and dragged my finger sharply across my throat. He faded it out, and the act continued. The last thing article of clothing I have the audience remove is my belt, which I instruct them to use as a whip to beat my ass after I rip off my own pants. The audience victim turned bright red but squealed with delight after each lash. After the show, I apologized to the DJ and thanked him for bearing with my art. He told me that the man who I had shushed was the owner of the club. I then approached the young woman who had helped me in my act. I had heard someone in the audience decide and declare that she was in on it the whole time, so I made sure to say as loudly as possible, “Thank you for being such a good sport. You were perfect.”

She blushed and giggled. Her boyfriend stood up from the tall table and reached out his hand to me. He said, “You made our night. We saw your show back in August and came out tonight just to see you.”

“It meant so much to me that you picked me,” she said, smiling beautifully. “Thank you.”

For a moment I was speechless. These tickets weren’t cheap and the show in August had been fairly sparsely attended. The chances that someone saw that show, liked me, AND came back to see me half a year later were surprising enough, but that she was the one whom my finger finally pointed to after scanning the whole crowd was unbelievable. I was honored. After spending a week wallowing in insecurity and self-doubt, this young couple restored my faith in myself, that I was doing something worthwhile, at least to somebody. I said, “Thank you. You don’t know how much it means to me, either.” I spent the rest of the night floating around the club with the other performers. The ones in Pittsburgh are like family to me. They are artists, always exploring and creating, viewing the world with the artist’s perspective: always searching for more to give, rather than to take. I love them, and I felt, for one night, at home.

I had to leave early the next morning to battle the snow traffic en route to Sheperdstown, West Virginia. When I got there, I was reunited with my Washington DC performer family, consisting of some of the truest artists in the scene. Miss Joule had invited me to be part of the Tilted Torch production, Aphrodisia at an adorable little opera house in Shepherdstown. I performed the same two acts, but this time, I was less terrified about the silent one, and I think that as a result, I was less ecstatic by its success. I worried that the joke I made about being addicted to burlesque was coming true, that I was chasing a high I could never recapture from my first performance. One major difference was that the person I picked was not the person who came on stage. The person I picked just sat in her seat, staring blankly, until the man in the seat in front of her stood up. When he did so, my first thought was, “No, not you,” but part of the point of doing this act is to give in to whatever happens and to live in the present. As my old teacher, Arsene Dupin says, “you have to accept that you have no control, and give in to whatever happens. See where you can go with it.” And this was the result:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2sW9dgTKK8

When I got back to Baltimore, I gave myself one day of recovery, and set to work diligently to prepare for the big Love Letters to Baltimore show Sunny Sighed was producing at the Ottobar at week’s end. Again, I felt daunted by my goals, inferior to my standards, and hopeless to make good on the promise I had essentially made to Sunny and to my audience that I was going to do something new and spectacular. What I was doing was actually a revision of an act I had debuted the last time I performed in Baltimore, six months earlier. I hadn’t been satisfied with the performance then because I waited until the day of the show to choreograph it. The true excuse I make is that I didn’t have a workspace while I was on the road. But that time, as soon as I finished choreographing it, I forgot my choreography. Now six months later I was intending to reveal the act six months better, but it didn’t feel like it was coming together. The choreography I envisioned was beyond my physical capabilities. I had set my sights too high, and now was failing to reach them. Although I felt inept, I decided that I would keep working as hard and as long as I could, to the best of my abilities at that point in my life. It ended up being exactly that. I did exactly the best that I could, which was not the best I could imagine, but I was proud of it nonetheless. One of the dance teachers from CCMA, Wynne, who had seen both performances of this act, said that my dancing had improved immensely. When I viewed it from the outside, I agreed, and that gave me much hope. I reminded myself of a declaration I had made on the Burlesque Vanguard Tour: there is no destination, only direction. Even if I never get to where I want to be, I can always be moving closer.

That doesn’t mean that I always would be, though. After the Love Letters show was over, I fell back into my exhausted depression. I had been using the show to motivate me, but now could find nothing to rouse me from bed. I didn’t shower for a week, didn’t leave the office for more than an hour at a time, and that usually was only to get food when I was so low on blood sugar that I couldn’t focus my eyes. The cold air and overcast skies kept me inside, which only exacerbated my loneliness. I did some math and calculated my imminent financial devastation, which made me doubt the possibility of living my dream. I felt hopeless. I went out one night to a fundraiser for a big show I would be returning for in April, and I hadn’t been eating, so I got too drunk and made an ass of myself. I was sloppily over-affectionate with women, gropey, and rude. In the morning I was mortified in addition to horribly hungover. I wasn’t able to get out of bed until dinnertime, and then didn’t have any food to eat. I dragged myself to a pizza place, where I ate to quickly and brought on a bout of indigestion like I hadn’t experienced since before my acid reflux surgery. I found myself shivering and writhing on the dusty tile floor in front of the toilet, blind from the pain, feeling pathetic in my loneliness, and desperate in my depression. I felt like an addict going through withdrawal and I wondered if maybe I really was.

I spent the last week of my Baltimore residency being kind to myself, gently nursing myself back to health, both physical and mental. I spent some time with people I love, made wise decisions about food, and began to make solid plans for my future. I cut the final five months of my impending second Burlesque Vanguard Tour and decided to move to Tucson, Arizona in June. That would give me three more months on the road, before I settled in a place that was both geographically and experientially as far from Baltimore as I could imagine. I had returned to the place from which I left to find myself, reminded myself why I had stayed so long, and reaffirmed that leaving was the right thing for me to do. At the beginning of March, I set sail again for more adventures, in a single-mariner ship on a tumultuous sea, with a brave new world on a distant shore.