Why burlesque could be good for you.
In the face of ever-evolving social and artistic controversy over burlesque as a form of entertainment, I’d like to volunteer my tuppence-worth on an overlooked aspect of participation. As someone who has meaningful experience in both the promotion of burlesque theatre and mental health interventions, I believe that burlesque can be more than just good fun – it can be good for your mental health.
As any wellbeing practitioner and therapy-frequent flyer will know, most of our statutory and established practices for overcoming and managing ‘common mental health problems’ (including depression and anxiety) are based on a ‘CBT approach’ – that is an approach that is rooted in evidenced-based ‘cognitive-behavioural therapy’. As the name suggests CBT focusses on the relationship between a person’s cognition (their thoughts and thinking styles) and their behaviours (what they do and equally what they are not doing).
Many people experiencing low moods and worry tend to get stuck in vicious cycles where negative and intrusive thoughts collude with harmful habits (or inactivity) – to form a symbiotic relationship of emotional distress and psychological turmoil.
Note: For the purpose of this blog, I’m taking a simplified CBT model as the basis of good self-help practice and is intended for reader relevance i.e. those a) experiencing lower levels of anxiety or depression and b) those who might be interested in the celebration and exploration of gender and body confidence. It is not aimed at those currently in crisis or experiencing severe psychological distress or psychosis. Please consult your mental health professional or approach your GP for advice, if you suspect you are in need of help. This is an article of personal experience and not based on any official advice or guideline.
In the case of anxiety, there is an underlying unyielding intolerance to uncertainty – a desperation to feel in control of that which we can’t even predict. This leads to ‘checking behaviour’ all the time – checking things are safe, checking how many ‘Likes’ we have on a FB post or Instagram image, checking that we haven’t upset our friends (by repeatedly asking obscure questions to the point of irritation), checking our email has sent and was word perfect, checking that our multiple alarm clocks are correctly set, our doors are locked, and so on… I’m sure I am not the only one to have had the very modern compulsive need to check the on/off switch of a suspect pair of hair straighteners – that are sure to explode killing everyone, when you least suspect it…. (If you want to know my solution to this… just ask, it’s ridiculously simple.)
Experiencers of depression and anxiety typically hold a low opinion of themselves and of their personal “worth” as a member of their wider community (often by unhelpful comparison with others). Consequently, they experience excessive worry (or even obsessions) about what others think of them. These emotional states and negative thoughts are often confounded further by feelings of guilt about self-care and doing anything ‘just for me’. Ironically, in not doing anything for themselves they have no way to gain a positive self-appraisal or consider their worth as a contributing member of their community.
They feel that their worth is defined by others – either in comparison to (“I’ll never be as a good as Jeannie McTwinkletits…”) or, in service to the needs of others (family, work, village hall and so on). As a result they find themselves avoiding self-care and cease any investment in the self. They stop going out socially and, where their mood ultimately takes a nose dive, they also disengage with their own hobbies and interests taking on a sense of general pointlessness (and worthlessness).
In theatrical terms it’s a lighting cue for a fadeout to black.
Exit: The leading lady…
Enter: The shitty understudy.
Unlike most theatrical practices, burlesque ‘breaks the fourth wall’ and in a beautiful metaphor for mental health awareness, it allows the protagonist to call out directly to the audience and tell it like it is – as the hero(ine). This is what burlesque is supposed to do – give a voice to the voiceless, the repressed and the misunderstood through the medium of satire.
Well, I can lend testimony to this as my personal motivation to perform was born of a desire to challenge my own body anxiety. Of course, most would not think that turning oneself in to a public spectacle of ironic nudity would be a natural solution to this issue, but here is why I say it is so…
Over 15 years ago I started a performance company (Ministry of Burlesque) on this very same wellbeing hunch – of directly challenging negative self-perceptions with ‘positive risk-taking’. This (then considered bewildering) mission of mine helped at least in some small part, to launch a beautiful movement. Now looking back I can clearly see that my intuition on this was not just personal recklessness, wishful thinking nor a spurious justification to “dance” around Glasgow in my oversized frilly pants. Nor was it part of my ‘secret sex-worker agenda to pay my University tuition fees’ as The Sun* unhelpfully misinformed the public at the time. Oh the anxiety that caused.
