But here I am now, a 38-year-old fat woman, not only taking my clothes off on stage but teaching other fierce women (and men) how to do it, too. The story of how it happened, as is true of many magical things, is full of coincidence, luck and lots of moxie.
Like many of us, I got to my 30s and started regretting all of the opportunities I had passed up, all of the chances I didn’t take, and all of the things that I was afraid it was too late to do. I felt like all around me people were making their dreams come true and I could barely put on an outfit without feeling disgusted with myself. I was too fat, too tall, too shy, too much of everything and not enough of anything.
In my mind I was a failure, and nothing would change that because time was up for what I had hoped my life would be. I guess I hit an emotional rock bottom; I can’t think of another way to describe it. I was making myself feel so horrible with my own thoughts and perceptions, and mostly, my regrets. How much worse could I actually feel? How much worse could someone else make me feel? Not much worse, I was sure of that.
That pain was a sort of breakthrough moment. If no one could make me feel worse than I was making myself feel, then what exactly was I afraid of? Of being judged? Check! Already doing that to myself. Of being laughed at? Check! Already doing that to myself. Of saying I wasn’t capable or worthy? Check! Done and done! What was left, then? To say yes.
I started saying yes.
I started taking workshops. You name the topic, I did it. Stand-up comedy, singing, college courses, writing, absolutely anything that made me feel a combination of excitement and nervousness. Then came the thing that my heart had been waiting for. The thing that felt absolutely perfect but also absolutely out of my reach—burlesque.
I had been a belly dance teacher for a few years at this point and knew very little about burlesque. I knew a burlesque performance normally resulted in the performer being nearly naked at the end of the act, and being me, a giant woman with more rolls than a breadbasket, this felt so out of the realm of possibility for me that it never entered my radar. But a few serendipitous things happened to change my mind. The first was a dance workshop with Princess Farhana, one of the few professional belly dancers who is also a professional burlesque dancer. Her weekend workshop consisted of both belly dance classes and burlesque classes and I certainly wasn’t going to miss the chance to study with her, no matter how ill-equipped I felt. So there I was, in my first burlesque class.
I’d always been attracted to glamour. Burlesque is all about glamour.
Feathers, sequins, rhinestones — the more audacious the better. My favorite movie is still Moulin Rouge. You get the idea. But I had never dared to think these types of things could be a part of my life. But putting a feather boa and elbow-length gloves on that first time felt exactly right. Even my posture changed. Like my body was saying Finally! What took you so long? This is what I have deserved! My year of saying yes to anything and everything took me into new territory. Scary and exciting and wonderful and intimidating as hell. Add to that the thought of being in my underpants in front of strangers. What the hell was I doing?
After that first workshop I dove in completely. I started learning every single thing I could about burlesque; going to shows, taking workshops, watching videos and documentaries, absolutely anything I could do to get closer to it, including visiting one of my now-favorite spots in NYC, The Slipper Room. My mom and I were visiting the city together for the first time and I got us tickets to a late-night show at what seemed like a hard-to-find literal hole-in-the-wall off some side street in the Lower East Side.
Inside it was nothing short of an absolute dream. We saw some of the most extraordinary performers in NYC that night, but one meant more than anything to me — Dirty Martini. An absolute goddess incarnate, delicious, full-figured, and sumptuous in ways I still can’t describe. And then I knew I could do this, too. So I did what anyone would do, I booked her to come to my studio for a weekend workshop.
My Plus-Size-Burlesque is a Screaming Success
The rest, you might say, is history. Since then I have had the privilege of bringing world-renowned burlesque performers to my studio including Peekaboo Pointe, Jezebel Express, and The Maine Attraction to teach workshops and perform in fantastic shows. Through my studying and learning from the absolute masters of burlesque I had the courage to begin teaching workshops and sessions of my own. My burlesque sessions sell out every single time they are offered, and I think it’s because of what they provide, which isn’t just learning how to take off some gloves and work with a boa.
I have students and performers of every single background. All sizes, all shapes, all ages, all genders, all sexualities. I know that a part of the reason I continue to do burlesque, and why I think it’s so very important, is that people can look at me, a fat woman nearing 40, on stage looking glamorous and believing in herself all while taking off her clothes to reveal the reality of her body to friends and strangers alike … dripping in rhinestones and sequins and covering every single expansive inch of my voluptuous self with glitter. And then seeing people clapping and screaming for it? That can be life-changing for someone in the audience or in a classroom who has never felt good enough.
Burlesque, to me, showcases representation, confidence, being worthy and meaningful and important not just regardless of size or in spite of size but because of size, because of exactly who I am, every single piece and pound and roll of who I am. But everyone has their own reasons for being drawn to burlesque.
This is what some of my students and performers have to say:
These feelings are the reason I teach. These feelings are the reason I perform. These feelings are the reason I say yes. These feelings are the reason you should say yes. Give yourself the chance I gave myself. Take your damn clothes off.
Rachel is an award-winning dancer, performer, singer, model, and cosplayer from Norfolk, Virginia. She is the owner of Hipnotic World Fitness Center in Chesapeake, the only burlesque and belly dance-focused studio in the Hampton Roads area. At the studio she is an instructor in belly dance and burlesque and leads body-kindness and specialty workshops throughout the year (www.hipnoticbellydancing.com)
Along with the studio, Rachel is the manager of The Feral Showgirls, a traveling production company featuring performers of all types, from burlesque and boylesque to belly dance and beyond. The Feral Showgirls work to be a visual representation of inclusivity, representation, and all the fun (www.feralshowgirls.com).
Rachel is also the lead singer/songwriter of the award-winning band Rachel and the JellyCats, an 8 piece band bringing vintage style into the modern world (www.rachelandthejellycats.
Finally, Rachel is a graduate student in mental health counseling, currently completing her internship with a local agency. Rachel hopes to develop a holistic counseling practice that incorporates body kindness, dance, performance, and confidence-building to assist clients in reclaiming love for their bodies and minds.