Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Workout Paradox

One of the topics that I find goes rather unfortunately arm-in-arm with the topic of striptease performance is the issue of "working out" or "being in shape." It's the ever-present, borderline shameful, basement-level accompaniment that lurks around the corner and just out of sight when discussing an artform that glorifies near-nakedness. As my second installment of Dale's All-Male Yardsale Amateur Showcase approaches and I scour the landscape for new willing participants to perform, I am continually hearing the same reasons for apprehension that used follow me around, and I think it's high time to discuss those fears. Although I've alluded to the compulsion to work out in previous blogs, I think there's enough here to stimulate a thorough discussion in its own place.

I'd like to acknowledge that as a male-bodied performer, I have the privilege of not necessarily being judged by my appearance first and foremost. I also want to make sure I draw a clear delineation between being "physically fit" and "healthy," as I want to focus on the former for the purposes of this article. Also, those are not the same things.

The first thing I want to say to you if you're new to burlesque and thinking about performing at some point; YOU DO NOT NEED TO BE IN PHENOMENAL SHAPE TO PERFORM BURLESQUE.


...no matter WHAT the VHS boxed set says.

Every time I meet a burlesque newcomer who has only just seen a performance for the first time recently, I always encourage them to try out burlesque performance if they want to. Regardless of gender, I always get some version of the following comment in response to my suggestion;

"Oh, I have to go hit the gym for at least a few months before I would even think about trying it."

It makes me a sad to hear, mainly because despite the way we present our varied body types and abilities to the general public, their individual response is to counter with self-shame. Despite the fact that there's no fitness standard to burlesque performance (because it's not the Marines), people are still very intimidated by the mere concept of people judging their physical form. And they do--we ALL do that involuntarily, to some degree. What you're effectively doing is showing your body to a room full of strangers. Once you make peace with that, you can really do anything you want, and moving past that initial insecurity is what makes burlesque performance a truly liberating experience--NOT the state of the physical vessel you present.

I've been fortunate enough to have my own thoughts and feelings on that change over the 6 years I've been doing burlesque. While I've always been somewhat athletic, I was never in peak physical form. For some perspective, here's how I started out;

When it was just myself and two other guys several years ago, I kind of resented the idea of having to maintain a physical appearance in order to perform striptease. While the other guys looked at it as a logical progression and began to encourage me to participate in group weight lifting sessions, I grew frustrated and withdrawn.

What it really came down to was that I resented being told that I had to fit an arbitrary standard in a medium where we were, in theory, encouraged to accept each other as is, in whatever physical form we presented. I found it upsetting that before I worked on any other skills that might have helped me transcend as a performer such as dance training or flexibility, I was being told I had to make sure I was desirable enough to look at. It pissed me off.

The weird thing is, guys put a ton of pressure on each other to be physically strong and capable. Society tells men that they don't necessarily have to be pretty, but they do have to be able to fight another dude if the situation arises. Your worth as a provider and someone to be desired might have roots in how much physical labor you can perform, which is a decidedly different standard than what my female-bodied friends are expected to fit. In fact, most male burlesque that celebrates the masculine form relies on those tropes to power the acts.

....unless it's a Top Gun act, in which case all bets are off. Photo by Jon Beckley.

As it pertains to burlesque, Nina La Voix told me that being physically fit makes her a better performer on stage. "I feel like my body moves better and my self confidence levels are boosted when I'm on my regular fitness routine."

"Physical fitness can prevent injuries on stage. Taking care of your body... conditioning... knowing it's limits.. building strength... and overall body awareness in general, makes for a better performance. Your body is your tool, and you only get one." Nina said.

I would agree that training one's self physically is a great way to feel more capable about what you present to your audience, though isn't something that should ever be attached as a necessity to burlesque performance. Treating your physical self in the best way you know how is necessary for living a long life, but isn't even reomtely a stage requirement.

"Do what makes you feel like your best version of you. That's what body positivity is all about. But when the importance of being physically fit and fitting a specific body type is placed on you from others (specifically producers) that's when it is dangerous," said Philadelphia-based Taylor Sweet.

Taylor Sweet

And that's a great point, though it does help me identify some privilege I have as a male burlesque performer: I've never had to confront a producer or venue that placed an unfair standard on my body, though I do know many female performers who have. The demands that the management at Lucky Pierre's placed on Ruby Rage come immediately to mind, and it's an ugly reality to have to consider when deciding what your personal brand should be.

I'm in a male-bodied burlesque group which has a decidedly masculine aesthetic. While none of us went into the discipline thinking we were Chippendale's dancers (I even parody the rigorous Chippendale's standards in an act I perform with Butch Sassidy), we somehow incidentally each took on an ostensibly fit phenotype, and whether it's reflective of the demand that society has for our niche or a side effect of the confidence we've gained as we've leveled up our performance chops is unclear.

All this is to say that Sirlesque has a specific "brand" that we're pushing, and we each take on skills and train in certain disciplines that advance us professionally. If you're a dude who is not looking to build up a beefcake aesthetic, it really doesn't serve your purposes to head to the gym with your fellow bros 5 times a week. But if you want to learn how to do a aerial silks striptease, you might consider following in Jack Silver's footsteps and spend some time in a circus gym.

Therein lies the eponymous paradox. While I can't deny that my stage presence and confidence overall has improved due in some part to the attention I've been giving my physical form in the last couple years, I would never consider "working out" a necessary component of burlesque performance.

Similarly, Anja Keister and I had a lengthy discussion about that; "In burlesque we often say that our "bodies are our instruments" or "our tools for expression."
So it only makes sense to "customize" our product to fit the brand we provide. There are many ways to do this.

"Maybe you dress it up in fancy costumes. Maybe you paint it (makeup) and dye it to look a certain way. Maybe you get physical enhancements like breast implants or other cosmetic surgery. Maybe you take acting classes to be better at expression on stage. Maybe you take dance classes for choreography. Maybe you work out to tone, lose weight, or strengthen the body. These are all ways to customize your "burlesque product" to better sell it to an audience," said Anja.

Anja Keister, photo by Adrian Buckmaster

Anja mentioned that what resonates with her audience and fanbase is more important than hitting a specific physical characterization.

"Like if I want to sell a 'mainstream classic burlesque product,' sure, physical fitness is important. If I was doing aerial or lyra, it would be important. But, not for who I am currently selling to. I am a weird, nerdy burlesque clown. It's not a customization I "need." Sure, I want it, but want to have a product my audiences respond to," Anja said.

In looking at how I was brought into burlesque performance, I learned the importance of punchline comedy and immersive storytelling, which largely shaped what I consider important. Learning to do erotic striptease was something that I hadn't considered important at the time, but began to work into my repertoire as I honed that skill, and the physical aspect of performance was a late add in the game, as I decided I wanted the physical ability to perform acrobatic and strength-based feats as one part of my performance catalog. What I want to show on stage is a direct reflection of what I work on when I'm off stage, and only recently has physical ability been a relevant part of that.

It certainly isn't a blanket necessity for the discipline of burlesque, and I would never tell a newcomer that it's even remotely important. Now, we just need to make sure our audiences understand that, which isn't exactly a short order. This is all a part of the incipient discussion when distinguishing "burlesque" from "stripping," and a conversation we're all constantly having with the people we're seeking to educate.