Breaking through Body Issues with Burlesque

“Burlesque?  That’s just stripping with a women’s studies degree.”

That was what I said in 2004, during a radio interview in Dayton, Ohio.  I had never seen a burlesque show, knew nothing of the history, and just formed my opinions based on hater’s logic.  I knew that my husband, whom I’d grown to distrust in the 2 years that we’d been married (we were still in a getting-to-know-you period, since we ran to Vegas and hitched up 3 months after meeting – a mistake which I will fully dissect in another article entirely), was into the burlesque/pin-up style of girl, so I felt threatened by it.

See, I was more hardcore, I used my sexuality as a defense, my in-your-face promiscuity was how I proved that I was okay, that I was a confident, sexually liberated woman who didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought.  I figured that if I was sexual, I was sexy, and that there was no value in subtlety and nuance.  I didn’t understand how that was hot, I had no use for the tease.  There was no mystery with me, I thought that being aggressively sexual was the most direct way to get the validation that I needed to convince myself that I was strong and desirable, much easier than dealing with the issues that caused the doubt, shame, and fear that I denied having, as though I could fuck the past trauma out of my head.  But enough about the inner workings of my messy head, which I could go on about for days, back to burlesque!

Cut to October 2006.  I’d just left my husband and I’d never felt less desirable.  Over the course of our 4 year marriage, codependency had unwittingly turned me into his mommy-wife, and my usual methods of swimming in a sea of meaningless sex until I felt better wasn’t working, because I didn’t even have enough self-esteem left to lock down a random drunken one-night stand, previously my specialty.  I was looking through a community class catalogue, saw the listing for a burlesque dance class, and decided to take the class out of vindictive bitterness towards my ex.  Whatever means to an end though, right?

I fell in love immediately.  I wasn’t some peeler prodigy, I was ungraceful and had to fight feeling silly to make my body move the way I was being taught.  But no one made fun of me, no one was a star, or a bitch, or a diva.  There was a camaraderie among us, I felt like one of the group, not the weirdo loner, which was my usual role in any group of women.  There really were women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds.  It was so refreshing to be in this supportive, fun environment, so I kept coming back, week after week, gaining more confidence with each class.  I practiced at home, and actually felt cute doing it.  Our teacher announced that we would have a show at the end of the session, so we’d all need to choose stage names, and songs for our solos.


Solo?  No.  I was okay with the group number, I could hide among my new friends and go unnoticed, I wouldn’t have my clunkiness and chunkiness on focused display.  But a solo?  Alone onstage, without my security blankets, nothing else to look at but me.  That was terrifying.  My words are my strong suit, comedy was my wheelhouse, not dancing sexily and silently, but everyone else was rising to the challenge, all these women who had the exact same amount of training and inexperience, we’d been in this together so far, so I had to do it.  I figured that if it went really badly, I never had to do it again, and could pretty easily avoid anyone who’d seen the debacle.  If I tanked, I could write jokes about it, and good or bad, I’d get something useful out of it.  So I went for it, choosing “Little Red Riding Hood” by the Meteors as the soundtrack to my anxiety.  I choreographed my novice moves, rehearsing in front of friends, asking my best friend, Justin, (who had extensive dance experience from doing theater in high school, as well as being gay) for extra help.  We smoked joints and practiced box-stepping, straddling chairs, making stage faces, and cobbled together my costume.

Burlesque dancer in golden dress

The night of the show seemed so far in the future, until it was 2 days away.  That’s when time started really flying.  I felt alternately excited and death-row-dreadful.  I’d been a professional performer for over a decade, and had NEVER felt anything close to these nerves.  Admitting my body issues to myself was unavoidable, because all my fears boiled down to them.  If I messed up my moves, I couldn’t rely on my standup to save me, nor could I be content that the audience would be mesmerized by just viewing the natural grace and beauty of my body, because I didn’t feel I had any of that.  I wasn’t what I thought of when I thought about what a stripper looked like.  Strippers were tight and compact, I was fleshy and spread out.  I figured that my physicality was not what attracted any of the men I’d managed to land.   My worst fears were of the audience looking away, or even heckling, when I exposed my unappreciated body.  I imagined some douchebag yelling “Put it on!!”, and the crowd laughing at me, not with me.  I readied myself for this, for what I knew logically to be an unlikely event, but felt emotionally convinced would come to pass.

