More than once in my life, I’ve suggested that people handle a situation based on the way that I would handle it. I think that’s a human reflex, to make suggestions based on our own lived experiences. I often preach the platinum rule: treat others the way THEY wish to be treated. Flipping that same mindset, it’s important to consider the lived experience of others when they are faced with challenges that we might handle differently. I want to share two brief stories of how I’ve experienced sexual harassment backstage and how I’ve handled them. Stay with me, there’s a point to this. Please note that if reading such stories could potentially upset you, this is a warning.
1.) After leaving the stage, I was winded and disoriented. I removed my merkin and was bent over my suitcase, frantically searching for my “regular draws” so that I wouldn’t be just butt ass naked backstage. As I was naked and bent over, the intoxicated producer appeared inches close behind me. She began to laugh and gesture for others to look in my direction and she asked “What are you doing?” I explained that I was looking for my draws and I asked why she was standing so close over me. She kept laughing. I grabbed my things and made a loud proclamation about “GOING TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM!” I tried to be loud because it didn’t seem like anyone was going to step in and help. I was pissed! I knew that I’d never work with this person again. The next day, I sent her a message. I explained in clear terms that what she did was wrong and made me uncomfortable around her. It was sexual harassment (she never touched me). She apologized, made it clear that she understood why her behavior was wrong, and I felt the matter was settled.
2.) I teach a workshop on burlesque stage confidence and the whole idea behind my curriculum is to connect with our physiological response to external stimuli so that we can understand how to name those reactions and still be our best on stage. During one of the exercises, we cover how to name our physical response to being touched (with consent). I’ve received non-consensual touch backstage before performing. It’s not a good feeling. At a different show, the stage manager was too friendly with his hands. He gave uninvited touches to my elbows and shoulders. My immediate thought was, “This is what that feels like, gross!” I began to notice that my backstage warmup dancing was thrown way off. Like, I lost my rhythm and was genuinely bothered. So, before I made my way to the stage I checked in with my body. I shook off the feeling of being touched without consent. Then I went to that stage manager and told him, “Don’t ever touch me!” He didn’t come near me for the rest of the show and I felt the matter was settled.
I handled both of those situations because of how my lived experience has shaped me. Growing up as a Black man in Detroit, being direct has always been the only option for me. Not everyone was raised that way. Existing in a cisgender heterosexual masculine-presenting body allows me a great deal of privilege in this patriarchal society. There are times when those specific privileges tend to be a blindspot for me.
I’m grateful to my actual friends who are willing to have tough conversations with me and point out those blind spots. I recognize how much emotional labor it takes to have tough conversations. So, to all who have taken on that emotional labor to speak with (instead of post about) me, I see you and appreciate you.
Not everyone has those same CisHet male privileges to lean on when it comes time to address a point of concern. Many people may feel powerless in a situation and reluctant to approach what could turn into a shouting match or worse. Come to think of it, how many times have I avoided telling the Bro in the gym to stop dropping his weights because I knew it would turn into an argument? (I’ve avoided that plenty of times.) I haven’t read every response posted after I wrote this post. From what I have read, I’ve learned a few things about how I’m perceived by others.
