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Portraits & Stories

Wheelchair burlesque: not just a fantasy!

Directing the spotlight from the wheelchairs to the burlesque performers

Directing the spotlight from the wheelchairs to the burlesque performers

“As disabled people, we’re told a lot that we don’t have the right to feel sexy, that we don’t have the right to be sexy”,

Empress Eyrie tells the journalist with her voice quivering on the verge of tears. Empress is an Australian burlesque performer, who lives with a range of conditions including fibromyalgia and arthritis.

In this article, we present you her and two other women in wheelchair who share the same passion of burlesque: the performance art of glamor, playfulness and seduction.

Tease-Able: Australia’s first inclusive burlesque

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A walking stick is Empress’ mobility aid and prop at some of her burlesque performances. (Source: Facebook @Empress Eyrie – fanpage)

Due to nerve damage and other chronic conditions, Empress Eyrie needs a walking stick to get around. She recalled her first experience with burlesque online classes, which were too demanding for her. The teachers didn’t understand her needs, making her feel like a burden.

This motivated her to start the first disability and mental illness inclusive in-person burlesque dance course in Australia called Tease-Able. In the course, everyone is encouraged to explore their capabilities and build their confidence through practicing custom-choreographed burlesque routines. In July, a group of Tease-Able students made their debut on stage after eight burlesque classes.

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The Tease-Able students advertise their debut burlesque show. (Source: Facebook @teaseable)

Proud of her students, Empress thinks that accessible burlesque performances make positive social impacts. As a performer with disabilities, she feels especially rewarding whenever audience comes up to her after the show, thanking her for representing them and showing them things which they never thought they are capable of.

DisabiliTease: shows of strength and resilience

Little Peaches is another Australian burlesque performer based in the UK. She has a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), which greatly affects her joint stability and mobility.

When she was told to stop dancing due to her condition, she decided to take her passion of dancing to the next level – she began learning burlesque. In 2019, she started DisabiliTease, a burlesque show with disabled performers. The debut show in Liverpool was sold out and a great success.

Nevertheless, setting up DisabiliTease has been challenging in many ways. First, promoting burlesque on social media is tricky as posts can easily be blocked because of nudity contents. Second, it is difficult to find an accessible venue for performers and audience in wheelchairs, especially when their budget is tight.

In addition, people with disabilities have long been underrepresented and misrepresented in the society, causing disabled performers’ self-doubt from time to time. Little Peaches is one of them. For that, she is grateful to have supportive families and friends to reassure her worthiness when she needs it. Her teacher always reminds her,

“When you’re up there (on the stage), you’re up there for you. They’re lucky to see you up there, so you take that power.”

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Little Peaches believes burlesque performers in wheelchair can be as attractive as any other burlesque performers. (Source: Facebook @TheOriginalDisabiliTease)

When Little Peaches became a wheelchair burlesque performer, she learnt that her disabilities won’t stop her from living her dancing passion. She enjoys performing in her wheelchair as it shows the world that living in a wheelchair is not disastrous. Of course, she also wants to show her audience that wheelchair burlesque can be equally charming and sexy.

Early this year, Little Peaches made a video where she appreciates her body and expresses herself with the concept of body neutrality:

“Your weapon is your defiance, your stubbornness, your resilience, your willingness to know that it’s okay to not be okay.”

Miss Disa-Burly-Tease: accepting disability

Jacqueline Boxx is a burlesque performer from the US. Like Little Peaches, she is diagnosed with EDS. But unlike Little Peaches, Jacqueline struggled to perform burlesque in wheelchair at the beginning.

Influenced by her ableist preconceptions about disability, Jacqueline didn’t want to perform in wheelchair because that would mean she admits herself as “broken”. Only with the guidance and encouragement of her mentors at a burlesque program, she started to welcome the wheelchair into her life. She accepts her disability through her burlesque performances in wheelchair. Later she even put on a show to advocate for people like her who lives with invisible disability:

In 2017, Jacqueline became the first performer to compete for a title at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender in a wheelchair. She performs wheelchair burlesque in different countries, including the 2021 Virtual DisabiliTease Festival. She also holds workshops and classes to teach people with mobility limitations adaptive burlesque movements that are safe and sexy. To her, sexuality knows no boundaries.

“Only because you have an illness or disability, it doesn’t mean you cannot be sexy and perform.”

There is another video by Jacqueline Boxx at this link:

Like Jacqueline says, her wheelchair is not what makes her a woman and performer with a disability. However, with her wheelchair, she can go further and do much more than she could have without it.

What do you think about wheelchair burlesque? What makes you feel sexy and attractive?

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