Using Burlesque and Pole Dancing to Come Back from Chronic Pain

Patient Expert

Christina Kish, flying on the pole

Can you imagine finding a way to revel in your body, to enjoy and celebrate it, even though you live with chronic pain?

“So often we can feel that our body is the enemy. This is a different way of looking at bodies — what can your body do, what feels juicy and rich and rewarding? And that’s such a relieving break from the everyday experience of being constrained by one’s body.” Finding burlesque has allowed Maddie Ruud, who lives with chronic pain, to celebrate and enjoy physicality. For Christina Kish, who also has chronic pain, pole dancing was the answer. “It gets you out of your head, it builds your adrenaline and endorphines so you’re happy. And it’s really hard to think about pain when you’re in a challenging, empowering place,” she says.

This Friday, September 11, 2015, they participated in a panel discussion about the comeback at the Women in Pain Conference in Los Angeles (also webcast). I had the opportunity to speak to both of them to learn more.

Journey into pain

Both live with chronic headaches. Christina is 50 years old, newly separated, and lives in Oakland with two ex-feral cats. “One day in 1995, I woke up with what I thought was a sinus headache,” she remembers. “It never went away. I have horrible head pain 24/7, with no diagnosis and no relief. They think it’s probably a nerve that’s gone haywire and thinks pain is normal.”

Maddie, 29, also lives in Oakland, with her partner Brendan and their dog Bruce. Five years ago, she contracted the flu and although most of the symptoms disappeared, the headache did not. It also triggered severe migraines. “I have migraine flares every 3-4 days and that’s probably due to botox injections,” she said, explaining that it was a definite improvement. “Six to nine months ago, I was having 15-25 migraines a month.”

Both women were forced out of work by pain. Maddie used to work as a community manager for a popular website, but had to stop due to the migraines. “I had to take a step back from work and try to create the best possible life that I can, given the pain I’m in,” she explains. Christina spent 15 years marketing in the high tech field and was a co-founder of Netflix. She “left Silicon Valley to go get a life, get my health in order, and manage pain.”

Maddie Ruud (R) in a supporting role, with Kellita, her friend and mentor

Dancing with the pain

Dealing with such severe pain levels is a challenge. “I have to really give myself a peptalk to get vertical sometimes,” Maddie said. She also does yoga every morning, and cooks “using pain fighting spices like cayenne, mustard, cloves, ginger, garlic.” For Christina, part of the solution was to stop looking for an answer. “I spent so much time trying to find an answer that I wasn’t really living — it was just taking up too much time and energy.” She now manages her pain primarily through managing the accompanying deep fatigue.

Discovering an offbeat type of dance helped both women to find a way out, to escape their pain temporarily. “I found the pole dancing craze and went to a class. It was challenging and fun and it got me out of my head and into my body. It was an hour spent of not thinking about anything but what I was doing.” Christina was hooked and nine years ago, she opened Poletential, her own studio, which also offers classes in circus arts, such as silks, aerial hoops, and aerial rope. Her studio has grown to be one of the largest in the country.

Maddie’s two passions are women’s flat track roller derby and burlesque. “A lot of what has improved my life has to do with finding ways to be involved with the activities that I’m passionate about, in the ways that I’m able to do them.” Although her pain levels will not allow her to do a burlesque show or rollerskate in a league, “I found other ways to be involved with supporting these communities so I can feel connected and useful and appreciated in a way that works for me.” She takes tickets for roller derbies, has stagemanaged burlesque shows, and dances for fun.

Both women commented on how important the pole dancing and burlesque communities have been to their experience. Finding a community that was accepting of different levels of ability, body types, and function has helped them deal with their bodies and their pain.

Finding your thing

Christina and Maddie encourage other women to search for something which will give them a similar experience. Maddie mentioned that it’s important to come out of the place of discouragement and despair that so many of us experience when mourning that our lives aren’t going to be what we hoped it would be. “How are we going to move on from that and find people, places, activities that help us revive ourselves, that help us come back, create a new life?” She said. Christina added, “I believe you have to say yes to a bunch of things before you find the ones that fit with your treatment plan, your lifestyle, and that kind of feeds you.”

In summing up their advice, Maddie said, “coming back may not be recovering what you’ve lost, but it may be an opportunity to discover something new.” Christina agreed, “Say yes to something!”

Do you want to hear more from Maddie and Christina? Check out the video of the 8th Annual Women in Pain Conference webcast. If you live in the Bay Area and are interested in pole dancing, check out Christina’s studio Poletential. You can read Maddie’s blog at Ruud Awakenings and connect with her on Twitter at @MaddieRuud__.

See Other Helpful Articles:

For Grace: a Voice for Women in Pain

Learning to Live with RA: Adapting Your Life Plans

Living with RA: 10 Tips for Building and Maintaining Energy

Battle for Grace: an interview with Cynthia Toussaint

Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She’s the author ofYour Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.