You can bet that if I can’t finish a meal due to being scared, then I have so much fear it’s seeping out of every orifice of my body. I had never been this scared before - that I couldn’t take one more bite of a pretty damn good chicken wrap. But in less than two hours… I would be on a stage… in front of an entire crowd… dancing… and taking my clothes off.
This all started a year before when I attended an old-school, vaudeville style variety show called “Fuck The Back Row.” I had just landed my first major gig in social work and didn’t have many friends at the time. So, when I found this swanky event, I knew I’d be going alone.
After a band finished their set, a duo of scantily clad ladies took the stage to perform some burlesque. I had never seen an actual burlesque act before. The movie featuring Christina and Cher hadn’t come out yet (this is an older story if you couldn’t tell) and it was just as well. From what I hear, the movie had hardly anything to do with actual burlesque.
For those who aren’t familiar, burlesque is the old-fashioned form of striptease that brewed up in the 1930s. It wasn’t like the strippers of today who love to polish poles with boob sweat. These were more the kind of women who danced while guiding fans along their bodies to tease their male viewers and keep them on the edge of their seat for more.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly, but burlesque began making a resurgence a couple decades ago. This old-fashioned sexy art-form somehow offered the modern era something unique and exciting. Acts could range from classy and elegant to campy and hilarious. Anyone could participate regarding body type or gender.
Seeing it at the vaudeville show blew my mind. Granted, I had never been to an actual strip-bar, but I had seen enough portrayals in movies to know this was totally different. And yet, it was far more entertaining - their outfits, the ways they danced, the playfulness.
Then it hit me. Oh my god! I thought. I THINK I WORK WITH HER!!! One of the girls on stage looked exactly like a girl at my new job. They both had short hair dyed as bright red as a fire truck. And with the way she popped her hips, she could certainly set the place up in flames.
The moment their act was done, I ran from my seat to go find this mystery woman and see if I did, in fact, work with her. As soon as we locked eyes, I yelled in her face, “I work with you!!!”
“Oh, yes!” she got just as excited. “You’re that new guy!”
I met her at work as Casey. But on this night, I got to meet her again as Honey Touché. I told her how impressed I was that she did this. She was also pretty impressed that I was the type to attend such an event. Although I had long since left my hipster days behind me, shit like this still made me feel pretty cool.
Honey and I developed a solid friendship and after Luke and I started dating, we began going to their burlesque shows at a cabaret downtown. At our second show, a guy had performed that night and we learned that, during the resurgence of burlesque, they welcomed boys to romp around on stage too - dubbing it as “boylesque.”
“I wanna do this!” I told Luke after we left that show.
Luke did not like this idea. “I don’t feel comfortable telling people that my boyfriend is a stripper,” he said.
In his defense, he had lived quite the button down life. Things were still new for us and he was still getting used to my thirst for the more curiously fringe things in life. And to be honest, it didn’t really make sense for me anyway. I had zero stage experience.
Once, when I was a kid, a friend and I tried out for a play at the local community theatre. As part of the tryouts, we had to stand in a big circle and introduce ourselves in creative and animated ways. Kids would leap forth and swirl their hands around and say things like, “My name is Gary and I loooooove to be scary!”
When it came my turn, I stepped forward and said, “My name is Scott!” That’s it. The end. I might have tried to do jazz hands. But if I did, I kept them low at my side so hardly anyone could see. After that, I never tried out for anything ever again.
About a year after the burlesque discovery, Honey asked if I would ever be interested in performing an act with her. She’d been developing some fun duo ideas with a male performer in mind. I kindly told her that I had no background in stage or dance. Honey didn’t care. According to her, “burlesque is for everyone.” She’d teach me everything I needed to know.
My insides became a battleground of fear versus excitement. Sure, I said I wanted to do it. But now push came to shove and, with that brief childhood memory, the fear won the battle. I didn't want to do something like this unless I could be GREAT at it. Besides, as I told told Honey, Luke wouldn’t be comfortable with me doing it anyway.
“I think you should do it!” he said when I told him about Honey’s request.
Whaaaaat?! “But you said you didn’t want a stripper for a boyfriend.”
By this time we had gone to numerous shows and Luke fell in love with it all too. He fully understood that this was different from modern stripping. Most of the act is spent slowly removing the layers. And even in the final reveal, the girls wear pasties on their nipples. So, technically, by law, they don’t even get naked.
I wouldn’t have to wear pasties, but I would be covered by a g-string. By this time in our relationship, Luke had gotten used to me running off to enough nudist events that a g-string would be child’s play. (Note to self: maybe don’t put the words “g-string” and “child” in the same sentence ever again).
