Earlier this Autumn, Arts Intern Brittany was delighted to interview Baltimore burlesque performer Jacqueline Boxx. Here’s what the sensational “Miss Disaburlytease” had to say...
Photo Credit: Max Shaw
Firstly, how would you like to introduce yourself? Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.
My name is Jacqueline Boxx and my tagline is “Miss Disa-BURLY-Tease!” I’m a disabled, queer, POC burlesque performer from Baltimore, MD. I’m also a producer, teacher, and writer! I love to lecture and teach mindful movement in the realm of burlesque and I aim to expand people’s definitions of both disability and glamour. I’m also a huge nerd, an academic, and a not-so-secret goth kid at heart.
What are your views on the word "disabled"? Do you feel it's an important term for the "disabled" community to reclaim in order to challenge stigma, or do you see this label as reductive and unhelpful? Is there a term you prefer to use, or do you not feel it's necessary to use any kind of label at all?
I absolutely use the term disabled for myself. I use the social model* to define the word, which means that it is not my limited mobility or medical condition that “disable” me, it is the attitudes and assumptions ingrained in the way our society functions. I am disabled because, if I go to a store using my chair, which for me is a necessity, then I cannot use that store to its fullest the way that able-bodied people do. I am disabled because of the ableist assumption that the “normal” body is an able-bodied one, conforming to expectations that don’t fit me. I don’t believe that we should see able-bodied as normal. I believe in universal design, where people with varying abilities and modalities can access a space equally well. For me, I continue to proudly say I am disabled because it forces people to acknowledge the problems with the way society functions. Using another word would be, for me, like trying to pretend those problems didn’t exist. This society disables me.
Disabled is a term that each person can choose for themselves or not, however. For me, it is a power word. For other people, it may not reflect the same definition and it could feel restrictive. I would never tell another person that it has to be their power word. On that note, you also don’t need to wait for someone else to decide you have access to that word. No doctor, no group of people of any kind can decide for you if you are “disabled.” If you feel like I do, that some function of your body in the spaces you inhabit is impaired in comparison to other people due to the spaces’ design or structure and calling attention to that is a goal of yours, then you can claim it as a part of your identity.
*You can read more about the social model of disability here:
Have you experienced any stigma surrounding your disability? What do you wish more people understood about your condition?
I experience all of the ways that the world disables me on a daily basis as just an ongoing ocean of stigma, ha. When I am invited to an event and it is on the second floor of a building where the only access is stairs, that is a visceral experience of stigma that communicates that I am not actually wanted or welcomed. Of course, that is (almost) never what people intend to communicate! I have, of course, had those moments where I come face-to-face with overt prejudice and people just straight-up tell me that I’m not allowed in or that I’m defective or broken. Those are a lot more rare than all of the subtle ways it is impressed on me that I am less than other people. Pity is a big one. People who talk to me as if I’m a child or like I’m fragile or call me “poor dear” or pat me on the head or even say I’m “so brave” are all communicating that they assume my life must be unbearable because my body is different than theirs. It “others” me, separating them from me so they can feel more secure. They are not like me, they are normal. Again, I know this isn’t a conscious thing. It’s a subconscious process people have absorbed from an ableist society. They’ve been told in a million subtle ways that I’m not normal and that I am to be pitied, so even their ways of being kind carry those assumptions. It’s hard to battle internalized ableism. We all have it.
That’s really the thing I wish more people understood: that disability is something everyone will experience if they are lucky to live long enough, so we need to start combatting our internalized ableism now.
Stop assuming what disability looks like, what disabled people feel, and what they want. There are infinite ways a person can be disabled, so it’s a good idea to stop thinking of disability as just one thing. Work towards a world where people of varying abilities and mobility levels can access things equally.
How did you get into burlesque? Tell us more about burlesque as a dance/performance style.
TW: Mention of abuse
I originally got into burlesque when I was able-bodied in college. I have been a dancer since I was really young and have studied all kinds of performance art. In college, I started experimenting with circus arts like aerial trapeze and hooping. Fellow circus people decided they wanted to study burlesque, so we watched videos and invited a guest performer to our school and started putting on shows. I got into it because I was looking for a way to positively reconnect with my body and my sensuality after being in an abusive relationship. I performed while able-bodied for about two-three years and what drew me in was how punk-rock confrontational it felt to love myself on a stage when the world was busy trying to tell me not to. I still believe that is the heart of burlesque. It’s a person telling a story of transformation and aggressively stating that their story is important and deserves to be heard, that their body is important and deserves to move with joy.
My EDS became more difficult to deal with over time since I was struck by a car and then underwent surgery and didn’t fully heal from either. My mobility decreased and I associated movement with pain and stopped loving my body again. I reconnected with burlesque in 2015 as a way of rebuilding that connection and it has done so much for me. I’m a pretty intense fighter for self-love now, especially for disabled people. We should believe our bodies are important and we deserve to move in the spotlight with joy.
Tell us about your burlesque persona - who is she? How does embodying her character make you feel?
I’ve often said that Jacqueline Boxx is myself turned up to 11. She takes all the strongest, fiercest parts of my everyday personality and expresses them to their fullest without fear of judgment. I tap into that energy in my daily life when I’m most in need of confidence.
Photo Credit: The Comic Kid Photography
Are there other burlesque performers that you look up to? Who inspires you (generally)?
When I was getting back into burlesque as a disabled person, I looked up immensely to Mat Fraser and his show Criptease. That was my first awareness of disabled people doing burlesque and it hit that same spark in me that I felt when I was first discovering burlesque in general. This was a fuck-you kind of self-love that I needed in my life badly. He’s also an incredible actor and advocate for disabled people.
There are so many phenomenal burlesque performers out there that I am lucky to call my friends and who inspire me every day. Being your authentic self unapologetically is just the most inspiring thing to me! That might sound like a cop-out, but it’s true. I am constantly being inspired by people.
Is burlesque a form of escapism for you - a way of moving away from your everyday self and reality - or the opposite - a way of expressing yourself more theatrically, perhaps, but more authentically?
Definitely the latter. Burlesque reflects critically back on society because it is this space where you can be and do what you wouldn’t in daily life and that kind of release is always going to highlight the restrictions we normalize putting ourselves under. It can’t help but be connected to the world outside, in my opinion. I take that responsibility seriously and think really hard about what I want to say to that world when I create an act. And then I throw some glitter on top, both because glitter is pretty and because it gets that audience through the door. And then we blow their minds. :)
Who do you think burlesque is for? Are you motivated by a desire to uplift other womxn? Are you performing for your audience or for yourself?
My personal philosophy towards performing always includes both what it is doing for me and what it is doing for the audience. The second part of that equation is important to me simply because I am creating a kind of public art, and that means it will impact peoples’ emotions and thoughts, which means I must take that responsibility seriously. I feel it is imperative to consider what you are communicating when you make any public statement and try to figure out the best way to get across your intentions. Of course, we can’t completely control how people receive our art.
However, being intentional in your choices and aware of their impact is part of being a good citizen, in my opinion. Burlesque is a part of that.
I once wrote an artist’s statement that reflects some of my personal core intentions. “I aim to A), show a general audience that disabled bodies can be sexy and sensual bodies and that mobility aids can be incorporated into that, B) provoke dialogue and awareness generally about disability as non-static and as not an automatic negative trait (i.e. a wheelchair does not equal paralysis but it can equal freedom) and C) encourage others with disabilities, my family, to feel empowered within their disability.” I still hold by these goals and would only add to them that, for myself, I use burlesque as a tool to constantly remind me to stay inside my body, communicating with it and appreciating it on a regular basis, which feels like an experience all human beings could benefit from.
Do you see burlesque as a reaction against the male gaze? How do you hold this in mind if you are confronted by (male) audience members/followers who attempt to objectify you or whose intentions are voyueristic?
Burlesque, for me, is about performers demonstrating ownership over their own bodies. They enter a stage and do only what they decide to do, in the way they want to do it. That is rebellion against a still highly puritanical and patriarchal world which wants to pile shame onto our physical bodies and especially on femme bodies, which are distrusted and maligned. As I mentioned, we can’t absolutely control what people think when they see us perform. There will be people who refuse to hear those messages. I think we are all experiencing lately the frustration of watching people willfully misinterpret whatever they like and twist truth to their own ends. I’ve found that it’s not worth spending much grief over those people. I just make it as difficult for them to continue to fetishize me as I can by continuing to scream about rights and justice.
Have you ever experienced stigma surrounding sexuality and disability?
