I’m standing on a darkened stage in fishnets and heels with a rainbow fish windsock strapped to my ass, thinking that in 3 minutes and 12 seconds this will all be over. It’s time to go big or go home.
The curtains part and the music breaks. From behind a wooden screen decoupaged with green glittering reeds and blue tulle, I wave a single elbow-length black glove stitched with spiky gold fins. The crowd goes, ooooh.
I can’t believe I’m actually doing this. After an intense six weeks of Burlesque 101 with Seattle’s Academy of Burlesque, I’m making my stripper debut as Cocoa La Swish, a fish diva emerging from the reeds of self-doubt into the shiny confidence of my own bedazzled body.
I bite the air and smile.
So you want to be a stripper…
Six weeks earlier, I’d walked into the first night of our class at Studio Blue, a dance space on Rainier Avenue. The room resembled every other dance studio I’d ever been to. It had a hardwood floor with a wall of mirrors and an adjacent wall of cubbies separated by a curtain of pink fringe. A metal rack draped with feather boas reminded me that though I’d taken dance classes before, this would be a different experience.
After filling out some required paperwork, I took a seat at a table in the center of the room with an awkward smile and wave to my classmates.
“Hi, What’s your name?” asked the chipper brunette in fishnets and hot pants.
I answered and she introduced herself as Crystal.
“She’s like the Mayor of Burlesque class,” the man beside her explained, and I wondered when the elections had been held.
Looking around the table at the group of seven white women and one white man — the majority of them younger than me, and definitely in better shape — I wondered if they were mentally undressing me, too. I felt my insecurities begin to whisper.
A woman who called herself The One, The Only, Inga introduced herself as our Stripper Spirit Guide and Life Coach. If there were a casting call for a naughty Tinkerbell, Inga would fit the bill: petite but well-muscled, with short, chic blond hair. She told us she trained in jazz and modern dance for 16 years before attending her first burlesque show at the Rendezvous Dance Theater downtown and getting “the call” to perform. She toured the world as a member of the Atomic Bombshells, and was Miss Viva Las Vegas 2011.
Inga announced that the goal of the class was to turn us into “magical sparkly naked people” on stage. There was a round of introductions. Like Inga, several of my classmates talked about getting “the call.”
I felt my stomach fall. I had never thought of public nudity as an aspirational goal. I saw the Burlesque Nutcracker last Christmas. The costumes were lavish and the dance routines were so fun that when the opportunity to take the class for free arose, I thought, why not?
By the end of the first class, all the why nots showed up in stereo and danced in my head like hyper critical sugar plum fairies embodying the voices of every kid on the playground who ever called me fat, ugly or nappy.
“You can’t have your 10th performance until you’ve had your first performance,” Inga said, encouragingly.
What, exactly, is burlesque?
There was no dancing in our first class. Instead, Inga gave us a comprehensive history of burlesque.
Burlesque had its origins in Greek Theater circa 426 BC, then spread to the Romans, through the UK, and later to the U.S. What began as satire performed by men (call it Ancient Saturday Day Night Live) gradually integrated women in the late 1800s and evolved from sociopolitical commentary into chorus lines and strip teases.
We learned about Lydia Thompson and her British Blonds, whose six-month tour of the States turned into six years and gave birth to the concept of girls in tights doing chorus lines. Little Egypt caused a stir at the Chicago World’s Fair by performing the first recorded belly dancing in the United States.
For many years, strip acts were illegal in the U.S. except in New Orleans, so cunning dancers used to wear “nude” bathing suits. At one point, it became illegal to touch your own body in public, so strippers used puppets and trained birds to remove garments for them.
During the 1920s and ’30s, the New Orleans jazz scene provided a soundtrack to a racier version of burlesque, with more Creole and black women performing. Many white performers drew inspiration from women of other cultures — Little Egypt, for example, who was actually Syrian, but borrowed dance moves from Moroccan belly dancers — raising questions about cultural appropriation.