So… in briefs, here is a quick outline of what I have observed. I hope it is interesting and perhaps it might fuel a bit of discussion, debate or even experimentation…
Performing (or even attending as a purveyor) burlesque hits all the marks for a good piece of CBT homework, if done with positive intentions and sensible judgement. Doing so challenges your thoughts, prompts you to do something different or, to do or look at something familiar, differently. After all, it is in our differences that our individual beauty is reflected.
Performing burlesque involves the following:
- Positive risk-taking.
Not reckless risk taking! But intentionally taking positive ones calculated with reason – which can be scary and new to us all the same. In taking risks, we create opportunity to reap rewards and expand our own boundaries. When we don’t push ourselves out of our comfort zones, we don’t learn anything new about ourselves. It is ok to try burlesque and decide “it’s not for me”, in fact this is just as good an outcome as deciding that you love it. Either way, you grow.
- Challenging your own preconceptions.
Challenging your own long held ‘NATs’ (negative automatic thoughts) about body shaming, gender roles, nudity and social propriety is essential to growth. These are the miserable or nasty thoughts that seem to just pop up and plague you, as though they come from somewhere outside yourself like “women shouldn’t wear so much make up it looks tarty”. They often come with ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ statements in them…)
- Accepting uncertainty.
On stage and off stage. Will it be all right on the night? From Costume malfunctions to tumbleweed responses, you will build resilience to the uncertain nature of the world in which you live. The onstage is reflected offstage too and not just preparation, backstage and online but in your regular life aspects too, what once seemed like uncertain terrors might now be put in to perspective. What’s the worst that can happen? Really? Is that likely? Find out what is the best that can happen?
- Social Engagement and Acceptance.
You can make friends within a bustling community that celebrates body and gender differences, at a pace you can manage. You can take dainty toe-steps or you can wade in both on the ‘scene’ in clubs, expos and meetups or, online. These people too share something in common with you and are happy to accept you as you want to be – yourself or even as an ‘avatar’ or stage-persona, allowing you some breathing room behind a costume or alter-ego. The caveat to this though is to remember that you are doing so and that others may be doing the same. You may not be making genuine authentic friends with anyone, as you are still in many respects ‘performing’ in a fantasy world. Taking to extremes, this can be an issue – but that is for another blog.
- You will be an outlier, a heroine, a pioneer!
You are part of a movement that challenges the status quo. Being an outlier with a purpose means that you are making a massive contribution to the community – be at the arts, social or political. You will in tandem become more resilient to criticism and, can better deal with the world’s jerks and trolls.
- Quick gains.
Burlesque as a performance form is very inclusive and accessible that doesn’t have prerequisite skills or training to start.
- Physical exercise.
Exercise like dancing helps to tackle body confidence issues with toning the muscles and of course benefits your body and mind from improved cardiovascular function to endorphin release. You get those happy hormones and lasting feel good effects 🙂
- Enhanced Creativity.
Flexing your creative muscles in creating an act involves as much or as little time and effort as you want to put in. Having this purpose gives you permission to take time out to do the following:
Listen to music to be inspired
Watch old movies
Go to the theatre
Design and make costumes
Dance, sing, play etc
Learn new skills – clowning? Aerial? Singing? Make something disappear somewhere interesting?
Research beautiful, weird and wonderful things – all guilt free!
Of course, there are always risky-risks involved in any risqué risk-taking and so here are some practical guidelines to make it as positive as possible.
Your issues laid bare?
I’m sure we have all heard someone comment on /scoff at a performer who appears to be ‘working out their issues on stage’. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact the process may be cathartic or experimental for them. Just like all other areas of artistic expression, mental health is a huge motivation, inspiration and influence. However, this needs to be considered with some caution as laying bare your soul can make you very vulnerable to the interpretations and criticisms of others – others who do not know you, your story nor understand your intended sentiments (which let’s face it, might not be as clearly expressed in dramatic form, as you intended). We all grow and refine our expression over time whether it’s burlesque, writing or painting, so be kind to yourself and keep your stage message simple and clear.
