America's only all-black burlesque troupe rocks the Boudoir
It’s a pretty fantastic feeling to be the person a hot black burlesque artist wakes up to in the morning. Granted, I was on the other end of a phone line that separated us by a few hundred miles, but still – a girl can fantasize, can’t she?
"Good morning Canada!" purred Simone de la Getto, a.k.a. Teresa Ellis, from her home in San Francisco. The two-year-old burlesque troupe she founded, the Harlem Shake Burlesque – the first all-black troupe in the States – is coming to us in person for the 12th edition of Le Boudoir, a three-day Sapphic fest running from July 1 to 3.
"I danced in two other burlesque troupes before I started Harlem Shake," Getto recounts in her mellifluous voice, "and I was the only black dancer dancing. And I was done! I said, ‘You know, I really want to dance with other black ladies.’ And so I started Harlem Shake. I’ve been dancing burlesque for eight years now, and within that time frame there’s been more black women dancing burlesque – but there’s still the one black girl in the group. And then there’s us."
Getto’s dream was to reanimate a history that is being forgotten, when black performers like Josephine Baker helped make the art form of burlesque what it is today. She says she was always told she was people’s favourite when she performed with mixed troupes. But when the stage is full of brown chicks, today’s audience – still mostly white – doesn’t know how to react.
"Before I would never notice, because I would go on stage and do my thing and love it, be happy, la la la la la, and my friends would be like, ‘Okay, the audience was in shock. They’re there with their mouths open.’ And I’d be like, ‘Really?’ Because I’m just there on stage, making sure I don’t fuck up, listening to the music and trying to keep the choreography, and smiling and having a great time. And then one day I actually saw the audience while we were performing, because the light bounced off the stage and I could actually see who I was dancing for – and here I was looking at people with gaping mouths. They’d been screaming for the group before, but for us… so I was like, ‘What, are we bad? Are we doing something wrong?’ And then at the end, we got this uproarious applause. I was so confused."
I read about this one choreography the troupe performed early on, which re-enacted a Baker skit involving a dress made out of banana bunches and a gorilla. You could see how a white audience might be a little dumbstruck… but to talk to Getto is to feel the true spirit of burlesque, where fun is the name of the game, and variety and personal expression are the playing cards.
"I always try to make sure, in addition to having dance abilities and pick up choreography, that all my dancers are diverse in look," she says. Each of her dancers – Alotta Boutté, Peach S. Cobbler, Jam Balayah – is completely unique in shape. "That’s a part of Harlem Shake that people love, they always say it’s really nice to see real bodies on stage."
This Saturday, July 2, Harlem Shake will share the stage at the Corona Theatre with a whole bunch of other real bodies, including Sasha Van Bon Bon, Nathalie Claude and the Tap Rockettes. You can always expect a raucous show from Le Boudoir, but thanks to Getto, you might get a little blasphemy too.
"At one time I said that we did traditional-style burlesque, but that’s changed a little bit. How do I say this – if hip-hop performers can talk about their childhood and how they would, you know, kill people, then I can express the same thing about how I experienced growing up as a black child. And so we have this new piece called Sunday Morning, where we’re in church on Sunday morning and we’re dressed in the dresses, and we have the hats on, and it’s basically my experience growing up in a Baptist Church, where we’d get the spirit, and start running around and doing all this stuff. In my version, we get the spirit and take our clothes off!"
Harlem Shake Burlesque
At Corona Theatre, July 2, 9 p.m.
Within the context of Le Boudoir, July 1-3
www.leboudoir.org for more info