Josephine Baker famously adopted children from across the globe and dubbed them her “Rainbow Tribe”. If she were here today, one could imagine that she would be thrilled to see Brown Girls Burlesque, a multi-ethnic circle of women who have become her daughters-in-dance. Since 1997, the troupe has electrified audiences with smart, sensual performances that feature a fierce-yet-playful take on both traditional and modern burlesque performance. We spoke with Chicava HoneyChild, BGB’s Creative Producer and new member Jazabel Jade about the troupe and what inspires them to shake a tailfeather.
What was the inspiration behind Brown Girls Burlesque?
Chicava: The creators, Aurora BoobRealis and Maya Haynes-Warren, founded BGB as both a response to a lack of diversity in the neo-burlesque scene at the time and to celebrate the unique sensuality and cultures of brown women. We hope that our presence continues to inspire women of color to try burlesque.
You’ve done a great deal of research on the history of Black women in burlesque and have interviewed a number of dancers from the 1950s and ’60s. How has your work been received by some of these “foremothers”?
Chicava: They are very loving, proud and supportive. I feel like I get an additional mother with each one of them that I meet, and I cherish them as I do my own mother. My (performance) work ranges from classic to theatrical burlesque . Much of the more theatrical stuff is a new to them, but they’re moved and inspired by it, especially “Jezebel”.
Why did you decided to become a performer?
Jazabel Jade: I went to a BGB show and fell in love with burlesque. I have been dancing since the age of 3 and have done various types of dance but something about the story-telling, expression and confidence of a diverse group of women of color just inspired me. I was like “I HAVE to try this!”
In an era of “video vixens” and soft-porn mags that get a lot of criticism for their portrayal of women, how is burlesque different?
Chicava: A woman’s self-determined portrayal is the difference. Most ladies in neo-burlesque are not interested in being “fembot” props, this is our way as women and performers to speak our truth, express ourselves and celebrate exactly who and how we are. I think its a positive response to those images and helps women feel better about being REAL women. Striptease acts can be beautiful and sexy, bawdy and raunchy or political, satirical, challenging. In this way neo-burlesque performers bring burlesque back to its theatrical roots.
[DISCOVER! THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN BURLESQUE]
Have you ever received any negative pushback/reactions about performing burlesque?
Jazabel Jade: Generally it’s been pretty positive. My parents know and my mom’s main concern was that I am performing in safe spaces. It took a bit of educating and explaining but I’m blessed that they are completely supportive even if it’s slightly uncomfortable for them. I’m just now sharing this side of my life with broader family and colleagues, so we’ll see what happens but I think people’s reactions will show me the people who truly support me, and will say a lot about people’s discomfort with sexuality. Hopefully it will create some solid discussions and open some minds. The feminist community also has been incredibly supportive! There have been some generational rubs because burlesque can trigger ideas of sexual exploitation and forced sex work but when people see us perform and speak with us there’s been more of an understanding that this expression is about celebrating our bodies and our feminine divinity, and providing an outlet to tell OUR stories on OUR terms. Some folks get it and some don’t and that’s fine.
What has been the most rewarding part of this new journey?
Jazabel Jade: This journey has helped me fall in love with myself and nurture my creativity and spirit. I have learned somehow to set boundaries even in my nudity. Perhaps it’s something about finding strength in vulnerability. It’s given me space and permission to express feelings that are difficult for me to process verbally. I love being a part of a collective of brilliant women artists of color, learning and building with them, and inspiring other women of color express and love themselves.