The first time I accidentally saw a burlesque show

First Timers

Is it empowering or objectifying to be hired by the office of the mayor to dance naked before a crowd?

Six days ago, I accidentally saw a burlesque show on a public lawn in San Francisco with my roommate from Chicago and a sea of old men.

I wore chunky black earrings that my grandmother had in the ’80s and a long skirt, because jeans constrain my thigh wobble, and my ass likes to be free. What else does one wear to a jazz festival celebrating San Francisco City Hall’s centennial? What I didn’t know was that this was a jazz concert that came with a strip show. What I did know was that President Barack Obama was in the building for a mayor’s meeting. I wished I could have asked him how he felt about burlesque.

An elderly man stood in front of me. Mesmerized, I watched his old-school hand-held video camera, complete with a pop-out screen, zoom in on the performers’ boobs and gyrating bellies. The video camera was mounted on a tripod that he held up and level the whole time. This show was, like, half an hour long.

I looked around and locked eyes with a blonde man who had a trim, hipster beard and floral-patterned skinny pants. He was laughing hysterically at the old man, and when he saw my befuddled stare, he shrugged. In one long appreciative breath, he said, “Jesus, I hope I’m that cool when I’m 70.”

Floral Skinny Pants kept laughing, the camera kept rolling, and the old man continued filming. I wondered why the old man was filming. To him, it seemed that the seven female-presenting people and the one male-presenting person on stage were reduced to their anatomy. He could then replay their dances in the privacy of his own home, many times.

I tip-toed and looked at his camcorder’s pop-out screen. What I saw was a body that was separated from a head and yards of swirling silver fabric from the performer’s “fairy wings.”

And my smile drooped, because I knew that on the other end of the blinking record button was a whole person, whose complex brain with whole thoughts commanded her gyrating body.

My gaze jumped between the stage and the screen, but all I saw was a disconnection.

On the stage, the dancer looked extremely proud and happy. She seemed content and focused, feeding off the energy of the crowd. But the old man’s camera angle cut her off at the neck. In the small pop-out screen, all I saw were boobs and swirling fabrics. When her face was removed from the frame, the dancer lost the power she commanded while live on the stage. She dressed up and made a conscious choice to perform on that stage, in that particular moment. On the recording, however, she seemed like nothing more than flesh moving fabric.

On the surface, this show seemed body positive. The dancing bodies were decorated with cellulite and shiny pink scars laced with punk-rock tattoos. For a moment, it felt like a celebration of anti-Covergirl and of the folks who do not conform to conventional beauty. For a moment, I felt empowered.

The performers were older and relatable, and they were doing activities that were perceived as physically sexy while looking like my grandmother, my aunt and me.

It’s strange that we don’t think to ask for consent to record people’s bodies at live shows. In entertainment, this is the norm. In that moment, the dancer was performing as a character in a costume. She did not have control over where the footage of her body would ultimately end up.

Did the performers come to this job on their own accord? Were they free to leave? Did they get lunch breaks or health benefits? Could they go home to families?

I wondered how it felt to be naked with some strategically placed sparkly stickers in front of City Hall, where, during the workweek, women walk through double doors wearing blazers and pants with ironed creases.

And between the pin-up curls and corsets, I saw very few underrepresented minorities. I saw no trans folks and no one with a visible disability.

I felt very quiet in a small crowd of cisgender, heterosexual men — the typical audience at strip shows — who clapped their hands in unified appreciation.

The performers smiled and goofed around onstage. To the audience, they looked happy. Under a furrowed brow, I worried this was part of the act.

I linked arms with my roommates and walked away after the performers had taken their last bow.

I wish that burlesque shows took place in red-velvet theaters, on the left side of the Castro District, where queer folks could celebrate bodies and identities and fuck the patriarchy by bearing soft skin through strong, deliberate actions.

I wish that a full audience filled those velvet seats, sipping wine and having constructive conversations.

The environment in which we make statements with our bodies is extremely important. Because on a public lawn in front of City Hall, in a audience of unappreciative old men, this burlesque show didn’t feel quite right.

Jasmine Leiser writes the Thursday column on lessons learned from first-time experiences. You can contact her at [email protected].

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