My Body, My Voice, My Power: Burlesque, the antidote
I am a burlesque dancer. Burlesque is a performance art through which I tell stories with my body. It is my act of resistance against all of the messages that tell me how women’s bodies should look and how women must behave.
I’m newly a member of Brown Girls Burlesque, a woman of color burlesque troupe based in New York City dedicated to creating spaces for women of color in a place where we have not been traditionally represented.
Burlesque gives me an opportunity to be comfortable with my body and my sexuality. For most of my life, I’ve had what some others see as an “ideal” body (size 6-8, a C-D cup) but I often hated it because it gave me unwanted attention and I often felt like it was never good enough. Watching and performing burlesque helped me let go of that. I am empowered watching women of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities be beautiful, self-expressed, tantalizing and fierce.
As a dancer, burlesque allows me (and our boylesque brethren too) to tell stories and challenge ideas of sexuality and gender through body movement. As part of a community of artists, I’m inspired by our variety of styles and different points of view and experiences, yet we are united in taking unabashed joy in nudity and outright sexual self-expression.
I am jazabel jade
My stage name is jazabel jade. I chose it to play on the stereotype of the jezebel as a scheming and controlling promiscuous woman who is a threat. These assumptions and labels have been placed on me at various points throughout my life. Jade is a precious and powerful stone that stimulates creativity and balance. It encourages self-realization and opens the Heart chakra. Burlesquers choose stage names to create their onstage character, often cleverly playing on sexual innuendo, or parts of their real name, or things that inspire them. It’s part of the fun but also is important for many people who need to separate their burlesque life from their day jobs or family.
Dismantling insecurities is easier than being comfortable expressing my sexuality in a public space. As a biracial African-American woman, I battle religious conditioning. I also confront what bodies like mine have meant historically. The bodies of women of color have been subject to forced breeding (rape) as slaves, stereotypes (jezebels, Mammies and tragic mulattos), and fetishization. There is also a value system that judges us against a white ideal. Brown Girls Burlesque gives women of color a space to speak our truths by poking fun at cultural expectations and gender roles, or by being politically subversive. Performing burlesque give us an opportunity to create pieces that challenge the judgments that others make about our bodies.
Art Allows for Dialogues
My fellow member of Brown Girls Burlesque, Essence Revealed, is a self-proclaimed “dual degreed former lap dance engineer from the upscale gentlemen's club scene from New York to Vegas and sweet, sticky places in between.” She teaches lap-dance classes to women of all ages, ethnicities, sizes and sexual identities. Essence is clear about her motivations for teaching this class and is not blind to the assumptions that are made about her.
“When I am onstage as Essence Revealed, the burlesque performer, my intention is always to be an example of a woman proud to embrace her sexual energy. My hope is that other women start to open up and shed the sexual shame that we inherit from being female in this society. When I am teaching lap dance classes, so little is about the lap dance. It is so much about allowing ourselves to be comfortable in the skin we are in. Self acceptance, confidence & the fun that is being sexy are the goals.”
Essence is also a cast member of the nationally touring play, “Women, Sex & Desire: Sometimes You Feel Like a Ho, Sometimes You Don't” which creates spaces for women to have candid dialogues around sex. When I asked her why she uses art to speak out about sexuality and open expression, she explained:
“Art allows for dialogues; it allows permission into the scary, "forbidden" and taboo. Often debates, speeches and angry demonstrations cause walls and defenses to be put up. A stranger may not approach someone unknown to discuss issues of sexuality. However, a complete stranger will share, stretch to uncomfortable edges and learn about sexuality presented within art.”
This speaks directly to some insight given to me by artist and sound healer, Jenelle Campion, and helped me understand why I thrive when working within a group of artists:
“When a community comes together to participate in an art making process, say to create a mural or a dance ritual, they are spending time together creating focus on the issues that are most important to that group of people, be that civil rights or communion with spirit. Not only can this produce beautiful things but it also solidifies a community’s identity and social network which can only serve to strengthen bonds between people and expand its voice in the world.”
Campion, who recently released her album, “How To Heal A Broken Heart,” says that:
“…art making facilitates us being at home with ourselves which is what I believe is a primary step towards healing and self empowerment.”
Healing Through Art
I thought about my own healing process through art and my work, which often revolves around love. I work on justice causes during the day and art has helped process and heal complicated emotions. It has given me the permission to express the joys and sorrows of love, the destructive patterns, and to validate my own personal experiences without judgment.
Intikana, a Hip-Hop artist and activist from the Bronx, uses music, film and language to explore social issues and current events. He works to raise awareness of immigrant struggles in America, especially in places like Arizona and now Alabama, where there new-anti-immigrant laws violate human rights and dignity. He describes how he merges arts and activism:
“I speak on issues I’m personally dealing with or trying to get over, allowing my personal experience to drive the narrative. I think you have to be able to get over your own personal issues and go through your own personal transformation. From there you can be in a better position to engage in fighting the larger issues in the world and be more prepared for the fight.”
Being naked and owning my body and sexuality on stage helped me deal with my own sexual assault and violations against my body. It has helped me regain the power I’ve felt I’ve lost by being the agent of my own sexuality. I regularly speak out against sexual violence but I will be a better advocate when I’ve owned, accepted and healed from my own experiences. I want to create a piece about the universal experience of sexual assault and the range of forms it takes.
“Art in general is therapeutic…to voice yourself, feel like you matter, think about what you’re going through and finding a way to transcribe it into a form that’s tangible (writing or performing),”
That’s precisely what burlesque has done for me. My body, once a source of shame and resentment, is now my voice and my power. I will not be quiet and I will no longer apologize.
Janna Zinzi is a communications consultant for reproductive justice and social justice organizations. She uses art to speak about the universal experiences of the beauty and pain of love.
Photos by Steven Thorne
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