Through burlesque, women defy conventions of what’s sexy

Chicava HoneyChild don't think people go to burlesque to see boobs - them you can see at home. "I want to be the space that heals the chasm. So if there is this space in you that here is the idealized you and here’s you now and how am I gonna get there, I want to be the space that tells you you can get there," she says.
Chicava HoneyChild doesn’t think people go to burlesque to see boobs — those, you can see at home. “I want to be the space that heals the chasm. If here is the idealized you and here are you now, I want to be the space that tells you you can get there,” she says. Credit: Alexis Alvarez

In a revealing blue dress, Alotta Boutte, a full-figured black burlesque performer, stood confidently on the stage at Joe’s Pub after mesmerizing the audience with her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman.” There was a sincerity in her voice that made you understand that this is exactly where Boutte belongs. Here, she feels like a natural woman.

Five minutes before, Chicava HoneyChild opened the scene with an erotic striptease. And now after, Miss AuroraBoobRealis takes over the spotlight, with swirling hair and diamond-decorated breasts. It’s Saturday around midnight, and together Brown Girls Burlesque (BGB) are shaking not only their bodies, but more importantly, the common understanding of beauty ideals, with their show, The Dirty Honey Shake.

“I want my audience to be entranced and transformed,” says Boutte, guest starring BGB for the night, when we meet her in the dressing room after the show. Surrounded by glitter, feathers, fake eyelashes and champagne, the rest of her burlesque sisters hum in agreement. “I’m larger bodied, I’m brown, and I’m queer. I walk into a room and people have already said what they think I am, what they think I’m capable of. But when I get on stage all of that changes. I can see people’s perceptions change. That’s what I want to see in my audience as I perform.”

BGB was founded in 2007 as an answer to the lack of representation of brown women in New York’s burlesque community. But the ladies’ shows are just as much about general issues in our society, whether you are white or black, woman or man.

“Your body is politicked from the second you walk out of the door,” says Maya D. Haynes, one of the founders of BGB. “For women especially — what we wear, everything that we do, it’s politicized. This is us reclaiming ourselves and reclaiming our sexuality and saying, ‘Yes, we can be beautiful and sexy, but we own it.’”

Chicava HoneyChild is sitting relaxed in a sofa, only wearing shining tassels and a g-string. On BGB’s website it says that she lures the innocent to the dark side, only to let them out in the sun again. She explains what this means.

“The dark side is about your fears and doubts about yourself. I guess that’s why I got myself a new tag line: the quantum ecdysis. Ecdysis is the process of molting, shedding your skin. Like when a caterpillar turns in to a butterfly. It’s really important to experience your sensuality the way you want to, to butterfly.”

The after-effect

Joe’s Pub is burning. Red-cheeked and excited, the audience is hooting and clapping as The Dirty Honey Shake finishes. They have been transported back to 1940s New Orleans with classical jazz and blues melodies played by Rickey “Dirty Red” Gordon and his crew, who have accompanied BGB tonight. They have seen bodies of all shapes slowly revealed, proving that stages, acting and stripping aren’t just for model bodies and L’Oréal faces, and that burlesque isn’t just another “Fifty Shades of Grey” fad.

“There were women that came up to me after [the show] hugging me and just being like, ‘You guys are so beautiful and real and confident in your bodies,’” Miss AuroraBoobRealis says, changing into a pair of sweatpants. It’s 2 a.m. and she’s on her way home to her husband and child.

“My mom makes our costumes,” she confides. “Sometimes she has felt uncomfortable with her body, and she says that seeing us up at the stage just makes her feel comfortable as an older woman. It’s deeper than just, ‘She’s hot.’”

Their show
BGB calls itself neo-burlesque. Chicava HoneyChild — who has an MFA specializing in sacred sexuality and women of color in the burlesque heritage — talks about the evolution of burlesque perfomance.

“When burlesque started in America in the late 1800s, it was an actual theater commentary form. As stripping became more socially acceptable and profitable, that took over in the burlesque scene. What BGB does today is a mix of the two lines: burlesque striptease.”

BGB have three kinds of shows, and they also teach burlesque classes once a week in Brooklyn. Find out how you can join and the next time they play here: http://browngirlsburlesque.com/calendar


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