by James Whitely -
SGN Staff Writer
Once a week for the past six weeks, I've rond-de-jambed, tendued, and pliéd, often quite terribly to be sure, through the 'Beginning Ballet for Burlesque' class at Miss Indigo Blue's Academy of Burlesque in Capitol Hill's landmark Oddfellows Building. Each session was taught by local burlesque star Inga Ingénue. Ingénue, who performs with the Atomic Bombshells burlesque troupe, was named 'Miss Viva Las Vegas' in 2011 and has studied ballet for 16 years.
I've loved ballet for as long as I can remember, but I'd never tried it before. That this was a class tied to burlesque made the opportunity irresistible. I've never performed burlesque - or boylesque - but the art form interests me because it offers me a chance to explore my feminine side. Drag is definitely not right for me - I look terrible in a wig, but I feel I've never been as far as most cisgender males from my femininity. I was raised by women. I know that can't be all of why I have this desire to stretch the limits of my cisgender identity, because I've met other men who come from similar backgrounds and have no such desire. I think there's something intrinsic in me - I've thought long and hard about it, though I still don't quite know what it is. I think that's OK, though.
My feminine qualities are nothing I've ever really worried about. Some, probably most parts of my personality are very masculine, but there have always been significant aspects that are unmistakably feminine too. To speak to these qualities, I've got a Righteous Babe (songwriter Ani DiFranco's record label) tattoo on my upper arm, as well as Kate Moss's anchor tattoo, identical to hers, on the side of my right wrist - the same place she's got it.
SHOPPING FOR SHOES
I got notice of the class only a few days before it started. As this spur-of-the-moment idea quickly manifested into reality, I realized I hadn't any idea where to get the required ballet shoes (in a men's size, no less), so Ingénue referred me to Center Stage, a dance shop in the university district.
How I'd never noticed the place before was beyond me. I attended high school for two years literally across the street from it. As I walked in to the small shop, the woman behind the counter looked at me as if she were prepared to offer me directions to the nearest tattoo shop or liquor store. A group of young girls and middle aged women looked at me quizzically when I told the salesperson what I needed. She asked me my shoe size and returned in about a minute, handing me some of the smallest shoeboxes I'd ever seen - small, flimsy boxes containing small, flimsy footwear. I slipped on a pair of black flats and took a few steps, immediately deciding these were adequate. Ignoring her advice to try on multiple pairs to see which ones fit best, I was in and out of the shop in four minutes.
The next day, I arrived at the Academy of Burlesque for my first day of class. I signed in. I went off to change. As I removed my combat boots in the restroom, I realized I hadn't any idea how I was supposed to tie a ballet slipper. While there's nothing overtly complicated about my little black slippers, I was sure there must be a 'proper' way, given the emphasis on tradition in this art form. In the same vein, I was sure the tradition must have a purpose, and that a strap in the wrong place probably meant irreparable damage to my feet. Resolving that any such damage would take place over the course of years, I brought the elastic bands around the back of my ankle and tied them off in front.
I arrived back in the dance studio and found everyone already forming up for class. I quickly fell into line, failing to realize I shouldn't be staring directly into the eyes of the girl in front of me and that the 16 other students all faced the direction of the line. She smiled at me, and I said, 'I should be facing the other way, shouldn't I?' After she laughed and answered in the affirmative, I about-faced.
WHERE ARE THE MEN?
We began by learning numbered arm and foot positions. As I looked around at other students to make sure I wasn't making anymore dumb mistakes, I realized I was apparently the only boy here. I'd wondered beforehand if this might be the case, but was still surprised given boylesque's, as well as the academy's, notoriety.
Large industrial-looking fans by open windows helped to keep the summer heat out of the studio, but made my instructor's voice nearly inaudible to my ears. Most of the other students didn't seem to have this problem. I've been to far too many punk shows without earplugs and fired too many deafening weapons during my time in the Marines. After learning and practicing tendues, a legwork exercise, we moved on to pliés. I deduced from Ingénue's scattered speech that my biggest problem was that I kept falling in and out of the correct posture. In ballet, every part of the body must be positioned perfectly, traditionally. This takes constant bodily awareness for beginners, though years of practice will make it second-nature.
Our final exercise was the adagio. The strange movements I was asking my feet to make brought me very close to the kind of muscle spasms that often wake me in a fit of intense pain in the middle of the night. It's a series of what's supposed to be fluid movements involving the entire body. The mirror that ran along one wall of the room helped only slightly - adagio did not come naturally at all to me, and it wouldn't be until the final class that I came close to performing the range of movements in proper time.
A few hours before my second class I decided I should probably practice a bit. I'd done a little bit of research on the basic positions over the week, but hadn't actually practiced. I picked through my records for something fitting or relevant to ballet. My collection consists almost exclusively of old punk and folk albums, so I picked the one that seemed most relevant to a burlesque oriented ballet class - Culture Club's 1983 Colour by Numbers, and begin to dance around my bedroom to 'Karma Chameleon,' trying to pay attention to my muscles, posture, and limb and foot placement.
This was when I remembered my shoe-tying dilemma from the week before. I got online and found a short how-to, but couldn't follow it. I thought I must have been missing a step, then realized I'd been looking at a guide for pointe shoes instead of flats. I laughed when I discovered that ballet slippers aren't even supposed to be tied at all - they're to be sewn. I hadn't the materials I needed to get the job done, so I resolved to have them ready by next week and simply wore them as I did the week before.
Class two saw 16 of us in total. I could hear Ingénue a bit better this time. Perhaps they'd turned the fans down? We covered the same techniques from the week before and Ingénue complimented my tendue form.
As I paid attention to my body and performed the assigned movements, I couldn't help but compare what I was doing to the close-order drill I'd done in the Corps - perfectly positioned movements, requiring lots of practice and muscle memory, all shaped by years of tradition and excellence. This thought, of course, followed my discovery from just hours before, that I'd have to use the sewing skills I learned in the Corps to ready my adorable little slippers. I realized that my time in the Marines might be a factor in my being there. I was never a conventional Leatherneck. I'm vegan, and was while I was in the service (though I had to eat whatever I could get in Iraq), which invited a plethora of the usual nicknames, all rooted in ignorance but nonetheless given with affection. I took military machismo with a grain of salt, often just getting a kick out of the ridiculous things I saw my friends and superiors do.
The Corps taught me how to sew. I still sew like a Marine and probably always will, so it took me a little over two hours to sew my fucking slippers. Four stitches. Five Warzone albums to sew to. I hadn't a thimble, so I wrapped my thumb in the last bit of the dark green electrical tape I'd used to tie off loose straps and the like on my combat gear in Iraq. When I'd finally finished, I looked up to see my roommate, Trudie. She told me she's got a sewing machine.
By week three I began to feel more comfortable. I'd left the second class noticeably sorer than in week one, but my form was better. The time around, there were only eight students in class, a trend that would continue in the subsequent weeks. With a smaller group, I could hear everything my instructor was saying and each of us had far more access to the mirror. It's tremendously helpful to see how your body looks as you perform each movement. Often, I tend to think my back is straight when I'm actually arching it backwards slightly.
I think I learned the most in week three. I was able to pay better attention to my body. I realized that it wasn't to my benefit this early on to attempt focusing on every part of me like I'd been doing, but rather one part at a time, again and again and again. I left class realizing the full import of practice.
BECOMING A DANSEUR
I had to miss the fifth class to attend a weeklong writing conference in Oregon, but Ingénue taught us a new technique, the chaîné turn, in the fourth that gave me something to practice while I was away. As difficult as chaînés are (especially for me, it seemed), I felt like I was doing a technique that was performance-oriented for the first time. As I spun 360 degrees and moved across the floor, I was using the elements of the basic techniques we'd been practicing over previous weeks. I felt like I was building on the basic repertoire for the first time. I felt like a goddamn ballerina, or whatever it is they call men who dance ballet.
As I practiced in Ashland, I was thinking constantly about the position of my hips and backbone, looking for my hands in my peripheral vision and focusing on my muscles by keeping my abs tight and using my thighs and glutes for my tendues.
By the sixth and final week, it was apparent to me that my efforts were yielding results. However, the final class brought up a new series of problem areas. Even though I've been out since 2008, I still walk with a military bearing. It's hard to turn off in my shoulders, which is necessary to dance ballet. The 'ballet hand,' a halfway tucked thumb and straight fingers, can be hard to maintain with all the other things I've got to focus on. On top of that, my hands shake. This was a problem in the Corps too. I was a terrible marksman - 'lucky shot' was one of my mottos. I liked that new problems arose, though. It meant I had more work to do, and gave me an incentive to keep practicing.
While I undertook the class because of the burlesque element, I'm a longtime lover of ballet. I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to perform boy/burlesque onstage, or how much I'll integrate ballet techniques into my acts if I do. Regardless, I want to continue practicing. Ballet too offers me a chance to forgo the gender binary while still being as cis as I want. There's nothing emasculating about boys or men dancing ballet - there never was. Still, like with boy/burlesque, I can explore both my masculinity and femininity within it. I love this shit - it makes my fucking balls tingle.
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