I'm A Burlesque Dancer With A Disability — & Makeup Helps Me Own My Sexuality
When Pansy St. Battie discovered burlesque, it opened up a new world of glitter, glam, and freedom.
One in four adults in the U.S. are living with a disability, but you wouldn't know it given the lack of representation in media, Hollywood, and the workforce. We're shedding light on the real stories — not the caricatures — of this dynamic and vibrant community of individuals.
Pansy St. Battie is a 20-year-old San Francisco-based burlesque performer and model who identifies as non-binary. They were born with joint hypermobility syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that causes their joints to become lax, and they use a wheelchair. Ahead, St. Battie tells us, in their own words, how makeup transformed the way they feel about their sexuality, how they express themselves, and the way they want to be seen in the world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read more stories from our Voices of Disability series.
When I turned sixteen, I started using a wheelchair a majority of the time because walking was extremely painful. There are so many ways that you feel like you can’t be a part of the world anymore when you use a chair. Your hobbies completely change. I was stuck at home a lot, just in my room, and makeup was something that I could do that was a creative outlet that didn’t require a lot of physical exertion. I looked at it as an art form instead of a necessity.
With makeup, I could experiment, I could take photos, and I could do something that made me feel like I was connecting to the outside world. Because I’ve always been an artist, I like colours and exaggerating my body and being able to create something that feels like an art piece on myself. Makeup, fashion, and corsetry gave me a chance to connect with my body and my appearance in a way that’s very hard to do when I’m experiencing pain or difficulty. It was like, Hey, I was given this body, it’s cool and I like it, but here’s what I can do to make it my own.
That discovery led to burlesque. I’d been wanting to get into burlesque for a long time because I admired a lot of my friends who did it. I was already doing pin-up modelling and those two worlds are pretty closely tied. Before I used a wheelchair, I was super into dance, and burlesque gives you freedom that you can’t find in a lot of other dance forms. There isn’t a set of rules besides taking off your clothes.
I asked my friends for advice and found a local burlesque performer, Dottie Lux, who gave me some classes and helped me workshop my first act, which was in September of last year. I was 19 at the time. I quickly learned from Dottie that stage presence is the most important part. She pointed me to old videos of Bettie Page; she's not a great dancer, but people love watching her because she's charismatic and expressive.
When I perform, it's important to me to rehearse to the point where the routine is muscle memory, so I can put thought and energy into how I'm feeling emotionally. My nerves are strong and I'm very fidgety beforehand, but when I'm on stage it's just about getting to enjoy and experience something I created. I can’t perform burlesque all that often because a lot of venues are 21 and over and inaccessible, so I have to find people hosting shows that are available for me to perform at.
With burlesque, I don’t have to worry about being stared at — that’s what I’m going for. Burlesque allows me to explore my sexuality. I like feeling sexy. I like feeling powerful. It’s an aspect of personality and self that people don’t often get to explore outside of the bedroom. I enjoy it, and there’s something powerful about existing as a disabled person and doing things you enjoy.
Sometimes I struggle with feeling an extreme lack of control over my body and how I exist in the world. Things like makeup and glitter and sparkle make me feel like I'm still able to create art with this body. I just got this new chair a couple months ago and right when I got it, I spent three days painting and rhinestone-ing it. When the sun hits it, it looks like a disco ball. When you go out and use a chair, people will look at it like, Oh that’s sad, this person must not be doing things with their life. When you give them something else to look at, like rhinestones, it’s like, OK, if you’re going to stare at me, here’s something interesting that you should appreciate.
I often have parents of kids with disabilities come up to me after a show and tell me that I’m reassuring them that their kids are going to be able to find their way and build their own personalities and have agency. People tell me that I’ve made them more comfortable in their skin and more comfortable advocating for themselves, despite the fact that it might not be encouraged by other people. It’s really nice to hear people say that I’ve helped them build confidence in themselves and driven them to do the things they want to do.
When I do makeup now, I do it all or nothing. I wear falsies every time, and I usually pick a colour story based on my outfit and run with it. For a recent show, I did a red cut-crease with purple glitter that was super fun. I do a lot of rainbows — I relate to them from a sexuality and Pride perspective, but I also love that they’re fun. I do a lot of darker themes in burlesque, too. I like to feel very powerful, like I’m the badass of the story.
Edited by Kelly Dawson, a disability advocate who was born with cerebral palsy and has a master's degree in media communications.