Dance Dance Revolution

Dance Dance Revolution

Six SLC alumnae climb onto the burlesque stage, kick down old assumptions, and create a performance group that’s equal parts sexy and smart.

It’s almost midnight on a Thursday, but the club is packed. The opening strains of a familiar song swell through the dark, and some of the audience members titter as they recognize Neil Diamond’s “America.” Miss Aurora-BoobRealis climbs onto the stage, a hopeful immigrant in a magenta wig, suitcases in hand, American flag wrapped around her shoulders like a cape. She mugs in a slow-motion run, reveling in the anthemic song, then steps her high heels wide and sweeps her baggage-laden arms overhead triumphantly. On the boats and on the planes—they’re coming to America!

Aurora whips off the flag, unfurls it proudly, then mimes knocking on a door, showing off the flag with an eager smile. Then, disbelief. She knocks again. Frustration. Again. She looks at the flag like, You’re letting me down—why can’t I get in? Another knock, another rejection, and she throws the flag down, kicks it, and tears off her dress. The music cuts to Prince’s “America,” dark and driving. God shed his grace on theeee—something about a mushroom cloud—and Aurora dances around the stage rebelliously, flinging off her clothing until she’s wearing nothing but patriotic undies and red, glitter pasties. Finally she yanks off the candy-colored wig to reveal a curly Mohawk. She stalks off the stage. The music ends. The crowd claps and whoops and the feeling in the air is electric.

Is this performance art? Striptease? Political theatre? Close, but not quite. This is Brown Girls Burlesque.

Burlesque underwent a renaissance in the 1990s, when nostalgic performance artists revived the glamorous striptease of earlier years. Dawn Crandell ’98, aka Miss AuroraBoobRealis, fell in love with burlesque in 2005. She’s an interdisciplinary artist, and she found the form’s cocktail of theatre, dance, music, storytelling, humor, and politics both familiar and exciting. Burlesque shows were fun. The performers were smart, sexy, and subversive. What else could a girl want? Only one thing: “You could count the women of color on two hands,” she discovered. The burlesque community in New York was almost entirely white.

Crandell is a multiracial Black woman. In her art and poetry and teaching (she works as a teaching artist), she’s always looking to combine creativity with social activism—she’s cultivated both ever since her SLC days managing the Students of Color theatre shows and publishing in Dark Phrases. She saw the monochromatic burlesque stage as a chance to make a political statement: She wanted to build an all-women-of-color burlesque troupe and use the form to battle racism and sexism.

The idea for Brown Girls Burlesque remained just that—an idea—until the spring of 2007, when Crandell mentioned it to her friend and former SLC housemate Maya Haynes Warren ’99. Warren worked as a consultant for small businesses and nonprofits and was the kind of person who reorganizes every place she works. To Crandell’s surprise, Warren said, “Let’s do it!” and started formulating a plan to make Brown Girls Burlesque a reality.

Warren called her friend Sara Vargas ’99, who had recently returned to New York City after a stint in Texas doing marketing and public relations for a Japanese watch company. Warren and Vargas had met while working together at the Coffeehaus on campus. They have a variety of uncommon work experience between them—in addition to more traditional jobs, Vargas once managed an exotic bird store and Warren groomed dogs for a summer. Both are calm, organized people, adept at logistics. Vargas and Warren didn’t want to perform, but they decided to put their public relations and event planning skills to use as the group’s producers.

In the meantime, Crandell was busy inviting her network of friends from SLC and elsewhere to participate. (“I’m a social Libra,” she says buoyantly, and one imagines said network to be rather sizeable.) All were professional artists; none had performed burlesque before. Chia-Ti Chiu ’00 was intrigued by the ideas behind the group and welcomed the chance to reconnect with her SLC friends—and with the simple joy of performance. A teaching artist, yoga instructor, and Thai bodywork practitioner by day, Chiu performs intense, hour-long, one-woman shows centered on her poetry, which explores the intricacies of race, class, and gender. She threw herself into burlesque, called herself “Hot-Ti,” and boned up on the art form by attending shows, reading books, and studying DVDs. “In burlesque, I’m expressing myself through my body, just as in poetry, I’m expressing myself through words,” she says.

Zola Bruce ’99 is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit that works with underserved, international communities, combining public health and the arts. She balances her intense professional life with pursuing her own art—she’s a sculptor—and approached burlesque as “a mixed media challenge.” Bruce created a burlesque doppelganger called $$$Royale (“the dollar signs are silent,” she quips), a fierce, injustice-battling femme fatale. “She does things I can’t do in real life,” Bruce says. “I’m an executive director, so I can’t be cutthroat. I have to incorporate the board of directors’ suggestions and be a good leader. $$$Royale is a fantasy—she takes things to the extreme.”

Every show would have a theme, the group decided; the first would feature all Jimi Hendrix songs. Already this was a departure from conventional burlesque, which tends to focus on jazz standards and retro bump-and-grind tunes. The fact that BGB members were starting from scratch gave them a fresh perspective on the genre, although it also meant that everything they did took a long time. Crandell, who describes herself as “a person who struggles with being a reformed egomaniac,” wanted the group to function as a collective, so decision-making was laborious. And there were a lot of decisions to be made. In addition to devising costumes and workshopping one another’s choreography (“It was very Sarah Lawrence,” says Crandell, who studied dance at SLC), the group spent long hours discussing image and appropriation and empowerment so that every aspect of their show would mesh with their ideals. “Nothing was gratuitous—everything we did was toward this bigger idea,” Vargas says. The first show took six months to put together.

On October 12, 2007, Brown Girls Burlesque presented “The Jimi Experience” at a small club in the financial district. “We were ready to high-five each other if we got 50 or 75 people out,” Warren says. Instead, 250 people mobbed the club. Logistically, the outpouring of people was chaos, says Warren: Neither the club nor the performers were prepared. There was only one bartender and one door person, and another act had been booked in the same time slot. But once the show started, the energy in the room was terrific. The audience screamed and cheered. “There was a hunger for what we were doing,” Vargas explains. “Everyone was ready for it.”

The ladies of BGB were exhilarated. An off-Broadway theatre invited them to a residency, and they performed a half-dozen shows there over the next several months. While they were at it, they refined the group’s structure to allow for both coherent leadership and creative leeway. Crandell became the artistic director, but another member of the group curates each show, helping to develop the theme and choreographing the group finale.

Their performances also caught the attention of the media. The New York Post did a video feature on BGB’s second show and posted it on their Web site. Bust magazine, a national, feminist publication, did a story in their February 2008 issue, and the group was featured in the “Black Girls Rule” issue of Trace (a magazine of “transcultural style”) last summer.

The onslaught of attention took Brown Girls Burlesque by surprise and forced the members to consider what the group means to them and how it fits into their lives. Some felt overwhelmed and dropped out. Others redoubled their efforts. Erin Cantrell ’07 auditioned, dubbed herself Miss SOuthern COmfort (“SOCO” for short) and started choreographing routines in front of salvaged mirrors propped up in her living room. The youngest member of the group, she cultivates a humorous approach to burlesque. “It’s easy to do straight sexy. It’s more of a challenge to do goofy, funny sexy and still be attractive,” she says.

In fall 2008, one year after their first show, Brown Girls Burlesque held a fundraiser for the Obama campaign, “Brown Girls for a Brown President.” Miss AuroraBoobRealis donned a flag and deconstructed the plight of the immigrant. Miss SOuthern COmfort portrayed an old lady so moved by an announcement about Obama’s healthcare plan that she abandons her walker and cuts a rug to James Brown’s “Good Foot,” ending up in knee socks, control-top panties, and a matronly bra. In an X-Files based number, a performer dressed like Scully was forced to disrobe by unseen aliens after she discovers Karl Rove’s head in a bottle of green fluid.

The audience ate it up. They were diverse as a Benetton ad—women and men of all colors sharing tables, noshing on overpriced tater tots, and cheering the performers. “Our audience respects us and what we do. They’re not just coming to see sexy girls take off their clothes,” says Sara Vargas. “It’s about the story the performers are telling, and the intelligence and humor behind it.”

Vargas and Warren were watching from a table toward the back of the club. This was the first BGB show they hadn’t produced. No hurrying around, no jolt of anxiety when the lighting person flubbed a cue—they just relaxed and drank their drinks. The two had started a consulting business together around the same time as BGB’s premiere (their cards read “Maya&Sara: Titans of Industry”), and managing both had become untenable—as Brown Girls Burlesque became more successful, it demanded more work. Though they’ll always be a part of BGB in spirit, they say, they needed to step back. For the first time, they were able to see the performances as a fan would, and they were impressed: “It was nice to sit back without that weight and enjoy the show,” says Vargas. Warren adds, “Our audience has given us nothing but love. Even from the sidelines, it’s so beautiful to watch.”

A few weeks after the Obama fundraiser, Dawn Crandell traveled to Seattle for BurlyCon, a convention about the business side of burlesque, where she spoke on a panel about racism, exoticism, and cultural appropriation. This was a big deal for her. The burlesque community pushes the topic of race under the rug, Crandell asserts. Worse, performers sometimes exploit it in unsavory ways. Each of the BGB members has stories about watching uncomfortably as a white performer used the trappings of another culture as a costume. “Someone will put on a kimono and crazy makeup and suddenly there are gongs and chimes,” Warren frowns. “It can be disturbing to watch.” The women of Brown Girls Burlesque intend to use their growing prominence to call out such acts. Crandell has visions of round table discussions, workshops, and collaborative performances around race and privilege. The discussion at BurlyCon was just the first step.

In the meantime, BGB has created a space for women of color on the burlesque stage—and in its audiences. “It’s an entirely different feeling when you see other women of color on the stage,” Warren says. “This is something new to communities of color, celebrating our bodies in that way.” For the finale of one show, the entire troupe recreated the climactic scene from Dirty Dancing. Just before “Time of my Life” kicked in and the staid resort transformed into an exuberant nightclub, the emcee called out, “Nobody puts Brown Girls in the corner!” The woman playing Johnny pulled Baby into the middle of the stage and started to dance. The crowd went wild.