There’s something incredibly riveting in watching the fervor of a soul singer as they’re reaching the vamp of an R&B classic or the grace of a dancer in the midst of an elegant ciseaux—the audience has a chance to marvel at the depths of human expression.
Over the past few months, I’ve been privy to a somewhat lesser-renowned group of artists who also regularly showcase their creativity and skill: burlesque performers. Specifically, the black burlesque performers of New York City. These women combine sex and artistry in a way that is both brazen and nuanced; the audience is titillated by their sensuality while also watching some of the most focused performers—of any discipline—in the city.
They are fiercely rehearsed as well as passionate and dedicated. For black performers, in particular, there are still so many prejudices to overcome. It’s an art form that, despite its rich history, is often misunderstood by the casual observer.
“When we say ‘burlesque,’ the broad term of the word is actually a theatrical style. It used to be a physical building—a burlesque hall—and a satirical commentary and social commentary form of theatrical performance,” says Chicava Honeychild of Brown Girls Burlesque. She’s voluptuous and leggy, and moves with the grace of a dancer. On stage, Chicava’s performance is seductive as she strips down to a G-string and pasties while swaying with large, red and black Japanese fans and smiling sweetly at the crowd. They cheer every moment.
Chicava worked as an actress and costume designer on both coasts before discovering burlesque in Los Angeles in the late ‘90s. Once she moved back to New York, she embraced the art form’s history and immersed herself in the culture—becoming one of the more knowledgeable and notable women on the burlesque scene in the city.
“When I read the stories of the women who did it 100 years ago and 80 years ago—I strive to give it my all today and pass it along,” she explains.
So much of the burlesque scene involves a sense of history, sisterhood, and expression. These performers understand each other—even with their diverse perspectives and approaches. Women looking for ways to showcase their creativity and sexuality find a platform that rewards both. Poison Ivory is the 2013 winner of the Hollywood Burlesque Festival’s Miss Starlet Burlesque award. She says burlesque is the first thing that she’s found that is solely hers.
“I moved here from California—to New York—after a bad breakup and lots of things that people go through,” Ivory says. After her best friend purchased burlesque classes for her, the former Angeleno soon found herself on a stage, ready to peel off of her clothes—and after getting over her bad nerves, found something that resonated deeply within her spirit. “In that first performance, I went from being a scared person just trying to survive the next three minutes and thirty-six seconds to instantly craving when I’m going to be able to have that experience again,” she says.
Ivory has likened her past to the life of a domesticated “Stepford wife,” but to watch her onstage is to witness a woman in full command of her sexuality and basking in the confidence that burlesque has given her. She’s at one turn coy—then brazen. She bends over and winks at the audience, seductively removing layers until she explodes into a rousing finale, gyrating and sashaying as if nothing else matters. It’s as liberating to watch as it undoubtedly is for her to perform.
Many of these ladies reveal how performing burlesque has affected their personal lives. Ivory remembers how her early experiences with dating in New York City were slanted by the fact that some men were very uncomfortable with who she was.
“I did have that experience where guys that I would go out on dates with would ask ‘Is this just a hobby?’ because that was the one thing that turned them off from dating me,” Ivory recalls. “After about six months of performing, I just decided that this was going to be something I did for me and I’m not going to worry about who I’m dating.”
“My husband comes to every show—every show,” says Lavenda Monroe of Da DollHouse Urban Burlesque. “I even invite him to rehearsals. I’m very comfortable in my own skin, so I love for him to see other skin sometimes. That’s completely okay.”
But it’s obvious that these women are not preoccupied with the male gaze—or anyone else’s. As contradictory as it may sound to those who believe women only disrobe publicly for the enjoyment of others—each one of these women find that burlesque awakens something in themselves when they take to the stage.
“Burlesque…has been so empowering for me, that it has made me a better representative of what I actually am,” says Ivory. “I didn’t realize my body was political until I started performing burlesque.”
Club strippers typically make a lot more money than the average burlesque performer. Many burlesque shows are strictly for the audience to enjoy a voyeuristic showcase—not an interactive experience. Men aren’t sliding one dollar bills into G-strings at these shows, and there aren’t private champagne rooms or lap dances. Burlesque performers are artists performing a show. And for these women, the sisterhood and the freedom of expression is what keeps them fulfilled—even when the money is lacking.
“I’ve been reaching out to encourage the community to figure out ways to embrace more performers,” says Ivory. “Without having a show called ‘Hot Chocolate Revue.’”
“We’re not quite an industry yet,” explains Chicava. “There’s a lot of dollars moving through it, but people aren’t making reasonable amounts of money doing it. I think that people are aware that we’re not making tons of money, and that we are crafting our own images and creating our own shows and opportunities. It’s all very self-determined in burlesque.”
It’s easy to believe that Chicava Honeychild wouldn’t have it any other way. The self-determination that so many women have found in burlesque isn’t always readily available in other, more commercially-driven art forms. Every woman on that burlesque stage is controlling her destiny and her voice.
And that’s what art should be.
“We’ve had a very amazing kaleidoscope of women come in,” says Chicava. “And tell stories and be sexy and free—and revolutionary.”