Shimmying toward freedom

Brown Girls Burlesque performs at the New York Burlesque Festival in 2010. (Flickr/Creatrixtiara)

Brown Girls Burlesque performs at the New York Burlesque Festival in 2010. (Flickr/Creatrixtiara)

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.

Essence Revealed is a member of the New York City troupe Brown Girls Burlesque, founded by performers Aurora BoobRealis and Maya Haynes-Warren in response to the absence of women of color on the city’s burlesque stages. A professional actor, Essence recalled auditioning for stereotypical roles in which she was judged against Hollywood’s view of blackness. “I’m a woman who has had two degrees since she was 24, but all I get called in [to audition] for is Gangster Girl Number 12.”

This is an experience that fellow Brown Girls Burlesque member Chicava Honeychild knows well. She too found burlesque as an antidote to being a frustrated “blacktress,” relying on stereotypes to book jobs. In burlesque, the disguises and the aesthetic vision are all her own. For many black burlesque performers, this art form is a pathway to reclaiming power over their identities and pushing back against stereotypes that poison portrayals in pop culture and media, as well as in everyday interactions.

Burlesque has always been about more than titillation; female freedom of identity, movement and voice is part of burlesque’s history. The term comes from the Italian burla, meaning “mockery.” When performer Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes troupe brought burlesque to American shores in 1868, they introduced a convention-challenging art form in which women controlled their public images and gave performances that featured parody and social satire coupled with unabashed nudity, sexuality and sometimes ribald humor.

According to the Ohio State University exhibition Loose Women in Tights, “It did not matter what Thompson and her fellow Blondes might say on stage — the very fact of their self-possessed and self-aware presence there was disturbing enough.”

Well over a hundred years since the British Blondes shimmied their way across American stages, expressing carnal desires can still be a landmine for women. This form of expression is particularly challenging for black women, who have to strike a delicate balance between the trope of animalistic hyper-sexuality, and its unfortuante antidote: a politics of respectability that calls for them to be sexless. Burlesque performances by black women can simultaneously kill and reclaim the specter of Jezebel, a stereotype in which black women become the embodiment of wanton sexuality, while still rejecting Mammy, a counter-stereotype of black women as asexual caretakers.

Chicava Honeychild, who serves as Brown Girl Burlesque’s creative director, explained that many black women suffer from internalized messaging that isolates them from sexual expression. “It’s not possible to enjoy your sensual inclinations when there’s a fear of being seen as, thought of or actually being some kind of animal,” she said. “It’s a silent, pervasive form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

She explained that other women of color often greet her performances with shocked faces and clutched pearls. “Maybe it’s running up against what they’ve been taught to believe religiously or the sociological programming that has them believing they, as black women (with me as the proxy), are not supposed to put themselves out there like that, lest they be mistaken for some type of strumpet.”

She continued. “I’m so over the game that wants me to think I don’t get to have sovereignty over how I experience life in my body — my sexuality, my intellect, my emotional programming.”

One of Honeychild’s favorite and most affecting performances is titled “Jezebel.” It is a about plaçage, the antebellum practice of placing African, Indian and white Creole women as consorts or “comfort women” to wealthy white men. Such relationships, most common in New Orleans, often resulted in common-law marriages with men maintaining two families: a legal white one and an extralegal family of color. New Orleans’ infamous quadroon balls, held for white men to meet quarter-black women, were part of plaçage, and the practice helped create the community of gens de couleur or free people of color. While the system often ensured the survival, financial stability and freedom of women of color and their offspring, placées were viewed as inferior to white women and went unrecognized by the dominant society. They also lived in danger of being abandoned by their male protectors.

In her “Jezebel” performance, Honeychild plays a placée who is helped into fine clothing by a servant. She then slowly peels the clothes off in a dance both sensual and sad, haughty and vulnerable.

Honeychild is not alone in mining serious issues through her performances. At the turn of the 20th century, four legendary performers of color — Ada Overton Walker, Stella Wiley, Dora Dean and Belle Davis — starred in “Oriental America,” a dazzling performance that simultaneously entertained and mocked the exotification of African American and Asian women, as well as U.S. policies toward the Far East and its black citizenry.

Modern black burlesquers have carried on this tradition. Essence Revealed has explored depression through burlesque; a group called Juicy D. Light has performed a provocative piece about Aunt Jemima, the embodiment of the Mammy stereotype of black women as asexual caretakers. jazabel jade, a Brown Girls Burlesque member whose name is lowercased in homage to the feminist theorist bell hooks, discovered burlesque at a show devoted to history-making black women. She has explored domestic violence in a performance called “Man Down,” which she performs to a Rihanna song by the same name.

According to journalist Andrea Plaid, whose burlesque name is A. Duskie Magdalene, these performances don’t intervene or interrupt the system in the same way that street protests do, for instance. But burlesque — especially the kind performed by Brown Girls Burlesque and other artists of color — has a more subtle effect: It changes and challenges the dominant culture, an education process that often has to happen before action in the street can occur.

Many of these performers have witnessed how their art moves audiences. Once, after performing “Jezebel” in a small Pennsylvania town, Honeychild was approached by a man who asked its meaning. Surprised to learn of the complicated tangle of history, race, gender and power explored in the piece, the man said that even without knowing about plaçage the performance made him sad.

“Even though I’m working to portray a historical story,” Honeychild said, “if I can transcend my intended storyline and reach qualities that register with people on a core level, I’m being successful in my work.”

These performances are sustaining conversations about structural injustice in unexpected places. But Essense Revealed said, “Sometimes I just want to be on stage in a pretty outfit and dance sexily out of it.” As with the stars of “Oriental America” and the British Blondes, social revolutions come not only in the commentary but also simply in the pleasure of the performance itself. In a social climate in which women’s bodies are on display for the male gaze, in which female sexuality is shamed and reproductive rights are under attack, in which the humanity and femininity of black women is continuously in question, simply to be a black woman in burlesque — naked, defiant, proud, happy and comfortable in her skin — is incendiary.

As jazabel jade said, quoting the words of former burlesque instructor Victoria Libertore, “There is nothing more dangerous than a naked woman talking.”

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