If you are in professional therapy, then it’s important to discuss your interest in burlesque/ intention to perform with this professional and what might be involved for you to participate. For example… you may need to consider gradual adaption to new behaviours or gradual exposure to triggers is advisable, e.g. If there are body issues then nudity might not be the best first port-of-call. If there are social anxiety problems then a crowded backstage might not be good for you to dive in to.
As therapeutic as performing burlesque might be, that doesn’t make burlesque teachers ‘therapists’ in any way. It is important to have good guidance not only to maximise your personal potential in performing but in gaining wider opportunities for personal development. Therefore it is crucial that you do your homework on teachers. As a fairly new and largely nonspecifc genre interns of skill sets, many teachers are riding the bandwagon and have made up their accolades. I am aware of two who have built up seemingly credible businesses based on careers they have fabricated and awards that don’t exist/were never given to them. Good teachers don’t need/or want to do this. They will be honest with you about their own experience and limitations – it’s about what they can and can’t do for you. Be wary of those who talk a lot about their amazing careers. If it’s genuine, and exists why do they need to tell you? Also be wary of those who talk about ‘empowerment’ and self-esteem. Very rarely are dance teachers also qualified therapists. Good teachers won’t waste your time talking about themselves nor try to recruit you in to newcomer showcases /contests (how could they possibly know what’s right for you before you even begin?) Sadly I’ve seen women damaged by so-called teachers (who had no business selling burlesque never mind burlesque as some sort of therapy), bullied them in to tassel twirling and stripping at their “graduation shows”.
Often these performances are filmed without consent and put online (this is not ethical but many don’t or won’t see the problem). Such videos can go on to create more anxiety e.g. With work colleagues and family members seeing it. Public comments can be cruel and often those who were bullied might draw their persecutors attention again… relationship problems etc
These talent contest format events are generally not healthy. For a number of reasons but most obviously that in taking part, you are permitting strangers to judge you. Why would you give anyone that power? On what authority is ANYONE to judge you? Is this fun?
- Bullies and trolls.
I’ve been on the hot and pointy end of this stick many times, especially in the first 10 years. The rumours spread have been astonishing – from my use of ‘mind control powers’ over the best performers and my ‘manifesting’ myself as a ‘dark spirit’ in to the bedroom of a detractor, to my ‘hiring assassins’ to wipe out other promoters…. You wouldn’t believe it, although incredibly, some people did!
My experience was on the extreme end of things. I had death threats, harassment and have been stalked – even by my own customers who have since set up as teachers and promoters of burlesque (caveat emptor). But then, I was a visible figure at the forefront of something interesting creating something (MoB) that others desired to be part of. I couldn’t please or include everyone and those I didn’t please felt justified in bullying me and copying my work to the point of direct imitation. That’s life – life through a jealous lens. Don’t be scared by the trolls – if I can find this hilarious in hindsight, you can tread the boards already laid out for you, any bumps underfoot just remind you to keep it real. This was the calculated risk I took – and for me it was worth it as I have also met amazing people who have inspired me and have been privileged to have been part of others’ journeys; and I continue to meet people today with whom I’m honoured to coach.
Here is my advice in another blog post, on dealing with dafty trolls and bitches:
In conclusion, I think it is fair to reiterate that it is important to recognise that burlesque is not in itself any form of therapy and its proponents are not therapists, however, embarking on your own burly adventure has all the capacity for therapeutic self-help.
A good example of what I term ‘creative wellbeing’, burlesque is an opportunity for personal development. ‘Positive Risk and Reward’ are positively correlated and that where reason and sense should be employed in safeguarding yourself against the pitfalls, the same sense and reason should equally be used to encourage a sense of derring-do. The key to wellbeing success in burlesque is to find creative ways to peel back the layers of self-doubt, to let your mind dance freely without restraint and your authentic spirit shine in the spotlight of your unfolding life.
*I refer to such publications as ‘noise-papers’ rather than newspapers as they scream out unintelligible obscenities from the gutter shelf, rather than communicate news.
Please note that help is available through the NHS to tackle issues of mood and anxiety, don’t suffer – start your progress today by talking to your GP. Many of us have been there already, you are not alone.
For anyone experience crisis please know that there is help available on many resources helplines and services including in presenting yourself to A&E: