Five-foot-long ostrich feathers float in cool blue light. At times they flutter, disembodied like a cloud, then they sway and part to reveal a leg, a hip, a shoulder. The contrast between the white fronds and the two women's chocolate skin emphasizes their barely revealed bareness, making you wonder with some urgency just how much they have on -- how much skin you'll get to see. The tease continues, mesmerizing, until the floating tendrils finally come to rest, revealing two rounded brown torsos clad only in pasties, a hot fudge sundae made of angels.
The Fan Dance, invented by burlesque legend Sally Rand and performed recently at San Francisco's Broadway Studios, is on the classier edge of a resurgent burlesque movement that runs the gamut from amateurish antiglamour to icily polished sophistication to kick-ass sexiness. If neo-burlesque plays with and pushes our ideals of the feminine, the Oakland-based dance troupe Harlem Shake pushes it further. Today's burlesque, and the lounge/tiki/Burning Man culture that spawned it, is lily-white. As far as its members know, Harlem Shake is the only African-American burlesque troupe in the United States.
The two-year-old troupe of six women includes professionally trained dancers, former strippers, and girls just in it for the fun.
Being the only burlesque troupe of color has its advantages in the resolutely inclusive neo-burlesque scene, keeping the dancers working regularly. At the same time, they seem to dare the audience to indulge in stereotyping. First, there are their jokey stage names: Simone de la Getto is the moniker of troupe leader Teresa Ellis. Alotta Boutté and Leetha Hips, the pseudonyms of two dancers who want to keep their identities under wraps, aggressively affirm the big-mama image. And when a costume designer suggested that Qianya Martin, who performs as Missy Marmalade, don a banana-laden bikini and run through a club being chased by a gorilla, they thought it was fun. The designer was black, and the costume was similar to one 1920s African-American cabaret legend Josephine Baker wore, and if anyone in the audience was troubled by the image, well, tough.
"We play with the stereotypes, and then we do this amazing beautiful, fabulously choreographed thing," Ellis says. "It takes all the stereotypes and squashes them."
These mixed messages add to the intrigue of the troupe's performances. "When we're part of a revue, the audience will be hooting and hollering all through the other acts," Ellis says. "When we go onstage, you can hear a pin drop."
It's not that the audience is any less appreciative of Harlem Shake; rather, it's about what's going on in all those Caucasian heads. They're wondering, "Am I being racist by looking?" says troupe member Ashley Worthington, also known as Carmen "Jazzy" Jones.
Harlem Shake's motto is, "Changing the world, one shake at a time." The goal is to make people hip to one particular byway in the forgotten history of brown people. "It's history lost," Boutté says. "A lot of black people don't even know that black people did burlesque when it was big. People don't realize that the jazz greats like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington performed on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits."
Ellis had performed with the Cantankerous Lollies, a well-established San Francisco burlesque troupe. "I dreamed about having black women dancing onstage with me, dancing burlesque," she says. It wasn't that white audiences hadn't accepted her; quite the contrary. It was just a little weird.
"When I was dancing, people would always tell me, 'You were my favorite!' Oh, thanks. What does that mean? When you're the one brown person in this whole scene, and the whole audience is, 'I love you'?'"
She gathered dancers as she encountered them; some, like Worthington, who was new to the area and seeking other performers of color, found her. "I said, 'Okay, universe, I want brown people,'" Worthington says. "It was the number one requirement for me, wanting to dance with brown girls. I hadn't. Not enough."
The dancers don't match. From tall to petite, lean-and-mean to bouncingly round, girlie-girl to shaven-headed androgynous, they couldn't be more unlike the Rockettes. And that's the point of not only Harlem Shake, but also the whole neo-burlesque thing: It's a boobs-in-your-face celebration of real women and real bodies.
This reinvented entertainment seems to have accomplished, albeit on a small scale, what decades of feminist struggle failed to: a rejection of mass culture's worship of the bionic babe. You'll see no bosoms ballooned with silicone, no pubic patches (well, you wouldn't see those anyway). Over and over, performers talk about the excitement of exposing their bodies and strutting their stuff to roars of delight. At the same time, most members of the troupe admit to suffering from body-image issues -- the bane of the large majority of American women. In the ultra-liberal Bay Area, baring all is no big deal. But baring all the cellulite is a different story.
"I asked them, 'How are you with your body?'" Ellis says. "We're going to be showing it. Are you okay with showing your breasts with sparkly things on your nipples?" The distractions of feather, sequins, and glitter seem to draw wannabe burlesque cuties out of their shells.
"I knew I wanted to dance, and I liked being sexy, but I didn't know what that could look like," Martin says. Then she signed up to work the door for a benefit -- but they were one stripper short. She asked herself why not. "I've had body-image issues most of my life, and they were starting to go away," she says. "What better way to say goodbye to a negative body image than being naked onstage?"
Despite its political underpinnings, Harlem Shake likes to come across as pure entertainment. Its dancers delight in what they call cheesiness. The glitter, the makeup, the lowbrow fabulousness of it all, are just as important, and just as much of a blast, as representing for brown people.
Hips used to be a belly dancer, but, she says, "Everyone was so serious, while I was just having fun. Now, here I am with Harlem Shake and all my cheesiness and silliness, my love of things retro is embraced."
Harlem Shake performs at the motley array of mostly San Francisco-based clubs, gay and straight, that host burlesque along with bands. Dates at El Rio, SOMArts Gallery, and 848 Community Space keep the lip gloss flowing, while gigs at the Oakland Box Theater and Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center bring in some brown people as well as white. "Whenever we play a date in Oakland, I flier the neighborhoods, to try to bring people out," Ellis says.
But there hasn't been much of a scene in the more mixy East Bay, and Harlem Shake's goal is to bring it all back home. The women's collective fantasy is to re-create the juke joint, those Deep South gathering places with yummy homemade food, liquor, and the blues. None of them have been to an actual juke joint, but maybe that makes the fantasy richer.
"It was out away, hidden away in the woods, the place that was different from the church, the place people went at night where they got to drink and be naughty, where the jazz singers would come," says Maryann Brooks, who performs as Sweets Georgia Brown. "I've always been fascinated with that aspect of black entertainment and culture."
The dancers scour libraries, thrift stores, and the memories of their elders to glean snippets of the history, such as the 1950s copy of Jet magazine with an article about the Shakers, black women who performed shimmies in burlesque revues.
Ellis dreams of re-creating the Cotton Club, a classy showcase that drew brown audiences as well as white. "I want to have a huge revue, a huge show every month," she says, "bringing in beautiful, talented people of every color and transporting us back to another period."
The dream is coming closer. On October 30, Harlem Shake will produce the first of six shows at the newly reopened Mile High Club, formerly Eli's Mile High Club. The Murder Mystery Masquerade Ball will adopt the venerable format of participatory theater by giving members of the audience roles in the drama. It sets the action during the course of a burlesque revue featuring the debut of Mariposa Rosa, a Latina performer whom Ellis hopes will be the first of many brown girls she can showcase.
The Mile High gig feels like a gift from the universe, Ellis says. "I feel like the ancestor burlesque goddesses of the world are saying, 'Thank you for bringing this back.'"