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.
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!