Cancer

Battling Breast Cancer With Burlesque

Believing it to give women a sense of ownership over their bodies again, Lisa Payne teaches burlesque workshops to women with breast cancer and other health conditions.

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Like many women, Lisa Payne hasn’t always been body confident. Struggling with self image, she wouldn’t have put herself up there as a natural burlesque performer. But experiences have meant that she now runs workshops for women across the UK—including those with breast cancer.

It all started thirteen years ago when she was working with a director who organized for performer Jo King to run a striptease workshop and no one had signed up. As a favor, she was convinced to give it a shot. “I had significant body image issues,” she remembers. It was honestly the worst thing I could imagine. It was a mortifying thought to take something off, and not only take something off, but be sexy doing it.”

In the end all she had to do was take off a boa, and the session was a success. There is a significant difference between striptease and burlesque – in the latter you don’t have to take anything off, and it’s all about attitude and character. The style suited Lisa, with Jo telling her that she had an “amazing face to do comedy burlesque. I put it at the back of my mind, and didn’t know what it was.” 

A few years later, Lisa’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Lisa went with her to support groups, and recalls women talking about how they no longer felt feminine since their diagnoses. She remembered that workshop and how liberating it felt. Would the women in the support group find it useful as they dealt with their health?

They did. Like Lisa, the women in the support group found the burlesque workshop she put on for them empowering. They enjoyed burlesque’s celebratory vibe, and felt like it helped them reclaim ownership of their bodies. “There was a feeling of standing saying ‘this is me’ and I’m enjoying the way I move,” remembers Lisa. “I loved the laughter that workshop seemed to generate. Seeing people transform.”

Lisa Payne leading a burlesque workshop.

Sparked by her success, Lisa now runs burlesque workshops for women with health issues, who are recovering from illness or trauma, or those who simply struggle with their self-esteem. Their first time, most women are unsure about burlesque, but Lisa starts by getting them into a corset, even if it’s wearing it over a t-shirt. The effect can be transformative.

“Burlesque is about removing yourself and getting away from your thoughts,” explains Lisa. “For that time, you are nobody’s wife, mother, or nice lady: you are the most powerful and wonderful person in the world. There’s no place for negativity. And it’s important to give ourselves a break from constant negative talk.”

“Burlesque is about removing yourself and getting away from your thoughts. For that time, you are nobody’s wife, mother, pr nice lady: you are the most powerful and wonderful person in the world. “

A few women from Lisa’s original breast cancer workshop have gone onto be performers themselves. But even those who have not have found new confidence through burlesque. “One woman went to an interview for senior school job, and put nipple tassels on under her interview outfit,” remembers Lisa. “She aced the whole interview with confidence and in character – and got the job.”

And Lisa’s group is just the tip of the iceberg of women exploring their health through burlesque. Deborah Cohan runs three day residential retreats for women with breast cancer at the Foundation for Embodied Medicine. Here they use movement as a way to connect with themselves and their bodies after diagnosis and treatment. Like Lisa, she says that listening to one’s self is crucial. “This is not about moving in a certain way, performing or dancing with certain ‘moves’ but about listening to the body and letting that guide whether and how you move or be still, interact with others or be alone.”

When she’s not writing for Folks, Angie Ebba performs under the stage name Paige Rustles. She says that she began performing burlesque over 8 years ago as a way to reclaim her body and identity. She says. “[Burlesque] was an incredibly empowering journey for me in terms of coming to a place of acceptance and love for my body. Through burlesque I’ve been able to reclaim my sexuality and sensuality, in a culture that so often desexualizes (and even infantilizes) sick and disabled people.”

“Through burlesque I’ve been able to reclaim my sexuality and sensuality, in a culture that so often desexualizes (and even infantilizes) sick and disabled people.”

Burlesque really does transform lives, Lisa believes, and often in surprising ways. As she leads her workshops, she thinks often of a previous student who came in and performed on crutches, She sadly passed away in her mid-forties, but she sticks in Lisa’s mind as an example of why dance is so powerful. It’s a chance to do “something so simple as getting together with a group of women and celebrating both differences and similarities. And eat cake. There’s always cake.”

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