I fucked up in 2015, no two ways about it. I want to address those to whom I’ve not been able to apologize. Any sexual act that is witnessed by another without their consent to witness said act is a form of sexual harassment. This is especially true since it happened in the workplace. The sexual act that my lover and I shared backstage that was visible to the entire cast and crew was just wrong. While we had engaged in a sober consent talk before hand, I never stopped to think about those bearing witness. One cast member I spoke with told me they were the person who mentioned my actions to the producer. They mentioned that they chose that route because they knew this particular producer would handle it directly (and they did, we spoke about it and I apologized). They also made the great point that they weren’t going to come to me about that sort of thing because that would be akin to them telling me what to (or not to) do backstage. With that being said, it makes sense that no other cast/crew member from that night in 2015 has approached me. The part of the story I left out was that when we came out of the bathroom, no one was around. So, it never crossed my mind to seek out specific people and apologize to them. That doesn’t matter today. What does matter is that my actions backstage that night caused harm, the extent of which I may never know. So, if you were backstage that evening and my actions caused you any harm or offense. I apologize. If you give me a chance, I’ll apologize to you with eye contact. I’m not writing this in hopes of forgiveness. I’m not writing this because I feel “owed” your time and energy so that I may apologize. (No one owes me anything, I’m just asking.) I just want it to be known that I’m aware that I caused harm that night. I also want it to be known that I’ve made efforts to do better since then. I’ve attended workshops on how these sort of actions can affect people. I’ve taught workshops on consent, specific to sexually charged spaces (e.g. play parties). I’ve lead caucuses on what it means to be masculine in the world of burlesque where the agenda focused on the role of men in dismantling rape culture. I’m not sharing all of this with you to claim that “I’m a nice guy.” Being “nice” is just the bare minimum of being a human being. I’m sharing this to highlight that I’ve learned and grown since 2015. I’m aware that many affected by that night may feel these words are too little, too late. That’s fair. Your feelings are valid. I’m here to listen if you’d like to address the matter further. If that’s not something that works for you, I do hope that you’ll be open to working with me in the future so that you can meet the man I’ve become.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do to make a second first impression. I’ve missed that opportunity. I’m ever evolving and making efforts to be a better person. Here’s what I’m doing to create a gentle entry point for future conversations. Some of you may be familiar with an Accountability Pod [AP]. For those who aren’t, here’s a breakdown. The short version is that a group of 2-3 people would hold me accountable for any ways that I’ve harmed others. Having an AP would mean that anyone who wished to address a grievance would have a way to do so anonymously. Circling back to my blind spot, I often fail to understand why anyone would fear approaching me. That’s my CisHet blind spot, my privilege speaking. I keep thinking about how I know that there is no reason to fear me. I keep thinking about how I know there is no reason to fear retaliation for speaking your truth to me (not at me). Sure, I know that. However, others don’t/can’t know that because they are driven by their own lived experience. To put it another way, your experience with the last three CisHet men you’ve met might keep you from approaching me. I understand.
Let’s look at that stage manager situation that I experienced through the lens of anyone else. Would others handle it the same, in the moment? Would others say, “Don’t ever touch me!” Maybe not. Some may brush it off as not a big deal and then realize they never stopped thinking of it, years later. What’s to be done about it then, are the feelings any less valid because time has passed? No. How can people move forward if some people don’t want conflict resolution? I don’t have that answer. I have learned that some people don’t want to resolve conflict. Those feelings are also valid. Everyone is coming from a different lived experience.
What happens meow? While an AP is not something that can be built overnight, I would like to open the door for conversation that is not anonymous. How does one resolve a conflict without conversation? I don’t have that answer either. I want to open the door to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable around me. Have I said something inappropriate? Have I done something in poor taste in front of you? Has my mere presence, in a vulnerable space (backstage), caused you to feel uneasy in any way? Do you turn and go the other way when you see me at a show? Have you ever thought to yourself that you would never work with me? If so, I’m inviting you to reach out to me. I’ve deactivated my FB account because no one was talking to me, only posting about me. Many of the people commenting didn’t know me or the circumstances. So, let’s leave the entirety of social media out of this and have a conversation. That is of course, if that’s how YOU want to be treated in this moment. If the conversation or resolution is something that you want or need from me, I’m here to listen. I want to be clear that I am here to listen. I’m not here to argue with you, I’m here to listen. I just want to listen so that I can do better.
I’ve been involved in burlesque since March 19, 2010. I’ve been a stage hand, backdoor bouncer, stage manager, performer (solo & group), MC, coach, and producer. Anyone who has done the math knows that the ROI is low in burlesque. The same people who have done that math also know that we don’t care about the money (that much). Sure, we want to see a financial return when we pursue ambitious things like producing a show in a strange city. However, I’m often happy to perform a local gig for a payout that is < the cost of my costume. Why? I love the ability to create art from start to finish without anyone standing over my shoulders telling me how to express myself. I think that’s why a lot of people love the burlesque scene, the autonomy to create one’s own vision without governance. I’ve asked burlesquers if they feel there should be a governing body in the world of burlesque. No matter how I ask that question, the answer is always a clear NO! As artists, we wish to keep that creative autonomy. I agree with that. However, whether we want to or not, producers end up being the governors of our shows. This tends to manifest as performer A coming to a producer and stating that they take issue with performer B. The producer is then left with choices as to how they’ll handle said issue. The list of potential responses can be as long as the issue is complex. There’s no hard/fast set of rules in such a case. I’m using the expression “take issue” because I’m not talking about crimes. I’m not talking about sexual assault. I’m just talking about ruffled feathers. More than once, a performer has approached a producer about firing a crew member because that performer and that crew member had a Facebook disagreement. Yep, a goddamned Facebook fight. If they can’t figure out basic conflict resolution, it’s not the place of the producer(s) to act as an older sibling on the playground of social media. As a producer, it’s not on me to resolve your conflict. However, if you’ve made an attempt at conflict resolution and I can speak above board with full disclosure about why performer A doesn’t wish to involve themselves with performer B then I’m happy to land on a decision (even if it must be punitive). Whatever decision I make as a producer will involve open honest communication with all parties involved. Even when the issue is more significant than just a disagreement between performers.
