by Mandy Van Deven
- India -
Known for its bawdy sexual humor, over-the-top characters, and underlying social criticism, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales set the stage for the satirical theatrics which came to be known as burlesque. During its 700-year metamorphosis, burlesque has utilized various styles of music and performance to poke fun at issues spanning social and political themes, particularly conventional gender roles and sexual scripts. Combining the fundamentals of classical burlesque—parody, double entendre, and risqué sexuality—with elements derived from their own ethnic traditions, New York City’s Brown Girls Burlesque (BGB) is a 21st century incarnation of Chaucer’s magnum opus. Founded two years ago by AuroraBoobRealis, BGB is drawing a new audience to this old art form by blending women of color’s experience and artistic aesthetic with this historically Caucasian craft.
BGB is breaking new ground in the burlesque scene. How did the troupe begin?
AuroraBoobRealis: As a performer in other disciplines I was drawn to burlesque, but I wasn't interested in being the token women of color in someone else's show. The idea came to me to create a troupe of women of color, and I carried that around in my head for a couple years. In March 2007, I mentioned it in passing to one of my best friends and, being a Taurus, she said "Let's do it!" Maya Haynes (a.k.a. Shimmy Shimmy Ya) and I reached out to friends. We were all newbies with the exception of Smokifantastic. We talked about what we thought burlesque was and came up with ideas for what we wanted to do and say. Our first show was set to Jimi Hendrix songs called The Jimi Experience. Throughout the summer we workshopped each other's pieces like a dance composition class, and in October 2007 we made our debut to an audience of 250 people at this tiny rock club in [New York’s] Financial District. It’s been a whirlwind ever since.
Dame CuchiFrita: I was recruited just before the debut show. I had done burlesque once before. Seeing Sexy Miss Saturn twirl ten hula-hoops all over her body while stripping made me think “someday that will be me on stage doing extremely ordinary things in 1,001 sexy ways.” The next year I got a gig at The Slipper Room under the encouragement of the amazing Lady Ace. I decided I'd do it again if I had a good reason to, so in 2007 when I met Madame Chuli (a.k.a Sara Vargas) by some amazing planetary alignment, I found the exact life changing reason to do burlesque again.
Chicava HoneyChild: I came to BGB just after The Jimi Experience. This was exactly the group of women I’d been looking to perform with. Burlesque has always been in me; it’s a culmination of my aesthetic values and artistic experience. I saw that first show and realized Chicava must love, conquer, and embrace this—and we’ve been growing together since.
• (L-R) Dame CuchiFrita in " Strange Face of Love" an homage to women all over the world who endured domestic violence; Miss AuroraBoobRealis portraying immigration to the song "America"; ExHOTic Other doing the number about Asian exotification to the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" •
Burlesque seems keen on inclusivity, yet people of color aren't well represented as performers or audience members.
AuroraBoobRealis: Historically, there was segregation. Women of color weren’t hyped or written about, but they existed. Now it’s more subtle. I don't think it's purposeful or even conscious most of the time.
Dame CuchiFrita: The easiest way to develop a craft is by learning and repeating things that have been done before until it becomes meaningful and one can imbue their own voice. Throughout burlesque’s history there is very little recorded presence of women of color, so we don’t have many reference points to start from. This is progressively changing and performers of color today have greatly contributed to the diversity. Many Caucasian performers are receptive to and supportive of this change. However, some performers of color are experiencing a less-than-positive atmosphere. BGB has been lucky - our audience grew from mostly queer women of color to every gender, sexual persuasion, and ethnicity. Whether the change is happening fast enough remains a question.
What about burlesque appeals to you?
AuroraBoobRealis: Burlesque is appealing to me on a base level, but even deeper is that burlesque allows me to use all my artistic skills to tell a story combining humor and sensuality, where my very presence on stage as a women of color defining, expressing, and sharing my complex sensuality is a political statement.
Chicava HoneyChild: Burlesque presents an opportunity to comment on the world we live in and express our perspectives in a unique way where we own every element of the expression. I decide when I want to express myself in a straightforward, sexy, glammed up way. I decide if my performance is gonna share some story that’s been circulating around in my head.
Dame CuchiFrita: We are constantly redefining our craft as we search for what burlesque means to us as individuals. For me, burlesque provides a limitless platform to showcase visual aesthetics, storytelling, movement, and artistic concepts in a short, effective way. My personal goal as a burlesque performer is actually to divert the audience's attention away from physical beauty and blatant sexiness. Burlesque is just the vessel that transports an idea, but not necessarily the point itself.
• Viva Caliente as the bad school girl. •
Do you see BGB as transgressive?
Chicava HoneyChild: Anything done for love and art is transgressive, especially in a capitalist era. Women have used their sexual-sensual nature as a bargaining chip for a long time out of survival, ambition, neediness, and other not-so-optimal things. It’s transgressive that I will splatter mine all over the place and walk away with lunch money—the least I can do is get paid, gurl! It’s transgressive that I don’t make stripper money and still do this anyway.
Dame CuchiFrita: As a person of color, I have two choices for how I can do burlesque: adopt the traditional attributes that are not aesthetically rooted in my culture or use burlesque as a tool to express my performative skills by applying things I know are relevant to me to move the art form forward. My ethnic heritage has a long tradition of theatre and performative arts, particularly those rooted in satire and parody. I would classify a lot of these traditional performances as burlesque—sans the stripping. It’s our responsibility as burlesque performers of color to dig within ourselves and our heritage and use that as a platform for change. Only if we’re doing burlesque on our own terms will people of color do justice to the art form.
Your audience is a little different than ones at more conventional burlesque shows. What brings people to your performances?
Chicava HoneyChild: Before BGB began, although they were intrigued by the idea of burlesque, our audience didn’t totally relate to what was available. What makes our shows different isn’t something you can put a finger on precisely, but it has to do with our themes and perspectives as women of color. A Eurocentric image of beauty is touted as the standard to meet, but that doesn’t mean it’s what everyone finds appealing. In this day when people don’t need to leave their house to be exposed to racy content, our budding success is evidence that everyone’s main sexual organ is between their ears.
Mandy’s interview was conducted via email with the women of Brown Girls Burlesque. Their responses were transcribed here as written.
All photographs courtesy of BGB, by Vishnu Hoff.– Ed.
About the Author
Mandy Van Deven is a freelance writer and the founder of the Feminist Review blog. Focusing on gender, politics, and popular culture, her work has appeared in various online and print media, including AlterNet, Bitch, In These Times, and make/shift. Mandy worked for over ten years as a grassroots organizer in New York and Atlanta. She is an avid and enthusiastic world traveler who has collected friends in countries all over the globe. Mandy currently lives in Kolkata, India.