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29 May 2023

My adventure in burlesque

A combination of masochism and narcissism sent me onstage.

By Lamorna Ash

In a cocktail bar below one of Dalston’s many taco restaurants in east London, onstage in a pair of Texan flag boxers, cropped vest and a cowboy hat, I was dancing to country music in a way I hoped the audience might receive as vaguely imitative of a burlesque act, just two thoughts looping through my brain: 1) will this ever end? And 2), in the words of the Talking Heads: “How did I get here?”

My friend Kate runs the night. It’s called “Like a Virgin” and there’s only one rule for those who agree to perform: you have to do something you’ve never done before onstage. Though I missed its first few iterations, I’d gathered a good deal of second-hand information about these nights. I knew the bar had a dark pink, ruffled fabric ceiling (like the inside of a vagina, a friend suggested) and that the spicy margaritas packed a punch. I’d heard about past acts – glamorous flamenco routines, fledgling stand-up skits, drag duets comprising so many elements they sounded like complete miniature plays. I watched priceless footage of a mutual best friend, Ben, gliding about the stage on roller skates, wearing a human-sized banana costume he’d made himself, singing “Figaro!”, and, as if that were not enough, with remarkable dexterity managing to strip beneath his constrictive banana armour. Ben passed away shortly after that night, and now each performer is awarded a Banana of Courage at the end of their act, in remembrance of Ben.   

I signed up to perform at the fourth rendition of Like a Virgin because my friends’ gentle needling had worn me down, because most of them had already braved the boards without suffering any blowback, and because, despite my inability to sing, dance, act or do anything, really, that remotely resembles a performable talent, there remains in me some unquenchable subterranean urge – part narcissism, part masochism – to stand before a crowd under the hot bright lights and, in one way or another, bare my soul.  

I can’t remember how I arrived at the idea of a quasi-burlesque homage to my paternal grandfather, except that as soon as I did, it seemed obvious there could be no better idea. Bill “Tex” Ash is the undisputed hero of the Ash family line. He was born in Dallas in 1917, the son of a travelling hat salesman. Growing up through the Great Depression, and then hearing about the metastasis of fascism across Europe, set his political compass. He understood these twin evils, capitalism and fascism, to be the ideologies against which his future would be forged. 

When the Second World War broke out, he boarded a train to New York state and walked across the Peace Bridge to Canada, forgoing his American citizenship in order to enlist. He trained as a Spitfire pilot, was gunned down in France, immured in prisoner-of-war camps, escaped, was recaptured, escaped again. After the war, he settled in Britain, worked for the BBC, beat up Blackshirts on the weekend, was let go of by the BBC for his street politics, and helped found the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).  

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My initial schemes were wildly overambitious. I saw it all in fantastic daydream definition. A tribute to Bill “Tex” Ash that would do justice to every aspect of his life through a gleaming amalgam of dance, song and dramatic monologue. A heady week went by, and then another, during which I contentedly visualised the success of my performance while continuing to take none of the actions that might bring it about – except for ordering some Texan flag boxers off the internet, as well as a cowboy hat that a friend would later inform me was in fact an Australian slouch hat.

[See also: A transcendent singalong with Bruce Springsteen in Rome]

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The day of the performance, after a morning spent in motionless horror before a mirror in my Texan flag boxers, I texted my friend Georgia, a veteran performer, “I think I need your help…” and cycled to their flat with my props in a backpack. Georgia said, “Show me what you’ve got.” And I said, “Can’t I just tell you about it?” They suggested it would be easier to help me if I actually showed them what I had planned. “OK, but I’ll just look over here,” I pointed to a spot on the wall a metre above their head, “while I’m doing it.” They said, “Lamorna, just perform it for me. This is the worst it’s going to be: to an audience of one, mid-afternoon, in my living room.” 

Afterwards, breathless, red and for the second time that day (but not the last) stripped down to a pair of Texan flag boxers, I waited for my notes while Georgia wiped their eyes. “I reckon I’ve got a few ideas which could improve that…” they said, diplomatically.   

I spend a lot of time in awe of my friends and the remarkable ways they go about living their lives. Kate doesn’t just run Like a Virgin. She curates and then sets in motion a fully formed, mutually supportive, joyful community that lasts a whole night. During the tech rehearsal, she was endlessly patient, allaying each of our micro-concerns. And once the punters were all in, she showed by example how she wanted them to hold and champion her cast of novices.  

There were four acts before mine. A woman in a neon-green wig and slinky gloves up to her elbows stood before the mic and proceeded to whistle haunting melodies. Someone dressed as a friar performed a routine about trying to follow meditation apps when your mind is distracted by constant thoughts of assorted dildos. It dawned on me that I would be the worst by quite some lengths.

I remember almost nothing from my short spell in the limelight. I’d asked the sound technician, Rico, to cut the music early if I was really flailing. I said I’d blow him a kiss as a cue. But Rico didn’t see my many air kisses, so I gave up and limped on to the end of the song in a fugue state. I know I started out by reading a brief extract from one of my grandfather’s books, Marxist Morality (basically, I was using it as a device to “summon” his ghost – I’m not going into my whole sorry concept here, it’s too triggering), and I know I forgot to execute my supposed big finale (pouring a whole bottle of whiskey over my head, which was really water), but what happened in the middle is anyone’s guess. Without a doubt, I made a fool of myself. Without a doubt, if there is an afterlife, my grandfather was watching on in bafflement, asking: “How is this my legacy?”

By the end of the night, partly thanks to the enlightening effects of spicy margaritas, I realised that how my performance went down had never mattered. What Kate created, this night built on the principles of collective joy, was an entity that existed totally independent of the skill of those onstage – that to even think about it in those terms, of who bombed and who triumphed, would be to wholly miss the point. This is probably a lesson you can learn without recourse to humiliating yourself in Texan flag boxers. But you never know, they might come in useful again some time.   

[See also: A childlike wonder at the world’s everyday beauty is best left to grown-ups]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation