Share on Pinterest
Photograph by Jason Standeger

How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.

The spotlight is bright in my eyes as I mischievously grin out at the crowd of unrecognizable faces in the audience. As I begin to slip an arm out of my cardigan, they go wild with screams and clapping.

And in that moment I am healed.

When one thinks of various healing modalities, burlesque doesn’t likely make the list. But since I began performing nearly eight years ago, burlesque has been one of the most transformative influences on my life. It helped me overcome my history of disordered eating, gain a new love for my body, and grapple with the ups and downs of my physical disability.

Burlesque pushed me outside my comfort zone

When I walked into my very first burlesque class in 2011, I knew virtually nothing of the art form except for a documentary I watched on Netflix a few months prior. I’d never been to a burlesque show, and my conservative, evangelical background mixed with a heavy dose of body shame meant I’d also never done anything remotely like it, either.

But there I was, a very nervous 31-year-old embarking on a six-week class in hopes that it would help me learn to love and appreciate my body and give voice to the story I knew it wanted to tell.

Through burlesque I learned that all bodies are good bodies, sexy bodies, bodies worthy of being seen and celebrated. I learned that my body is all of those things.

I originally thought I’d take the class, do the graduation performance, and then put burlesque behind me. But the day after my graduation show, I booked a second performance, followed by another. And another. I couldn’t get enough!

I loved the humor, politics, and seduction of burlesque. I felt empowered and liberated by the act of a woman being onstage, embracing her sexuality, telling a story with her body.

This empowerment helped me shed the notion that my body wasn’t ‘good enough’

When I started burlesque, I had spent a good portion of my life steeped in shame around my body. I’d been brought up in a church that viewed a woman’s body as sin. I was raised by a parent who was constantly yo-yo dieting, and I was married to a man who regularly berated me about my size and appearance.

I had tried for years to make my body “good enough” for everyone else. I never once stopped to think about the fact that maybe it already was more than good enough.

So, the first time I took off a piece of clothing onstage and the crowd went wild, I felt years’ worth of the negative messages I heard and told myself about my body fall away. One of my burlesque instructors reminded us before taking to stage that we were doing this for us, not for anyone out there in the audience.

And it was true.

While the screams of appreciation helped for sure, that performance felt like a gift I was giving myself. It was as if with each piece of clothing I stripped away, I found a little part of me hiding underneath.

Through burlesque I learned that all bodies are good bodies, sexy bodies, bodies worthy of being seen and celebrated. I learned that my body is all of those things.

This began translating over into my life offstage as well. I took the “motivation dress” off its hanger and donated it. I stopped trying to diet and exercise myself into smaller-size jeans and embraced my belly and thighs with all of their wiggles and dimples. Each time I stepped offstage after a performance I felt a bit more love for myself and healed a bit more.

I had no idea, though, how much burlesque would help me grow and heal until I got sick.

Lessons I learned in burlesque helped me navigate life with chronic illness

About two years after I started doing burlesque, my physical health took a turn for the worse. I was tired and in pain all the time. My body just felt like it had given up. Within six months I was bed-bound more days than not, lost my job, and took a leave of absence from my graduate studies. I was generally in a really bad place, both physically and emotionally.

After many doctor visits, extensive tests, and medication after medication, I received several diagnoses of different chronic conditions, including ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, and chronic migraine.

During this time I had to take a hiatus from burlesque and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to return. At times I found myself unable to move, even from one room to another in my house. Other times my thinking was so slow and clouded that words dangled just out of my grasp. I couldn’t make my kids dinner most days, much less dance or perform.

As I struggled with the new realities of my daily life as a chronically ill and disabled person, I fell back on the lessons burlesque taught me about loving my body. I reminded myself that my body was good and worthy. I reminded myself that my body had a story to tell, and that story was worth celebrating.

I just needed to figure out what that story was, and how I was going to tell it.

Getting back onstage meant being able to tell a story my body had been waiting to tell for months

Nearly a year into my illness, I was learning to manage my physical symptoms. Some of my treatments were even helping me to be more mobile and better able to engage in my normal daily activities. I was immensely grateful for this. But I missed burlesque, and I missed the stage.

A life coach I was working with suggested I try dancing with my walker.

“Just try it in your room,” she said. “See how it feels.”

So I did. And it felt great.

Days later I was back onstage, along with my walker, gliding as Portishead sang, “I just want to be a woman.” On that stage I allowed my movement to tell the story my body had been wanting to tell for months.

With each shimmy of my shoulders and sashay of my hips, the audience loudly screamed. I barely noticed them, though. In that moment I was truly doing what my burlesque teachers told me years before: I was dancing for myself and for nobody else.

In the years since, I’ve taken to stage many more times, with a walker or cane, and just my body. Each time as the clothes come off I’m reminded that my body is a good body.

A sexy body.

A body worthy of celebration.

A body with a story to tell.

And with each telling, I am healed.


Angie Ebba is a queer disabled artist who teaches writing workshops and performs nationwide. Angie believes in the power of art, writing, and performance to help us gain a better understanding of ourselves, build community, and make change. You can find Angie on her website, her blog, or Facebook.