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"Do Women Enjoy Watching Shake Dancers?" A Modern Shake Dancer Responds



Earlier this week, I transcribed the1956 Afro-American newspaper article called "Do Women Enjoy Watching Shake Dancers?" for my Patreon. The headline alone made me laugh a bit (my initial response: Duh!!), but further reading gave me even more cause for concern.


Shake dancers and burlesque performers (especially queer, disabled, neurodivergent performers of color, or any type of performer considered outside the realm of "the norm") often come up against intense critiques of what we do, whether it's considered "art", whether people *actually* want to see different types of performers, etc. etc. Performers who fall somewhere within "the norm" are not criticized as much, if at all. As evidenced by this newspaper article, which was written in 1956 by what I presume to be a Black man for a Black audience, these critiques can often come from the same community, and/or from people who are disadvantaged as well.


The main question of the article is an easy one to answer. It's a resounding yes, as evidenced by the affirmative quotes from people in show business.


The other claims in the article were actually a bit offensive to me, and I know there are still some folks today in 2023 who still hold these beliefs. So I'll refute them below, one by one:


"Why does a woman often urge her date to take her to the very place where she knows another woman will do her best to capture his attention and perhaps, arouse his emotions?"

The writer makes a lot of incorrect assumptions here, but I'll quickly update the language -- it should read, "Why does a woman often urge her date to take her to the very place where she knows *a performer* will do *their* best to capture *the entire audience's attention* and perhaps, *arouse EVERYONE'S emotions*?" There is a HUGE misconception that burlesque and shake dancing are rooted in the male gaze. In my experience, most burlesque performance is rooted in the performer's own mind and history, and what they themselves consider sexy. And burlesque performers represent all genders; they always have --- even in 1956. I want everyone to know that no shake dancer is performing to take someone's man and "arouse his emotions". We are trying to arouse the emotions of every single audience member in attendance, because audiences tip and we are doing A JOB.


"The women go to see the dancers because they are curious to find out what these dancers have, or do, that so captivates the men."

I don't believe this is true, either. I do think there's a level of curiosity there -- I was definitely curious before I started stage kittening -- but once again, I totally and completely balk at the idea that all femmes in the audience are centering the male perspective!! Most of the femmes I've spoken with tell me they LOVE to see themselves reflected on the stage. They like to see our "realism", the bodies that aren't shown on television or celebrated in the media. I have never heard a femme tell me they only comes to see shakers because they are trying to see why masculine folks like us. (There may be some truth here for club strippers, but I have never worked as a club dancer and don't know if this would be true for them. Somebody page Essence Revealed, I wanna know what she thinks!)


"Women get a sadistic thrill out of watching another woman undress and gyrate about a stage. They like to pull the woman apart, commenting about her physical defects."

To the contrary! Maybe corporate or some niche audiences are awful like that, but most burlesque and shake dancing audiences are kind and incredibly supportive. Most shows do "burletiquette", where we show the audiences the proper way to treat performers (tip, hoot and holler, kind words, clap, etc.). We whole-heartedly shame hecklers in the burlesque community. In addition, most audience members are DETERMINED to have a good time because they've already paid for tickets! The audience is usually on our side. I'd press this journalist to give me specific examples of cattiness from women towards other shake dancers. Maybe things were different in 1956 and there were a lot more pick-me's running around, but I would posit that these women may have been bad-mouthing the dancers because they didn't want to come under the scrutiny of the males around them (not to mention the 1950s men who didn't believe in women loving women, you know, in a big ole lesbian kinda way *eyeroll*).


"Shake dancers, as a whole, firmly believe their dancing is art." "We would call it a shake dance, performers think of it as art."

You bet performers think of shake dancing as art -- and we're not the only ones! We study, we practice, we train our bodies, we dance through pain, we have spiritual breakthroughs, and we achieve our own versions of physical nirvana by shaking our bodies from head to toe, just as our ancestors did before us.


I am not in the business of arguing with people who get off on diminishing the value of Black performers and our style of dance, but I *will* continue to research and evaluate shake dancing as an art form the same way other forms of dance are academically and critically studied (ballet, jazz, folk, contemporary, etc.). I think the more we continue to study shake dancing, the more we legitimize the movements (if legitimacy is what we're even after *insert another eyeroll*) and the revolution we caused not just in burlesque, but American pop culture as a whole! Just take one look at Beyonce performing today, and you see the influence of shake queens who came before her.


In my research, I've come across a few questionable soundbites and blurbs -- I'll always try to share the more interesting ones here and on my Patreon. Feel free to comment and share your own thoughts! Thanks for reading.


Until next time,

Bebe

xoxo





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