How Burlesque Dancing Healed Me

By H.D. Roslin

Content warning: references to sexual assault, substance abuse, and generally being an entire mess for a decade.

In many ways, my whole life built toward that terrible moment when, at age 22, I was raped.

My family only ever talked about bodies as entities that belonged to someone else — a god I couldn’t believe in, a future husband I couldn’t envision. Bodies, I’d been told, were beholden to others, however uncharitably. As a result, my early sexual experiences occurred in consent-ambiguous spaces, mostly to further confuse my already conflicted feelings about my body, my sexuality, my limits, and my individuality. My virginity, like that of many girls, wasn’t lost or surrendered so much as it was gradually eroded. Worn down into tiny grains of sand, my agency soon took up so little space on its own that working to preserve it felt selfish and false.

At age 14, I realized that sex was happening to me and that fighting it didn’t make much sense. When it was over and I was alone, I wept with huge gasping sobs, more certain than ever that I wasn’t special or worthy.

In the decade that followed, some of my experiences were better. One in particular was much worse. But nearly all of them reinforced the message that my body’s primary purpose was to be present and fully available to others.

So it was no surprise that at age 22, I found myself in a dangerous situation. I escaped that situation because my body knew best in the moments that mattered; I owe my body and instincts my life. My heart may have resigned itself to one more violation, but my body insisted: you will not die here, today. You are going to live.

And here we are.

The five years that followed were a veritable mess. I drank a lot. I converted my sexuality into a nuclear weapon, using it to hurt myself. I don’t really recall as much as I should, and what I do recall has been hard for me to forgive.

As my relationship at that time imploded, I remember my partner yelling in frustration, “NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT YOUR RAPE!” I hissed back, “It is, for me.” And honestly, that was true. Most of my actions were enraged pleas for literally any human being to stop me from self-destructing. I wanted someone to tell me that what had happened was unacceptable. I wanted someone to affirm that the expectation that I be the same as I was before was completely unreasonable and offensive.

Most of the messages I received demanded that I return to “normal” life as quickly as possible, because staring what had happened to me in the face was too frightening, too ugly, too impossible. I looked in the mirror and saw what my assailant saw: a thing. An ugly, abject, debased, worthless thing — his legacy. While my body healed, my mind and heart were left warped by his festering, gangrenous words.

Eventually, I shared my story with a wonderful human who held, forgave, and believed me. This person did not require that I shield or protect them from the inhumanity of what I had experienced. She sat and wept with me in outrage and horror.

And so began my recovery.

A year later, I walked into a studio and began burlesque dancing. I had missed musical theater and ballet after a decade-long hiatus, and thought, “What the heck, this seems fun!” Factually speaking, I had grown increasingly dissociative as I recovered from trauma. Partnered sexual experience occupied highly conflicted space in my emotional life. I viewed my trauma as a burden on sexual partners — an eggshell to be skirted, an inconvenience to be tolerated, or at its worst, a blemish that rendered me flawed and mercurial. My relationship with my body was distant. I tried not to interfere with it, and lamented its mysterious responses and cryptic messages.

I walked into the cold, damp burlesque studio determined to learn my body’s lexicon and decode its behavior.

At first I was frustrated. Burlesque is an embodied language composed of tightly isolated movements. In my efforts to disarm the bomb I constructed, I cut a lot of circuits. I’d forgotten that my shoulders and arms could roll and pull like taffy, and that my legs were strong in their thickness. I had to relearn that hips and rib cages and necks and wrists had separate ranges of motion, and that their presentation was most impactful in extremis. Performances worked best when nothing was understated, withheld, or guarded — so I let my body SHOUT.

As I strung these gestures and movements into wordless sentences, I learned to express feelings first, and then full stories with my body. Connections long lost or never formed knit themselves together.

If you’ve never stood on stage to tell a story with your increasingly nude body, you might think that the performer is there for the audience. You might believe that the goal is to entertain or to titillate — and in part, it is. But the secret of burlesque is this: we can carve out spaces in which feminine-presenting bodies can craft overt sexual content, and simply allow those bodies to express and narrate those stories safely. From the moment a performer steps on stage until the moment they return to the invariably either freezing cold or broiling hot dressing room, the story and its boundaries are defined entirely by the performer.

I learned to express feelings first, and then full stories with my body.

Burlesque performance is a place where the performer makes all of the rules, and the crowd joins them in solidarity. The rapt attention, the uproarious cheers and whistles, the enchanted smiles, are not expressions of consumption or appropriation — they are expressions of joyful wonder. These 20 or 50 or 150 people are present for whatever emotional journey you have brought to their feet, and they will walk at your side in awe of your bravery, your vulnerability.

As this secret revealed itself, I returned to therapy. I learned that the cryptic messages my body had been sending were crystal-clear, thoughtfully written letters about wounds requiring care. The growing connection between my story, my body, and my heart illuminated the myriad ways I remained injured. In therapy, I began to lend words to the stories I told on stage. The woman I became on stage (she has a different name than I do) was my medium. The music she chose, the stories she told — these were parts of myself I was silencing or refusing to confront. She was often angry or sad, but sometimes, she was exuberant or lascivious. By amplifying her voice, I found my own. Like a deep wound, our flesh needed help to heal from the inside out.

Eleven years after my assault, I perform very selectively now. I’ve learned to let my body tell me when it has a story to tell, and to follow its lead naturally. My stage persona and I are much closer friends, and she has learned my love of fictional characters as storytelling vehicles. We’ve been Dr. Who’s Donna Noble together, and Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer. We’ve been the goddess, Iris. We’ve been Starbuck and Dana Scully. We’ve learned to be playful. She tags along when I go to trapeze classes. I let her take the lead when new songs come on the radio. I’m taking her to Toronto for a performance in 2016. She has taught me the word “Mine,” and to shout it with confidence and valor. She is what keeps me connected to a body I’ve claimed as my own. She keeps me in therapy, learning to speak and feel on my own behalf and in my own skin.

Reclamation is strange, hard work. Our culture fights back when we refuse to lean in and instead say, “Actually, this is mine. This isn’t for you.” There’s a great deal of negative dialogue about feminine-presenting bodies choosing platforms where they make the rules. Strippers, elective sex workers, burlesque dancers, circus performers, weight lifters — we all hear it to varying degrees: “How dare you take space, time, attention, and give back only as much and as often as you like? How dare you defy the obligations and demands so carefully crafted to keep you fully available, without boundaries, and silent? How dare you challenge the economy constructed specifically to oppress you?”

By connecting with, redefining, and reclaiming our bodies from structures that work to render us as things, we stand to gain far more than we lose. So for each and every feminine-presenting person who has been hurt, I ask: please find ways to let your body speak. I am here, and so are countless others, poised to carve space for your reclamation and your healing.

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