By Grace Gay
Sultry music, a crowded Norris auditorium, and people taking off their clothes – at the second annual People of Color (POC) Burlesque show in March, the atmosphere and talent in the room led to a wild and empowering evening. Most Northwestern students are familiar with the existence of burlesque shows, mainly the ones organized by Lipstick Theatre, but this event is quickly becoming a tradition.
Featuring only People of Color, the first show occurred last year. Since then, the cast has increased from 16 to 46 dancers, all coming from different spaces on campus to participate in the show. Producer Courtney Morrison (Communication ‘18) says it’s important that this space exists for students “who don’t encompass the central narrative on campus, which is often white dominated” so they can “empower one another and explore [themselves] along the way.” The admission process is open to all POC with two information sessions before their first rehearsal.
Toni Akunebu (Weinberg ‘19), Treasurer of the organization and a dancer in the show herself, was first brought to burlesque through Lipstick Theatre. “I remember being in that space [the Lipstick show] and being so blown away,” Toni says. “I went to the show freshman year and was like, oh my gosh, I have to do this next year.” The following year, since she wanted a space in the burlesque community more inclusive to people of color, she helped organize the first POC Burlesque show with Courtney Morrison. “The reception was so good… I had so many people come up to me after and say, ‘This was fucking incredible.’”
The theme of the show this year, “Last Night at Club B.,” explored the events of a night of partying and the morning after through sex-positive dancing. Toni says the theme was chosen since “The club is a space where a lot of black and queer folks go to let loose.” The dancers each choose their own name: Toni’s is Sweet Tea. Tea, partly for Toni, partly because she’s from Texas and sweet tea is big there, and partly because she likes “to quench people’s thirst.” Names are a way for dancers to showcase different versions of themselves to the world.
Each dance combines a variety of different styles on stage. The work the dancers put in is evident in their energy and enthusiasm. At each practice they worked together to create impromptu routines in pairs or would freestyle dance to get their creative juices flowing. The group opening routine, which included all the dancers, was taught by award-winning burlesque performer Jeez Loueez and practiced at every single rehearsal.
The motivation behind the show lies within creating a more inclusive and diverse burlesque experience for dancers and viewers. “Being able to have POC folks and people of different gender identities and different sexualities being able to reclaim their bodies and reclaim their space, and providing that space for them, is really healing,” says Toni.
The rehearsals themselves go far beyond campus: the first four this year were taught by Chicago Burlesque dancers Midnite Martini, Bazuka Joe, and Po’Chop. “I loved working with them,” Morrison says, “because we get to hear their personal stories on how they started.” Though the representation in Chicago for POC burlesque dancers is very small, the campus group offers a look at both professional and non-professional sides of burlesque. Since Morrison did not have a background in burlesque, they were helpful to learn tips from. They covered different burlesque styles and helped the new dancers become more comfortable in the art of the strip tease.
“Everyone should try [burlesque] or they should go watch a show, whether it be at Northwestern or in Chicago, because it changes your mind about things, the way in which you view bodies and the way in which you view self-love and appreciation.” The feats the dancers pull and the surprise they bring to the stage makes waiting in the extremely long line for the show well worth it-- each dancer brings their own personality to their performance.
The joy of watching the POC Burlesque show comes, yes, from the performers’ openness and often extraordinary talent - it’s hard not to spend half the show thinking, wow, I wish I could do that – but the main experience of the show is enriched by the absolute enthusiasm of the fans in the crowd, cheering on friends and strangers in an incredibly encouraging community.
POC Burlesque hopes to further expand its outreach through free workshops Spring Quarter led by their connections in the Chicago burlesque scene. Another POC Burlesque show is planned for next year. Though a quick note of warning: this show is not recommended for anyone who is uncomfortable being turned on in public.