In a moment of exultation, I poked my head out of the window of my family’s blue Subaru. It was a symbolic act—I would finally accept my newfound ability to open a 401k and star in porn. But before I could enjoy my revelatory thought, I choked on the thick and noxious New Jersey air. It reeked of chemical fumes and Chris Christie. Choosing Princeton had not been an easy task. In high school, I was confronted by students and teachers alike, assuring me that I would quickly become a persona non grata and find myself in the trash bin of Princeton’s history. I was repeatedly mocked for my lack of Vineyard Vines and penchant for the Urban Outfitters sale section. Nonetheless, I hoped to be a social butterfly. I craved universal acceptance. I had gotten my teeth brightened before school in order to wow the masses with my pearly whites. I was ready to make my grand entrance into the Princeton social scene… starting with CA. I had made it more than clear on my orientation survey that I had a proclivity toward inactivity and the indoors. I had been told I was doing art so I assumed I might be drawing inanimate objects or perhaps sculpting fruit out of Model Magic. When the words “Circus Arts” popped up in my email I couldn’t help but roll my eyes and bemoan my inability to do a cartwheel.
My parents instantly picked up on my frustration and thus began my Jewish mother’s neuroses. First came denial and promises that I was able to switch orientation trips. Denial was followed by anger directed at my lackluster job on the survey. Finally, there was acceptance, which she demonstrated with effusive promises that I would have the time of my life. I couldn’t even fathom what circus arts entailed. I envisioned myself falling from the trapeze to a gruesome death and losing appendages to badly-juggled machetes. I was most apprehensive about my physical preparedness. I am not the poster child for gymnastics. I am neither svelte nor lean but rather built in the image of Danny DeVito. I am epitomized by the word “compact.” My spherical shape had come in handy during the multiple years in which I dressed as the boy from Up for Halloween and my incredible game of limbo, but it greatly limited my balance and flexibility. I was intimidated and afraid that my debutant status as a Princeton freshman would be ruined by a shattered ego and perhaps a broken leg.
When we arrived, the Trenton circus squad welcomed us with open arms and an immediate task. Hoping to arrange the costumes, I was disappointed when I was delegated to clean the men’s bathroom. In true CA spirit, there was something meditative and bonding in wiping the inside of a urinal. Kinship emanated from the body hair and stench of Clorox that clung to our clothes.
The squad was nothing short of extraordinary. They exuded a willingness to teach and amiability that quickly purged my shame. Unable to juggle or spin plates and unwilling to even attempt the Chinese yo-yo, I was attracted to the silks. They were vibrant and alluring sheets that hung from a bar about twenty-five feet in the air. They oozed power and capability. I felt a visceral desire to climb to the top and hang freely. Sadly, I could hardly pull my body a foot off the ground. Sweat caressed my temples as I repeatedly tangled my body in the two sheets. I tried to flip but the result was a mangled amalgamation of limbs that stuck out in semi-inhuman positions. Nonetheless, I was suffused with a fiery determination and began to master the ability to stand on the silks. From this position, I was able to stretch out into delicate poses, which tortured every muscle in my body. It was in the haze of this pain that I realized my fascination with burlesque was born.
Initially, it seemed that my interest would be short-lived. I had neither the upper body strength nor long enough limbs to carry myself up the silks. Simply put, my body was not made for such an activity. I could not refrain from cursing my stocky physique. But quite like Christina Aguilera’s character in Burlesque, I refused to let my burgeoning career crash and burn. The silks functioned as a thrilling escape from the floor-bound monotony that was my childhood: it was a sensation emblematic of my maturation and debut in a new social atmosphere. They were dramatic and I felt sexy. I eventually was able to learn the diaper, a trick in which your legs are wrapped and suspended in a cushy harness. Though the name doesn’t necessarily scream sex appeal, the move allowed for ample adjustment. I was able to flip down in a violent but graceful tumble that sent a shock through my body. This shock was rousing and transformative—it was a potent reminder of my body’s potential. I am no Christina Aguilera and I definitely do not resemble Cher in any way, shape, or form but this art form felt so accessible. In a world dominated by societally-perpetuated beauty standards and stringent bodily limitation, burlesque felt like an escape and perhaps a means to achieve self-acceptance. Looking down from the peak of the silks inspired a sensation of power in me. It was both a physical and psychological elevation; I looked down upon the floor and the previous apprehensions that clouded my mind from my aerial throne and felt wholly contented. I was powerful and prepared to enter a new world.