But now that I had his support I no longer had any excuses. When I got my HIV diagnosis a few years prior, I declared that I would live a life of transparency and facing fears. If I said “no,” I would be going back on the new person I wanted to be. So, I had no other choice but to tell Honey “yes,” I would try performing with her.
Her first idea was to do a parody of the “Nutcracker” for the holiday show coming up in a few months. So, not only did I have to do dance, but now I had to do one of the most difficult art-forms of dance. Honey told me to relax and that she’d make it as easy for me as possible.
For months, we practiced like crazy. I listened to the “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairies” hundreds of times hoping I’d get it memorized (it was only two minutes and fifteen seconds). I tried learning how to count music - something I still wouldn’t be able to get the hang of for another couple of years.
When the night of the show came, I had the act down. But I was so damn scared I couldn’t eat my food. The second we stepped out on stage, my guts nearly exploded all over the audience. I COULD SEE THEIR FACES LOOKING AT ME!!
The music started and we began doing our cute little dancing. I could not stop trembling and felt faint nearly the entire time. My moves were stiff and totally unanimated. I was definitely still that little boy who couldn’t properly do jazz hands and wanted it to end.
Then, before I knew it, the song was ending and we were about to do our final moves. I yanked down the rest of my unitard and revealed my feathered g-string to the entire cabaret (Honey had matching feathered pasties). The audience erupted in applause and the lights went out.
We hurried off stage with the unitard still around my ankles. When we got to the green room, I was filled with so much adrenaline that my heart wanted to pound its way right out of my chest. I gasped for air and my mouth was as dry as a turtle. I know this because I have a terrible habit of licking turtles. Once you start licking turtles, you really can’t stop.
But turtles were the last thing on my mind. All I could think was… I want to do that again! Sure, it had been terrifying and my performance was mediocre at best, but I had gotten the biggest rush I had quite possibly ever felt. It must be the kind of feeling people get who love going on roller coasters.
Fortunately, there were holiday shows the whole month of December and we were slotted for all of them. The same thing would happen for every performance. I’d get so anxious I’d wanna barf and then afterwards I’d salivate to do it all over again. When the holiday show came to a close, I was sad to leave the stage behind.
When Honey had more ideas for acts, this meant I had to actually come up with a stage name. Because of my lack of experience, I didn’t know how to choose a name with any kind of character or persona. I just wanted something kinda clever, kinda sexy, kinda funny, and kinda ridiculous. I came up with the name “Circum Simon.”
Honey would go on to develop a “Dirty Dancing” parody where Luke actually joined us in the act. Although he didn’t strip, he was a stage natural (of course). The man I loved joined me in this new thing I loved. I wanted his stage name to be Randy Gentile which, if translated right, means “horny non-jew” (a shining example of my terrible sense of humor). We tried it out a few times and it confused people more than anything else. After that, Luke decided to just not have a stage name.
We befriended more of the girls and much of the group came to feel like a tight-knit family of love and support and glitter. Eventually, they urged me to try and develop a solo act. When they announced an eighties themed show, I knew this would be the time as this was my favorite decade of music.
I auditioned an act to Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” - calling it “Gym Bag Time Machine.” The idea was that I would come out as a modern workout guy (imagine Rocky) with a gym bag and, since the gym bag was a time machine, I would pull eighties fitness wear out of the bag and slide these pieces on as I slowly stripped out of my modern clothes right up until the final reveal of a jockstrap.
It was as stupid as it sounds and that’s what I loved about it. If I was going to do this, I’d rather make myself comical than take it too seriously (something I had done for a majority of my life). The act made the cut and audiences actually liked it (probably because nobody can ever hate that song - not even Saddam Hussein).
The thing that once scared me so much became my new most favorite life pleasure - something so few people would ever dare step their toes in. Moving past my fear of taking the stage and dancing in front of people gave me the good fortunate of experiencing the rush and joy of performance.
The more I took to the stage, the better I got at performing. I would never go on to become some dynamic performer, but that was okay. It made me happy, audiences enjoyed what I had come up with, and, as Honey said, “burlesque is for everyone.” The whole thing taught me that you don’t have to necessarily be great at something in order to enjoy it.
Unfortunately, once I took up the writer’s lifestyle, burlesque had to take a backseat. There was just no time to do both and I wouldn’t get much stage time over these last couple years. However, it has been announced that the eighties show will return in August of 2019. By then, my book will be out and I won’t worry about writing another for a good while. Perhaps it’ll be the perfect time for Circus Simon to go back and get his fear-facing-fix.