Women of Color in Burlesque: The Not-So-Hidden-History

By Guest Contributor Sydney F. Lewis

I have been up all night looking at vintage Jet Magazines on Google Books. A friend and fellow Black burlesque performer, Chicava HoneyChild of Brown Girls Burlesque, introduced me to this impressive online archive of Black politics, society, and entertainment. Founded in 1951, by John H. Johnson, Jet magazine was initially billed as “The Weekly Negro News Magazine.” I like to think of it as Ebony magazine’s tawdry little sister. After about eight hours of being glued to the screen, flipping virtually through captivating documentation of Black strippers from the 1940s-1970s, I have come to the conclusion that, just as I suspected, the omission of Black Women and other Women of Color from the realm of burlesque picture and history books is just willed ignorance– ignorance, lazy scholarship, and yup I’ll say it, racist brands of white feminism.

Once I learned about the online archive of Jet magazines, it took me a few hours of leisurely and pleasurable research to compile a list of almost fifty names and locations and about thirty pictures of black burlesque performers, strippers, and “Shake Dancers.” Some women were big-time enough to work on the Minsky circuit, earn $1000+ a week, insure their bodies, tour the US and Europe, and work with (and date) prominent entertainers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., and Little Richard. Women such as Rosalee Takeela, Rose Hardaway, Vida de Soir “The Red Hot Sex Queen,” Elizabeth “China Doll” Dickerson, and Jean Idelle were commonly pictured in the gossip columns of the national black magazine.

One woman, Rosa La Roso was in an extended legal battle with white burlesque performer Rose La Rosa after the white dancer sought a court injunction to prohibit Rosa la Roso from using such a similar name. Rose La Rosa is listed in various burlesque history books, while the Black performer, Rosa La Roso is never mentioned. This is particularly ironic given that Rosa La Roso commented about the white performer, “I’ve never even heard of that other Rose.” In the October 29, 1953 issue, Jet published an expose entitled “Why Girls become Shake Dancers” with content that, even in 2011, is fairly stripper-positive.

My pleasure perusing the Jet archive quickly turned to anger as I realized that I have been bamboozled into believing that my Black burlesque foremothers didn’t exist or were all little-known, no-name (read low talent) chorus girls. Due to racist and exclusionary scholarship, I’ve been tricked into believing that it was racism from long ago that kept these brown burlesque queens nameless and lost to history, that no one bothered to document their presence then so we can’t find documents now. And that’s a lie. Such performers were documented, extensively, by the black press, and that documentation isn’t impossible to find. If I can discover more than fifty performers of color in a leisurely few hours at my computer, then imagine what treasures of information could be found in black theater and performance archives, newspapers, or other black magazines. Black striptease artists had a voice is the 40s, 50s, and 60s and it is contemporary burlesque historians who repress their presence.

I personally own at least 10 books on burlesque, neo-burlesque, and striptease which I comb like a CSI agent for any evidence of women of color performers. Despite their claims that they are a “Pictorial History of Burlesque,” a compendium of “Legendary Stars of Stage,” or an “untold history” of striptease these books disturbingly omit countless black and brown performers.

To burlesque history (read white burlesque history) brown burlesque queens didn’t exist. Out of 342 pages (not counting footnotes) purporting to tell “The Untold History of the Girlie Show,” Striptease by Rachel Shteir contains less than 10 pages referencing black and brown performers. According to the index, “Race” is mentioned solely on page 32 and the iconic Josephine Baker merely referenced on pages 96 and 268. The words “black,” “African-American,” or “Women of Color” are not even listed in the index. Compare this to the 21 pages on Lili St. Cyr, 27 pages on Sally Rand, and a whopping 43 pages on Gypsy Rose Lee. Since a dozen films and multiple biographies have been made about Gypsy Rose Lee, hers is hardly an untold story.

Mainstream documentation of the neo-burlesque performance scene is very similar in its exclusions. Lush with gorgeous photographs, Michelle Baldwin’s Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind contains few images of performers of color and only one mention and no pictures of Harlem Shake Burlesque, the nation’s first Black neo-burlesque troupe and 2004 Miss Exotic World winners. The common excuse offered by researchers and writers for such “oversights” is we don’t even know how to find any women of color. These excuses for POC exclusions are hardly new and always hollow whether the context is burlesque performers or college professors and it always boils down to a refusal to look beyond one’s white cohort accompanied by the fallacy of a “qualified applications.”