Humans all fuck up from time to time. I’ve certainly made mistakes when interacting with other performers. However, I always own my shit. I will forever be grateful to [redacted] who initiated a clearing conversation with me after we had a bad miscommunication. There’s no need to retell the story. But, as 2019 began, they had made a resolution to resolve past conflict. They came to me with the details of what had been bothering them and how I’d fucked up. We had a sit down via Facetime and I listened. By the time they were done, I was overwhelmed because I had no clue that our interaction had hurt them so much. I apologized. I made it clear that I understood why I was apologizing (instead of just seeking forgiveness). I spoke to how I would do better going forward. We mended our relationship and that may never have happened were it not for them initiating the conversation. I can only own my shit if I know what shit is to be owned.
I’ve practiced anger management since 1999 when I made a conscious decision to let go of anger and do better. I use the word practice because I still fuck up at times and the only way for me to do better beyond that fuck up is to own my shit. However, I can’t respond to a punitive reaction to an unexplained offense. Like, I can’t apologize if I don’t know what I did. Imagine getting fired* from a gig you’d been discussing for a year and then being denied an explanation of what you actually did.
Before I invite you to read on, I want to address the phenomena of an offender “not knowing” what they did or how they violated. I’ve heard stories of people in the burlesque scene being cancelled and, let them tell it, they had no idea what they’d done. As details unfolded it became clear that you can’t NOT know that being naked when models arrive at your studio for a photoshoot is a violation. Come on, Bruh! As details (of another case) unfolded it became clear that you can’t NOT know that pinning someone against a wall, kissing them, and reaching down their pants (all without consent) ON MULTIPLE OCCASIONS was a violation. Come on, Bruh! So, it’s easy to call bullshit when some offenders claim they have no idea what an accusation is about. Sometimes, encounters aren’t that flagrant and one person may not realize they’ve created an uncomfortable space for another person. (Much like the aforementioned clearing conversation.) Sometimes we don’t know when we’ve harmed others, when that happens we need conversations, not cancellations.
The following exchange is a big part of why I quit burlesque.
On Aug 18, 2019, at 16:28, HBF wrote:
As planning has accelerated for the Humboldt Burlesque Festival for 2019, we have been discussing lineup options. At this point, we are moving in a different direction than originally thought. We appreciate your willingness to participate but will no longer need your attendance at this year’s festival, as a performer or a judge. Thank you for your consideration.
Humboldt Burlesque Festival Board
On Mon, Aug 19, 2019, 5:34 Jet Noir wrote:
While I appreciate this advanced communication, I am curious as to why there’s been a shift. Basically, I’m asking if there was something that I did/didn’t do.
Was it my porn?
Was it something I posted on social media?
Was it just me?
I get it, it may just be (as you stated) that the board decided to go in another direction. I just want to make sure that I haven’t inadvertently upset anyone. We all work in the same circles and may end up sharing a backstage. So, I just want to make sure no one’s upset with me. Please advise.
On Aug 19, 2019, at 12:54, HBF wrote:
Thank you for reaching out. It was brought to our attention that there was an incident backstage at another venue involving you and another performer. That other performer then did not apply to our festival to avoid another interaction with you.
HBF strives to create a safe, inclusive space for our performers and we respond to issues that could jeopardize that safe environment. We determined that the best course of action in this situation was to select a different guest judge and go without a second headliner.
Thank you for your time,
On Mon, Aug 19, 2019, 3:06 PM Jet Noir wrote:
Thank you so much for getting back to me. This creates a difficult situation. As a producer, I strive to create safer environments backstage. My immediate thought is that I get it. I’d do the same thing if I was producing this festival.
However, this doesn’t really feel like a conversation. It just kinda feels like belief without vetting or due process. I’m aware that due process may not be a requirement for how the board makes decisions. No one owes me an explanation, I get that.
