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Loving Classic Burlesque as a Black Woman

The two don't always go hand-in-hand, but I'm a die-hard classic burlesque fan and performer.

I’ll be performing two classic bump-and-grind acts at Dangerously Delicious Pies tonight with Les Folies Derriere, one of my absolute favorite burlesque production companies here in Washington, DC. It's ran by Callie Pigeon, but I put a pic of Miss Topsy up there because she is my main classic burlesque inspiration, aesthetically.

I love doing Les Folies Derriere shows because they showcase classic styles of burlesque and vaudeville entertainment – there’s comedy, a bit of sideshow, bump-n-grind, and generally a very retro, vintage feel. I know classic burlesque gets a bad rap - I’ve even heard people describe it as “boring,” “offensive,” “outdated,” and more. But hear me out here!

As a little black girl in Texas, I was the darkest person in my neighborhood, at my church, and at my school. I was always told I was “pretty to be so dark-skinned,” something many people with my skin complexion grow up hearing. But even though folks apparently thought I was cute, I still noticed that I was treated differently than white and lighter-skinned girls. I never held any animosity towards anyone over this (I’m a pretty unflappable, annoyingly-positive person sometimes), and literally just decided that it would be best to never focus on my looks or skin because this was not one of my “good” qualities. Whatever that means.

So I buried my head in books, and I made friends with other quiet nerds, and I tried my best to blend into the background. My mother, however, is a crazy Southern pageant mom who refused to let me be a wallflower. She registered me for pageants and runway shows and talent shows and dance classes and showcases. She took me shopping, introduced me to nice fabrics, got my make-up professionally done, and took me to the nail shop. She never let me forget that I’m a hardcore mf femme. I am incredibly grateful to my mother for this, and she still helps me find my femme even to this day. 

I say all this because even though I was pretty much ignored and tossed aside by mainstream society, I was celebrated in my own house. My mom found a way to celebrate my femininity within our own communities. So while I was quiet and shy at times, I still loved to play in my mother's furs and stilettos. I had an entire Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe bookshelf, and I would study their poses, their hands and feet, and their facial expressions.

Classic burlesque is a way for me, a dark woman, to display my softness and femininity unchallenged.

As I grew up, it was clear that based on first impressions, the world expected me to be hard. Angry. Full of rage. I remember talking to a random white man and after hearing my voice for the first time, he exclaimed, “Wow, you’re so eloquent with such a soft voice!” As if he expected me to bark like a dog? Many people expect or desire black women to be hard and tough, and are genuinely taken aback when we display softness.

Classic burlesque is a way for me, a dark woman, to display my softness and femininity unchallenged. It’s a way for me to be myself in a way that I never saw any black woman showcased as a little girl - put up there on a twirling pedestal like Bettie Page or Marilyn Monroe. Dripping in expensiveness or sexiness or naughtiness or playfulness, and allowing themselves to just be soft.

That’s what classic burlesque means to me, and it’s incredibly important for me to view myself in that way.

I hope some of y’all get a chance to see me perform my favorite style of burlesque tonight at Dangerously Delicious Pies!

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