This story is part of Prism’s series on sex positivity and the arts. Read the rest of the series here.
At a time like this, BIPOC women and femmes and our communities deeply need some laughter and joy to help us process the pain of living in America’s sadistic brand of white supremacy. That’s where burlesque comes in. BIPOC women and femmes have been performing burlesque together for over 100 years as an act of joy and resistance, because racist and gendered stereotypes have always been trash and deserve to be made fun of. At the same time, we’ve always created spaces where we can breathe and release, be cared for and loved, seen and celebrated for the full gorgeous beings we are. It’s how we have been able to heal and persevere—together, in community.
There’s usually a pretty specific way that folks think of burlesque, if they’ve even heard of it at all. The word “burlesque” comes from the Italian word “burlar” which means “joke, fun, mockery,” and since the late 1880s, performers have teamed up with comedians and other artists to put on variety shows that satirize societal norms and attitudes. Like in most art forms and social movements, the innovation, contributions, and dedication of BIPOC women and femmes in burlesque has been severely underreported in the recording of its history. It wasn’t just white women and femmes who had social commentary to make about how they were being treated in American society.
There was Ada Overton Walker, a prominent Black burlesque vaudeville performer in the 1890s and early 20th century. She is especially known for upsetting the white vaudeville scene by remixing the then-popular “Salome” dance with African roots and style. Walker was also a part of “Oriental America,” a burlesque revue by African American and Asian American performers satirizing America’s exotification of non-white women and the simultaneous oppression of communities of color at home and abroad.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Ellen Chinn was one of many Asian American burlesque performers thriving in the booming nightlife scene in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Toni Elling and Lottie the Body were sought-after Black performers on the chitlin’ circuit and during the civil rights movement. Cuban-American burlesque dancer Gina Bon Bon began her career in the 1960s as part of the Latin Fire All-Latin Revue. When mainstream standards of beauty and entertainment and legal segregation have kept us subjugated, BIPOC women and femmes have always found ways to celebrate ourselves. For us, by us.
Activism originally brought exHOTic other and Miss Aurora BoobRealis together during a protest to save gardens and stop gentrification. Both were arrested at the protest on exHOTic’s 17th birthday. In 2004, they reconnected at another protest and that was the beginning of their performance journey together. A few years later, Aurora co-founded Brown Girls Burlesque (BGB), an all woman of color burlesque troupe which exHOTic joined shortly after. Fast forward another few years and jazabel jade and sister selva also joined. With BGB, we tried to change representation in burlesque, seeing as it was so white and we didn’t want to just be tokens in other people’s shows. Inspired by the Black Arts Movement, we wanted to build structures and organizations together and perform together, showcasing our BIPOC brilliance. But over time we saw it wasn’t enough to be women of color together—we wanted to include people of all genders. It also felt important to put our radical politics unapologetically front and center, to dream and create worlds where everyone can be free. We started brASS burlesque because we—along with our community—needed spaces to gather and celebrate and be our full selves, radical politics included.
That’s why we formed brASS: Brown RadicalAss Burlesque five years ago. We are a multi-disciplinary performance troupe from New York City, and we use our unique perspectives as BIPOC femmes to explore the myriad of issues we experience in our lives. We dance, we strip, we clown, we scream, and we build community through our art! It’s a way for us to celebrate our politicized bodies by making politics sexy and empowering audiences to value their own stories and use their creativity towards collective action. We encourage a disruption of the passive consumption of art and use performance to re-imagine our society.
This crew of brASS all share a passion for social justice, silliness, and sexual expression, and the troupe gives us and our communities a much-needed space to gather and celebrate and be our full selves, radical politics included.
As longtime organizers and activists, we know joy and art are central in giving our communities fuel to keep fighting, dreaming, and being fearless in the face of relentless violence. Our orientation to burlesque is rooted in our deep love of our people and commitment to social justice. Many of us performers didn’t know the history of burlesque until we were years deep into performing it—we always made political pieces but never realized we were creating in an artform with historical roots in satire and social commentary. We’d often felt like outsiders or imposters who were not really doing burlesque because our work would be about topics like gentrification, climate change, or the violence of nationalism. But when we began to understand how what we were creating flowed from the radical roots of burlesque’s origins, it was a beautiful homecoming and connection for us to our ancestors and predecessors who paved the way for us.
Three years ago, in response to the results of the 2016 election, we started our monthly show “COMPOST BIN!” as a space to work and live the same values and visions that we perform: liberation, justice, and love. It’s a home where people traditionally on the margins—queer BIPOC and those who believe in social justice—are free to share their stories through a visual and visceral experience. We hold each other, share resilience strategies, and reconnect with what gives us the force to keep living, fighting, and loving this world, each other, and ourselves. Now, even though we can’t be together in person because of a pandemic, we continue to use our art to speak up against the fascism we are seeing in our government and in our streets. Come for the glitter and nudity, but stay for the political action.
Performers: sister selva, jazabel jade, exHOTic other, Miss AuroraBoobRealis, Juniper Juicy, Junior Mintt, MF AKYNOS, DJ Peter Piper, Miss Frankie Eleanor, Ashton Muñiz aka LaTrine a.k.a Steal from the Haus of ÜRman, and Sucia Queen