As I continue researching and teaching the history and practice of shake dancing, I've found so much information that it's sometimes hard to cram it all into a one hour lesson (or even 1.5 hours, to be honest).
Part of that history is of trans shake dancers and queer performance artists that were active during what I call "the Golden Era of Shake Dance," or the 1940s-1960s. One of the Golden Era's most popular performers was Patsy Vadalia (pictured below - for more photos, click here), a hip-shaking drag queen that performed at New Orleans's famed Dew Drop Inn. And there's Jackie Shane, a reclusive singer and dancer who performed on post-Vaudeville tours not as a drag queen, but openly and freely as herself -- a trans woman.
There's gotta be way more historical artists than Patsy and Jackie, but it's hard to find because we're dealing with double and triple and quadruple barriers here -- these are burlesque artists (an already oft-overlooked art form), who are also people of color, who are also black, who are also women, who are also trans and/or queer... many mainstream historical sources chose to ignore or belittle these performers rather than celebrate them. And that's a shame, as always.
Anyway, the story of popular shake dancer Carlett Angianlee (1927-????) has always stood out to me, mostly because we still to this day don't know if she ever got her fairy-tale ending.
Jet Magazine frequently gossiped about Carlett, as evident by this news clipping from a 1953 issue. This is the first mention of her that I can find in the media. CONTENT WARNING: the article deadnames her and uses invasive language to discuss her medical history.
Her journey as a trans (and intersex?) woman to receive necessary healthcare and medical attention is noted, along with her dream to marry her lover Sgt. Eugene Martin, who was stationed in Frankfort, Germany. Carlett was a proud shake dancer who made about $10-$15 a night (good money at the time, I'm guessing) and made appearances in nightclubs in Boston and Pittsburgh.
Carlett wrote to surgeons overseas in Germany, Denmark, and Yugoslavia for help with her medical care, but only heard back affirmatively from Dr. Christian Hamburger in Copenhagen. She was advised to renounce her American citizenship so she could travel there to receive surgery and treatments.
In June of 1953, Jet reported that Carlett had renounced her U.S. citizenship and become Danish, and planned to sail to Germany on the S.S. Holland in August. It seems Carlett was actively speaking with Jet, and told them that she couldn't wait to marry the love of her life and hopefully have children with him one day. She was scheduled to receive medical care at Riges Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark. In July of that same year, she was arrested and jailed in downtown Boston for wearing a skirt-suit (which I'm sure looked stunning enough to garner the attention of the authorities); her manager John Blackwell had to bail her out and she had to ask for help affording the trip to Denmark. "Things are awfully tough in Boston," she lamented.
In August, the headline read "Shake Dancer Postpones Sex Change for Face Lifting". Priorities! Dr. George J.B. Weiss performed the surgery. Although Carlett was moving closer to her dream body, she still vocalized her support for "female impersonators": "I feel that female impersonators are being denied their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when they are arrested for wearing female clothes--especially when they are minding their own business."
Suddenly, in October, Jet reported that Carlett's travel plans had hit a snag: the IRS was now after her for $1200 in back taxes. She took a job cooking at the Phi Kappa House at Iowa State University (members stated that she would now be their new House Queen), and offered herself up for shake dancing gigs in that state while she raised money for travels.
This is where the trail runs cold. No one knows if she ever made it overseas after working at Iowa State University. It would be interesting to find out which Jet beat reporter was following Carlett and other shake dancers in the early 1950s -- this person would more than likely know if she ever made it. They wrote frequently not just about Carlett, but all the most popular shake dancers of the time.
If still alive, Carlett is 93 years old. She is a huge part of shake dancing history, and I hope she made it to her man in Germany and got the medical care, peace, freedom, and love she deserved.
For further reading on Carlett Angianlee:
Until next time, and always with love,