Sweet Lorraine says she's always been in the business of creating what she wants to see more of in the world, which is exactly what she did five years ago when she founded "Shades of Burlesque," NYC's first and only all Black burlesque revue. Dissatisfied with the lack of Black and Brown entertainers on the burlesque stage, Sweet Lorraine brought the first "Shades" show to the historic feminist theater space Wow Cafe in 2012. These days, Shades of Burlesque continues on strong with a new cast of performers each month at venues like C'mon Everybody or The Cobra Club, not to mention hosting (fun)draisers for the Center for Anti-Violence Education, and being featured guests at Barnard's "Erotic As Power," an event celebrating the legacy of Audre Lorde. Wherever it's at, expect vibrant, sharp, badass, and needless to say, sexy AF performances at a Shades show.
BUST got a chance to correspond with performer and producer Sweet Lorraine about her inspirations, the necessity for Black and Brown women to represent their stories on their terms, surviving sexual abuse, and the Yoruba Goddess Oshun. Among other things.
How did you get into burlesque?
I happened upon burlesque while researching pinup modeling. I came across vintage burlesque videos on YouTube and was instantly mesmerized by the beauty, glamour and seduction of these dancers. It had everything I loved about pinup modeling with the added element of live performance. That evening, I started researching burlesque schools in New York and signed up for my first class at the New York school of burlesque, founded by headmistress Jo Weldon.
What first inspired you to start New York City's only all Black burlesque revue?
There are a few reasons I started Shades of Burlesque, the first being visibility. I wanted to see myself represented on stage in this art form on a more consistent basis. I was going to 3, 4 shows a week and the performers of color were few and far between. I also noticed that we were rarely, if ever booked in the same show. I was often told by many of the women of color in the audience that they didn't know that Black women did burlesque and had never seen a Black or Brown burlesque performer before. I thought that that was unfortunate because I knew we were here, but POC audience members did not. Also, I found it unacceptable being that we lived in NYC.
Secondly, I started performing burlesque as a fun, creative outlet and quickly became frustrated by the assumptions that came along with being the only person of color in an all-white production. It started to feel mentally draining. Constantly being asked if I was upset, having performers that never introduced themselves to me asking me to help fasten their garters or straighten their seams on their stockings backstage, the endless comments about my ass and suggestions to create a Michelle Obama act because I had such great arms. It felt degrading and uncomfortable. I almost quit burlesque altogether because I was so frustrated by the microaggressions. Instead, I used all of the energy I had and created a space that resonated with me and one that I hoped would resonate with other Black burlesque performers.
I almost quit burlesque altogether because I was so frustrated by the microaggressions. Instead, I used all of the energy I had and created a space that resonated with me and one that I hoped would resonate with other Black burlesque performers.
What was most important to you about Shades of Burlesque?
I felt that creating a space for Black burlesque performers was necessary. I wanted to show that there wasn't one Black woman experience that we're so often pigeon-holed into. I've always been in the business of creating what I want to see more of in the world.
Shades of Burlesque actually emerged out of a yearlong festival I founded and curated called the Goddess Festival: Oshun Returns. Each month, I produced an event that highlighted Black women in the arts. Many of the events focused on Black women reclaiming their sexuality. There are so many negative stereotypes that hinder many of us from exploring that very necessary part of ourselves. Black women have been branded the whores of American society. The Jezebel, the video vixen; I wanted to create a space where we could freely release those stereotypes and express our sexuality on our own terms. A space where we could celebrate the beauty that we are and hold space for each other. I reveled in the agency I had over my body when performing burlesque. I found joy in uplifting other Black women while they celebrated themselves and their sexuality through burlesque as well!
What kind of response have you gotten?
The response I've received from other Black performers in the community has been overwhelming! Many have told me that they feel at home at Shades; that they don't have to code switch, wear a mask or brace themselves mentally before coming to a show, they can be themselves backstage and onstage.
The very first Shades of Burlesque show at WOW Cafe Theatre sold out. Many of the audience members told me that they never went to burlesque shows before because they knew they wouldn't see Black or Brown performers on stage. They wanted to see themselves reflected, their culture, their music and that's why they chose to support Shades of Burlesque. My show was celebrating Black people! I knew I had to keep producing this show. It's been 5 years now and SHADES is still going strong!
What are your inspirations?
Since learning about the Yoruba Goddess Oshun almost a decade ago, goddess of sexuality, beauty, love, abundance and creativity, I've felt inspired to embrace that energy when I'm performing burlesque!
My first Shades of Burlesque show was dedicated to the Goddess Oshun. She was the first Black Goddess I had ever seen images of and she embodied all the aspects of myself I wanted to cultivate. I felt it serendipitous that I would learn of this Goddess of sexuality at the same time I was working to develop my own. I had to pay tribute!
But my inspiration truly comes from all over. Depending on my mood, the political climate, how juicy I'm feeling or the lack thereof — I'm inspired to create what speaks to me. International burlesque performer Perle Noire teaches this mantra to her students, 'I'm a beautiful imperfection.' I think of that every time I hit the stage now. It speaks to the truth that we all have something innately unique to offer as we move about in the world. It's a powerful thought!
Do you ever struggle with your body or self-image?
As a survivor of sexual abuse, I've felt that I've always been on a journey to try and feel more connected with my body. How could I be empowered by my body and not loathe it? For many years I thought my body was the reason I was being abused. As I got older, I associated my voluptuous shape with the reason I was receiving so much negative attention and daily objectification.
In 2009, I made the decision to release the narrative that my body was the reason I had been abused and suffered daily street harassment. I was abused because I was not protected by the adults in my life that should have done their jobs. I was abused because many family members would rather protect the abuser than the victim. I was harassed on the street because some men feel powerful by objectifying women not because of my body! My body was not the culprit. I decided immediately to start celebrating the body that I was in and cultivating a healthy sexuality. Mainly because I was tired of feeling ashamed of my body and I because I knew deep down that I was worthy.
I did that through burlesque, loving and healthy relationships, and copious amounts of self-care! I had so much reprogramming to do that at times it felt overwhelming. But slowly but surely I was able to release a lot of the negative stories that I had around my body image through meditation, yoga and being surrounded by friends and lovers that uplifted me.
I decided immediately to start celebrating the body that I was in and cultivating a healthy sexuality.
Do you have any advice for women who seek to feel more comfortable in their bodies, or more in touch with a sense of sexuality?
For me, it was a fake it til you believe it scenario! But the main thing is to start, to make the conscious decision to like yourself, to like your body. Start small, but start! It may sound a little woo-woo, but filling yourself with so much love that no one else's opinion of you matters was the daily practice that healed the relationship I had with my body. So, with the same zeal that I used to tell myself that I was ugly, fat or no one was going to date anyone with this many stretch marks, I say that I'm beautiful, smart, funny, creative and sexy as fuck! I'm truly worthy of all the love I receive! I never thought I would be able to look at myself in the mirror and believe that I was sexy and desirable. I now know that it's true amongst many other wonderful kick-ass traits about myself!
Images courtesy Sweet Lorraine
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Annakeara Stinson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. You can follow her at @totalhellness.