Audience Of One...

By Lucy Harbron - 21:48

Art: Ambivalently Yours

On Friday I performed my last show with Steel City Sirens, my university burlesque troupe.

I wrote a post last year about burlesque as a feminist art form, as a community, as an exercise in vulnerability and control. Don't get me wrong, I stand by that. But when I wrote that post I was held; I was settled in a relationship, I was mentored as a newbie in the group, I was surrounded by support and hands to catch me if I tripped. In short, when I wrote that post a year ago, I had all the foundations in place to allow me to feel my most confident. Every one of my worries or fears about performing could be drowned out by a choir of voices. By show 4 the hands dropped and everything silenced.

If my initial challenge given to me by burlesque was a lesson in trust in community, it turns to one of trust in myself. With no one in the audience ready to hype me up regardless, a fresh dose of insecurity, and uncertainty about my body; could I still do it? And more than that, can I still enjoy it? Am I doing this for me?

So much of female performance and sexuality is thought of only through the gaze of others. The way women present themselves is rarely considered from an internal perspective but is always thrown out to the audience. Society thinks women are asking for something. If we dress revealing, we are asking for attention, if we don't people wonder why we're so shy, why are we ashamed of our bodies? The social media era has trained us to consider every move from the point of public perception, to the point where so many of us can't explain our opinions and thoughts, indoctrinated into us without question.

I'd been saying I was doing burlesque for myself, proclaiming it an act of resistance against the patriarchal world that wanted me to be shy about my body. But I clung so tightly to responses, facing my friends and boyfriend like judges at the end of each routine, not content until affirmed. I didn't realise until October when I had no one rushing to tell me how great I was.

In the age of connectivity, maybe we don't know how to react to our own success. Or maybe we don't want to be left alone to review ourselves, to honestly consider the good bits and bad bits and come to a judgment. We're scared of the dark inner voice that's going to tell you you're shit, it was shit, everything was shit. I was. I thought about stopping performing for a moment. I heard my sad little heart say 'I don't want to do it without him there', hated myself, then heard my head say 'shut up'.

The best way to get comfortable with being alone is to be forged by fire. Get brutally dumped, get ghosted by friends, move in with yourself, turn off your damn phone, and don't invite anyone to your shows.  Start sleeping with your own two arms wrapped around yourself and remind yourself of your breath. Talk to yourself. Watch yourself dress in the mirror and acknowledge all the moments of beauty as your body twists. Take total comfort in the lack of ties. Get to know your inner voice like a new friend, joke with her, listen to her, confront her.

You know that stupid quote, something about having whole universes inside of you. Turns out that's true? But then image the power to harness all the inhabitants of those universes, all the different sides of you, all the minor aspects of your personality. Put them all in a stadium and do something for you. Imagine the sound of the crowd, louder than any panel of judges.

Burlesque became the thing that I actually was doing for myself. While I love the performances I did last year, since caring less about the audience and being a crowd-pleaser, the pay-off got better.  I molded Sunday Girl from all the shadowed parts of myself; she's the dark humour, she's the hopeless romantic, she's the wanna-be theatre kid. I let her have all my fantasies. She held all of that while I held myself. All my performances gained full on story-line, with characters that had become coping mechanisms as I slipped into them fully and completely. I brought in fashion! staging! film references! mood-boards for weeks! Honestly, if I could, I would've designed a full-on backdrop and taken control of the lighting, because I was feeling my fantasies with no distractions or worries about pleasing some boy that only liked indie music or some friend that wanted to define how I would own my sexuality.  And in my fantasy, there's no time to consider the external view. Juliet didn't pause to check that her waist looked skinny before dying for love, and Hannibal Lector definitely didn't care if someone was bitching about him in the second row.

I'm learning to stop caring about whether other people care. I started writing lists of what I know I am; a good friend, intelligent, funny, etc. I challenged myself to not fake uncertainty, stopped rejecting compliments, instead half-jokingly answering with 'I know'. It's so easy when you lose love to question yourself, but it's so important to be solid in the knowledge that you are great, and you know that. If we rely too much on the external, when it falters we can be left hollow. So I'm learning to fill myself, hype myself up, put my opinions of myself and my compliments above everyone else's.

I don't want to need hands to hold me up, I want to catch myself. And you know what, I think I did, walking away with an assurance that I'm a great performer and no need for anyone to cosign that statement because my performance wasn't for anyone else except me.

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