After one of my first performances, I was speaking to a friend who mentioned that he felt “... weird” thinking I was “hot while in a wheelchair.” This was a friend that wouldn’t normally feel this way about complimenting his friend’s appearance when they’re dancing on a stage. It was definitely the wheelchair that was giving him pause. I wanted to push him, because I knew beneath that was the internalized ableism our society has built into us that says, “wheelchairs aren’t part of being hot, wheelchairs are sad,” and says they are sad because that person is now lesser, excluded, and not-normal. Why do they have to be? That’s what I wanted to ask him. What’s keeping us from
changing how we see wheelchairs? Stop viewing disabled people as lesser than you, stop viewing an able body as a normal body, and start fighting to include disabled people in everything you’re a part of. All of those reasons a wheelchair means “sad” have suddenly disappeared. (Photo credit: Heather Magdalene Schofner)
Body image may not be something you struggle with, but do you think burlesque has helped you improve your relationship with your body in any way? Do you find it empowering to be challenging society's shaming and policing of women's bodies and their sexuality, as a burlesque performer?
I don’t think there is a single femme person who doesn’t struggle with body image. Our bodies are so heavily scrutinized and policed that it’s inevitable that we start to criticize them and internalize that they are never good enough. I am not a thin person. I hesitate to call myself plus-sized, but in terms of the clothes I wear, I fit that term and I don’t find that offensive if someone were to describe me that way. I am curvy and I am thick. I developed curves early and was teased as a result from a pretty young age. This was compounded by the fact that I’m Puerto Rican, so I was extra-different from the thin, white girls. I was the “exotic” and “sexual” girl before I ever wanted those terms to apply to me. Racism and prejudice meant that I was looked down on long before I ever experimented sexually with anyone. I was different, so I was dirty.
Burlesque has meant taking my sexuality back. I decide when and how I show parts of my body. I decide the context. I have been sexualized no matter what I’ve done or worn. With burlesque, I make the choices. That has hugely improved my relationship with my body. It’s my partner now and we can create magic together. I express my sexuality under my own power.
How do you motivate yourself to look after your body and your mental health? How do you balance performing and taking time out for yourself?
I am such an advocate for self-care, but I also freely admit that I have to sometimes be reminded that I am included in that! One turning point for me was when I realized that I need to stop comparing myself to other people, whether they are able-bodied or disabled. My energy level and my capabilities are unique. I may simply need to rest more than other people. That isn’t a negative trait, it is a part of who I am. Continually reminding myself of that is the most powerful form of self-care I engage in. Of course, I also spend lots of time with my cat, my spouse, Netflix, and ice packs. I work with a trainer to try to improve my muscles without hurting my joints so that I can keep them in place more easily in the future. I talk to my therapist regularly to help balance all of the different sides of me, glitter-filled and not so sparkly. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do on stage or speak the way I’m speaking now without all of those support systems. Never apologize for the rest you need in order to be the best you. Any guilt you feel over not constantly over-achieving is just the ghost of capitalism haunting you. ;)
Finally, do you have a favourite burlesque-related memory or experience you would like to share with us? What made it so special or memorable?
I have so many wonderful memories and I’m so grateful to all of the people I’ve come in contact with through performing. Honestly, my favorite moments come from working one-on-one with performers towards burlesque that honors, cherishes and respects their body and its boundaries. When I see a performer in one of these sessions look at themselves in the mirror (or in the camera on Zoom) and realize that they didn’t need to overwork themselves, they don’t need to push so hard past their limits, they can be utterly captivating with just one movement and a look… it’s like they are learning again that they are okay just as they are. Better than okay!
They can be a star in this moment, they don’t have to wait for the perfect body with its perfect mobility, flexibility, shape or strength.
That’s the light of my life.
Photo credit: Jacqueline Hyde
Any last thoughts, comments or pieces of advice for our readers, especially young women who may also be living with EDS or who are contemplating getting involved in burlesque?
Do not give in to pressure from anyone when it comes to what you want to do and you feel it is safe to do with your body. Work with your body as your partner by accommodating its needs while also expressing yourself. Expand definitions of what it means to “dance” and what it means to be “sexy.” You know your body better than anyone else ever could. Your unique sexiness is of value.
All of us at Empower Her* Voice would like to extend a huge thank you to Jacqueline for giving up her time so generously to participate in this interview, and for answering each question with such insight, depth and unflinching honesty.
If you too have been inspired by Jacqueline’s words and would like to find out more about “Miss Disaburlytease”, follow the links below!
Instagram - @jacquelineboxx
Find info about appearances, performances, online teaching, and to see pictures and video of all current acts here! - missdisaburlytease.com
Keep an eye on Creative Alliance's website: https://www.creativealliance.org/
Online burlesque series coming in January taught by Jacqueline Boxx, Cherie Nuit, and Tempete La Coeur!