By Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from Waging Non-Violence
Brown Girls Burlesque performs at the New York Burlesque Festival in 2010. Image by CreatixTiara/Flickr
Perle Noire takes the stage at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival. Her costume: brilliant orange silk against brown skin. She glides, shimmies, and beams. To the sound of an urgent drum beat, her skirt falls, revealing silvery fringe swinging across a bared bottom. Horns. She thrusts and dances. A turned back. Full breasts and glittering pasties. The crowd whoops as she leaps and cartwheels. She beams: the performance is magnetic and joyous. It is burlesque.
A variety performance traditionally featuring striptease, burlesque has seen a resurgence in popularity over the last two decades. A bared shoulder or the shake of a hip can be sexy, sensual, and funny. But the art form is also a means of resistance. Undulating bodies can uncover histories, challenge biases and defy stereotypes. And when politicized bodies move this way–bodies still straining under the weight of racial stereotypes that stretch back to the era of slavery–it is even more insubordinate.
By Andrea Plaid
Photo: Frederick V. Nielson II. Courtesy: Essence Revealed
When I saw my very first Brown Girls Burlesque show two years ago, my mouth was agape at BGB dancer Essence Revealed’s piece celebrating the life of Josephine Baker. To the sounds of the consummate performer’s live performance, Essence saunters onto the stage–really, her Josephine is strolling into her dressing room after a performance–in black tux, ‘tails, and top hat, with a newspaper in hand. Essence opens the paper to the audience, which shows factoids about Baker’s incredible life and takes off a part of her garb, as if undressing to go to sleep for the night. But this is burlesque, and Essence’s every move is all about the tease and that all-knowing smile as she also conveys the power Baker herself held over her adopted home of France and the world-outside-the-US through the power of her self-loving work expressed through her brown body. When Essence-Josephine lays her head down on the floor to exit this world, I, too, understood that Baker’s transition was of a woman of color who lived a gloriously full life. I slow-clapped–then shouted–my deep appreciation for what Essence brought to the audience through her sinewy, sublime performance, thankful for bringing Baker back to life just one more time to receive her just due.
Essence herself is all about living a gloriously full life. I asked her, via email, to discuss her life in burlesque and stripping, the larger discussions about race in both professions, and getting paid in both professions. Between her running-to-the-next-gig days she graciously answered them.
Of course, the basics: where did you go to school? What was your major? Have you always been so fabulous?
I studied burlesque at the Brown Girls Burlesque’s Broad Squad Institute. I have a master’s degree in educational theater from NYU. Fabulous, no–and I have the elementary through high school pics to prove it! And even now anyone can look fabulous with good makeup and lighting. Being fabulous is an ongoing self-improvement job with new projects that show themselves daily. But thanks!
So excited for this!
BROWN GIRLS BURLESQUE BRINGS
“SOUL TRAIN VS. SOLID GOLD” FROM NYC TO DC!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—The tantalizing New York-based Brown Girls Burlesque makes their DC premiere at the Red Palace with Soul Train vs. Solid Gold! On Friday, March 30, the BGB lovelies will shimmy, shake and rock your soul with a tribute to two of the most beloved music shows ever! Hosted by the Def Jam poet Regie Cabico with DJ Natty Boom holding down the sounds of the 70′s and 80′s, making strippin’ history in the Chocolate City at two back-to-back shows at the Red Palace (1212 12th St. NE), one at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.
The striptease art form has a remarkably rich past and present as noted by Chicava Honeychild, creative producer of BGB, in the Ebony Magazine article “BLACK BURLESQUE: Live Nude Girls!” After their 2007 debut, BGB has become a staple in the burlesque community keeping the art form alive in communities of color but also creating a space for other women of color on the burlesque stage. BGB has packed venues and created shows at some of New York City’s finest venues, and around the country, continuing the legacy of dancers like Tina Pratt, Toni Elling and Lottie the Body.
Brown Girls Burlesque has graced the pages of publications such as: Bust Magazine, The Advocate, The Village Voice, TRACE’s “Black Girls Rule” issue and $pread Magazine, and were also featured in a video on NYPost.com entitled “Burlesque in Color.” The ladies of Brown Girls Burlesque are: Akynos, Chicava HoneyChild, Essence Revealed, exHOTic Other, jazabel jade, Miss Aurora BoobRealis (co-founder), SisterMoon, and Sunshine Fayalicious.
Don’t miss this funky trip back in time! Ticket information is available here: http://redpalacedc.com/calendar/brown-girls-burlesque-presents-soul-train-vs-solid-gold/
I’ll be attending the 11 PM show with some of my friends–feel free to come out and support. Also, on Saturday, Brown Girls Burlesque will be hosting a workshop at MamaSita’s Movement and Wellness Studio. Details here.
Jazabel Jade has offered a pair of free tickets, so if you want them, comment or send us a tweet with your Burlesque alterego’s name. (All are welcome to participate!)
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.