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Happy Black Herstory Month: Why Representation Matters

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

Happy Black History/Herstory Month, everyone!

I've taken a bit of a break from burly blogging over the holiday season, but I'm back! And I'm armed with lots of new research on burlesque history, all of which I'm excited to share with everyone. This year, so far, has been all about reading EVERYTHING, writing, muting negativity, and spreading the joy and history of burlesque far and wide. I've been digging even deeper into historical research and working hard on archiving the oral history of black burlesque performers, in particular.

As I'm learning and growing as a budding burly historian, I've loved sharing my findings with students as part of a beloved shake dancing course. This course premiered at BurlyCon 2019, was at Afrotease Richmond last month, and will be at the Philadelphia Burlesque Academy this weekend! Click the link for details and ticket information, if you're on this side of the world. If you're far away, I also offer an online one-on-one version -- email me at if you're interested.

I can't wait for this weekend's class to share what I know, but there's something that keeps coming up that I couldn't wait to share with my blog readers: cultural representation.

In researching burlesque history as it pertains to performers of color, there are many many dead-ends. It sometimes takes me months to find hidden gems of black and brown performers dancing, and even longer to find out their names and affiliations. Trails have turned cold, and I'm often left with nothing but a few sentences or paragraphs vividly describing the way shake dancers made people feel, or the moves they performed. But it's rare that I'll find an actual video.

This is why cultural representation in burlesque matters!! As I always emphasize in my class, I truly believe that shake dancing is for everyone, regardless of where you're from or the color of your skin. It's a joyful way to dance, and anyone and everyone can shake what their momma gave them. I believe it's our birthright as sexually and sensually free humans.

In researching burlesque history, the problems arise when no one from an originating culture can be seen or found in any media format performing their own dances. This has happened a couple of times in my research, but I'll use the most glaring example from my Shake Dancing course:

The video above purports to display "The Real Black Bottom Dance," a popular dance that started way before the year 1927. Black folx in the rural South did the Black Bottom all the time (my great-grandparents included). The dance didn't hit mainstream America until the 1920s -- a couple of white performers saw the dance in Harlem and repeated the steps in their own production.

Fast forward to 2020, when historians like myself may be struggling to find archival video or images of black performers doing the Black Bottom dance. I've been searching for a while, but the best quality video I can find is of white women doing the dance (see above for an example). Not knocking her (she's cute!), but it would be great to find video of actual black people doing our own Black Bottom dance.

This is why cultural representation matters! This is why we document and archive so much of what we do as performers of color. One day, when someone is desperately searching for images of someone who looks like them doing something they admire, I hope they find it easily and quickly. And this is why I do the work I do as well... I am sure archived historical images and videos are out there, we just gotta find 'em! And when I do, I will share them far and wide.

Until next time, and always with love,

Bebe Bardot

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