I’ve always loved dancing. As a little girl I began learning around the tender age of seven at the local ballet school, where my relentless fascination with costumes and all that glitters began. Thirty years later and not much has changed – I still can’t resist purchasing sparkly accessories of all persuasions. But while ballet and more traditional styles of music like classical piano were considered honourable within the strict Christian Brethren community I was raised in, anything outside the realm was considered ‘worldly’ and therefore forbidden, for fear it would corrupt my young heart.
Growing up in a religious home that went to the Brethren family church was not that dissimilar to any other home – we lived in a normal street and a normal house and went to the regular schools. The differences were in our activities and home life. On Sundays we would always attend the most dreary church services in the most foreboding atmosphere, where the women had to cover their heads with a scarf and only the men did any preaching. There was a focus on the concept of hell and sin, which was ingrained in my psyche from a young age and instilled a deep sense of unease and panic that I would be found to be a sinner and outcast, and sent to hell.
There was also strict censorship. Non-Christian music was banned – the elders even liked to say KISS stood for Kids in Satan’s Service – and we had very limited hours watching TV, mostly nature programs and nothing that would corrupt our young minds. One sinister afternoon, I came home to find my dad burning all the non-Christian music in the house. In an eerie bonfire ritual, my beloved Oliver Twist tape was on the pile of condemned materials and, despite my pleas, the cassette went onto the bonfire engulfed in flames.
My heart broke. I could not understand how something so wonderful could be so evil as to require burning into flames. Dancing brought me so much joy though, and I soon found ways to listen to the radio as I grew into my teenage years. Bit by bit, I began to rebel – but in rebelling I was waiting to be struck down. I knew God was all-seeing and all-knowing, I was sure he could see me, and so I would spent days waiting to be struck by lightning and punished for my wilful sinning.
I began to live two lives. At home and on Sundays a good well-meaning girl, at school a reckless kid who would swear and even experiment with smoking. This all reached crisis point when I reached puberty and my sexual attraction to boys grew, too. I knew most definitely sex outside of wedlock was forbidden but again, try as I might, it was so hard to subdue my natural impulses which, once again, felt so good.
I eventually began a sexual relationship with my first boyfriend and the experience was so pleasurable but afterwards, when I was alone, night terrors would get to me and wake me in a panic. When redundancies were announced at my place of work and a song of mine was rejected by an esteemed music industry peer, psychosis began to set in. As I lost my mind, I felt the world was turning against me. I believed I was being watched by a secret agency, and I believed I was going to be flown to London to sign a record deal. Everything became a clue, a puzzle I had to solve.
When my mother noticed my erratic behaviour she took me to a psychiatrist, who instructed my mum to take me to the special place they had discussed. I thought this meant to a limo where a plane was waiting so I could sign my big record deal in London – it was, in fact, a psychiatric hospital. It was only when the nurse put a needle in my arm that I realised was being admitted as an involuntary patient in the high dependency unit of a hospital. The following two weeks were terrifying. I was so confused and doped up on strong medication. When I was finally able to leave the hospital, building my life back together was even more complicated. I felt so much shame.
Moving to London was the best move I could have made. It was easier to feel anonymous in a big city – I was able to rebuild myself and no-one knew my past. I experienced a lot of depression in London in that first year, even with a supportive new boyfriend it was challenging. The city is so fast-paced and impersonal, but my dreams as a performer began to come true when I discovered the wonderful world of burlesque dancing.
In burlesque, I am able to wear glittery costumes and completely transform. I gave myself the new stage name of Sapphira, and while it took a while to work up to doing a full strip tease with nipple tassles, when I finally did my first burlesque strip I could not believe the rapturous applause. It was a much-needed ointment for all those past hurts.
I think burlesque has been such a lifeline because of how my sensuality was so restricted in my youth. I love the way burlesque costumes accentuate womanly curves and how powerful the theatre of the striptease is: comical, seductive or playful all at once. Throwing myself into burlesque has been very healing – for the first time in a long time, I began to learn to accept myself and feel at home in my own skin.
The shift in my self-belief and confidence was so profound that I decided to move back to Australia, my home country, and share my art form. I now own a dance and entertainment business, Sapphira’s Showgirls, where I teach this beautiful craft to other women. To date I have run events and classes in eight cities in four countries and taught over 15,000 women. I am thankful to have married my music producer, Tonestepa, and performed on the biggest stages around the world.
I think back on those early days of the strict church life and feel so relieved to realise I am not a blight on the face of the earth because I love dance, and that I will not be struck by lightning for my female prowess. It has been a beautiful resolution to pass on my love of the dance to thousands of women worldwide and to see the way they hold themselves with pride, arming them to leave bad relationships and go for big promotions because they, like me, finally realise their worth.
I hope my story will help others realise you do not need to be defined by the traumas in life, you can channel them to fuel the fire of aspiration and continue to reach for the stars.