Black Burlesque History Timeline: 1880-1929 (Part I)


Originally published on Patreon. All proceeds go towards the publication of the forthcoming book "AMERICAN SHAKE QUEENS".


I wanted to call this a timeline of Black Erotic Dance History, but I knew that wouldn't be entirely accurate. Many people still argue over the true definition of a burlesque artist, but I would argue for the looser definition of any performance featuring lots of skin, dressing/undressing, satire, or the like -- basically, an invitation to view our talent through the lens of our physical bodies. Many early black burlesque and vaudeville artists didn't strip, and much of the shake dancing footage I've found features little to no actual disrobing -- they start off scantily clad and they end scantily clad.


That doesn't mean there weren't shakers that incorporated striptease into their acts --- balloon-popping (see: Elizabeth "China Doll" Dickerson, Valda) is a form of disrobing, and other shake dancers would often dance and strip out of extravagant costumes, gowns, and robes.


It's sometimes been difficult to narrow my scope during research, but there's one thing that's been clear: I'm focused simply on finding Black femmes throughout history who were not afraid to perform sensually and erotically, no specific label necessary. I wanted to include all the shakers that didn't strip, the strippers that didn't shake, and everything before, after, and in between. Because femmes of color have notoriously been excluded from past burlesque shows, we were sometimes called everything other than burlesque dancers or stripteasers. There are countless nameless chorus femmes who toiled away reluctantly in minstrel shows, determined to dance but relegated to performing offensive caricatures of themselves.


My timeline starts post-Reconstruction, during a time when Black American massacres and lynchings were common and minstrel shows ruled the country. Our dance history grew despite the atrocities of plantation slavery, Reconstruction failures, and the ongoing and current disenfranchisement and murder of Black Americans. For personal reasons, I chose not to include popular minstrel shows in this timeline despite their role as a precursor to American burlesque and vaudeville. It's a shameful history, and many Black dancers did not want to memorialize these shows despite participating in them.


Recently I was lamenting the lack of evidence and celebration of Black erotic dancers in history books and archives. Another black historian challenged me to think about why this is. The obvious answer, of course, is everything I've mentioned above: how could we focus on dancing -- nay, erotic dancing -- while also fighting for survival and basic freedoms? Even the thin, white burlesque and shake dancers are barely represented -- it's like grasping at straws here!


I'm not sure if he was trying to be dismissive of my research, but I actually think it's a great question that merits a book -- duh! that's why we're all here! I have my own reasons for choosing to be a burlesque dancer during a period of sociopolitical strife, but I'm excited to continue researching and figure out what the legend shake queens themselves have to say.

This is the first timeline, and I am continuing through until present day. These timelines help provide a framework for my research, and while not all of the featured femmes are shake dancers they still hold an extremely important role in black burlesque history.


Until next time,

Bebe

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