I assume this person wishes to remain anonymous, please let them know that I’d be open to a mediated conversation. I would be willing to pay for that mediator. I’m not looking to explain anything, I’m just trying to listen. I, legit, have no idea what happened, when it happened, or who feels this way about me. I want to be clear that I’m open to reaching a resolution instead of just being “cancelled” (which is what this feels like.)
I hope someone will give me a chance to listen to them. I just want to know what I did. Not looking to get re-cast or anything. Just trying to understand what’s being said about me.
On Mon, Aug 19, 2019, 8:12 PM HBF wrote:
Hi, Jet –
We understand that this seems like a harsh decision. We chose not to go through a vetting or due process for multiple reasons:
1. This was brought to our attention through a private communication with a Board member from the performer in question. We are not requiring that performer go through a specific process to make their concerns heard.
2. Our decision was centered mainly after the realization this performer would be uncomfortable. There does not need to be a jury determination for a person to feel uncomfortable around another person. It was enough for us that there would be negative emotions surrounding our festival if all parties were participating.
3. We felt that by privately communicating with you and severing the connection this year quietly, it was the best solution for all parties. Our intention was not to “cancel” you. We are not saying we never want you to attend HBF again. It is simply not the best direction for this year’s festival and we hope you understand that.
We will communicate your willingness to mediate with the other performer. We feel that is the extent to which our participation would be appropriate.
We appreciate your feedback,
Humboldt Burlesque Festival Board
Before I go any further, I want to address the aforementioned anonymous performer. On some level it brings me sadness you felt enough discomfort to not even attempt direct conflict resolution with me. (I’m saying that you made no attempt because I genuinely have no idea who you are or what this “incident” may be, like I can’t think of any backstage happening in ten years that hasn’t been resolved.) On some level this brings me anger because it feels like you just “went to management” and got me fired* (what did you think was going to happen) instead of even reaching out to me for a clearing conversation. I’m willing and eager to listen so that I can grow. I want to grow and do better. But, I have to know how I fucked up before I grow. None of that matters at this point. Peace and blessings to you. I hope that you’ll give me that chance to sit and listen to you at some point.
I’m frustrated with the HBF’s handling of the situation. This post is not intended to “call them out” because I expect no answer from them. As noted in our email exchange from above, it’s clear they’ve done all they’re going to do and telling me what I actually did isn’t on their list of priorities. No, this is not a call out. There are two points to this post.
1.) I want to share the effect this has had on my mental health and what this experience has done to my trust issues.
2.) I hope that no other producer handles any similar situation with disregard to what it creates for ALL parties involved. Don’t send anybody else through this madness of knowing they’ve been accused but not knowing what for.
I’m an educator and organizer in a few different sex positive communities. In those communities, we practice restorative justice. There’s that word again, practice. We don’t always get it right. But, one way that we try is by trying to get out in front of potential fuck ups. On the application to be a speaker for ConvergeCon, the following is noted.
“As conference producers, we must take any allegations of misconduct by our speakers seriously. If you were selected to be a presenter at Converge, and someone came forward with information about a consent violation they had experienced, do you have any procedures in place to address it? This could look like an accountability pod, a way for people to contact you directly or anonymously, or some other measures you have taken. For a really great example of this, feel free to check out the website of one of our previous speakers, Victor Salmon: https://goo.gl/pHtwTF”
Take a look at my friend Victor’s website. I love all of that so much because it gives us a chance to own our shit and be held accountable to do better in the future. To inflict a punitive response (firing* me) without even explaining the misstep/offense doesn’t help me (or anyone) to do better.
*-Full disclosure, we had no contract written or verbal that noted I’d been hired as one of their 2019 headliners. Therefore, they did not fire me and they were not in breach of contract. However, casual conversations had been happening between me and a board member since November 2018 specific to me being a headliner for 2019. When I use the word fired it’s just short hand, not literal.
I’m a part of another sex positive group and the following is a requirement for being involved in that community. “In a community this large, it is inevitable that conflicts, misunderstandings, or hurt feelings happen. [Sex Positive Community] emphasizes and provides community support for clearing conversations and resolutions to enable us to continue to share space and participate in community despite tensions. In the event that tensions or conflicts arise, we provide both [support] at events and a [team for peer resolution] to assist you.”
