As a woman on a firm trajectory toward her mid-thirties who packed on an extra 30 lbs. 2 years ago and is still using “I got divorced” as an excuse for her somewhat doughy physique, one might not guess that I’d be jumping at the chance to get mostly naked in a room full of strangers. Two months ago, I probably wouldn’t have guessed that either. But then, burlesque happened.
With an unimpressive one strip club, you wouldn’t necessarily peg the Portland metro area for being big on the T & A. But if you peeked in a little closer, you would see that just because we aren’t huge consumers of the pole dance, that does not mean that we don’t still need a little full figured wiggle and bounce every now and again. But in Portland, we’ve got class. And maybe we don’t always want fishnet Mandi shaking us down for a lap dance. Here we want our tits with a little more art, a little more humor, and a lot more tease (and a lot less need for $2 for dollar bills). As of late, we have shunned the oiled up g-string in favor of the rhinestone pasty. All of the sudden, Portland has officially become burlesque boomtown.
With no fewer than four resident companies ranging from the classic fan dances and tassel swingings of the Whistlebait Burlesque, to the saucily absurdist performance art of The Dirty Dishes (not to mention a yearly full scale burlesque Nutcraker, fetish acts like PV Scene, and countless drag queens and kings also getting in on the action), this city is busting at the seams with good old fashioned bawdy fun. Part theatre, part peep show, burlesque is mesmerizing in its melding of the whimsical with the lusty. It’s infectious.
So when Atomic Trash, the self proclaimed darlings of Portland’s underbelly, decided that they would invite the public to compete for the chance to join the party, it was clearly a very good idea. And thus, STRUT was born. Never girls to do things half way, the amateur competition spans over 6 months, with five chances to make it to the final round and win the grand prize of $100 and the opportunity to be a featured performer in the upcoming Atomic Trash 2 year anniversary bash.
How did I get there? Was this really the most efficient way for me to make $100? Maybe not, but opportunities for your Average Jane to get up on stage and shake it like a showgirl don’t exactly arise on a regular basis. To be that liberated, to get those bragging rights, to get up on stage and bare all regardless of the consequences… well, it’s a gift. Admittedly, it was a gift that I was too terrified to take at first. A dear and exceptionally brave friend took the first shift and brought home the light-up tiara with her brilliant BP oil spill themed number (it involved stripping down from a Haz-mat suit, and then writhing around in a kiddie pool full of chocolate syrup in her scanties). She was an inspiration. Seeing her fly high on that wild – albeit sticky – moment made me realize that I didn’t want to let this one go. Two Old Fashioneds and an email later, I was signed up for the August competition. It was T-minus 30 days and counting.
There’s an interesting thing that happens when you agree to do something crazy a long way into the future, and then that day finally arrives. I believe it’s called “sheer terror.” Up until a week before the big event, I had virtually nothing more concrete than a good idea and a can-do attitude. Slowly as the week progressed, I managed to scrape together bits and pieces of what would eventually become my STRUT routine, but all whilst maintaining a sense of complete denial that it was ever actually going to happen. But it was happening, and in four short days I would need somehow to construct a pair of gut concealing red satin underpants and matching break-away mini skirt, find a pair of 4 inch hot pink heels that I could safely booty drop in, and locate a gentleman with a booming voice willing to yell something misogynistic at a girl in a crowded bar.
As each day dwindled closer to kick off time, my level of panic rose higher and higher. I don’t think I slept more than 3 hours a night, or ate anything solid for 3 days. I listened to nothing but my music on repeat every waking hour of the day (which at that point was most of them), and am fairly certain that the people on my morning walk to work thought that that I was having some sort of psychotic break as I danced my way down Congress Street. In short, I had become a complete crazy person. Consumed with the desire to put on the most perfect burlesque spectacle that this city had ever seen, I had lost a little bit of my grip on reality. It was Go Time.
Once I got to Geno’s, things got really blurry really fast. There’s something exceptionally weird about stripping down to your underwear in the sticky graffiti covered bathroom of a dive bar where patrons routinely throw up in the sink (no disrespect Geno’s, I still love you!). I did my best to try and make nice with the other contestants (“Your boobs look GREAT!”), but they seemed relatively unimpressed. I can only assume that they were currently in the center of their own terror spiral and had no time for pleasantries- and neither did I.
It was mere moments before they herded us onto stage for a little pre-show ogling and to pick numbers to determine the performance order. Mercifully, I picked number one. I think if I had been forced to wait a second longer I likely would have either popped a brain vessel or a bladder. It was time for Candy Sprinkles to make her big debut.
