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.
It sounds like you put a lot of thought into the part. Why did you want to quit after the first season?
After the first year, Grace Lee Whitney was let go so it became Bill and Leonard. The rest of us became supporting characters. I decided to leave the show after the first season.
What convinced you to stay on?
I was at a fundraiser and the promoter of the event said there’s somebody that wants to meet you. He is your biggest fan. I stood up and turned to see the beatific face of Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with a sparkle in his eye. He took my hand and thanked me for meeting him. He then said I am your greatest fan. All I remember is my mouth opening and shutting.
What was that like?
I thanked him so much and told him how I’d miss it all. He asked what I was talking about, and told me that I can’t leave the show. We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves.