Burlesque: Staring my Creative Block in the Face

I love poppin’ colours. Ruby red. Gleaming black. Glittering gold. They boost my mood, inspire me and brighten my outlook on life.

I’m an old soul. I love cultural artifacts, particularly from the 1920s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

I am a natural performer: I love theatre.

Combine all these traits of goodness and burlesque comes a knockin’. Or as we call ourselves: the glitterati. ‘Nuff said.

Burlesque is an ever-evolving art form. Check it out on the interweb and you’ll find burlesque performers on rollerblades, nerd-lesquers who create acts based on science fiction characters, or gore-lesque performers in Halloween-themed witch costumes. In other words, think of any theme in any area of life and there’s a burlesque performer who has done an act on it. Yes, there is a Harry Potter-themed burlesque show. I kid you not.

Despite its’ malleability, I admit that what attracted me to burlesque was more its’ pin-up style origins. I picture cigarette girls with fishnet stockings, high heels, and corsets who sport winged eyeliners and vibrant red lipstick. Now all I need is a boyfriend who is in the Navy during World War II and I’ve got myself a period movie. By golly!

So, What is Burlesque Exactly?

When people in the mainstream think of burlesque, they think of that horrible movie with Cher and Christina Aguilera, or top Las Vegas performer Dita Von Teese (who is amazeballs. Anyone who can thrash in swan-like finesse inside a giant martini glass is an elegant bad ass).  

The movie Burlesque cast (mostly white) women with slim, stick frames. Real-life burlesque welcomes people of all shapes and sizes.

The movie only cast cis-gender women. In contrast, there are many members of the LGBTQ+ who are trailblazers on the stages in the community.

The movie is really more of a cross between cabaret performers and strippers. Real-life burlesque acts have narrative (and sometimes comical) elements. To put bluntly, burlesque performers are storytellers.

Me & Burlesque in Vancouver

There were major pioneers in Vancouver who grew burlesque in the late 90s/early 2000s, allowing it to flourish as a community that runs the thriving scene that it is today.

The Vancouver burlesque scene is huge. The Vancouver International Burlesque Festival (VIBF) is world-renown and is arguably only second to the shows in Las Vegas, which is where the Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHOF) takes place every year. This is different from Hall of Fame events in professional sports where retired players are inducted and honoured. BHOF is an active competition.

I’ve always had exhibitionist tendencies (interpret that however you want). There is a performer inside of me who wants to sing and dance. Growing up in the Middle East stifled that. When I was 11, I remember dancing in front of my mirror at home and my father immediately ordered me to stop, claiming it immodest: “3Aayb” he would say, which if translated, is essentially a slut-shaming phrase.

Tell that to an 11- year-old girl and you’ve killed her dreams and aspirations of being on stage. She now feels ashamed of those aspirations and tucks them into the can’t-do-that pile of dreams, which were fast stacking up.

Fast forward 17 years later. Burlesque had always caught my eye but I never paid proper attention to it until I was 28.

I was at the Anza club, a local venue in Vancouver, hanging out with my friends. Suddenly, the Emcee announced that a performer by the name of Crystal Precious was about go on stage. A beautiful, voluptuous woman emerged from the curtains with an electrifying presence.

Crystal Precious had by no means the typical stick-figure frame that mainstream media makes all of us feel shitty about not having.  She was larger in size and all the confidence in the world as she swayed her hips, sang and commanded every person’s attention in the room.

I thought to myself, if there is an art form and community that can get someone to love her body that much, then sign me up!

Upon watching her, I believed that I’d found the ultimate creative outlet because it combined everything I loved about the arts: the performer element, explosive costumes, old-world origins, narrative components and finally, a near-identical emulation of my personal style.

I went home and googled “Burlesque classes Vancouver”. I found a couple of links to performers and random news. At that time, I was still creatively blocked but said block wasn’t on the red-engine zone where I needed creativity to stay sane. I describe it the ‘red-engine’ zone to compare to the part of the RPM meter in a car where if you push on the peddle just a tad bit more, you blow the engine.

The thing with blocked creatives is that if they’re not in crisis or are not aware they are blocked, they live normal, underwhelming lives. Not unhappy, not ecstatic, not miserable. Content—that’s it. Blocked creatives are simply content.

I wasn’t really serious about pursuing burlesque then, even as a hobby. My internet inquiry was more about indulging my curiosity, so I forgot about it.

Becoming a Performer

Fast forward 4 years later: the red-engine zone is where I pretty much lived. I was stuck in a toxic relationship with an adventure photographer who was constantly benching me. I needed something to distract myself from the resentment that was starting to brew towards him. I was also starting to really feel the encapsulating isolation that Vancouver’s culture bred. The mountains started to feel like walls.

I started to think outside the box. What could I try that would make me live a little? And then I remembered burlesque. I was chatting with my friend Charmaine and told her that I wanted to research burlesque again. “Oh, my co-worker said that the best place to take burlesque courses is the Screaming Chicken Society” she said to me.

I’d heard of them, so I did more research. A few months later, I paid my fee and enrolled in the Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society’s Becoming Burlesque’s 26th class. The Becoming Burlesque program was an 8-week class that taught people the basics of burlesque, with a solo-performance and group number at the end of the course. Folks, I had initiated into the glitterati.

During the program, I met amazing women who were in varying stages of their burlesque careers (mostly noobs like me but some with more advanced training) and was exposed to veteran performers, different schools in the community, and a host of connectors, promoters and venue owners. It was a well-oiled machine.

Doing burlesque in Vancouver gave me a large cushy band-aid that helped for the next two years. I’ll admit, before my first class I felt anxiety and dread, because I was so much in my comfort zone that trying anything new made me scream and whine. Before every burlesque class, or before every one of my personal lessons, I felt apprehensive. But, each time I was driving to the studio, I changed self-talk in my brain. “It’s going to be fun.” And what’s interesting, is that once I took that statement to heart, I ended up enjoying every single class.