I had stayed up until 4 am the night before putting the finishing touches on my props – a giant envelope addressed to my burlesque alter ego, and the equally giant heart shaped valentine card contained within. My piece started with a very excited (ok, terrified) Candy rushing onto the stage to tear into her valentine (to the tune of Ralph Wiggum saying “You choo-choo-choose me?”), and then doing a joyful and jiggly happy dance to the Marylin Monroe version of “I Wanna Be Loved by You”. Then, things got dark. Just as I was punctuating the first portion of my number, my audience plant yelled out “Get off the stage and make me a damn sandwich!”. Thunder clap. To the tune of Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”, I proceeded to angrily rip up the heart, and then rip off my clothes- including and especially the giant red satin bow covering up a very sparkly pair of red heart shaped pasties that I had made myself. What I had spent days preparing for and agonizing myself into sickness about, was over in the flash of a thigh high.
I can only assume that this is why people do amphetamines. Who said you have to throw yourself out of an airplane in order to be truly extreme? There’s a rush that comes with taking your top off in front of a room full of sweaty hooting strangers that puts bungee jumping and motocross racing to SHAME. It didn’t matter what the judges had to say, I had made it through my routine without breaking my legs and/or peeing my pants, and I was zooming through outer space at the speed of spandex.
The only negative comment I received was that at times I kind of blanked out and lost my eye contact with the audience- which seemed fair enough seeing that I didn’t actually remember anything from the time I stuck on my pasties (they make special tape for that!), and the moment where I fell off my shoes during my dramatic exit. But even so, I felt like I had made a strong enough showing that I might actually have a chance of taking home my own light up tiara and $50 cash prize. That was of course, until the final contestant made her stand.
Sure, I had mixed together four unique sound clips with GarageBand, hand made all components of my costume, and performed 3 minutes and 53 seconds of near flawless choreography…. but it couldn’t compete. Jesus himself could have snapped on a banana hammock and still not come close. Two words- ROLLER SKATES. The winning contestant (who was also sporting a supernaturally perfect rack) skated around in circles on the Geno’s stage to the Happy Days theme while stripping, smiling, and winking like she was merely taking a casual stroll. It was miraculous. And the very minute she shot a wad of glitter confetti out of her cardboard jukebox, I knew that I was through. I put on my best Miss America smile and prepared myself mentally for the parade of losers.
The next few days were tough. After all the build up, having to tell everyone in my life that I had failed (to a mythical creature who would come to be known as Rollertits), was a little awkward. “I’m just proud that I made it through!” was my general go-to, but “A once in a lifetime experience!” also made the rounds. And then of course there were my sweet friends telling me that I had been robbed, and that Rollertits’ piece was too short and simple to adequately meet the judging criteria. And for a minute, I believed them. I had made my own costumes! I had audience participation! My tits were good too! But flashing forward a month to the last STRUT competition on September 9th, I would finally come to realize that this was not even a little bit true.
When I first arrived to the spectacle there were only 2 registered players- a prior losing contestant hoping that the fourth time was the charm, and a mystery male (their first ever in the competition). He went by the name of “Twisted Cookies”, and did a little strip number to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” that incorporated a straight jacket, breakaway pants, a package of oreos, a container of milk, and a pair of hot pink hot pants with the words “HOT MESS” emblazoned on the ass. It didn’t look particularly choreographed, and in many places was quite sloppy, but the combination of the humor, the shock value, and foremost his amazing energy made me hoot and holler like a middle aged lady at a Chippendales show. We spontaneously clapped along with the music and screamed until our lungs were raw. It was a sight. It was magical.
And then, something really weird happened. Possibly all smacked out on the high voltage from Twisted Cookies, women from the audience started to sign up to participate with no preparation, no costume, and no choreography. All they had were whatever songs they could find on the DJ’s computer, and the cojones to get up and shake it knowing that they probably weren’t even wearing their date night underwear. Even more weirdly, the majority of them were really good. REALLY REALLY good. They were fearless, and sexy, and they rocked those Maidenforms like they were Agent Provocateur.
And that’s when it hit me.
I had choreographed and practiced the life out of my piece. I was so afraid of screwing up and looking foolish, that I had sucked out any spontaneity and fun, and replaced it all with rigid memorization and paralyzing anxiety. All the flawless hand sewn costumes and perfectly executed booty pops in the universe wouldn’t have made any difference for me. Twisted Cookies and Rollertits had soul and spirit. They made connecting with the audience their number one priority, and brought the house down with gusto.
Well, a girl can’t learn an important and sexy life lesson without a chance to mend her past mistakes. I originally had no intention of repeating my efforts if I didn’t win in the first go, but now I find myself wanting a chance to prove that I have the spark to bring a dive bar amateur burlesque contest audience to it’s drunken feet. There is one more STRUT competition slot open on October 14th before the big finals on November 11th, and I’m gonna be there. I’ve got a hilarious idea, a scandalous costume, and some borderline obscene props.
Oh, and I plan to kill it.