^This. This is what I want to be common in burlesque. Humans will rub each other the wrong way. We need to acknowledge that and make room for conversation, not conflict avoidance.
I have no idea what I did, therefore I could end up doing it again. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine how many times similar situations have been handled in this “quiet” manner and how many people went on to fuck up again and again. Now, before anyone in burlesque reading this starts to shake their heads about “not my job” then whose job is it? Whose job is it to hold someone accountable for their actions, in a community? It’s the community’s job. If we’re going to call this a burlesque community, then we must uplift each other. Hold me accountable, help me do better. Encourage people to solve their own conflicts with eye contact and conversation more so than typing at each other in comment boxes or going to management.
The greater challenge for me has been the not knowing what’s being said. So, I’ve scanned my brain for every fuck up since 2010 that could cause anyone to feel uncomfortable around me. All I had to go on were the key words incident, backstage, and venue. If I was unaware when the incident happened, that could mean every time I’ve been backstage at a burlesque show in ten years. In that time, I’ve come up with once that I’ve upset someone. So, this is me owning my shit and airing out my laundry. I had sex backstage once. Our play (kissing & rubbing) began in plain sight and then we disappeared into the restroom for other activities that require clothing removal. After that show, the producer reached out to me and we had a clearing conversation. They mentioned what I did, because someone else brought it to their attention, and I knew that I had fucked up. I understood why, we didn’t have the consent of our onlookers before our play began. They didn’t sign up to see that and I could understand how that would be upsetting to someone. I apologized to the producer, made it clear that I understood how I fucked up, and made efforts to do better. So, maybe that was the “incident” that got me fired* in 2019, the thing that happened in 2015 that I thought had been resolved? Maybe that was it, but I don’t fucking know! And that’s why I began to go a little crazy.
The email exchange left me shook because it pulls the thread on one of my greatest fears. As a Black man in America, one of my top three fears is being wrongfully convicted or falsely accused. Google Carolyn Bryant Donham if you don’t immediately understand why that’s a fear of mine. Read the novel “If He Hollers Let Him Go” by Chester Himes if you don’t immediately understand why that’s a fear of mine. Watch this performance where I try to explain why that’s a fear of mine.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the accusation of some “incident backstage” is false. I can’t say that because I have no idea what happened. (If it seems like I’ve mentioned that 10 times it’s because that’s the big issue here, I don’t fucking know. I’ll mention this 10 more times before the post concludes.)
The not knowing sent me down a spiral of fear where I began to question what was being said, maybe it was false, was it going to get me killed because someone hearing their story decided to WhiteKnight the situation and come do me harm, I didn’t know. I began to lose sleep. I began to stare at walls in deep contemplation of my own fate. I began to go on walks for miles just to assuage my fears around potential harm that could come my way due to this mysterious allegation. I began to fear any unfamiliar face in a backstage/burlesque environment. Was it them? Did I upset that person who I don’t even remember meeting? I even went down the, surprisingly frequent, path of mistaken identity. As in, I’ll get a friend request from someone who swears we had a whole ass conversation in Kansas that one time. (I’ve never been to Kansas, not even on a layover.) Any Black burlesque performer will tell you that we often get mistaken for one another. So, yeah, I even questioned if that was the deal in this case. (Before you laugh at that, keep in mind that I’ve had people yell at me IRL because I didn’t accept their friend request. My reason for not accepting was that I didn’t know them and they got mad because THEY knew ME and not the other way round. Let that sink in.)
The nagging question I had was if anyone on the HBF board stopped to ask, on my behalf, “Hey! Did you attempt to resolve this incident with Jet after it happened and before you came to us?” Did anyone ask that? About a year back, a performer was getting dragged in a private FB group. I asked if anyone had talked to them about their transgression. No one had. I sent them a text, jumped on a call, and in 15 minutes they were made aware and they made the effort to make it right. None of that would have happened were it not for SOMEONE asking, “Hey! Did anyone talk to the source of all this?”
I want to circle back to the email exchange and address some text.
“We appreciate your willingness to participate but will no longer need your attendance at this year’s festival, as a performer or a judge.”
Note the use of the words participate and attendance. This makes the letter look like they’ve uninvited me when it was supposed to be a paid gig. They fired* me from a paid headlining spot in a festival. I’m not trying to go after them for money or anything. I was just annoyed at how laissez-faire they were about firing* me. A headliner gig ain’t easy to come by and I’ve worked for years to land such gigs.
