My Year as a Burlesque Dancer

by Karen Rose

I came to Hawaii to heal. Some women recreate their lives by slowly testing out the waters and delicately dipping their toes into the ocean to test the temperature. I didn’t have time for such leisure. I knew I had to dive in head first. Sink or swim. Without a radical move—a complete life change, I would shrivel into a shadow of myself and be blown away by a Santa Ana wind – my ashes scattered throughout the southwestern desert.

Hence, I stripped myself both metaphorically and literally to become reborn. After all, I was born naked. If I was going to do this properly, it would need to be legitimate.

I’m a writer, a mother, a survivor, and a feminist. A couple of years after moving to Hawaii, I also spend a year as a burlesque dancer.

Some people find this an oxymoron, because they think that dancing burlesque makes me a tramp, an object of our misogynistic culture who likes to shake her assets for male attention. I’m here to set the record straight.

Burlesque is satire as well as tease. It uses performance art to mock cultural conventions and rewrite societal narrative.

Unlike stripping which is a profession customized primarily for a male audience, a burlesque audience is typically over half female. Burlesque dancers are not pressured to conform to society’s patriarchal standards of beauty. We are encouraged to embrace our uniqueness, tell our own stories, and create our own vision of sexy, regardless of whether it involves striptease. (And while some burlesque dancers indeed practice the art of striptease, others do not. Additionally, stripping is not legal on the Big Island).

Burlesque is empowering. It’s about owning and controlling my own body, on my own terms. And for me, that is sexy.

Performing burlesque allows me to take back something that was stolen from me as a child. The power over my own body, my own sexuality. When I perform, I’m in control. I call the shots.

Why? Because I can.


Burlesque is an accepting sisterhood that gives permission to express sensuality and indulge feminine energy into a creative performance that celebrates individuality. It doesn’t place value on my body in terms of age, weight or attractiveness.

Burlesque is described as a ‘sisterhood of sequins’, a ‘glitter tribe’, a connection among women who are accepting of other women, which isn’t something our society often encourages. Because women run the show and control the content, burlesque has the power to turn cultural norms upside down and give women an opportunity to take their power back, take their bodies back. For me, it gives me the right to enjoy my sexuality and celebrate it anyway I damn well please. To me, this is progress in action.

I feel if we start treating the female body with more respect, autonomy, and openness, women will ultimately be safer. We need to stop being judgmental about women who enjoy their sexuality, and more outraged about the fact that society shames women for being sexual, but not men.

Who the hell doesn’t want to enjoy an evening of bad-ass women being sexy, clever, and funny? From vintage boas and fan dances, to fire-dancing and lip-syncing, burlesque gives me permission to cover myself in glitter and unleash my cheeky, bawdy side.

For me burlesque is about making a statement, healing a wound, and expanding a comfort zone. It’s empowering and passionate. It’s fun and cheeky – not trashy. It’s about celebrating my femininity and feeling good about myself. It’s about reclaiming my body and my soul from someone who stole it from me without my permission.

I recognize others may perceive burlesque as exploitative, however an art form that celebrates rather than objectifies the female body shouldn’t be discredited as anti-feminist. For many women, myself included, it brought a confidence and grace that has stayed with me since my ‘year as a burlesque dancer.’ Maybe the real issue is how society so easily passes judgement on how women choose to express and own their sexuality.

Consider the record set straight.

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