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Not-So-Hidden Histories: Performers of Color in Burlesque

Not-So-Hidden Histories installation view

Lottie the Body

Shake dancers. Shimmy dancers. Hoochie-coochie girls. Exotics. Savages.

The history of burlesque is full of women (and some men) of color. And yet today, few remember these stars. Most history books barely mention them, even in passing. People old enough to remember going to burlesque shows in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s don’t remember them. It seems as if minority performers simply did not exist.

But at one time, the pages of burlesque and pin-up magazines were full of performers of color. Black, Asian, Latina, South Pacific Islander, and Native American dancers were very much a part of burlesque history, and not just as chorus girls for white headliners. They were integral players in the history of burlesque. Among the first to shamelessly bump and grind, performers of color left an indelible mark on burlesque history. Many achieved enough fame to work on the Minsky circuit, earn $1000 or more a week, insure their bodies, tour the US and Europe, and work with (and date) prominent entertainers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., and Little Richard. These performers not only existed but, in many cases, they thrived.

Brown Skin Scandals adThis is not to say that every story has a happy ending, and alas, many of these stories do not. But in some way, even the saddest stories can be inspiring. The challenges faced by the performers in this exhibition still very much a part of contemporary performers’ lives. Racism, sexism, and stereotyping still shape the lives and experiences of today’s black and brown burlesque dancers. The stories here hold up a mirror to today’s performers of color, and show them Legends who faced those challenges and, very often, prospered.

This exhibition celebrates the stories, careers, and lives of performers whose stories are the story of burlesque.

Co-curated by Sydney F. Lewis (Doctor Ginger Snapz) and Dustin M. Wax
Written by: Chicava Honeychild, Dustin M. Wax, Janelle Smith, Sydney F. Lewis (Doctor Ginger Snapz), and The Shanghai Pearl

Burlesque Hall of Fame