“Thank you for reaching out. It was brought to our attention that there was an incident backstage at another venue involving you and another performer. That other performer then did not apply to our festival to avoid another interaction with you. HBF strives to create a safe, inclusive space for our performers and we respond to issues that could jeopardize that safe environment.”
Firing* your headliner on behalf of one potential applicant doesn’t feel like creating an inclusive space for your performers. It sounds like getting rid of a bad PR situation. Call it what it is.
“No one owes me an explanation, I get that.”
I want to address the word owe in case anyone reading this feels that I feel owed an explanation. Don’t nobody owe me shit. I just think it would be kind to tell people why you’re firing* them. Again, not owed, just kind.
“I’m not looking to explain anything, I’m just trying to listen. I, legit, have no idea what happened, when it happened, or who feels this way about me.I just want to know what I did.Just trying to understand what’s being said about me.”
I did not think this was an unreasonable request. I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t going to try to “well, actually” my way out of it. I was not seeking “proof” or any bullshit like that. I just wanted to listen.
“We are not requiring that performer go through a specific process to make their concerns heard.”
Not what I was asking. I just wanted to hear what was being said about me.
“Our decision was centered mainly after the realization this performer would be uncomfortable.There does not need to be a jury determination for a person to feel uncomfortable around another person.”
Circling back to my “I Am Not A Threat” performance, uncomfortable could come from many places. I’ve been described as intense and intimidating my whole life and it’s usually by people who never made an effort to talk to me. There’s prolly 20 people who are uncomfortable around me and I’ve never even met them. Also, my reference to due process wasn’t literal. I wasn’t suggesting a jury.
“We felt that by privately communicating with you and severing the connection this year quietly, it was the best solution for all parties.”
Bullshit. This was a PR move. Fuck your quiet. Fuck sweeping this under the rug. Fuck your “best solution for all parties”. When I was pacing around my apartment and crying at all of the fear this brought up for me, it didn’t feel like any sort of “best solution for all parties”.
I can’t begin to describe to you the spiral of fear that began when I was fired*. I don’t need to share every dismal thought here, just know that it had me all the way fucked up. Check on the strong Black men in your life, we carry loads heavier than most of y’all realize. August 21st was my 42nd birthday and I was dealing with some challenges. I had just lost a lot of money on my passion project burlesque show, The Black Manifest. I had just found out my position at work had been eliminated a few weeks prior. Then came this mysterious allegation. I decided to quit burlesque.
When I told a few colleagues, the responses were mixed. Some people gasped. Some seemed indifferent. Some people said some variation of, “Shit, I don’t blame you!” Most of them asked how they could support me. I told them that I planned on writing this post and I gave them all the same request. I wanted them to avoid respectability politics. People shouldn’t have to find me respectable in order to provide me with open honest communication.
Don’t be out there telling people, “Jet’s always been nice to me! He’s so respectful backstage.” Nah, don’t tell them that. I don’t need you to convince people that I’m nice. Instead, when you see anyone typing about me, ask them if they’ve actually talked to me. “Did anyone talk to Jet about this?” Because being conflict avoidant has caused harm to someone else’s mental health.
After witnessing enough debates on similar subjects in the burlesque scene over the years, I know that if one festival will do this then every show has the potential to do it. Yeah, no thank you. I don’t wish to endure this fear/stress cocktail ever again. I decided that my last day in burlesque will be March 19, 2020, my 10 year burlesqui-versary.
Eleven days later…
…August 30th, 2019 happened. The progressive rock band TOOL released their first album of new material in 13 years, Fear Inoculum! At the time of this writing, I’ve listened to the entire album no less than 35 times. Listening to that album reminded me of unfinished or as yet unpursued burlesque ambitions. I started dancing again. I mean dancing through the aisles at the grocery store dancing. I began creating new choreography again. I mean “I’ll never be able to afford this elaborate group number in my head” choreography. I began my work/trade program with Shawl Anderson Dance Center (SADC). Then I began to consider how I’ve changed since 2010, both as a person and as a performer. For many years, I was afraid to call myself a dancer. Sure, I danced. But, I never felt like I was the “doing 8 hours of rehearsal for the big show” type dancer. I always felt more like the “pretty poses on beat” type dancer. It wasn’t until I fell in love with Jazz dance that I began a different kind of movement training. SADC feels like church to me these days! The dance sessions we have in the Sunday class fill my cup. My cup gets filled up with all of the beauty of expression that we share as a form of communication. If I’m cleaning a dance studio, dancing with a mop to Fear Inoculum on my AirPods, then my cup gets filled with the energy of all dancers who were there before me. If I’m dancing at the lake as my means of rehearsing in a large space, my cup is filled up by the potential I imagine for each act I’m creating. With that creative life breathed back into me, I started to ask myself some questions.
