Dance Dance Revolution
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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.