The New (Old) Black Burlesque

(Video by Marybel Gonzalez)

The stage is lit in green and a thick sheet of smoke fills the air. Hip-hop beats drone in the background, picking up into a chorus that starts with, “Yeah I love them strippers.” A woman walks out. She moves and gyrates, dipping low and arching high at all the right notes. A garter on her thigh invites dollar bills from the packed audience. Dressed in black lingerie with black hair curled to perfection and painted red lips, she laughs into the crowd, daring them to laugh back.

And this is the foreplay before the show. It’s a Wednesday night in a bar on Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn, and the audience is waiting eagerly for Shades of Burlesque to take the stage.

“Shades of Burlesque has huge crowds because the audience, predominantly people of color, wants to see themselves reflected,” Sweet Lorraine says, “They want to see themselves on stage.” Lorraine is the founder of Shades of Burlesque, which she touts as New York City’s only all-black burlesque show. As Lorraine says, the city is oversaturated with burlesque shows right now—you can find them in various venues stretching across New York almost any night of the week. But what makes Shades of Burlesque stand out is its emphasis on race and sexuality. “My new disclaimer is, if you aren’t into seeing bodies that are voluptuous or not the norm, if you are not into seeing non gender-conforming people or black women, then just don’t come to the show,” she says.

Burlesque is a dance form that is typically described as a variety show, often including some striptease. While it picked up popularity in the 19th century, burlesque shows in the city today happen almost every night of the week in various neighborhoods. But according to Chicava Honeychild of Brown Girls Burlesque, while burlesque shows may be everywhere, many of them are free. “We have a following, but there’s a problem with the economic model,” she says, “It isn’t a problem of frequency but the fact that many of the shows are free means it negatively impacts out ability to become a formidable part of the entertainment industry.” And as Lorraine adds, just because there are more burlesque shows does not mean more gigs for black dancers, who may often be the only black dancer in a show. “I wanted the experience of not being the only black burlesque dancer,” she says, “Being a part of this group is a completely different experience. I wanted to feel the camaraderie and I wanted to give more visibility to us.”

African American women have been performing in burlesque since the late 19th century. From Josephine Baker donning a banana skirt and performing in Paris to Ada Overton Walker and Dora Dean in Oriental America, a burlesque spectacle that subverted the exotification of women of color. These are all iconic moments in burlesque history. Burlesque, as Richard Allen chronicles in his book, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, flowered in the mid-19th century as a form of theater made almost exclusively for male audiences. During this time, The Creole Show (1890) blossomed into the first variety show to cast a large number of black women. As Allen discusses, “the show was revolutionary…an innovation on the burlesque circuit, a landmark event.” Previously, most burlesque shows took a minstrel format—in which white dancers would use ‘blackface’ to portray black characters.

It was the Europeans who brought burlesque to America. Produced in 1866, The Black Crook, with its troupe of around fifty ballet dancers, is often regarded as the precursor to later American burlesque productions. It was a time of puritanical sensibilities in America and “burlesque women were as large as the repressed pleasures of the Victorian age,” according to Jayne Brown, author of Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. In fact, even the early burlesque performances, featuring curvaceous women smoking, cross-dressing, and swearing, were radical in presenting “a physical and ideological inversion of the Victorian ideal of femininity,” as Allen argues. Burlesque productions and performers were explicitly involved in challenging boundaries of gender, sexuality, and humor.

Fast-forward to burlesque performances today, and they continue to be a running theme. In its own way, Shades of Burlesque, too, challenges predominant ideologies of gender, sexuality, and race. As Lorraine explains, “as black women, there are so many negative stereotypes and stigma around our sexuality. Sometimes to boldly express our sexuality is to be shunned.” With Shades of Burlesque, the dancers are encouraged to feel empowered by their sexuality—to assert that they’re not some “video hoes” in a rap video, they’re professional dancers who tell a story, with or without clothes on.

Central to the dance group is the representation of diverse body types. With abundant curves that are reflected in both her movement and her body, Lorraine describes her own body as “far from a size 2.” She talks about her burlesque persona as if it were somebody else:  “Sweet Lorraine is one of the most confident people I know,” she says. “She is not ashamed of her body, she is not ashamed of her curves. Burlesque helped me with that. I don’t worry about stretch marks. I don’t worry about gaining a few extra pounds.” As Karma Mayet, an audience member and loyal fan of the group who’s been following their work since they began, says, “It’s very healthy for the soul—jiggles bring joy, it’s very important to enjoy the joy of the jiggle.”

According to Ebony magazine, when JET launched in 1952, readers got a glimpse of black burlesque stars of the time—Rose Hardaway, China Doll, Betty Brisbane, and Lee Ta Harris. At this time, black burlesque was in its prime. In fact, Honeychild writes in Ebony, black burlesque dancers got more press coverage than their white colleagues. But as 1970s rolled around, the burlesque scene had dissipated into the modern strip club joint, where maybe a few performers mimicked or echoed some burlesque style and tradition. After a momentary pause, the neo-burlesque movement—a modernization and overhaul of the traditional burlesque form— took force in the 1990s, and according to Honeychild, “it continues to grow each year.”

Honeychild is part of New York-based Brown Girls Burlesque, a group that prides itself as being “the number one movement for burlesque dancers of color,” according to its website. But as Honeychild writes in Ebony, “today’s dancers continue the legacy of dancers like Lottie the Body, Tine Pratt, and Toni Ellington by producing shows that embrace the genre’s theatrical roots while emphasizing body-positive/woman-affirming sensuality.” Honeychild says that when it comes to the representation of women of color, Shades of Burlesque and Brown Girls Burlesque are “collaborators.” She says that there are distinctions between them, though: “It all comes down to the vision and the way the shows are constructed. But I will say that both work together and are very inclusive.”

For Genie Adagio, who’s been performing with Shades of Burlesque for a while now, the show is particularly enjoyable because of the increased control she has. “I enjoy that aspect of having more control over my time on stage and off—I do my costumes and choreography, I choose the music and my time on stage,” she says. Prior to burlesque dancing, Adagio was a ballet dancer— “Whereas what I was doing before, you know, 400-year-old choreography, somebody is picking what you’re wearing and you’re dressed like twenty other girls. So I enjoy this part of it.” Adagio found the ballet industry to be extremely whitewashed: “It was very blatantly not interested in letting go of that white supremacist traditionalism—I felt like there was no room for me.”

Munroe Lilly, another dancer in the troupe, also enjoys the creativity afforded by Shades of Burlesque, saying, “Whatever I dream up or think up, I can turn into a routine here. There are no rules.”

As the show lights dim and the dancers take the stage to bow, the crowd cheers. John Thomas, in the audience, claps enthusiastically, even throwing in a wolf whistle as the dancers exit. “It’s such a delight to see women of color being represented in burlesque,” he says, “I was in Paris recently and saw the Moulin Rouge showcase and there were no women of color. But it’s refreshing to come home to Brooklyn and get to see these young ladies throw on a fantastic show.”