Not gonna lie… after reading about Faith Bacon’s untimely end I got a little choked up with the wings.
I watched Behind the Burly Q on Netflix (amazing, by the way) and one of the dancers described the abject despair and revulsion she felt during her first performance when she looked into the audience and saw the men in the front row masturbating. The burlesque back in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s was, more often than not, exploitative. The dancers were often poor, mistreated, and desperate.
And yet, the burlesque of today looks so empowering– the performers seem to have real agency. I have no hesitation seeing burlesque as an art form. The documentary A Wink and a Smile, also on Netflix (also amazing), suggests that contemporary burlesque upends the more traditional dancer as sexualized object. Instead, the dancer is performing her sexuality through her burlesque persona, a character of her own creation that she uses to articulate the dynamics of agency and desire. It makes me think that the contemporary burlesque dancer is fiction in motion.
I wonder though if it’s possible to perform and not feel some degree of shame. I’m not suggesting that there is anything intrinsically shameful about burlesque or stripping: it’s a specific part of American culture that created the stigma and labels it shameful– that’s the same cracked culture that slut-shames pop stars and victims of sexual violence. Maybe people just can’t perform anything, even day to day life, with out some degree of shame.
The yogic practice of mindfulness, nonjudgmental self-awareness, is one way to approach transcending shame while fully inhabiting the body. Mindfulness travels well, so I imagine then that anything done mindfully could liberate and embody. Writing, eating, walking, singing, surfing…. dancing, too, I bet, especially if that dance includes giant feather fans. Who could possibly feel bad with feather fans? Well… nevermind. Obviously many people can and do, Miss Bacon included. We need mindfulness and fans, together, I suppose.
This is why I like the direction burlesque is going in: 1. it’s gender and trans gender friendly, 2. it’s more racially diverse and allows dancers of color to reclaim symbols that have been used to exoticize, 3. It’s creative and glamorous and kitch all at once, 5. costumes, and 6. It’s about choosing how, when, and how much to perform the inescapable. It’s important to note too that not all the early burlesque dancers in Behind the Burly Q described their work as shameful. Quite a few of them found fame and money and felt a lot of pride in their talents and resourcefulness during a tough time in American history. That felt good to hear. With all this in mind, and without disregarding anyone’s experience, perhaps the burlesque of yesteryear may take on a new meaning, or at least another aspect, too.