To be clear, my grievances are not rooted in a simple politics of representation – begging the Massa to put one or two pictures of women of color in a book is not an adequate corrective to the purposeful erasure of a slew of folks from burlesque history. The lily-white conventional burlesque narrative must be drastically altered. These necessary changes can only come about through holding contemporary scholars accountable for their racist exclusions and demanding answers as to why women of color have been erased from burlesque history. Black and brown women must be acknowledged as pioneers and integral players in the golden era of burlesque (both in front of and behind the velvet curtain) and given their proper dues for being among the first to shamelessly bump and grind. White women did not invent sexual agency.

Historical exclusions are just the tip of a whole iceberg of racism that affects neo-burlesque. As long as the historical face of burlesque is porcelain then contemporary neo-burlesque performers will always be seen as exotic others, brown-skinned derivatives of Sally Rand, Dixie Evans, and Dita Von Teese. Despite what mainstream burlesque narratives might lead you to believe, our legends were not merely chorus girls for white headliners, thus contemporary performers of color do not have to be content with the ways in which that subordinate role continues to play out on the neo-burlesque stage.

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  • http://www.burlesquehall.com laura

    Too bad the author wasn’t able to attend #BHOF11. While Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend is far from an academic retreat, our Friday night show (colloquially known as “Legends Night”) is a beautiful representation of the diversity of VINTAGE burlesque–including many Black, Latina and Asian entertainers who made their names “back in the day,” like Lottie the Body, Toni Elling, Marinka, Gina Bon Bon, and Barbara Yung (the 92 y.o. recipient of our 2011 Legend of Burlesque Award).

    • Sydney Lewis

       I am quite familiar with BHOF and am actually a close friend of Toni Elling and while it is wonderful that such diversity is being brought to BHOF weekend,my greater argument is that these women still aren’t the face of burlesque that white women are even though there presence is as integral to the artform today and historically. As I tried to explain this isn’t just about representation but a whole rescripting of the burlesque narrative.
      The texts that I reference are not academic texts, but everyday books on the history of burlesque that many burlesque-lovers go to for their information about the artform. In the end, just the few participants at BHOF weekend will know who Ms. Toni, Lottie, Marinka, and the ladies of Grant Avenue Follies are, but many many more are exposed to the women commonly written about as *the* Legends. This needs to be acknowledged and a new narrative highlighting women of color has to be written.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mikie.dc Mikie DC

    Great article. I’m glad you wrote it. You are the perfect person to do so.

  • Theresa

    I am fortunate in the Bay Area to be privy to lots of diverse representations of burlesque.  Check out Kaleidoscope which is about honoring people of color in burlesque: kaleidoscopecabaret.com/ 

  • Star

    As a friend of a mixed burlesque performer, she has encountered a lot of positive reviews. She also had some negativity by a minority of producers because she chose to branch out into producing & chose to slam her instead of being supportative, which has probably cost her possible booking and opportunities. She took the high road much to the delight & respect of the predominately white scene. Despite what happened, she is still booked, a buzzed about performer and planning, learning to be better. Whether it’s racism, elitism, that these particular producers chose to talk garbage aganist my friend (i chose to keep the names out due to their being well known in the area were from) this story definately shines a light on the past & what is possibly going on in the present.  

  • Anonymous

    I would love to see someone work on a paper or panel on this topic and present at BurlyCon.

  • Sydney Lewis

     There are a good deal of burlesque performers of color out there (which is awesome) but, with a few exceptions, we are not the mainstream image of burlesque. I don’t think the primary issue is not being able to get bookings because we are women of color; I would agree that rarely happens within the liberal “colorblind’ burlesque world. I think the greater issue is that despite the growing number of women of color performers as a collective we are not represented in the artform and I think this is linked to historical exclusions.
    We could list many stellar performers of color, but in the burlesque world, these women are not the icons that Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Dita Von Tease, and Catherine D’lish are.
    As far as the “self-segregating,” sometimes the racist appropriation that goes on in these shows under the banner of “satire” or “tribute” encourages folks to be more selective about the productions they want to be involved in. This might be less self-segregating and more self-care

    • Megtherapy

      Hey Sydney,
      Not sure if you ever got my email, but I would LOVE if you would come present some of your research and findings at BurlyCon. This article is great and more people need to hear what you have to say.
      Let me know if you are interested.
      Heidi Von Haught

  • http://www.akynos.com Akynos

    wow! thank you for this! i’m in my senior year at goddard and I’m doing a presentation called burlesque in color where I speak about what white mainstream talks about is “classic” burlesque. what they consider it to be is white burlesque because these performers of color did burlesque differently and how is it disregarded as classic? anyhoo, i can go on and on.  i didn’t know about Jet’s history on covering this. I was also lead to believe that it was hard to find. You just helped my senior presentation.

