By Maggie Freleng
You may think pasties and shaking, but burlesque actually started out using the body as political commentary.
The group Brown Girls Burlesque follows in that tradition.
With a mission to “entertain, titillate, educate and liberate,” Brown Girls Burlesque, a theatrical burlesque group for women of color, does just that.
It was started in 2007 by Maya D. Haynes and Miss AuroraBoobRealis to ensure that women of color are represented in burlesque.
Jazabel Jade, Brown Girls Burlesque member, explains that historically women of color were not well represented when it came to body image spaces and experiences.
Traditionally, burlesque was not about taking off clothes but was started as satire and social commentary.
In the late 19th centry, The Creole Burlesque Company was one of the first that called attention to the double standards of people of color. Although other burlesque groups existed, with the strip tease as a way for women to liberate themselves, The Creole Burlesque was sexy and political.
“What was provocative about it was that women were speaking their mind,” says Chicava HoneyChild a Brown Girls Burlesque member.
Chicava adds that women who openly talked about sex were considered uneducated and “loose” by society’s standards.
Burlesque shattered those conventions.
“It was a revolutionary act to be an educated woman of color, dressed beautifully, performing theatre, speaking her mind,” she says.
It soon proved that displaying women’s bodies was profitable and thus the Burlesque theatre formed.
Today, groups such as Brown Girls Burlesque practice “neo-burlesque.”
Neo-burlesque, started in the early 90s after porn killed traditional burlesque, was a way for women to reclaim their sexuality.
Neo-burlesque is owned and run by women as opposed to earlier forms of burlesque.
“By performing burlesque it demystifies all social stigmas that come with being a woman, having breasts and being objectified walking down the street,” says Bianca Dagga, a Brown Girls Burlesque member. “By standing up on stage and performing [burlesque] and peeling off our clothing is a way to take ownership of that.”
“It’s on my terms,” says ExHOTic, another member. “I own my own body.”
Brown Girls Burlesque also breaks stereotypes by presenting the complexities of women of color on stage. The women tell and expose the different stories and identities women of color truly have, busting stereotypes from film and theatre such as the “sassy black woman,” the “spicy latina” and the “submissive asian woman.”
“Burlesque itself is an act of stripping but it is a beautiful metaphor for all these things,” says Sister Selva, Brown Girls Burlesque member. “You tear off some aspects and celebrate other aspects. It is healing in all kinds of ways.”
With their most recent show, “Michael Jackson: It Don’t Matter if You’re Black or White,” they celebrated the way Jackson challenged gender and race with his art and music.
The group also did a tribute to Trayvon Martin with Jackson’s song “They Don’t Really Care About Us.”
“In the show we are able to encapsulate all of what everyone is saying about burlesque,” said Jazabel who noted that while Brown Girls Burlesque performances are sexy, those deeper messages about race, gender, and identities still exist.
“[Burlesque] is a celebration of who we are; embracing flaws and imperfections by societies standards,” says Dagga.
“For me, performing burlesque is a way to be fully embodied and present in myself,” says Miss AuroraBoobRealis. “There is something really powerful about performing sexuality in a public space.”
Brown Girls Burlesque teaches classes for women who also want to tell their stories while exploring their sensuality.
“It’s amazing to have a group of women who are all here valuing our own lives or own stories and own bodies but also each other,” said Sister Selva, about being part of Brown Girls Burlesque. “When you feel that there is something you need to say, to have a group of women to help you understand and figure out how to present that to an audience and a group of people is really invaluable.”