Burlesque: On Desire and Holding Something Back -The Toast

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Heather Seggel’s past writing for The Toast can be found here, and it’s all really good.

On December 31, 1991, I was standing in the middle of the Castro district in San Francisco. Flanked by a group of friends, we had come to ring in the new and absorb a little pride by osmosis. At least that was part of my purpose. Most of my friends went to UC Santa Cruz; I attended the state college closest to home and in my spare time cribbed as much as I could from their syllabi, essentially stealing a progressive four-year education to staple onto the conservative money pit I’d invested two years in. I would graduate the following summer, a friend I adored had floated the idea of moving in with me, and beyond that point seemingly everything held potential. The fact that we were in the Castro just amplified that sensation.

I’ve always known I was gay, but when you keep to yourself most of the time it eventually ceases to matter, except if you’re watching TV and Kate Moennig appears (you know how ideas are portrayed by a light bulb appearing overhead? In this case the bulb just appears somewhere else, as a friendly reminder that you’re not dead yet.) Checking in with my culture seemed like a good move on the eve of such an auspicious new year, and the streets were full of beautiful revelers, all of us smiling, hooting, and hugging strangers. When the clock struck midnight, we were somehow positioned to hear three separate eruptions of “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” from the street, a bar, and a shop on the corner, each just a bit out of sync with the others, joy reverberating on joy.

A crowd was looking up at a window ledge as we gathered to plan the rest of the night. Someone in an apartment had moved two speakers to the window and was blasting Sky Saxon and The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard.”

A woman came out onto the ledge and began to dance. OK, to strip, really. On a window ledge. I’d never seen anything like this in my life, and could not have conceived that the first time I did it would be accompanied by such a supremely perfect soundtrack (I’ve been obsessed with mod culture forever and adore The Seeds.) And the woman was gorgeous, a gyrating cherub slipping off her shirt, her skirt, and then, and then, and then…

Well, then she took off her bra. Someone inside the apartment shook up a can of whipped cream and sprayed it on her chest and licked it off to clamorous whooping from us all, but the song wasn’t over, so they did it again. It seemed to take a long time: Spray, spray, spray. Lick, lick, lick. We continued to cheer and applaud, but something had ended that couldn’t really be scrolled back and re-experienced. It was awkward. We left a few minutes later.

The revival in burlesque performance that has taken place in recent years makes me wish I lived somewhere closer to it all because I’d like to know if new practitioners honor the elegant tradition of the tease. Do performers dress provocatively, in a way that calls attention to what’s not explicitly on display, or simply peel down to their origins? If we’re talking about nudity in general, and especially on screen, breasts are usually offered up in lieu of country matters and such, but why? The promise is so often greater than anything that could follow from the big reveal.

Maurice_Chevalier_1959Let me just take a moment to clarify two things: First, naked ladies are awesome,and I respect every permutation of body ownership, self-reclamation and agency over one’s birthright that they represent. You belong to you, you do you, you GO, girls, wherever and however you want. Second, I love breasts. If you were going out with me you would be annoyed by how much this is true. Like Maurice Chevalier on crank, seriously. As with money, I don’t need a lot in hand to feel wealthy. Nevertheless: Love them. But not as much as the golden moment before they appear, which nothing can improve upon.

That’s true in real life and popular culture both, and shouldn’t be surprising. After all, don’t lottery winners feel a sense of letdown after the thrill of hearing their numbers called? It’s the steps leading up to the drawing that make the blood quicken its pace: Selecting the numbers (she shrugs off her coat), coaxing your bill into the machine (her shirt is so soft), waiting for the ticket to print (the skin above her belt—oh, God), carrying it home with extra care (your palm flat against the small of her back), kneeling to pray (kneeling to pray), and…and then the reverie has reached its end. Not that any lady worth her salt can’t revere and be revered a few times more before sunrise, but there can never be a second first time to look forward to. If that time never comes, you are always looking forward. It’s a matter of faith.

