The Legacy of Black Classic Burlesque in America

Updated: Jul 9, 2019



This past weekend, I performed in the "Chocolate Lounge" in Washington, D.C. Founded and produced by D.C. native Gigi Holliday and headlined by none other than the legendary Egypt Blaque Knyle, this show brought together black burlesque performers from all over the nation to celebrate our art at the D.C. Black Theatre Festival.


At several points throughout the night, I felt extremely grateful at the opportunity to watch black women dance in "traditional" classic styles of burlesque. There were boas, sparkling floor-length gowns with trains, breathtaking fur robes, chiffon, feathers, the works. It was my dream come true.

"As black burlesque performers, it can be up to us to embody and live our history. Many of our black burlesque heroes are unsung and unseen, so every time we perform is an opportunity to unearth their movements and allure, and bring that vintage-black-girl sparkle to modern audiences that may have never seen anything like that, ever."

I've talked before about my fierce attachment to classic burlesque as a dark-skinned black woman. Many told me when I first started out that I may lose interest in performing this style after a while. "You'll find your true self," more than one seasoned performer advised. I understood what they meant -- many performers start out doing classic and then switch over to nerdlesque or sideshow or neo or somewhere they feel more freedom to explore different facets of themselves. And all performers, over time, will hopefully develop little quirks and specialties that set us apart from the rest - and often these quirks can outgrow the standard straight-strip, parade-and-peel structure of traditional classic routines.


There are many promo photos that pop up when researching black burlesque history (especially when looking for old nudies and naughty pics) but they sometimes don't come with names to find out what happened to these women or where they are now. It is also very difficult to find moving images and videos of black burlesque performers in action -- even of the headliners from back in the day like Toni Elling, Lottie the Body, or Miss Topsy. The Burlesque Hall of Fame does a wonderful job of tracking burlesque legends down, but this doesn't always equate to accessing prized and rare footage of them actually performing.


As black burlesque performers, it can be up to us to embody and live our history. Many of our black burlesque heroes are unsung and unseen, so every time we perform is an opportunity to unearth their movements and allure, and bring that vintage-black-girl sparkle to modern audiences that may have never seen anything like that, ever. It is up to us to celebrate ourselves. This actually goes for all burlesque performers to be honest -- our artistic counterparts in literature, film, and theater will always be celebrated... burlesque, not so much. We have to be our own cheerleaders.


Here's how I view it: as a tiny little dark-skinned black burlesque performer, every time I step onstage in a big ass elaborate classic burlesque costume and see the eyes in the audience get wide in shock as they look back at me with cell phones glaring and cameras flashing, I think of it as an opportunity to reclaim time for a black unsung burlesque hero that came before me. Every time I swing my hips at someone, every flash of beaded fringe that flys to the music, every quiver of my thigh is an ode to our legacy as black burlesque performers. I am an active, living, breathing manifestation of the sisters who have shook and quaked before me, and I can't stop or give up on it ever because this feeling of vindication is what drives me to do burlesque in the first place. I don't know if we'll ever unearth more videos of black burlesque artists performing. I hope we do. But in the meantime, I'm going to try my best to deliver the vintage-style performances that I can only see in my dreams, so far. And I'm going to continue to support the modern POC shows that bring our past history to life... sure, we can't look at hours and hours and hours of footage online, but we sure can go support a show and see modern black dancers put our spin on classic style. Aside from what's on YouTube, it may be the closest thing we can get to the real thing (until the BHoF Walk of Fame, of course -- everyone gets excited when the legends perform).


I want to end this post by naming some black burlesque artists from our past. If I'm missing any videos please comment. The hope is that, over time, even more people will see these names and continue digging for more videos that may exist. I know I have friends and classmates who work at the Library of Congress reading this -- if you come across these names attached to any videos, it would be awesome to see footage:


Betty Brisbane

Charles Brown

Ethelyn Butler

Princess de Paur

Shelly Devonshire

China Doll 

Chinkie Grimes

Rose Hardaway

Lee Ta Harris

Jean Idelle

Diana Lombardi

JoAnn Norris

Tina Pratt

Rita Thomas

Rosa La Rosa

Shawna the Black Venus

LA Vane 

Tequilla Wallace

Gerri Wayne



Here are some links to more information and videos on black burlesque history. There's a whole lot more where this came from (not the videos, but the text), but these are great introductory reading and viewing materials:

  • my "Black Burlesque History" playlist on YouTube has 27 short clips and documentaries that feature black burlesque performers dancing back in the day - this seems like a lot, but I'd like to find more.

  • this "History of Color" podcast talks about black burlesque history and features burlesque star Shimmy LaRoux.

  • Chicava's Ebony article is still one of the best black burlesque articles around, with lots of names and history.

Until next time,

Bebe

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