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How I Found Love — and Self-Love — Through Burlesque

Isaiah Esquire

I was born a bastard child, but I will die a hero. I spoke those words to myself so long ago, and I am still continuing to work hard to make those words a reality and history. I was a very shy, quiet kid who talked funny, with such a severe stutter that I couldn’t make conversation, answer phones, or sometimes even say my name. My body image was very poor. Every night before going to bed I would pray and ask God to make me different. I prayed for my skin to be lighter like the people on TV or in the movies, or darker like some of the kids at my school. My lips were too big and my legs looked more like a girl's than a boy's and I was made fun of mercilessly for that… By seventh grade I was 6 foot 1 and almost 200 pounds. I was larger than all of the other students. Freak.

When I was in eighth grade, I danced in front of people for the first time. The cool kids were dancing close to the speakers in the cafeteria, and the uncool kids like me were in the back as spectators. I had stood in the back for two years, and one day the music was so great that I simply had to move closer to it. I mustered up the courage to walk closer to where the cool kids were dancing.

Once there, I took a deep breath, counted to three, and just started dancing like I did alone in my room. The cool kids were shocked and excited because I was so good. They cheered and clapped, and I felt so happy to be seen and celebrated in this new way. At the time, that was one of the happiest moments of my life. Later, I was voted best male dancer in the school.

My deep connection to music and movement and my love of characters go all the way back to my childhood. Music was the first thing powerful enough to make me feel like nothing else existed in a moment. Other times, it gave me the ability to feel everything! Dancing makes me see time differently. While dancing, 60 seconds feels like a lifetime, or hours can feel like mere minutes. Moving my body to music makes me feel weightless, charged, powerful, and fearless. I believe that music and dancing, like love, can transcend our physical world. And as a dancer, music is like a lover to me.

Dancing made me love my body. Through dancing, I was able to reexamine my relationship with my body and see it differently. Rather than seeing the flaws in my body, I was able to see strengths. My thick thighs helped me jump higher; my long arms could create all kinds of beautiful lines and shapes; my large frame exuded a certain power.

Dancing helped me claim my body.

Through burlesque, I learned how to celebrate my body. I started dancing burlesque in 2007 with an all-male troupe called Burlesquire. I remember taking off my shirt onstage for the first time. That was such an accomplishment for me. I was so reluctant, and it took months of convincing. I remember my friend Esequiel Esquire telling me, "Gurl, everyone is someone’s type." I appreciated that perspective immensely. For the first time, the adoration and respect I had for a diverse range of body types and abilities could also include me. It was a new level of self-acceptance and love of my own body. We are walking art, all of us. I’ve dedicated my life to sharing that knowledge with as many people as I can.

One of my greatest passions is sharing my love for dance with others through teaching. I started teaching dance when I was 14. Teaching is one of the most significant things I’ve done in my life. Seventeen years later, I have not lost any of my zest for the craft. I now teach ages 6 to 89 at multiple institutions, and I love every minute of it.

Through dance and burlesque, I have been able to honor, channel, and respect female power even more — celebrating the power of she! Honoring the fluidity in my expression has offered me a divine freedom.  I thank music, dance, and especially burlesque for many things in my life, but at the top of that list is easily my husband. Though burlesque and performance, I met this amazing human being: my husband, best friend, and performance partner, Johnny Nuriel. We form the power couple performance duo, IZOHNNY. I am so blessed to share my life and the stage with this man. His skill and talent motivate me and encourage me to keep evolving. And I’m not done yet!

I was born a bastard child, but I will die a hero!

ISAIAH ESQUIRE is a performer featured in Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe, a documentary about the new wave of burlesque. See it in theaters as well as via VOD and iTunes today. Watch a clip above.

Tags: Commentary, Dance

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