When The L Word was first a thing, I didn’t have cable and enjoyed shrieking sour-grapes-ily about how awful it was without ever having seen it. I based much of this on the inclusion of Jennifer Beals in the cast, because I lacked the generosity of spirit to imagine her wearing anything other than a sweatshirt with a strategically-ripped neckline, to say nothing of kissing girls. When I learned the aforementioned Ms. Moennig was in the cast, I quietly withdrew my objections but still made no effort to watch the show. Two years ago it finally happened, and of course there was Shane in all her glory, but I was magnetically drawn to Bette Porter, could focus on nothing else when she was in a scene.

tumblr_kzvjdo5vdz1qacy1co1_400I loved Bette for her dry humor, her heedless emotional crashiness and those hideous toppy power suits, but it also occurred to me as the show slogged ever onward that I was watching her more closely than any other character because she was the least exposed at any given time. I paid more attention to her facial expressions; her pleasure registered more acutely, as did her anger and anguish, so I empathized with her more. Even when she was completely in the wrong, as was frequently the case, I tended to take her side. Also, she coincidentally looked like Jennifer Beals, so gazing at her face for long periods of time was by no means a chore (is it just me, or does she really appear to be aging in reverse?)

I cared about the other ladies, too. There were real tears when Dana died, some snarky laughter when Jenny met her fate, and in many ways Tina’s story was the journey that gave the show its emotional center, but it wasn’t the same. With Bette there was still more to know, so every crumb of new information was something to attack and dissect. The rest of the time, the show relied on too many scenes where someone taking off her shirt was used as a sexual shortcut that simply steered the scene directly into a brick wall for me.

I got my start as a writer reviewing X-rated books, movies, and toys. There was no pay, but it was educational in a “how can you describe the same exact thing fifty different ways” kind of way, and provided a lot of opportunities to learn what I liked and couldn’t stand. I liked most of it well enough (even the penis-shaped chewable Vitamin C), but books were much easier to deal with than movies. Written erotica can lead me to arousal just by talking dirty; I don’t need the words to form an orderly narrative. Incoherent filth can be as deliciously hot as the most stylized prose. But in visual media, something changes. Less is definitely more. It’s not a matter of needing a story to become involved with so much as the preservation of suspense. Naked means things are almost over; anything else means naked could happen at any time.

Much of burlesque performance is predicated on what’s implied but not shown. A joke that plants a smutty punchline in your mind without saying it aloud gives you a double thrill: the belly laugh is a reward for grasping the wordplay or implication (Nobody would laugh as hard at a song describing a baby falling into a bucket of shit as they do when it’s turned into “SHA-ving cream”). There’s also the anarchic playfulness of tearing down the dignified and puffing up the small and inconsequential; it’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world that can be a turn-on, a laugh riot and a political statement all at once. The magnetics of attraction and revulsion or shock turn the engine and if the show is well done we respond on cue.

220px-MichelleLAmourFanDance2533Just as the humor in burlesque is double-edged, the fan dance and the bubble dance offer up skin that directs your attention precisely toward what you’re not allowed to see, creating a vortex of desire. What’s behind that sheer fabric in reality is a human body that, no matter how well cared for or ideally proportioned, will not be the object of every fantasy it’s proximal to. It can’t be. We’re all different. And while it might be a short-term thrill to see someone completely exposed, it paints the experience into a corner. Once the seven veils have come down, what is there to do but go home and rub one out? The dance is done. Leave one veil strategically draped to obscure our view, though, and we leave knowing you’re both perfect and more perfect than we ever could have imagined. The fantasy stays alive, at least for me.

We left the Castro that night still jubilant and facing a new year in which anything was possible. There was no drunken Auld Lang Syne-ing while draped over someone’s shoulders; we were all looking forward to the unknown, as only the untested truly can. I remember light hitting confetti, jumping at the snap of firecrackers, and how in love I was with everyone around me. And I remember the audacity of that stranger on the ledge, the warm hiss of a vinyl LP–”All I want is to just have fun, to live my life like it’s just begun”–and dim the lights as she pulls her white T-shirt overhead. Because that was enough, was everything at once to me.

Heather Seggel is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bitch, UTNE, at Elle.com, SpiritualityandHealth.com, and she blogs with good intentions but no frequency at donkeywork.wordpress.com.

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