The night of the show, my hands were shaking too much to put on my own huge, campy false eyelashes.  First was the group number, and it went well, though I was so deep in my own head about my upcoming shimmy to the gallows, that I barely noticed the energy and excitement of the crowd.  I changed costumes too fast, gave myself too much unoccupied time with which to freak out, and then…IT WAS TIME.

I heard my name, and felt my feet move me to the stage.  My body started going through the motions, and I was able to focus on that.  The moment of truth arrived, it was time to drop my skirt (more specifically, to slowly rip apart the velcro, tease with a bit of upper thigh/hip, turn around, slowly lower the skirt to ass-framing level, then drop it).  I don’t think I was even breathing.  Then came the noise.  The loud, loud noise.  The sound of people cheering, clapping, screaming, whistling, all of it hit me in the face at once, and I fed off of it like it was what I’d eaten my whole life.  I didn’t use my manufactured smile once.  Everything came off perfectly, and I finished and went backstage shaking from the adrenaline and emotional release, drowning in all the positive feedback.  I’ve never felt a sense of pride and accomplishment like that before, not even the first time I did standup.  It felt like a victory on multiple fields, and I celebrated it all night long (and I mean ALL NIGHT LONG, as I had found enough self-confidence from the evening to land the attention of a gentleman caller who was super hot, super complimentary, and even bought brunch the next day).

Over the next 9 years, I delved pretty deeply into burlesque, developing my own style of spoken-word stripteases, producing shows, running a troupe, performing in festivals, traveling the country (and beyond, I was honored to be a headlining performer and emcee of the first New Zealand Burlesque Fest) and even teaching, which was my favorite part of it all.  I felt better about myself the more I helped other women feel better about themselves, not just showcasing my own bravery in refuting the societal norms of acceptable beauty, but ushering other women into their own.  Helping along this revolution of self-acceptance truly healed me.  And all without a women’s studies degree.

Vixen…Interview with a True Burlesque Diva

Are you looking to improve your confidence, both in and out of the bedroom? Look no further than your own boudoir. Burlesque is more than just the tease; it is an attitude of confidence that can positively impact every area of life. There is a body-positive revolution brewing; and today, we meet a British bombshell who is setting the west coast ablaze with it.

Prepare to meet your next girl crush.

The Performer: Vixen Deville is an other-worldly sex goddess: she swallows fire, walks on glass, defies gravity with aerial hoops, and tantalizes audiences with her curves. Since leaving London for Los Angeles, Vixen has been blowing Hollywood minds with her saucy personality and sensuous feats of daring.

The Person: Cat LaCohie is a force of nature with a big mission. She lives to awaken the power in others, by teaching women (and men) to embrace their wildness and express their sensuality through Burlesque.

I recently got the chance to sit down for a no-holds-barred interview with Cat. In this intimate conversation, she reveals the lessons she has learned. In Part 1 of the following Q&A, Cat LaCohie tells us how it all went down. In Part 2, Vixen shares exclusive tips on how you can harness your own feminine power.

Part 1:

The Birth of Vixen

How did Vixen come to be?

“Originally, Vixen was everything I wanted to be, but wasn’t in real life. Growing up, I was overweight and unpopular. I hated giving presentations at school. But by the age of 9 or 10, I fell in love with acting…and I identified with strong characters, like Scarlet from Gone With The Wind. I wanted to be her, wearing corsets and dresses and everything. I became more comfortable being someone else. As a character, you can say whatever you want with no personal consequences – because they all assume you’re pretending.”

Who is Vixen, now?

“Looking back on it, I realize that if I had the confidence at the beginning, there would have been no need for a character. The stage was a safe space to express my honest thoughts. Vixen DeVille was me. When I feel powerful and sexy and shameless as Vixen, I am embracing my vulnerability and power as Cat. Vixen and I are very similar.”

I feel like everyone has a brazen alter-ego inside of them. What are the benefits of embracing this?

“As myself, I have become more confident in certain situations because I realize I’m not being judged for what I say anymore. If I say something a bit off the cuff, a bit more tongue in cheek, people like me for it. People like me for not giving a shit. You don’t have to ‘fit in’ or guess what people are expecting you to be. People love the quirkiness and weirdness that is you.”

Does Vixen also play a part in the bedroom?

“I think people expect me to be really adventurous and dominant in the bedroom, because of the persona. And Vixen is very domineering…all leather and corsets and all that. But I’m not even into that. It’s like how Halloween comes once a year and you have an excuse to dress how you’ve always wanted… Now that I play Vixen on a weekly basis, I don’t need that outlet anymore.

