I wanted to write a bit about my experience with performing for crowds comprised mostly of straight men, as I've had a lot of unique and strong feels about it. Mostly excitement, but sometimes terror. I'd like to take you through that emotional process and where it all originates.
Women's burlesque performance is generally more well received for new audiences, due in large part to the socially-reinforced way women's sexuality is available for public consumption. Women are expected to be looked at and appreciated, regardless of the gender makeup of the audience. Both men and women will watch in adoration at female striptease, as it is acceptable to do so. I'm here to write about what happens when a male burlesque performer presents to a crowd of new, straight-ish people, because the reactions are often much, much different than the reactions that naturalized, familiar burlesque audiences display.
|Such as leaning-accented casual indifference.|
I was a bit on edge for a recent gig with Brandy Wine and Polly Surely of Rogue Burlesque, as it was the type of setting where burlesque didn't quite seem to fit the programming. As I alluded to in a previous post, this was a high-energy party where DJ's from around the country were gathering to drink and dance. We went down into the basement, which was its own party-hearty room, complete with dim lighting, beer spilled on the floor, poor sight lines, and every formality spared. I'd say it was an audience with an 80/20 man-to-woman ratio.
Needless to say, very few folks in the crowd were acquainted with burlesque. After our host for the night started explaining burlesque etiquette, you could absolutely hear the sarcastic chuckling. While I knew they were probably picturing a club-esque strip show, I doubted they were ready to factor me into their expectations. As I mentioned way back in the second paragraph, the onlookers were pretty amenable to seeing Brandy and Polly perform. When I stepped onto the floor though, there was an audible groan from many of the males in the room. I would estimate that about 1/3 of them immediately turned around and walked out.
In that moment, I saw a clear picture of what scares straight men about male burlesque. When I teach my class for new male burlesquers, I like to gradually introduce clothing reveals and let people opt out of ones they aren't (yet) comfortable with. To their credit, the guys in the class are usually willing to jump right in and do all of them, which is fantastic. I'm guessing that the mental re-configuring that happens when a group of men who have never met before begin to accept that they're about to be nearly naked in front of one other, they move past the head-space that my audience at this gig was stuck in. In essence, they were frightened.
|Usually, the screaming is internal.|
Since performers tend to draw energy from the audience they go on for, I can tell you that when this happens, it's often demoralizing. To that end, it manifests itself in a few different ways: In struggling to cope with the fact that they might have to watch another man strip, these men will usually show signs of physical discomfort--heads down, arms folded, groaning and audible commentary. James and the Giant Pasty of Boylesque T.O. (based in Canada) told me that at one show, a group of men in a bar lashed out and called him a faggot, which is the ultimate show of insecurity through aggression.
There was a point early on in my performance career where a reaction like this would have ruined me. Thankfully, I've had enough practice with the "show must go on" frame of mind that I'm usually able to compensate for situations like this. As a general rule, I focus my broader moves on the people who are having a great time, and I focus my specific audience work on the individuals who look the most uncomfortable.
|Or in a pinch, anyone who is currently shrieking in terror.|
During my act, one man in the front of the audience buried his face in one hand in disbelief, as if one errant gaze upon my glittery pecs would turn him to stone (see what I did there?). I walked up to that one guy in the crowd, put my face about half a foot from his, waited for him to notice, and then gave a wave and a curtsy. He laughed just a little bit, and it got such a rise out of the crowd around him. I find that if you go for the hardest nut to crack, your success in getting the audience to join in the fun will have a ripple effect, and can often noticeably change the mood of the room.
Following from that, I'd like to talk to you about what happens after a performance like this. Due in large part to fragile masculinity (#masculinitysofragile if you're so inclined), straight men tend to conflate male burlesque performance with homosexuality or flirting. While it's not always a negative thing that some men will give feedback after watching a male burlesque performance, it can absolutely be derived from a place of awkwardness or insecurity. Picture any of these after a performance;
"I'm not gay, but....that was a good show/you were funny/I've thought about kissing a man/etc."
"Do you get a lot of gays/women/men hitting on you after you perform?"
"I saw more of you than I wanted to see, but you were pretty cool to watch."
"You were good, but you should work out more." (Lucky, thanks for sharing that last one)
|"Look bro, I'm not gay or nuthin', but, uh....good|
job, there....dawg. Did I mention that I
reeeeealy like the ladies?"
Some of you reading this will recognize these experiences as your own. But while icky on the surface, they can be a good starting point for having a strong, valuable discussion with a new fan about burlesque, body norms, and expectations around performers from the same/opposite sex.
I've learned that for every 20 dudes in an audience I perform for, one or two will come chat with me afterwards and will be completely awesome to talk with. After this gig, there were 3 guys that came to talk to Polly, Brandy, and myself, and wanted to reiterate that they had the best time at the show. While they were each initially confused about how to react, all of them individually had the wherewithal to figure out what they appreciated about the performance, what questions they wanted to ask, and the enthusiasm about discovering us and our scene afterwards. It was awesome.
For me, having just a couple people telling me what a great time they had makes it 1000% worth it. Bringing new people to future shows helps bring burlesque more and more into the mainstream, which benefits us all. I also love when other men feel inspired enough from burlesque to want to try performing themselves, as it's a major disruption to the power structures that influence masculine negativity (and bolsters our solidarity with our female counterparts).
And that's pretty rad.