Inga was all about the business. It was a more thorough introduction than I had expected, but it made me feel grounded. I’ve always been an activist. Stripping for stripping’s sake felt overwhelming, but joining a legacy of woman who danced in ownership of their own bodies seemed like an accessible way for me to rationalize trying something new.
Cocoa La Swish is born
For homework, we had to create our stage personas. This part was easy. I named my alter ego years ago. I even wrote a children’s book about her called Coco La Swish: A fish from a Different Rainbow. Coco is a vibrant and vivacious fish who overcomes the jeering of hater fish to be her fabulous self. But how to take Coco and turn her into Cocoa?
More than just a name, I had to build my character’s backstory. Where was she from? What was her favorite drink? Her crush? Her favorite pick-up line? I decided Cocoa would be like Grace Jones combined with Godzilla and rolled in glitter — fierce and unapologetically bold.
When we met for our second class, my classmates and I re-introduced ourselves by our invented personas. The others had names like Scarlett Herrington, Muffy Thyme, and Ivy Thorny. There was Lana del Spray, creator of messes, Crystal D’Cummings, who arrived in the world on a magical flying unicorn to be a sex and life coach, and Kat Trick, a submissive, perennially heartbroken, small-town waitress whose super power was stripping.
Cleopatra of the South (who in real life is a civil war re-enactor from Alabama) based her character on Isabella “Belle” Maria Boyd a confederate spy from West Virginia. Perry Von Winkle, a gender fluid immortal, was born to a family of witches and raised like Samantha from Bewitched.
My mind pinwheeled out into questions: What is sexy and why? Who gets to decide? We like what we like and we know it when we see it, but how much of this is personal preference and how much is determined by cultural norms?
Becoming Cocoa was an invitation to enter a world of fantasy and play, and I was excited to try it out. I went home and narrowed down my song choices and began plotting my act. But reality kept interrupting my fantasy life. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see Cocoa, I only saw myself and the various intersecting identities that didn’t match up with any image I’d ever seen of a burlesque dancer.
Growing up, I learned early on that being black and beautiful meant being thin, having light skin and hair that hung straight and long with no kinks. Basically, the standard of beauty was being the whitest version of black, with occasional exceptions for those coal-black African models who were bone-thin and “exotic.”
I’m none of the above. I’m thick and tall with brown skin and an afro. It took me a long time to get over all the teasing I got as a kid and to embrace myself as beautiful. I had to work hard to undo all the negative programming.
Being big, black, and beautiful in this society is an act of courage, but I didn’t want it to be. I wanted, for once, to experience the privilege of assumed beauty, to feel sexy and confident without it being a political statement. Maybe that might have felt more attainable in a situation with different demographics, but as I visualized our recital, I felt like the token. Could I really do this? Did I even want to?
The big freak-out
Waxie Moon, a brilliant boylesque performer, was our guest instructor for week 3, the bump-and-grind week. It felt good to be on my feet and out of my head. We learned the art of the shimmy, and strutting in heels with and against the beat. Then we practiced teasingly removing our gloves.
Teasing is an art — what you show and what you don’t and how you invite an audience to get invested in what you’re willing to give. While I still hadn’t decided what I was willing to give, Waxie gave me some perspective. In sweatpants and heels with sculpted facial hair, he reminded me that outside-the-box could be a positive.
The evening culminated with each of us performing a sexy walk to a chair where we did three poses, a glove tease with a “deny” (that classic give-you-a-little-skin-then-take-it-back) and then the dance move of our choice. We wolf-whistled and cat-called as one by one we showed off our moves, and I realized I was actually having fun.
Then came week 4. Inga says that everyone freaks out in week 4. I freaked out. Even though I’d been keeping up on my homework and attending private lessons in addition to the regular classes, I still didn’t feel ready.
