In the burlesque community, we typically use the term "neo-burlesque" to describe a historical movement that occurred during the late 1980s and 1990s (generally speaking) which involved a brand of performance art that satirized and harkened back to the glory days of "classic" traditional burlesque. There weren't any "rules" or set boundaries around the art of neo-burlesque -- based on many interviews, lots of folks who were doing it had no idea there was a name for it, or that they were pioneers "bringing back" the "lost" art of burlesque. They just kinda went out there and did their thing, all the while knowing they were different and special.
In the early 1990s, while many NYC performers were unwittingly performing neo-burlesque, Egypt was doing the same thing as a lesbian woman of color in South Los Angeles.
I recently saw the new 2020 documentary "Obscene Beauty" on Amazon Prime, which takes a deep-dive into the NYC neo-burlesque movement in its heyday. It's a very captivating film. As I watched the NYC neo-legends talk about their movement, I began to wonder if there were similar neo-burlesque movements unknowingly taking place at the same time.
Enter the new documentary "SHAKEDOWN", directed by Leilah Weinraub. (And enter at your own risk, because it's the first ever non-adult film to be hosted on p0rn giant P0rnhub! You may not be able to view on a work computer.)
Many in the burlesque community know one of the film's most prolific stars: Egypt Blaque Knyle, Mother to those of us in the House of Knyle and mentor to many budding burlesquers all around the world.
In the early 1990s, while many NYC performers were stripping out of costumes in themed acts and unwittingly performing neo-burlesque, Egypt was doing the same thing for black audiences as a lesbian woman of color in South Los Angeles.
Known simply as "EGYPT," she performed in black lesbian strip clubs as different characters, wearing different eye-popping costumes and entertaining audiences well before she ever knew it was considered "burlesque". Her reputation grew to legendary status, and she is still considered a pioneer in black lesbian strip club culture. Character development and costuming is central to a lot of neo-burlesque acts, and EGYPT's work in early black lesbian strip clubs was no different.
"I do things as Egypt that I would never do as Aiisha," she explains in the documentary. "I can be a Barbie. I can be a kitten. I can be S&M. I can beat ya ass. I can do whatever I wanna do... nobody fucks with Egypt."
In the 1990s, EGYPT was a stripper, yes. But she elevated the strip game to something unique and wild, and she is also a neo-burlesque pioneer.
This is proven by the footage in "Shakedown". She was accepted as a performer in trans and drag queen communities, even as a cisgender lesbian woman. And she wasn't just a stripper... Egypt and her co-workers were stripteasers, too. "It's about that first image when you walk out. If you come out fierce, that's what they think about. It's what turns them on," Mahogany, described as the legendary Mother of the scene, notes. She outright compares the work of black lesbian strip club dancers to burlesque legend stripteasers in the 1950s. "Once you start taking off pieces, there's nothing to think about -- it's all out in the open. They say, "That's that? NEXT." "Once your naked, there's no turn on. They say, "Make me horny, but make me wonder." This, too, is a central premise of not only classic traditional burlesque, but neo-burlesque as well. The tease is just as important as the strip, if not more important.
Egypt's performance art sat neatly between the worlds of strip clubs, gay ballroom culture, and burlesque. These days, you can see elements of all three in most burlesque shows all around the world.
"I make sure the make-up is extravagant. The hair may be up to here. The costume will be hanging down to there. You know, everything is more. But I do it my way."
The film is eye-opening and excellent. You can see archival footage of EGYPT back in the 90s, shake dancing for a room full of lesbians and stripping out of feathers, fur, robes, capes, etc... much of the same type of dancing and costuming we wear today as modern burlesquers.
I encourage everyone to watch this film and learn about this often-forgotten bit of neo-burlesque history. I am a firm believer that burlesque will never die, and even when we thought it was dead, people like Egypt were reviving it one show at a time way back when some of us were still watching Nickelodeon. There's no substitute for time, and time has proven that Egypt Blaque Knyle is truly a neo-burlesque icon.
A fitting quote from Egypt in the film is right before the credits roll: “Nothing is what it seems from the outside, and from the outside, things look pretty much the same: in LA, there are strip malls, brown buildings, and concrete streets. For miles, stretching in all directions, palm trees and cars. At night, it’s more of the same, but less light and less cars... Some places are just hard to find.” I am so happy Leilah Weinraub decided to shine a light on this little-known, hard-to-find neo-burlesque history.
Until next time, and always with love,