Five years ago, on December 13th, 2011, I became Florence of A’Labia. Indulge me in being sappy about my burlesquevolution.
In 2011, I accidentally joined Super Happy Funtime Burlesque when I thought they were looking for singers but were actually casting dancers and I didn’t know this until the first day of rehearsal. But I just went with it, and was an extra in their Christmas show. It was a good distraction while I was in the midst of a terrible depression, living in a hotel after my house burned down.
I didn’t actually strip in those shows, since I had no acts of my own, but I learned a lot of the basics of how this sort of performance went. My first act would come mid-2012, at Shimmy Shack Burlesque, with my “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” act.
The Vivacious Miss Audacious helped me put on my first pair of false lashes in such a heartwarming moment. It would still be years before I figured out how to get it right myself every time.
In February 2013, a bunch of people left Super Happy Funtime and so a spot opened up for me to join, and I did my first solo with them, mermaid act based on my comic Darlin’ It’s Betta Down Where It’s Wetta.
Then I got to go on tour! 2013 had me performing 53 shows in 18 states! It also had our bus break down in the middle of the Arizona desert for 4 days, but we survived! I got to play a bunch of weird, wacky characters like the crazy Jesus lady and the shoplifter, and travel outside my hometown where I’d lived my entire life. Before this, I hated travel, and I was very afraid of everything all the time. Touring really toughened me up in a lot of ways, and I made a lot of friends.
It was also the year of the first burlesque festival I ever did, the Michigan Burlesque Fest. I was so nervous I felt like I was dying, since I was so inexperienced, surrounded by seasoned performers, and it was my first time performing without any of my burlesque family present. But it went great, and I started feeling a lot more confident about my abilities as a performer.
I got to do two acts in the 2014 MBF, my naughty puppet act and my horny housewife/pizza delivery guy duo, both of which remain some of my favorite acts. I stayed in a mansion with a bunch of faraway friends and even though we got accused of breaking the toilet (we so didn’t) it was such fun and I love the community I’ve built around the continent.
This was when I started really feeling more confident about doing makeup. Only took me 3 years.
Before I did burlesque, I was kinda one of those “not like other girls” kinda girls. Thought I was above hair and makeup and nails and jewelry. But when femininity became something I was consciously performing, rather than compulsory, I realized that I was having fun with it, and so were a lot of other girls.
Burlesque also gave me a closeness with women that I’d been missing for years. Being queer, I found myself isolated from casual female intimacy. I would date women, but when it came to my friends, I was terrified of friendliness being misinterpreted as flirting. I kept my female friends at arm’s length. But in the burlesque world, we’d run around naked together, snuggle under soft blankets and eat cupcakes, and braid each others’ hair. It was wonderful, this femme camaraderie.
I also created my Freddie Mercury act that year, which is sort of a drag king act but also sort of a drag queen act. Freddie is like a god to me. This stage is my church, this act my prayer. I feel amazing performing this.
In 2014, I performed 64 shows in 12 states and also Canada! I did more shows outside of Super Happy Funtime, trying to expand myself as a performer and try things that didn’t work in the format of my troupe. I was on the road for nearly 3 months. I got broken up with via text message while on the road, and learned very quickly how to look happy onstage when I’m melting inside. I got an awful short haircut that I immediately regretted.
I closed out the year shaving our saxophonist’s head and face onstage.
2015 was when I moved to Chicago. Doing burlesque had introduced me to a lot of friends there, and I was bored with my hometown. I figured I could start doing more shows in the Windy City, but since I was still touring with Super Happy Funtime, on the road all the time, it was hard to take gigs at home. I went on tour for nearly 6 weeks straight, my longest tour ever! It was actually pretty exhausting and I partied maybe a bit too much. I wasn’t really having fun on the road anymore. But while I didn’t get a lot of gigs outside Super Happy Funtime, I really liked the direction I was going in as an independent performer, and even headlined some shows!
I also went to Burlycon for the first time, and was suddenly exposed in a big way to what burlesque could be outside what I’d been doing. I took dance classes, I saw others perform, I met different types of performers. I heard different perspectives on what burlesque was supposed to be. It was incredibly inspiring.
