This Is What Naked Power Looks Like

Why feminist burlesque performers put their bodies and politics in full view.

Burlesque performer Perle Noir.

Photo by Clubesque.

The lights go down, and sultry music fills the theater as a performer struts onto the stage, adorned with sequins, feathers, and tassels—the embodiment of decadence. She confidently removes her costume, piece by piece, until she reveals her nearly naked body. This is the time-honored tradition of burlesque, and it is unexpectedly on the frontlines of resistance against racism, objectification, and gender injustice.

Burlesque is an art form with a rich history. Ecdysiasts, the formal name for striptease performers, like Josephine Baker, may come to mind. Most famously known for her provocative banana skirt performance in Paris, Baker was also an activist—she refused to perform for segregated audiences and spied against Axis powers during World War II. Many burlesque artists of color carry on the practice of performance art as advocacy today.

As an artist-activist, I have had the pleasure of learning from ecdysiasts who know their craft, celebrate its history, and continue its legacy. I spoke with three leading performers exploring the political side of this traditionally bawdy art form: Miss AuroraBoobRealis, a mother, co-founder of Brown Girls Burlesque, and co-founder of brASS: Brown RadicalAss Burlesque; Chicava Honeychild, the creative producer of Brown Girls Burlesque, performer, historian, and documentary filmmaker of Black burlesque; and Perle Noire, an award-winning artist with accolades from critically acclaimed burlesque festivals.

What stories do you create with your body onstage? How is that similar to or different from the stories others have placed on your body and life?

Perle: Growing up, I survived a lifetime of ridicule and verbal abuse. I was told that I was ugly on a daily basis. I was taught that my skin tone was too dark to be beautiful and loved. I was taught that a woman’s place in this world is nothing more than a man’s fantasy, with or without her consent. All of the lies skewed my perception of beauty, glamour, and myself. Through the art of burlesque, I found the power in my own voice and, most importantly, my sacred body. It’s not about nudity when I bare my soul to the audience. It’s deeper than that. I’m reclaiming my body, voice, love, and power with each reveal. 

Aurora: Central to my existence in this world is the fact that, as a person, I cannot and will not separate myself from my art, my race, and my political beliefs. I use my body to tell stories, sometimes clothed, sometimes not. And it is with this understanding that I felt called to make “Still Happening” to Cassandra Wilson’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” expressing with pain, frustration, and rage that this song was still relevant in 2015. My bare skin is all at once a canvas and a reminder of our collective humanity. After one performance of it, a young woman came up to me and expressed how powerful it was to see my confidence in my body, a body that has given birth, isn’t perfectly toned, and has wobbly bits, because that isn’t something that she sees regularly. With “Din Daa Daa,” a piece to the classic ’80s song by George Krantz, I am celebrating my passion for rhythm and play, and the biggest reveal isn’t my breasts but the discarding of my heels so that I can truly get down. I am not a distant beauty one puts on a pedestal but an embodied wild woman who sweats and smiles and radiates joy.

Taja Lindley performing as her burlesque alter ego sassaBrass: The Poom Poom Priestess.

Photo by Eric Lippe.

While you’re teaching classes about burlesque, what barriers do students often face in authentically expressing their sexuality?

Aurora: We are so programmed in this society to think that sexuality is a bad thing, especially expressing it publicly outside of the narrowly defined heteronormative structure. These prescribed norms are insidious and get into our psyche no matter how vigilant we are. When I teach, I come from a place of transparency, sharing my own struggles with authentically expressing my sexuality. It isn’t about being perfect, doing a set of moves that reads as empowered and sexy onstage, but rather being embodied and present in the moment. Through exercises, I help participants explore, define, and celebrate their own brand of sexy.

Chicava: Ladies are so quick to see themselves as not doing anything right. Women will exhaust themselves looking after others and feel like they should have done better. We don’t have a culture of self-care. It might be that the highest expressions of self-care are the things no one can see but that emanate off of a woman for having done them.
I want how I share burlesque with women to be a part of a culture shift that encourages women to accept, appreciate, and love themselves exactly as they are. The next layer of challenge is battling against every image of “this is sexy” that they have ever been confronted with in media and life. It causes comparison, which is a joy thief.

Miss AuroraBoobRealis.

Photo by John Quincy.

Why and how is performance art—burlesque in particular—integral to our social movements?

Perle: Art has always been the catalyst for gender equality and social awareness, and burlesque is no different from any other art form. Along with the neo-burlesque revival, burlesque has adopted a new face. It’s not just women who are being booked worldwide to celebrate the art of the striptease. So many powerful men are dominating festivals and corporate events. This is truly inspiring because the men are masculine, feminine, and Transgender. That is the power of art and the power of burlesque.

Chicava: Burlesque as theater, meaning before it became dominated by striptease, was one of the first opportunities on stage that Black people had to create from their own point of view. The glorification of the Black girl began on the burlesque stage in the 1890s with ladies like Dora Dean, Stella Wiley, and Aida Overton Walker, creating the first works that situated Black people off the plantation and in city environments. Their work took on Jim Crow, Orientalism, and, on the lighter side, the topical and funny skits and bits we associate with burlesque and vaudeville.

Chivaca Honeychild.

Photo by Audineh Asaf.

How can people who do not identify as artists, or are nervous about performing burlesque on a stage, learn from and use this art form—personally and politically?

Aurora: Being naked in public is a huge fear in our society. Overcoming that fear, and actually moving beyond it to revel in the feeling of being naked in public, can give someone so much more confidence in their daily life. In creating a burlesque piece, you must distill what you want to say to this essential thing that fits in a three- to six-minute song. The skill it takes to successfully do that teaches you clarity and efficiency in communication, and communication is key for one’s personal and political presence in this world.