    • Sydney Lewis

      I’m glad. And yes, there is definitely a distinct style in pre-1960s black wome’s burlesque and white women borrowed heavily from black women’s dances. Have you check out Jayna Brown’s book Babylon Girls?

  • houston hotel

    It is interesting to see the differences of perception from generation to generation.  My aunt was actually involved in Burlesque. However, there was a point in time, where  WE were ashamed to acknowledge those type of things. My aunt started out with Katherine Dunham and moved on from there to a successful career.

    Yet, regardless of those pics in the photo album of Sammy Davis jr or Lionel Hampton, there were limits to what we could share. Especially because my aunt eventually became active in the COGIC, which is staunchly pentecostal. It was considered a disgrace to be  a “shake dancer”. In the eyes of many elders, it was no different  than having been a prostitute. So we always told people that she was a model and never revealed those photos.

    • http://blog.themerchgirl.net Creatrix Tiara

      Oh trust me, the stigma doesn’t go away! My parents and family (I’m South Asian) think it’s shameful, tons of feminists think I’m pandering to the patriarchy, some people think I’m just there to leer at…sigh…

  • http://blog.themerchgirl.net Creatrix Tiara

    Also adding to the list: Rose Chan, Malaysia’s first (and possibly only) burlesque star. ESPECIALLY notable given that the authorities basically turned a blind eye to her antics in her time (60s-70s) but if she tried to do even a fraction of her act today she would be quickly jailed.

    There is a lot of POC burlesque that tends to not be seen as burlesque because people are expecting sparkles and feathers (no thanks, Dita). If you take the origins of satire, political buffonery, turning things on their head, playing with ideas of sexuality and gender – SO MUCH GOLD that gets unacknowledged. I am proud to be part of this semi-hidden group of passionate politically-aware performers, even if it means being blacklisted by the local scene for being too outspoken and rabble-rousing.

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  • Allaroundwonderfulnyc

    I did a burlesque show once as a laugh, a bucket list thing. I was creative and very, very good, and to be quite honest, I am very beautiful. I got that audience really excited. My white girlfriends who attended thought I was so good I should consider doing it all the time. But those were my friends, enlightened and loving.

    The rest of the women in the show were white. It was obvious to me they were very surprised I was there, and only one was friendly to me. Even though my routine was greeted with more raves than anyone else, I was not invited back and was told, “You should check out Brown Girls Burlesque.” I should have said I don’t believe in segregation. This was in New York City, and these women were all young women who would call themselves “hipsters” At that, yall can have this. “White women didn’t invent sexual agency”, but they damned sure think they did.

    • Ladyguerita

       That is one of the problems that I have with sex positive feminism.  It seems to promote the positive sexually of one group of women( white). 

    • http://blog.themerchgirl.net Creatrix Tiara

      Urgh, that’s awful. I’m sure they thought they mean well (and I second the recommendation for Brown Girls Burlesque, they are AMAZING) but that doesn’t mean they should ignore you!

      THankfully NYC is big enough that there’s a lot of fringe open stuff out there – though you may need to look beyond the mainstream and go to queer/activisty spaces for that. Jo Weldon, who is Big Mama of NY Burlesque, is pretty clue-y and open to issues of culture & racism in burlesque – look her up and she could help ya with more open reputable places that have a good audience mix.

  • http://cocoafly.com Cocoa Fly

    I covered a black burlesque group based in LA for website. They’re called the Brown Betties. http://www.cocoafly.com/2010/12/brown-betties-harlems-night-burlesque.html

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com AngryBroomstick

    I used to follow a few Tumblrs blogs that post photos of pin-up models and burlesque dancers, because I enjoy looking at vintage photos from the past and I like to look at old photos for fashion inspiration, but 99% of these women were white, and I was once again reminded of how ugly I felt as an Indian girl, constantly bombarded with images of white women who are said to be “beautiful,” and I felt un-inspired to try a pin-up look because to me, it felt so “white.”

    Do anyone of you know a good Tumblr that focuses on non-white burlesque dancers and non-white pin-up models? I’m really tired of looking at blondes and redheads.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com AngryBroomstick

    I used to follow a few Tumblrs blogs that post photos of pin-up models and burlesque dancers, because I enjoy looking at vintage photos from the past and I like to look at old photos for fashion inspiration, but 99% of these women were white, and I was once again reminded of how ugly I felt as an Indian girl, constantly bombarded with images of white women who are said to be “beautiful,” and I felt un-inspired to try a pin-up look because to me, it felt so “white.”

    Do anyone of you know a good Tumblr that focuses on non-white burlesque dancers and non-white pin-up models? I’m really tired of looking at blondes and redheads.