Questions I Asked In The Mirror
Why are you a burlesque performer? I need young Black men to see that it’s okay to get on stage and be a fucking weirdo wearing a Gumby costume. I need other Black men who fear self-expression because of the threat of toxic masculinity to see my CisHet ass out here wearing eyeliner and getting mani/pedis. I do this for every Black boy who was afraid to wear heels because he was already getting his ass kicked in the schoolyard. This is why I produced a show celebrating the full spectrum of Black masculinity. I need the world to see our range instead of only seeing what the media shows us. I need the world to know that we’re not a threat. So, I’ve made it a practice to get on those stages where there would otherwise be no representation of anyone like me. I’ll be a token if it keeps us from being erased.
Yeah, but what if you couldn’t? How bad would you want burlesque if someone/thing were actively blocking you from doing it? I would fight against and move forward. I use the hashtag #GetUp because that’s the only option if you get knocked down. The only fucking option is to get up.
So, yeah. I’m still here. Now that this post has stirred up some shit and highlighted practices that some wanted to handle quietly I’m sure I’ll deal with the fallout from this. Fuck it. What’s a career without a little controversy, right?
~More often than not, people want to do better. You have to allow the space for them to do that by (at the very least) telling them WTF they did.
~Encourage people to resolve their own “uncomfortableness” because #adulting .
~Before you consider a decision that is best for “all parties involved” make sure you’ve considered how your actions could potentially harm any one of the parties involved.
~I quit burlesque because mysterious allegations can get my Black ass killed. Anyone who thinks that’s an over reaction can take a seat and read several history books.
~Then, after about two weeks, I didn’t quit burlesque. Ten years in and I’m just getting started! I want to bring the practices of communities into the burlesque scene. I’ll keep on teaching the workshops on consent. I’ll continue leading discussions on being appropriate backstage. I’ll always be open to clearing conversations when they’re presented.
My motive for writing this was to discourage this sort of incomplete communication in the future. I wrote this to encourage a community to take care of each other, even when we fuck up. Don’t sweep transgressions under the rug. Resolve your own conflicts, bring a professional fighter with you if you’re afraid to talk to someone. Don’t tell people something was said about them without telling them WTF was said! If the result of this is that no future performer has to go through the madness of not knowing what’s being said about them (while knowing something is being said), then I’ll be grateful for that much.
This is a post for anyone who watches a burlesque performances and thinks, “I can do that!” Well, it’s not as simple as just shaking a pelvis in the general direction of strangers. Besides, have you ever watched someone finish a Marathon and just flippantly claim, “I can do that!” Well, Burlesque and endurance events have more similarities than many might think.
I dance, therefore, I am an athlete. I am an athlete, yet I also dance. Whether I’m training for an event or rehearsing for a show, there are some similarities between the two worlds.
The Costume Is More Important Than You Think
On stage, your costume will help tell the story of your performance piece just as much as, in some cases more than, your choreography. You’ll spend time, money, and creative energy making sure that it fits right, looks great, and tells the story you want. As a burlesque performer, part of the fit is making sure that it comes off at just the right time and in just the right way. You don’t want to ruin the tease with a surprise reveal!
On the field, your costume will show your allegiance with its flags or color scheme. There will also be messages of love and support to/from your crew. Maybe a patch sewn in to remind you that you’re hoping to win this competition for a loved one who passed away or an injured teammate. You’ll spend time, money, and creative energy making sure that it fits right and keeps you warm/cool/dry when you need it most.
The Audience Is Your Fuel
On stage, making eye contact and flirting with the audience as you tease them into a frenzy is crucial to a burlesque performance. The louder they scream, the stronger your adrenaline will pump.
On the field, not every sport has an audience. As a distance runner, you’ll find yourself on mile 10 with no voice other than the one in your head or the voices in your headphones. But, even as a runner, hearing people cheer you on as you near the finish line will help you to sprint when you thought there was nothing left in the tank. If you’re the partner of someone who is an athlete, supporting them as their biggest cheerleader means more than you can ever know.
