Sunday, July 31, 2016

Performers of Color and the Burlesque Revival...

It is an exciting time for black burlesque. Shows like Shades of Burlesque in NYC, Jeezy's Juke Joint in Chicago and St. Louis, Chocolate City Burlesque in D.C, and the Roux in New Orleans, which are dedicated specifically to showcasing performers of color, provide much needed diversity by showing off a plethora of beautiful black bodies. And people are liking what they see! However, with the growing popularity of burlesque that showcases performers of color, there are still many who believe events like this unfairly exclude white performers and, accordingly, hurt the industry and surrounding community. But the truth is, a little knowledge of burlesque history reveals that these shows are vital, and not only to the people on stage.

When people think of old school burlesque, white women generally come to mind.  Many have heard of Josephine Baker, a black burlesque dancer from the 1920’s. But most people’s understanding of black burlesque ends with her banana skirt. This, however, is not because black women are new to the burlesque scene. In fact, black burlesque performers—while rarely the featured, and certainly paid less—were very popular throughout burlesque history.  And like many other elements of pop culture, their musical choices and dance moves were appropriated by white burlesque performers, and are still used to this day. But black performers were often left out of promotional materials, tragically erasing their many contributions.
I must admit that I, too didn’t originally see the need for all-black burlesque shows. I hated the idea that any show with more than two black performers had to be advertised as such. But the more I educate myself about the history of black women in burlesque, the more I understand why these shows are created and exactly how important they are. Even now, there is an intense lack of diversity on the typical burlesque stage. It is not uncommon for audience members to approach me after shows to tell me I am the first black burlesque performer they have ever seen. This is because the majority of burlesque shows, whether by choice or lack of options, have all white casts. Either way, it is a huge problem.
It has become clear that the existence of really good, all-black burlesque shows inspires audience members and potential performers to celebrate, and document, black excellence in this area. With the revival of this beloved art form, performers of color are no longer staying silent. For us, stepping on the stage and confidently sharing our bodies on our own terms is a political act. We are fighting the stigma put on us by the dehumanization and over-sexualization of black bodies. This stigma can, at times, make it difficult for black performers to feel accepted by members of their own race who see us as participating in this objectification. But this is changing as people realize that burlesque is not only about strip tease. Burlesque touches the depths of true human expression. It is about taking power over ones own body and sexuality and confidently celebrating the skin they are in, no matter their shape, size, or color.
Until this year, in the twenty-six year history of the Miss Exotic World Pageant, the most prestigious burlesque competition in the world, only one black woman had won the coveted title. Rio Savant was crowned in 1996, in the early years of the competition. And until recently, google only had one tiny photo, her name and a date. Perhaps by her own choosing, but like her foremothers, her contribution has been all but erased. Now in 2016, I am honored to have been crowned the first black Reigning Queen of Burlesque in 20 years. And it is my goal to see that the contributions of today's performers of color continue to get the recognition they deserve.