Up until this point, I’d largely avoid being truly sexy onstage. I’d get scared when I was outside my comedic comfort zone. I could be funny, or funny AND sexy, but never just sexy. I was still in that mindset that sexy burlesque was somehow… bad? I can’t even remember why I was in this mindset. But I could never be authentically sexy. I always turned it into a joke. I was here to inspire chuckles, not boners. I was kind of being a snob. No, not kind of. I was being extremely snobby, and kind of unconsciously grossly anti-sex-work, thinking I would become bad if I ever got truly sexy with it. So I consciously started shedding this mindset, incorporating more sexy moves and resisting the urge to turn it into a joke or something gross. I was still doing characters and stories and very often still doing funny things, but I let myself move like a sexual being, without apologizing for it.
I was also finding it hard to stay part of Super Happy Funtime. While most of our shows were on the road, and I had figured that meant it didn’t matter where I lived, it really did. I wasn’t at any rehearsals anymore, I wasn’t in group acts anymore. I had moved to Chicago, but I had no life in Chicago because I was always leaving for shows. So I decided to leave. The New Year’s Eve show was my last with SHFB. Out with the old…
Okay, I was definitely still doing a lot of comedy acts. Again, I’m not done with comedy, I’m just not scared to be sexy anymore. I can do whatever I want.
I performed 58 shows, with a dozen of them being outside of SHFB.
On New Year’s Day 2016, I got my nipples pierced, which meant no putting pasties on for at least 3 months. I was also taking some time off from burlesque. I needed to rework myself and my character, since so much of what I’d done fit into this very specific spot in a troupe I was no longer in. All these acts I’d done to live original songs we had no recordings to needed new songs. Duo acts needed new partners or a way of turning it into a solo. Also, I was just tired and mentally ill. I went from having most of my shows booked for me, to having to do all of it myself, while also sewing costumes and doing choreo and oh yeah working my job and having a relationship and social life. It was an adjustment.
I’d already signed up to do the Thrifty Thrills challenge, and felt bad about backing out, so I just did it. I had to make a costume with a budget of $20 using only things from a pet store. I was extremely nervous to perform for the first time in six months, but did okay, except for the fact that I flashed my whole pussy to the audience. Oooooops. But other than that, I was feeling the performer bug biting again.
I did a few more shows throughout the summer and fall. Some good, some less good. Mostly I found myself not enjoying shows because I was so nervous, I was dreading going onstage. For the first time in my life I had stage fright. And this made it hard to make friends with people backstage, and I’m sorry if I snubbed you at a show this year. I was a big bundle of raw nerves.
See, all of my acts I performed this year were new. I didn’t have anything I felt confident about. I’d be sewing the costume up until a couple days before the performance, giving me only a day to practice the dance in-costume. And unlike the past, when I’d do 50 shows a year and 6 acts per show (yeah, SHFB was intense), I was only doing one or two acts per show, and only half a dozen shows. Messing up one act was a significant percentage of my performances for the year.
I was set to perform in Shimmy Shack’s anniversary show. Once again, I felt unprepared and intimidated, my costume still covered in wet paint. And my old troupe mates were in the audience, as well as what felt like a million old friends and coworkers. But as I waited to go on next, my head dizzy with nerves, I reminded myself that this was the stage where I’d done my first solo. This was home. I was with friends. And I had been wanting to do these acts for the better part of a year. I told myself to get excited that I finally get to do them! And I did! And then I did some great acts! Maybe not the best of my life, but still great.
All my doubts about continuing burlesque disappeared. I absolutely want to do this forever, or until my hips break.
I may have only done 7 shows in 2016, but the year off really did give me the space to brainstorm a lot of new ideas for where I’m going from here. Expect to see more of me! Keep an eye out for the Florence of A’Labia mini comic I’m writing!
So now 2016 is wrapping up. I’ve done 170 burlesque shows in 23 States and 1 province, over the course of 5 years. I learned how to do makeup. I learned how to dance. I learned how to be sexy. I learned how to sew better. I learned how to drink whisky. I learned how to flirt. I learned how to do my nails. I learned I’ll never be good at doing my hair so I bought a bunch of wigs. I learned how to live outside my hometown. I learned how to twerk. I learned how to cope. I made a lot of friends. I left my hometown. Dang, burlesque has changed my life for the better in so many ways! Here’s to 2017 being slightly less of a dumpster fire! Here’s to another five years of burlesque!