Rehearsing & Training
For the stage, even if it’s not a scheduled rehearsal time, you’ll find yourself listening to the music for your act in the car, on the train, at home, and anywhere there are speakers. You go over the steps and the reveal in your head only to constantly tweak and adjust the performance up until the moment you set foot on the stage.
Training for the field could mean weights, cardio, massages, nutrition, the list goes on. Your life has been consumed by this event for which you’ve committed. Even when you sit still, you salivate at the thought of crossing the start line.
Prep Time vs. Event Time
Prep time for a stage performance could take weeks or months. There’s costuming, choreography, and nerves to manage. Once the song begins on night of show, it’s all over in six minutes or less.
Prep time for an athletic event could take six-nine months of training. Once the start has been signaled, it will all be over in a few hours.
Food On Event Day
When taking the stage, no one wants to dance with that full feeling. I normally eat something light before a performance and have food backstage for afterwards. Some people have trouble eating the entire day before performing due to nerves.
When prepping for race/competition day, no one wants to compete in an athletic event with that grumbling belly feeling. But, you never want the wrong thing in your belly either. I once made the mistake of eating pasta for breakfast before a 10 mile run. I’ll spare you the gory details. I’ll just say, “never again.”
On stage, thanks to adrenaline, I never feel tired during a performance. When I come off stage, I can barely speak. Sometimes I’m breathless, sometimes I’m shaking, and sometimes I’m crying.
Off the field, after the event. I’ve cried after crossing some finish lines. Shaking, breathless, tears of joy as I silently celebrate my accomplishment.
I’m in the Dominican Republic. This is a repost from February 2013 (with a few edits).
My double life finds me working as a Burlesque performer by night and a Fitness Coach by day. With such a full schedule, why do I sit down and write 500+ words a week? I do it because I hope that one of you will connect with my message. When I was in high school, I was the #blerd that read the broadcast announcements on the PA. At the end of each day’s announcements, I’d say some positive reminder to generate a smile or a sigh of relief to… well, anyone. My art teacher once said, “you know those kids aren’t listening!” I replied, “If one of them hears me, that will be enough.” Growing up, I had always hoped to meet that coach from the movies that inspires the team to win the big game. I looked for that inspirational figure in real life churches, schools, and gyms, to no avail. I kept running into cynical pessimists. So, I decided to become the source of inspiration. Let me be clear, I don’t wake up every morning with a goal to inspire people. My morning goal is usually, coffee. I do wake up with a goal to remind people not to doubt themselves or their ability. Most of you have heard me nix the word “can’t” in an exercise setting. We can do the challenging exercises. Even if we need to regress or modify it a bit. Yes, we can do anything. Why am I a Fitness Coach? I want everyone to feel like being fit is not some exclusive club. Any person can create any body they want. Why am I studying to be an Occupational Therapist? Some people really want to walk again, the people that have that desire need someone that believes in the possibility just as much as they do. Why am I a Burlesque performer? We all need a creative outlet. So many aspects of my life are so, damned, serious. I have fun performing and entertaining people. Working in the world of fitness is a natural segue to a physically demanding activity.
Here’s something to process for this week. I was recently asked for a summation of my fitness philosophy. In response, I wrote this. “Repetition, discipline and humility are the building blocks for accomplishing any fitness goal. Sporadic effort, placing wants before needs and holding on to ego will destroy any chance of reaching those same goals.” Recently someone told me that he wasn’t going to do what I’d asked of him because he had been “working out for 30 years” and “knew what he was doing.” An ego that size will never reach a fitness goal. When I place myself in a group exercise setting, I become a student and I listen. That’s the time to humble myself and follow instructions. When I do that, I always learn something new and I use that knowledge to make my mind and body stronger. When you’re working on your fitness goals, embrace repetition (the mother of all skill), discipline (doing the little things you may not want to do in order to accomplish a major goal), and humility (remembering that you don’t know everything). Keep that in mind and you’ll be stronger before you know it. #giddyup
What’s that, you still haven’t made plans for Halloween!? I’ve got just the thing for you. Instead of those lame costumes at the night clubs, come see awesome costumes get (mostly) removed! Want to see horror films, me being body painted, or my Jekyll & Hyde routine (with new choreography)? Come to one or all of the events listed in October!