A Butch in a Boa: How I Survived Burlesque Lessons

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

When friends first suggested that my fiancée and I join them at a local burlesque festival, I didn’t need much persuading. It was only after we’d gotten there that they informed me of the first activity on the agenda: a free class in how to use a feather boa in a burlesque act.

For those unfamiliar with our taxonomy, let me explain that lesbians come in a variety of flavors. The list includes lipstick-and-heels femmes, tomboys and sporty dykes, grrls and other alterna-types, crunchy vegetarians, some frumpy older aunts, and ones who look a bit like men. A subcategory of the last, of which I am a proud member, resembles nothing so much as lumpy teenage boys.

Being a masculine woman (or butch, to my friends) is comfortable and authentic for me—and I admit it can bring certain perks. There’s an option, inaccessible to most women, of becoming one of the guys. Think of it as a get-out-of-sexism-free card. Men don’t tend to objectify our bodies. They’re more likely to treat us as equals, include us in guys’ nights out, and feel at ease with us in a way they might not when there’s a girl around. But this honorary-guy status is fragile. Our bodies, and our identity as women, belie our attempts to blend in with the men. This can lead to something I call “butch short man syndrome”: a condition whereby the most aggressive, macho, idiotic, overcompensating person in the room is often a butch woman.

In the past, I’ve hardly been immune to this condition. Then I met my fiancée. She has always preferred butches (for our handsomeness and cocky, boyish exuberance, I assume), but when we started going out, she told me in no uncertain terms that she would not put up with the sort of butch woman who mistakes masculinity for misogyny. She described with disdain first dates where a simple offer to pay for her own drink was met with scorn and attempts at sex where she was treated more as a breakable object than as a partner. So, when I heard about this boa thing, I knew she’d be expecting me to go along without complaining. Besides, I thought, it’s sure to be mostly demonstration. A large crowd, perhaps a few optional moments of class participation, easy enough to audit if you’re not the boa type.

Then I saw the brightly lit classroom, a mirror covering an entire wall, and six or seven other participants each being handed a feather boa by the enthusiastic, smiling performer/instructor. And the photographer. Oh, God. The photographer. “I’m not sure this is a good idea,” I murmured. My fiancée smiled encouragingly.

I’m not going to lie, I fought it for a moment. It seemed ridiculous. I was expected to debase myself with a feather boa, to lower myself to the level of … all these other women who were just trying to have some fun. My two friends, one a science teacher, the other a fellow writer. The woman I’d decided to spend my life with, who’s heading into grad school for entomology. Women whom I respect, who deserved better than to be treated as if wanting to take a dance class somehow meant that they were shallow, silly, or frivolous. I pictured myself trudging through the class with a scowl on my face, making a show of how beneath me it all was—but no. I couldn’t be that guy. So I took the feather boa from the lady’s hands and draped it around my neck. I stuck my hands into my pockets, imagining it might lend me an air of James Dean–esque nonchalance. I took a deep breath … and committed.

A portrait of the author with a red boa.
A portrait of the author with a red boa.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Vitiello

It was, undeniably, an experience. To start, we were invited to run our hands down the boas, the ends of which cascaded down our upper bodies, while bending forward in a suggestive manner. I complied, feeling grateful for my oversize sweater. Then we were to open our arms wide, a feathery end in each hand, and promenade in a circle, showing ourselves to the imagined audience. I did this with big, clomping, purposeful steps, avoiding any dainty feminine ones, convinced that my air of confident masculinity would still shine through, in spite of everything. (My fiancée reports that I may not have been 100 percent successful. “You looked like you were having fun,” she says, by way of reassurance).

The next part I hesitate to describe. But, as a journalist, I owe my readers the truth: We were shown a move the instructor called “the butt floss,” in which the boas dropped below our bottoms as we swung them to and fro (the boas and the bottoms), then we were told to gather the two ends of the boas in our hands and bounce our asses upward, jerking at the doubled boas with each bounce, as if they were tails. All I can say of this is that I smiled gamely and acquitted myself adequately.

Last but not least, she taught us to twirl the doubled boas in the air and finish by letting the tail fly free before releasing them. I was the first to master the twirling-tail-flying-release bit. Piece of cake—not unlike a pitcher’s wind-up, really. And it was over. I could smooth my sweater, hand back the boa, and return to normal. I hadn’t ruined anybody’s good time, and while I might be in no hurry to repeat the experience, it had been a lot more fun than sitting in the corner sneering.

The pull to express one’s masculinity by denigrating everything that’s feminine is strong. Most butches feel it—and many men do, too, I’d venture. But I’d like to suggest that someone who is truly confident in their masculinity ought to be able to shake their ass and twirl the occasional feather boa, assuming the situation calls for it.