Which brings me to burlesque.
The word itself brings to mind the image of a dimly-lit stage populated by a scantily-clad white woman, selling her sexual purity for money, or more tragically, for a shot at fame.
Whether ushering forth from the mouths of outraged moralists or anti-sex feminists, that story line is as old and tired as any other that diminishes the agency of a female sexual performer: its sole purpose appears to be making the folks at home (or in the audience) feel more comfortable with their own questionable agency and morality, sexual or otherwise, in a fundamentally sexist culture.
Now that the white feminist critique is out of the way (if not dispensed with, then simply put aside, as it isn't the point of this essay), I'd like to remind the reader that such a story line, tired or not, has never applied to Black women. Not believed to have any purity to protect in the first place, our place in that particular limelight has often seemed inevitable. Our sexual availability has always been assumed, and the Jezebel stereotype persists in American popular culture alongside its counterpoint--the non-threatening, desexualized Mammy figure. The idea that Black women are sexy and sexual and in any way in charge of their sexuality is something largely unfamiliar in western culture. And so, as the culture looks back with its nostalgia goggles on, traditional burlesque, which in its European and North American incarnations, was about a variety of odd, and often off-color, entertainments including stand-up and sketch comedy, juggling, pantomime, magic, and music as well as the widely-recognized striptease, is simply naked girls.
And they're all white.
This is not to say that burlesque is only a white thing nor that it ever was. However, as has been the case with so many of our cultural contributions, people of color were and continue to be marginalized and our presence ignored to the point that even our communities don't know we're there. Honestly, if you'd asked me a year ago to name three burlesque stars, I would have said actress Mae West, cabaret star Marlene Dietrich, fetish model Bettie Page. Perhaps I also would have mentioned Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge, but that's it. One of the problems with things retro is that shit used to be a lot more blatantly sexist and racist, and sexism aside, one of the dimensions of burlesque's racist past is the invisibility of its Black performers. It's as though the more clothing they took off, the less of them the audience saw and the burlesque tradition remembered. In the recent Hollywood remake of the musical Chicago, the only explicitly Black character was Queen Latifah's Sapphire-mammy reprise of the Matron "Mama" Morton role, but there were plenty of women of color, and specifically Black women, who would have been singing and shimmying with Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart in Paris, Britain, and throughout the United States on the chitlin' circuit. Sarah Klein, a.k.a. Sparkly Devil, a burlesque performer based in San Francisco, interviewed former Black burlesque stars Lottie "The Body" Graves, hailed as Detroit's answer to Gypsy Rose Lee, and self-described Duke Ellington protégé Toni Elling for a story on Detroit's burlesque roots.
...[Lottie's] playground was Paradise Valley, the now long-demolished entertainment district on Detroit’s old Lower East Side, and her signature shimmy held sway in that earthy realm. She rubbed elbows with Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin, she dined with Dinah Washington and strutted alongside Billie Holiday. When she and her Harlem Globetrotter husband Goose Tatum lived in a villa in Cuba, she was chummy with Fidel Castro. And one notorious racketeer in Indianapolis was so was taken with her legendary proportions that he built an entire club just for her, naming it the Pink Poodle. Many times she was issued proclamations by City Council, noting her significant contributions to Detroit’s thriving entertainment culture.
Far more than what we currently conceive of as strippers, these ecdysiasts were cultural icons in their own right, performing alongside other icons whose status wasn't pegged as closely to their sexuality. And the money was, of course, better. But unsurprisingly, racism followed these women from more socially-acceptable work into burlesque:
After leaving her traditional job because of prejudice, Toni [Elling] still had to face it as a dancer. “I had a harder time than a lot of girls because of my blackness. It was very hard for a black stripper in those days. We weren’t paid what other girls were paid, and we weren’t allowed to work at certain clubs.”
She recalls a time when her agent tried to get her a glitzy job in Las Vegas. “I told her I can’t work in Vegas, they don’t want black people in Vegas.” Her agent persisted, so Toni went along with her to meet the manager of the club. He asked to speak privately with Toni’s agent, who responded that anything he needed to say he could say in front of Toni. The manager insisted, and finally he and Toni’s agent disappeared into an adjacent room. After a few minutes, voices began to escalate, and Toni heard her infuriated agent scream, “Toni is not a nigger!”
“Oh, she threw a fit, and she told him I was the best act she had,” Toni says of her agent. “She came storming out, and I just looked at her and said, ‘I told you so.’”
Driving the appreciation for the burlesque that was is a new burlesque movement, and that movement has largely been populated by women with what can be called an "alternative" aesthetic: women with tattoos and piercings and hair the color of Koolaid and bodies not considered sexy in a culture obsessed with thinness.
Most of these women are white, but not all of them--and it's the women of color who have been doing this for a while whom I am most interested in. I want to know why they perform, and where, and how. When I ran into a wall with the white archetypes of burlesque a few months ago, Josephine Baker was mentioned as a burlesque icon to which I could aspire. The problem is that I have no desire to flee the States and live in "color-blind" Europe (which was such a draw for artists like Baker and Nina Simone and James Baldwin and...) nor am I interested in prancing about in a banana skirt.
Without well-known Black burlesque icons who didn't have tragic ends like Baker and Dorothy Dandridge, women who married abusive white men and died alone and penniless, what do women like me do? Once we do make it onto the stage, do we don wigs and mimic white icons? And if we do perform more culturally appropriate and relevant material, who are we performing for?
Harlem Shake Burlesque, the only all-Black burlesque troupe in the United States, was formed in San Francisco in 2003 by performer Simone de la Getto with the goal of "changing history one shake at a time." Harlem Shake in its heydey won several awards and gained quite a bit of notoriety not for being a novelty act but because of the immense talent of its members.
HSB's presence on the scene has inspired other women of color, like Brown Girls Burlesque out of New York and Rubenesque Burlesque from Oakland, to take it all off. (Or at least some of it.) The audience, however, like the performers, continues to be predominantly white. Though Harlem Shake is largely inactive now, one of its founding members, Alotta Boutté, still sings and performs burlesque in the Bay Area. In an interview last year, she said:
Burlesque shows aren't necessarily being held in places where the majority is in favor of the brown folk. [San Francisco] is diverse, and I do see all colors in the audience, but brown is the minority in the audience and in the shows. Harlem Shake, when in full force, was very specific about putting on shows in areas where the population was predominately brown. The response from those shows are people stating that they didn't even know this was going on....Though I'd enjoyed the burlesque performances I'd seen and had enjoyed being part of a local variety show myself, it didn't occur to me that I could do it myself until I saw Alotta at Little Minsky's, a monthly San Francisco burlesque show earlier this year. She performed to "Feelin' Good" by Nina Simone, and it brought tears to my eyes. To see a Black woman clearly in complete control of her performance and of her body, which is not a body that is socially acceptable not only because it's voluptuous but indeed because it's Black, creating a cultural context on that tiny stage that overlaps with but also exists separate from what most people think of now when they think of burlesque, was an important moment for me. Perhaps by looking for more venues in our own communities, with more of our folks in the audience as well as on stage, we can create revival of burlesque that tells a different story, one which we're not left out of.