It occurred to me that this wasn’t some theoretical performance anymore. In two weeks I was going to go on stage and take my clothes off. Strangers were going to see and judge my body. Friends were going to see and judge my body. I was going to trip on my stripper heels, my boobs were going to come flying out of my gold beaded butterfly breast plate, my ass was going to explode out of my sequined hot pants, and I was going to literally die of embarrassment.
Inga assured me that I didn’t have to get totally naked. I could strip to pasties or even to a flesh-colored bathing suit if that’s what felt comfortable. Nothing about this experience was comfortable. I wanted to scream.
Over the weekend, I got sick, so I missed the optional tassel-twirling class, where all of my classmates took their tops off and became titty sisters. They were all BFFs afterwards, and though Lana del Spray invited me to come to class early to catch up on my boa work, I felt a little left out.
After the optional bump-and-grind class, Kat Trick, Cleopatra of the South, Muffy Thyme and I went on a costume shopping excursion. We had lunch first and it was nice to get to know them. Kat is a realtor. Cleo is the mother of 9 children, grandmother of 15, and has been doing burlesque back home in Alabama for a couple of years. She’s only here for a few months before she returns to the South. Muffy is a biologist and has been learning how to be an aerialist.
Though we all came from different walks of life and probably wouldn’t have met any other way, the class created our common ground. “We’re all nervous too,” Kat told me when I confessed that I was panicking. Just like everyone had their reason for being in the class, they also had their challenges too, and there was something comforting about knowing I wasn’t alone.
My heart raced as I made my grand entrance. Everyone was staring at me. I knew they would be, because that is what audiences do, (and what I had just done to six of my classmates) but I didn’t realize it would be so awkward.
I’d spent an afternoon painting and gluing glitter on reeds for my backdrop, but the costume still hadn’t come together. I wore black peep-toe heels, fishnets and a gold beaded backless halter shaped like a butterfly. A friend used her seam ripper to pop the hoop out of my rainbow fish windsock. Using safety pins and a length of fabric, I rigged up a tail.
On top, I wanted to wear something elegant, a two-piece ball gown with full-length, black satin gloves. I’d found a beautiful wine-colored gown with a poofy skirt layered with lace, but it was still all in one piece, so I rolled down the ill-fitted bodice and wore a T-shirt. I felt disheveled and mismatched.
When the baseline hit, I rolled my body, giving life to my shimmy, but my tail snagged the back of my fishnets and my skirt kept slipping off my waist and got tangled under my heels. I tried to keep smiling, but I could see all the faces in the audience and it was freaking me out.
I took my skirt off and crawled on the floor, then stepped on my tail trying to get up. When I ripped my top off all I could think was, everyone is looking at my stretch marks. This was a new level of vulnerability, and I didn’t like it.
Winded and sweaty, I managed to sit politely through the remaining acts. Everyone seemed so much more together than I felt. Their costumes were complete, and their acts were sexy and hilarious. I kept trying not to compare myself, but when I went home, I sobbed. My performance was going to suck. After a month of working on it, I felt invested — I wanted to get on stage and kill it as Cocoa, but it felt impossible.
Two days later, I had my private lesson with Inga. I didn’t talk about my full-on meltdown. I admitted to not loving my run-through and Inga assured me it was great. We went over my floor work and she made me run through the routine again, making “Bugs Bunny porno faces.” It is impossible to mope and make stupid faces at the same time.
Then it was time for our second dress rehearsal. First up was Cleo, dressed as Maleficent and stripping to a love letter from Walt Disney. Her act had a classic feel to it and was sultry, funny and ended in tassel twirling. Then came Kat Trick, decked head-to-toe in Seahawks swag, attempting to get the attention of a man glued to the TV. Icy London played a ’50s housewife sick of cleaning. She had even bedazzled her broom. She went from Donna Reed to dominatrix.
