Essence Revealed is a solo dancer and member of the burlesque troupe Brown Girls Burlesque, based in New York City. She is not only a skilled performer but a talented writer who has written eloquently on such topics as overcoming depression and open relationships. She also recently weighed in with a fresh and interesting point of view on the often discussed burlesque performer vs stripper debate. Burlesque Bible asked Essence to write an article for us on being a woman of colour in the burly world and we are delighted with the results.
I’ll admit it. I’ve been avoiding writing about this topic. I aim to write from an honest place. I have learned on too many occasions in life that honesty is NOT always the best policy. The question posed to me is what has my experience been like as a burlesque performer of color? The good news is that I am not even two years old yet in ‘burlesque years.’ Therefore, there are many experiences yet to be had.
I’ve never let my race, gender or sexuality represent stumbling blocks in my life. All are accolades adding to the mosaic pattern that is uniquely me. My first burlesque experience ever is at the Sex Worker Cabaret done yearly here in New York by Sarah Jenny. She creates a very open and welcoming vibe with her event. Not to mention, she promotes like an Olympic athlete so her performers are always well taken care of. There are LGBTQ performers, young and older performers, many genders and races are represented. It is a blast!
Cut to my first purely burlesque show with a really well known burlesque producer. I am the only performer of color represented the entire night. I’m grilled backstage by a performer as if being screened by a ‘cool kid’ in high school about where I perform and study burlesque. Clearly she does not know that I am a nerd who has never had being down with the cool kids as a requirement in my life. I am told by the producer that my piece is “really heavy.” A few weeks later, another performer of color I know who is booked for this show is warned to keep it light (assumption much?). The cool kid takes the liberty of letting me know which of my affiliations, performance and class wise, are respected as part of “the community” as if I asked her for validation. She also feels the need to tell me that it was ridiculous to think that the facts of my piece were true. I politely smile, nod and ignore all of this. The bubble over my head reads: I happen to have two degrees from NYU that I’ve had since the age of 24 that say I do research extremely cum laude well. Did I do the research or did you? I’ve been performing professionally for twenty one years. My day job is also as a performer not in an office. Oh, and by the way, who the F%@& asked you?
So I decide that I should stick to performing where A) I am not the only person of color in the dressing room B) There would be no immature grilling aimed at qualifying my presence C) I would not be ‘LA’d’ in terms of being booked. ‘LA’d’ is a term I made up after living in LA for a few years. I use it to describe when people say one thing to my face and then do the polar opposite in terms of follow up and follow through. There’s a joke that goes you can’t spell flake without LA. (I digress this is not about insulting people from LA. not everyone there is a flake.) However, I have encountered show producers telling me to contact them about auditioning/bookings and then get ignored when I follow up.
Several performers of color confirm this same experience about these particular producers. They do hire a handful of specific performers of color, I hear. However, whenever I’ve gone to see their shows I see not one. I spend much of my first year doing burlesque in non-burlesque events. I am welcomed and appreciated by the audience and other performers. I am able to introduce burlesque to people who have never seen it. I am paid sometimes triple what I’d get paid doing burlesque in the traditional burlesque scene.
Cross fade to present day. I am performing at one of the places the cool kid let me know is not “really a part of the burlesque community here.” I get invited by another performer that night to do a show she’s producing. I choose to play it safe and do my pretty pieces because I have never been to this show. It turns out to be the exact opposite of that first experience. From the performers backstage, to the producers and audience, everyone is great. I am also not the only person of color performing that night. It is a really fun night. Well, there is the awkward moment when a host sings a song meant to be funny but is actually quite racially offensive. The table of young African-American folks, who had never seen burlesque before, looks disgusted and leaves. However, my hope in doing traditional burlesque shows is restored despite this wrinkle.
This issue is like a throw back of the: ‘why do all the black/white kids sit at the same table in the cafeteria’ conversation. Well, because they grew up in the same neighborhood and are friends. That’s all. No one else in the burlesque community is producing on the grand scale of a Dita Von Tease. The shows are being produced by local performers who cast the slots with people whose performances they know and like. Relationships count for a great deal in any field. Burlesque, I’m sure, is no different. I honestly do not believe that racism always plays a role in the exclusion. I do believe that white privilege brings with it blinders that cause people to be unaware and so therefore not care much about inclusion. There is no presence of consciousness to cause them to make a serious effort at inclusion. Therefore, I can end up going to a burlesque show with over fifteen performers and see NOT ONE person of color represented in a big, diverse city like New York.
Still, I don’t see this as a reason for protest. I did admittedly, though, bury my activist hatchet sometime during my undergrad college years. I choose now to be the change. I prefer to stand in my power rather than point out victimization. I do see this as a call for performers of color to produce the types of shows they want to see. Gratefully, I get to perform with a troupe like Brown Girls Burlesque who does just that. Though BGB is clearly a woman of color group conscious efforts for inclusion are made when producing shows. That kind of thought doesn’t seem to automatically happen when one doesn’t originate from a marginalized population.
Inclusion goes even beyond race. It includes style. For example, I see shows produced by burlesque performers who create work that is really edgy, literary based or purely classical. They create their own spaces for the work that speaks to their aesthetic taste. So, my experience as a burlesque performer of color has been one in getting the message loud and clear: Do not expect to automatically be included. Produce the types of shows you want to be in.
I personally have no interest in begging people to book me to perform. Burlesque is a labor of love not finance. How much begging does a door split of $50 – $100 warrant? Um, lemme see… carry the one, OH! – None. I never would have predicted in a thousand years that I’d ever have to work so hard to get naked for strangers. We do burlesque because it is fun after all. Why would I want to do it in the company of people who make it a drag? As I keep myself open to meeting producers who are more inclusive, they are appearing. I trust my spirit will continue to lead me towards inclusionary spaces and far away from exclusionary ones.
If as a performer of any kind one is not getting the kind of work one desires, create it. There are performers of color in the burlesque community who come to mind because they are not only performing but also always producing. This, to me, is a much more powerful use of energy than talking about how “they” won’t let me play in their shows. Build your own sandbox. Then, invite whomever you choose to come in and play.
I was asked over and over again at that fun burlesque show, “Why haven’t I seen you before?” The honest answer is that I’d let early bad experiences cause me to avoid traditional burlesque shows. However, it is early in 2012. As I head into my second burlesque birthday, I’ve started reaching out more. Conversely, people have started to reach out more to me as well. I’ve had more pleasant experiences at well known all burlesque shows. So, I’ll be around. I expect to be bumping and grinding my brown self with you around burlyQ campus soon.
Related articles that may be of interest-
This excellent and challenging post on pushing cultural boundaries by Sydni Deveraux, The Golden Glamazon, on her burlesque blog thegoldenglamazon.wordpress.com. For more from Sydni also visit her website (glitterwonderland.com) or follow her on twitter