“In the bedroom, having a connection with somebody is way more important than sex toys or bondage or anything. It can be fun, but it shouldn’t be everything. If someone feels the need to do this with somebody, they might be avoiding connection. Great sex means simply being in tune with each other. Everything else is just bells and whistles. I personally like being dominated a little bit. It’s a give and take, really.

So while you and Vixen are very similar in life, does it bother you when people expect a certain thing in bed?

“Just because I dress a certain way, or listen to a certain type of music, or behave a certain way onstage…I’m not that way in bed. Marilyn Manson doesn’t go around killing children. You like to watch horror films, but you’re not an axe murderer.

Vixen does not discriminate when flirting with her audience. How do people respond?

“Onstage, I flirt with men and women absolutely equally. Men really like Vixen, but women find themselves attracted, too. Last night I did an act where I brought a woman onstage with me.

“People tend to over-think their sexuality to the point of shame. The stage is very freeing…if I didn’t have Vixen to speak through, I might not have had a chance to explore my sexuality. The audience jumps right in. It’s like group therapy!”

How Burlesque Let Me Claim My Body Image

Here’s how I became more comfortable with my clothes off.

I got made fun of for my body as a teen, just like everyone else. I was tall and gangly. Super awkward and never comfortable in my own skin. I was ashamed of my small breasts, of my crooked legs. Even at home, I hated looking in the mirror. I just felt so ugly, so unappealing to the eye.

While in college, I began working in the New York City comedy scene. I was super self-conscious in that community, and I never felt comfortable. It seemed like everyone was more successful and confident than I was. But one day, while working as a production assistant on a show in Brooklyn, I saw my very first burlesque act. Immediately, I was hooked.

The dancer was incredible. Her act was unlike anything I would have imagined burlesque to be. It was performance art, stripping down to nothing and writing on her body in lipstick. It was empowering to watch. I approached her after the show, as I quickly became mesmerized by her craft. I asked her about her start in burlesque, how to take classes and get involved in the scene. I told her I wanted to become more comfortable in my body.

However, she told me that to do burlesque, you need to be comfortable in your body already.

The act of asking her these questions and the idea that I could do this made me think that maybe I am becoming more comfortable with my body already. Maybe I just wanted to be confident in general. She told me they were both important.

I took her card. Immediately I went home and looked up the class schedule for the New York School of Burlesque. In that one night, I completely forgot about my dreams in the comedy world and instead focused my attention on taking my clothes off.

Burlesque dancer

My first course was pretty much the basics of burlesque. Fan dancing, stocking peels, bump and grind, all of the essentials. At the end of it, I had put together my first act, a piece to a Gilda Radner song. My burlesque sister, who began classes at the same time as me, helped me choreograph it. My training in comedy came in handy, as it ended up being a highly comedic dance involving finger puppets.

Around the same time I was taking classes, I became involved with a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” shadowcast. I was cast as Janet, a character who spends a good two-thirds of the show in her underwear. Playing her week after week eventually got me completely desensitized to the idea of stripping in front of people, and at one point I realized I’m actually more comfortable onstage the less clothing I was wearing.

I had my first burlesque student showcase a few months after that. I did the Gilda number, and it was a big hit. My first time taking my top off onstage was a thrill I’ll never forget. My fellow performers and audience members were incredibly supportive, and the praise and applause I received was unlike any other response that I had ever gotten in my years of doing theatre and comedy. I fell in love.

I found that I could be funny and sexy at the same time.

After that show I began touring all around New York. I did shows at some of the most well-known burlesque theatres. At the same time, I was doing Rocky more and more, spending most of my weekends wearing little to no clothing. I was so fulfilled.

Finally I could say I was proud of my body. Finally I could be proud of my height and ganglyness. People loved me for me, and that was more I could say about any other scene I’ve been a part of. I was allowed freedom in creating my acts. I found that I could be funny and sexy at the same time. And that was what I wanted to be. Personable, entertaining, and easy to look at.

Since moving to New England, I haven’t been doing burlesque as much anymore. I’ve been focusing most of my time on Rocky and writing, but I hope to take those stripper heels and finger puppets out again one day.

For the very first time, I was unashamedly me onstage, and it was a thrill that couldn’t be replaced by any other type of performing. Every performance just proves to me more and more that I am not some scrawny, awkward teenager anymore. At least not onstage.