My graduation performance was a roaring success. My act consisted of a librarian who was a sugar addict. I donned a red corset, curled my hair pin-up style, wore large cartoon-like pearl earrings, and Cuban heel stockings. Some members of the audience later told me that I received one of the loudest applauses out of all 11 performers. The accolades made me really happy.

But there was a nagging feeling inside me.

I felt like a fraud. The truth was, even though I executed the act, it was my instructor who came up with the choreography. I should have given myself credit—after all, I did come up with the idea, put the costume together, selected the song and performed it. But blocked creatives don’t allow themselves any credit. Imposter syndrome was in full force.

I wanted to keep performing but I was very anxious about starting a solo career—fear and resistance were alive and real.  

Joining a Troupe: Belle Diablo

The universe heard me and delivered in an interesting way.  By hook, a friend mentioned that a club owner in the West End wanted burlesque performers for a show. I contacted some girls in my Becoming Burlesque class and within a few days, a group of us got together to perform on stage.

The show wasn’t really a show. We– the performers–were expected to go out on the street to promote the event that night—a major no-no. I felt embarrassed that I asked my classmates to come to an event that had no producer, no promotion, not even an honorarium. There was absolutely NOTHING but a stage. What the club owner wanted was women to perform at the club for free to attract crowds. Any performer in the early stages of their career knows this story too well.

The show was a total disaster, but luckily, not many people showed up. What came out of that though, was a bunch of women who were looking to start something new in their lives after coming off the high of their inaugural performances at the recital. We loved burlesque and wanted as many opportunities as possible to perform.

Thus, Belle Diablo was born. We became a group of five women who were ready to storm the local burlesque scene.

I won’t go into the long road of the Belles’ ups and downs as performers. Maybe that’ll be another post. But, what is relevant to mention is that being in a burlesque troupe that was exploding with creative ideas made me realize how blocked I was.

Of course at that time, I didn’t know I was blocked. I just thought that I wasn’t good enough and I couldn’t come up with solo acts by myself. What started out as a fun hobby turned into a creative prison as I watched those who started the same time as me thrive into limitless possibilities.

I don’t know if the women in my troupe sensed it—if they did, they loved me enough not to have said anything and carried me throughout our time together as a troupe. 

Instead of working on my acts, I would busy myself with the admin work, or try to find rehearsal space.  I also took on the role of being the treasurer. I would show up to rehearsals and contribute creatively in miniscule ways but I would just follow the leads of the other women who were coming up with the ideas and the choreography. One of them was highly talented with an extensive dance background who, naturally, took the lead.

During brainstorm sessions I would mention that I was working on an act. One of them was Jessica Rabbit-themed. I really wanted to do it but secretly didn’t know where to start so it never came into fruition.

Instead, I came up with sloppy, lackluster half-ass-put-together acts that I performed at the last minute. “I ran out of time”, I would tell everyone (including myself) if it wasn’t executed well, because running out of time was an acceptable excuse. Deep down, I had been living with the anxiety of being blocked for months on an idea. My old therapist calls it anxiety-feeding: you are anxious about something so you put if off and when you remember it, you get anxious again so you put it off even more. Not a good head space to be in.

In addition to being creatively blocked, I was starting to develop a rocky relationship with one troupe member. To put simply, we were different people and the stress of being in a troupe was starting to take a toll on both of us.

Dealing with the rising tension and managing my creative block became too much after a trip to Northern BC to perform at a festival. Our group act was a major hit, and I created amazing memories with the women and met amazing people. But something inside me knew this was the end of the road for me. I was exhausted.

Saying Goodbye: Lessons I Learned

I quit the troupe when we returned to Vancouver a few days later. As much as I was sad to have left my troupe, I knew it was necessary.

To this day I am still on good terms with the women. We follow each other on Instagram and say occasional hellos via texts. Burlesque was a chapter in my creative life that simply ran its’ course.

Looking back almost four years later. I realize that I needed burlesque as a means to an end. It was only a fleeting creative outlet that served its’ purpose. I learned:

  1. To love my body. I’m curvaceous and slightly overweight. No matter what, it was my body and I was hanging out with it for the rest of my life—so we might as well get along.
  2. I needed a creative outlet that was inclusive.
  3. I needed to meet creatives in the local community
  4. I needed solace to take me away from the mundane life and my day job where art was non-existent.

I didn’t take up anything else creatively after Burlesque, until I left Vancouver a few years later.

The one lesson I learned the hard way in living the life of an actively blocked creative for two whole years, is that sometimes when you’re in a prison, you fucking don’t know you’re in one. Never again.

These days, I am exploring various career avenues. Part of career exploration is trying things and eliminating the ones that don’t serve. Burlesque was one of them. I realized that I hated putting costumes together, and ultimately, making a living as a full-time performer wasn’t feasible. There really isn’t much money in burlesque.

Plus, I wasn’t really a fan of the hustle life. The be-all-and-end-all in burlesque is someone like Dita Von Teese, and in my arguable opinion, there wasn’t enough demand for it to make room for more than one. Burlesque is a (thriving) subculture, and you’d have to love it for the simple act of doing it. Monetization is a bonus.

I do not regret taking up burlesque. Maybe the (non-practicing) Muslim side of me feels the shame of parading on stages three-quarters naked. But it was a part of my journey that I needed to get, to where I am today, artistically. And I am also grateful that it raised my self-esteem. I would not have traded a minute of it.

How about you? Did you explore a creative practice that didn’t quite work out despite its’ promising potential? Or better yet, if it did work out, tell me what you learned!

Let me know in the comments below!

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