How I became a trumpet-blowing burlesque dancer

I used to be very involved with community musical theatre companies on the north side and North Shore area years ago. I had done some acting in high school and college, and although a music major, never considered myself a singer. I sang in my church choir, and in choirs at school, but never considered myself “soloist” material. I always felt safe blending in with everyone else.

I began doing community theatre on a dare and found a whole new amazing community of creative friends. One of these friends is a director, Steve. I auditioned for him on more than one occasion and grew to think of him as not only a good friend, but a mentor. He was going to be directing a production of Gypsy and asked me if I was going to audition. 

“Isn’t that show about strippers?” I asked. He responded, “Well, burlesque dancers, but yes.”

I honestly didn’t know that much about the show at the time so I asked jokingly, “Is there really any part for a big black woman in an early 1920’s show about strippers?”

“Why wouldn’t there be?” he asked. 

I was honestly floored (and scared) by his response. I read up on the show, listened to music from it and still couldn’t figure out which part he was thinking I should audition for. So, I asked him. He told me that there were three strippers that had a big number near the top of Act 2, and he thought I should look at one of those. I still couldn’t envision it, but I went for the audition. I didn’t feel I had done well, but I still reached out to him after I saw I made callbacks to ask him if he had any advice for me. What he said next was one of those “AHA!” moments that have always stuck with me. 

He said:

“I want you to stop trying to make yourself small. You keep closing your body up by folding your arms in. You aren’t small. You are a big, beautiful, bold, black woman and I want you to OWN that at your callback. OWN IT. Be big on stage. Do it big and wow me.”

So, I practiced in front of a mirror-- and sure enough, I could see that I kept closing up, like a lotus at night. I needed to think of something to make myself have that “WOW” factor. And then it hit me.

The next day was my callback. It took every ounce of will within me to lean into my song, to open my arms out wide and move around on the stage. When I got to the end of the callback snippet that had been chosen for everyone called back for the stripper parts...

I slammed my large, 30-something year old body into a split and threw my arms into the air as if I were a young, skinny cheerleader back in high school and our team had just won the game. I heard a few gasps and I knew I had nailed it. 

I got the part of Mazeppa, the trumpet-blowing burlesque dancer, and you know, I remember the theatre critic who came to see the show gave our stripper number, our one little scene such great reviews! I was mentioned as one of the many reasons to come and see the show. I never forgot Steve’s advice, and I used that approach any time I auditioned. I think back to his words any time I find myself silencing my voice or feeling the need to “blend in” in new surroundings and situations. 

There is a poem by Erin Hanson that I love. Perhaps you’ve heard this before:

“There is freedom waiting for you, on the breezes of the sky,

And you ask "What if I fall?" Oh but my darling, what if you fly?”

Do you find yourself closing yourself in? It doesn’t matter what size you are. It is easy to want to blend in with the crowd and not want to draw attention to yourself. It is easy to want to stay small in the hopes that you won’t stick out. But-- you are HERE. Even when you don’t believe it, or can’t see it, you create a ripple effect in the world. Don’t make yourself small. Be big. Be bold. Own it. FLY

Ever Expanding, IzzyJi

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