Lana del Spray’s act took place in a kiddie pool, so we went outside. The burlesque studio shares a parking lot with a plumbing company, so one confused and embarrassed plumber caught the gaggle of us cheerleading Lana in various states of dress. Though it was freezing, Lana performed like a pro. Her act involved stripping out of rain gear. (Just a year ago she was engaged and living in a yurt on a pot farm. She gave all of that up to start a new life in a new city.)
She was supposed to end in a merkin and pasties with tassles, but I think the pasties came off in the kiddie pool. She kept twirling anyway.
We went back inside and Ivy Thorny played a naughty nurse resurrecting a dying patient with the power of her pussy. Then it was my turn.
Somehow, between contributions from four friends and several trips to thrift stores and fabric shops, I’d pieced together a workable costume. With my costume complete, steps and faces refined, I got through my routine — and it didn’t suck.
Muffy Thyme performed after me. She was a gender-bending rodeo cowboy/girl who stripped to the country version of “99 Problems and a Bitch Ain’t One,” while knife-throwing and dancing a two-step. The big finale was Perry Von Winkle, pizza stripper extraordinaire. Perry, a bank teller by day, pranced around light-footed in denim and red dance pumps with a pizza box before stripping to a pepperoni pizza leotard studded in rhinestones and trimmed with glittery cheesy fringe.
Maybe, just maybe, we were going to pull this off.
The day of the recital, even arriving four hours early, I felt rushed. I was up late the night before spray-painting my tailored prom skirt with blue and green glitter, and then sewing, pinning and tying it with green and gold ribbons. My fish tail was fluffed, my headdress was pinned and repined. Muffy tied me into my gold beaded butterfly bikini while Perry applied my fake lashes.
Somehow, even without having much time to get to know each other, we had become a community. When Lana handed me a brush and asked if I would glitter her butt, I didn’t hesitate. We zipped, tucked, snapped and strapped one another into our respective costumes, wolf whistled for each other during our dry runs, and kept each other in chocolate and bobby pins.
And then there I was, standing in the dark, listening to Indigo Blue introduce me. It was a reckoning, those final jittery moments. But in the midst of all that painting, sewing, music mapping, rehearsing and wrestling with my insecurities, I’d made a space in my life for whimsy and magic. And most importantly, I’d made a commitment to not be half-assed.
Spotlight on me, I shed my gloves, then touched my bare arms and shimmied from one side of the stage to the other. I turned around and began my skirt tease with a grin. When I dropped my skirt to reveal gold hot pants and my shiny rainbow fish tail, the audience erupted in laughter and applause. I tossed my skirt to the side, crawled center stage, struck a sexy pose, then belly-flopped and made fishy faces while I kicked my heels and swam.
I got up and darted back behind the screens of reeds for one last tease. I dangled my top on one finger before tossing it aside. Then I emerged with my worm boa, in my gold beaded butterfly breastplate, to strike my triumphant final pose. For one moment, I stood confidently in my own skin. The crowd went wild.
In that moment, as the audience cheered, I realized how much I needed this experience. I realized that I’d needed to heal the parts of me that had internalized what media, kids at school, former lovers and even my parents have said about my body. I realized that I could choose to love and approve of myself exactly as I am — at this weight, this height, this physical incarnation. I didn’t have to be
Cocoa to shower myself in glitter and ribbons and to feel sexy, strong and confident.
Burlesque may not have felt like a calling at first, but I’d been called — and despite all my hesitations, I’d answered. And I’d found a community of really cool people who held space for me to do what turned out to be some pretty deep personal work. Through the process of shedding my clothes, I opened myself up to shedding my fears, insecurities and self-imposed limitations.
I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but I take with me the pride of knowing I was brave enough to try.
Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, activist, international educator and award winning journalist. She’s been a regular contributor to the Seattle Globalist since 2013. Her self published works include two children’s books (Coco LaSwish: A Fish from a Different Rainbow and Coco LaSwish: When Rainbows Go Blue) and three collections of poetry (God, Hair, Love, and America, Love and Guatemala, and Summoning Unicorns). To find out more check her out at www.rejjarts.com.