In my early thirties I played Missy Marmalade, a shy, slightly awkward member of Harlem Shake Burlesque, the nation’s first all-Black burlesque troupe. Founded by my dear friend Teresa, aka Simone de la Getto, the troupe’s costumes alone made me beg her to join; and perhaps it was her sweet spot that said yes despite my apparent lack of sexiness. Try as I might, I was more “awkward cute” than sexy, but I did have a dance background, so learning choreography came relatively quickly. And over time, I managed to find my own brand of girl-next-door sexy to flirt with onstage.
After a few years of doing mostly local shows, a few in SoCal, and even one in Toronto, I decided to leave the troupe and go to grad school. I knew I would miss the laughter and love-filled rehearsals, costume reveals, mingling with the clowder of queers we usually shared the stage with, and of course our ride-or-die fans. I figured it was time for me to “get a real job”. And the irony that I got an MFA in Fashion Design and now work in public health is not lost on me. But, I was also ready for a new challenge. And a challenge is what I got.
Whoever says that art school is easy can take several seats. The people I attended art and design school with were some of the most creative, focused and determined people I’ve ever known. After graduating, I found the fashion industry in contrast with my vision of an economy that values human dignity, earth stewardship, and liberatory communities and thus only lasted about 2 years on the job. I remembered that even as performing artists we struggled to be paid well enough to make all our rehearsing, travel costs, costumes and more worth it. Even though HSB was a big audience draw for a lot of the shows we did, we were more often than not underpaid. Given our founder’s devotion to the craft of burlesque, and the way we stood out from many of the other acts, it was frustrating to see our work be devalued like this.
After about a year and a half in school, Teresa asked me to join her for two weeks in NYC as part of Margaret Cho’s off-Broadway run of the Sensuous Woman show. At first, I was afraid that I was too out of practice to be up to snuff. Soon I was too excited about the opportunity to say no. Especially since the company was covering airfare and lodging; and we were going to receive wages for each of the ten shows. I figured out how to take the time off of school and work, and then jumped into rehearsals to get my groove back.
When the plane hit the tarmac I was waking from a dull slumber. This was my first time in New York and I was SO excited to finally be in the city I dreamed about visiting since I was a child. I was also keenly aware that I was going to be starting work in a few short hours. At our afternoon call, I was to learn the choreography for the opening act, and then perform it THAT NIGHT! When T first voluntold me that I was going to do this, I remember a cold sweat forming behind my neck and my appetite dissipating. As a double-earth sign, flying already gives me the heebie-jeebies, so with this added morsel of angst I couldn’t get down more than a couple glasses of wine and a bag of peanuts for the entire flight.
After checking in to our hotel we headed to the theater. Since we were filling in for one of the regulars, I had to learn her part in the opening number and stand where she stood—which I soon learned was front and center for an important part of the number. I was terrified. I vacillated between giving myself imaginary pep talks and cursing Teresa to high heaven. But I knew she was right when she said, “You got this.” Even though that confidence was a few steps behind my fear, I was moving faster toward their union with each miraculous eight-bar remembering of movement I’d just effing learned! The opening that night was a generous two minutes long, but I was so proud of myself for learning each piece of spot tape, each step-ball-change, and every single physical or musical cue. I did something I genuinely didn’t think I could do. No really, I was sure I was going to bomb. But I did the damn thing, and then I did it nine more times over our two-week stint.
In hindsight I have come to understand that it wasn’t the choreography or the dance moves or any of the music that was my true challenge. I’d learned choreography quickly before. At this point I’d had many years of dance education, practice, performance, competition, and I had even choreographed before. Technically at least, there was no reason for me to doubt my ability to learn the short choreo and perform it that night. This experience allowed me to witness every sardonic thought that rolled through my ears. Then like a meditation in action, as each thought arose, my mind said, “Nope, no time for you. Next?” This retort on repeat was what my body needed to work its kinetic magic and focus on what was happening outside the noise. My limbs were learning first as my brain was tripping and trying to catch up. And even when I was sure the lights would go up, I would freeze, then crumble off the stage — Instead, I danced!
This experience helped me realize that doing hard things sometimes means jumping into the pit and taking a chance on yourself, rather than relying on the right circumstances. Sometimes it means a practice of holding space for the blazing discomfort of intense emotions to cough on your cornflakes (COVID has made so many things way worse), blow its nose, and then go back to sleep. For me that practice looks different nearly every day. One morning it’s a 30 minute sit; the next, a 20 minute run, followed by a 10 minute walk, or a sweaty yoga practice. An evening stroll while listening to an audiobook, an entire musical; or to a playlist of songs curated to elicit all the letting go (Thanks T, for this one). Whatever quiets your riot, just find it and make that freak your bitch. Or you know — your BFF.
I’ve done lots of hard things; lots of amazing things too. And it’s often inside the hot pot of self-annihilation where I misplace all of those victories. I am working on remembering all the ways I have won at life — it helps to write them down. When the gremlins come to roast, I find a way to let them have their shit show scenario fully vetted before asking them to take a beat. Keeping a reminder of the Greatestnegativeselftalkcomeback Of All Time in my photo library doesn’t hurt either.