CEDAR RAPIDS — Cat Cantrill radiates confidence.
It’s clear by the way she walks and talks and even clearer in the way she dances — her hips sway and gyrate while she holds eye contact with her audience, a sultry expression on her face.
Growing up, she was often accused of “dancing too sexy,” she recalled, but today, as the owner of her own dance studio, the 41-year-old can dance however she pleases.
At Vitality Fitness and Dance in Cedar Rapids, Cantrill not only “dances sexy,” but she believes also empowers and transforms women through burlesque.
It wasn’t until she went through her own transformation, though, that she discovered she could help others.
At 32, her marriage crumbled. She’d been with the same man since she was 19, and somewhere between getting married and having children and later getting a divorce, she’d gained weight and stopped dancing.
She lost herself.
“I didn’t know who I was anymore ... I got lost in the shuffle,” she said. “It was the lowest part of my life. I had low self esteem …. I felt like a fish out of water, flopping around.”
She started online dating, and while filling out profiles, she realized she no longer knew what her interests were.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
She started exercising and dropped more than 50 pounds — “to the point of people asking if I was eating,” she said. “I thought if I got skinny I’d be happy. But I wasn’t. I knew something was missing.”
That something, she said, was burlesque.
“Burlesque gets a really bad rap, but it’s just a tool to allow women to love themselves,” she said. “It made me feel confident, beautiful and sensual.”
She looked for places to dance in Cedar Rapids but came up short. Someone suggested she start her own studio, but she thought she was too old, too out of shape and too busy already juggling single-motherhood and a full-time job.
Still, knowing how burlesque helped her pushed her to share it with others. In August 2013, she opened Vitality.
Business started slow, with just one student. Now — even with her other full time job and two teenage children — she has a waiting list of people wanting to join each week and a 27-person performance troupe called the Va Va Voom. (The group will perform at 8 p.m., Dec. 19, at the Giving Tree Theater in Marion — www.givingtreetheater.com.)
Although she hasn’t earned a paycheck yet from Vitality, she said her payment comes from “watching women transform.”
“It’s like they’re in a cocoon,” she said. “A lot of these women have so many issues with themselves, their self-esteem and their self-confidence that they can’t even look at themselves in the mirror.”
Women come to her saying there’s “no way” they could “dance like that,” dye their hair funky colors — like Cantrill’s deep sea blue — or wear bright-red lipstick.
Why not? Because women put pressure on other women to act a certain way, Cantrill said.
Although it’s usually not on purpose, it is how women develop and reinforce low self-esteem and lack of confidence. But if another woman says something is OK, then it’s OK, she explained.
“Women need permission from other women to self invest ... Permission to love themselves and their bodies,” she said.
At Vitality, Cantrill offers that “permission” as well as a safe space for women to be themselves — no “mean girls” or judgment allowed.
“There’s no cattiness or competition here,” said Leisha Stelken, a member of the Va Va Voom.
“It’s a safe place to be yourself, a home away from home,” Cantrill added.
“Every woman wants the courage to do this, but doing it is a little scary,” said Regina Davis, another member of the Va Va Voom, who admitted her sister-in-law had to “drag” her in “kicking and screaming.” She was afraid to be so vulnerable.
“The hardest part is getting in the door, but once you’re in, you never leave,” she said.
Cantrill’s seven-week confidence program, called “Secret Wardrobe,” uses a series of assignments that help women clear the clutter from their closet and the emotional baggage with it. By donating old clothes, women reinvent their personal style and transform into the woman they want to be.
As for burlesque, a stylized dance form dating back to Vaudeville, Cantrill said there are a lot of misconceptions about it, but “it’s never what people think it’s going to be.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Through burlesque and Cantrill’s confidence program, women are able to look in the mirror and finally love what they see.
“The body confidence that comes with this is unreal,” Stelken said.
“I still have my ‘mama pouch’ and stretch marks, but when I see them, it doesn’t upset me,” Davis said. “I love every stretch mark because it’s who I am.”
Many Vitality members echoed similar sentiments.
“Every woman has inside her what it takes to love herself, but sometimes they need a little push to help find it,“ Davis said.
For most of the women at Vitality, Cantrill was that “little push.”
“If I could bottle up what I found in this place and give it to every woman, I would,” Davis said. “It’s a feeling I never want to let go.”
See the Va Va Voom perform live!
When: Saturday Dec. 19, 2015 at 8 p.m.
Where: The Giving Tree Theater in Marion
Details: Seating is limited, reserve your seat now by visiting www.givingtreetheater.com.