This history of black burlesque runs so deep, I would never be able to cover it all in one blog post however, I will allow you to take a taste, a nibble and a sip from what you read today.
The definition of burlesque is a dramatic work that seeks to ridicule by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation. There is really much more to this sexy dance style than this official definition allows.
Black women in burlesque were completely empowered in their sexual essence and they showed the world, it wasn’t just about white women displaying that art of dance. Most people think of Josephine Baker in Paris in the 1940s doing her infamous banana dance, Danse Sauvage when they think of early burlesque. This was after the beautiful Josephine broke her contract with the show, La Revue Negre and went to headline her own show Follies Bergere. This was her taking control of her sexuality and her career. Was this the invention of slay, bitch slay? The start of burlesque for blacks began back in the late 19th century.
In 1890, Sam T. Jack produced The Creole Show. It was the first show to present an all-black woman chorus doing original songs, skits and comedy routines. There were three parts to the show with the third part being the burlesque portion. Stars in The Creole Show then went on to star in Oriental America, where they mocked how black and Asian women were treated as “exotic.” It illustrated the hypocrisy of the Jim Crow laws in the south and America’s policies in the Far East.
Irvin Miller, who has Tennessee roots (I live in Nashville) was born in Columbia, Tennessee, graduated from Fisk University in 1904 in Nashville and was responsible for Brown Skin Models, which was influenced by the Ziegfeld Follies. He directed this popular production for thirty years. It was said Irvin had an eye for attracting beautiful and talented women for his show that traveled across the country for forty weeks out of the year.
The history of burlesque not only for black women but for other women of color has been forgotten or lost. There were blacks, Asians, Latinas, South Pacific Islanders and Native American women who were head lining shows around the country and Europe. There were some who were insuring their bodies and earning $1,000 or more a week. They fought sexism, racism and stereotypes of all kinds.
Some people view burlesque as glorified stripping but costumes, music, and skits were used to tell stories, some political and others for pure entertainment. Those who support this art, performers and fans say this is about women standing in their sexual truth and empowering themselves without limitations.
By the 1970s, burlesque had disappeared and was replaced by modern day strip clubs. However, the art reappeared in the 1990s. There were many black burlesque performers of the past who made history and paved the way for today’s “neo-burlesque” companies and performers. The New York based company Brown Girls Burlesque has picked up from where old burlesque was dropped off. Chicava HoneyChild is the producer of this new group of black burlesque performers. She and her troupe have taken on the new political issues of today which they express in their acts. In Washington, D.C. Dainty Dandridge and her troupe, Chocolate City Burlesque and Cabaret are doing the same new school burlesque, speaking out on social injustices in their performances. “Sometimes when things are very painful, like the legacy of slavery in America, the only way to work through them is to laugh at them. To turn them into something not so intimidating and painful.” Said Dainty during an interview for PBS. The goal of the modern day burlesque performers is to keep the legacy of past dancers alive while also emphasizing body positive, woman affirming sensuality.
Don’t let Chicava HoneyChild’s burlesque hustle fool you. In 2012 she was in the master’s program at Goddard College where she was working on a documentary of the history of women of color in burlesque. You can find out what Chicava is currently up to with her troupe on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ChicavaHoneyChild.
Many black women and other women of color made great sacrifices and opened doors for future burlesque performers. Click on the links below.
Check out a more in depth article about Brown Girls Burlesque https://shoppeblack.us/2017/01/brown-girls-burlesque-ny/
Check out these 19 burlesque dancers https://www.revelist.com/race/black-burlesque-dancers/7402
By 2:19 you will see what these young girls are doing ain’t nothing new. Tarza Young was doing this before we were all thought of! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PjjgKvc8p4
Check out Bebe Bardot who is all things black and burlesque https://www.bebebardot.com/