Artists of color deserve more from the adult dance community
Over the past ten years, adult dance has thrown itself into the mainstream. The history of burlesque and pole dancing has become recognized as something of unabashed sexuality, unwavering solidarity, feminism and diversity. However, when you look at the general adult performance space in Australia, you would have no idea about that last part.
I have been a pole dancer for five years, a burlesque performer for a year and a Wakka Wakka woman for twenty five years.
Although my performance resume isn’t the longest, I’ve experienced racism and madness from white people I share this industry with, and I’ve seen that impact artists of color with whom I share this industry. I share solidarity. These incidents mostly go unnoticed, perhaps due to the fact that the industry itself relies heavily on who-you-know and who-will-keep-booking-you. But incidents of blackface still happen, one way or another, nationally and internationally.
Blackface has never been good, and yet Australia is still behind on this. The purpose of blackface is to ridicule black people, their dances and their appearances. It’s from a time when mainstream performances didn’t include black people. Using it – or authorizing it – sends a clear message.
The strength and power that people of color draw from each other is inexplicable.
In 2018, at Pole Art Italy, a performer placed 5th with a sister act “tribute” in which their whole body was painted black. Closer to home, at the 2018 Australian Burlesque Festival (ABF) ‘New Follies’ showcase, an artist took the stage in blackface. The festival was quick to address the situation and say it wasn’t supporting the artist, and show organizers admitted they didn’t see blackface coming because they had already put in place restrictions. strict guidelines to deter such situations. In a statement on Facebook, the ABF alleged that the performer had left the blackfacer in both their acting application and technical run.
Yet, in Italy as in Australia, artists were able to paint themselves without anyone telling them anything, and then reach the stage without being stopped.
Brown and black skin should be celebrated, but these spaces continue to struggle to understand the beauty of black and brown artists. I’ve heard white pole students and instructors refer to somewhat darker skin than Snow White with the n-word on more than one occasion. An Aboriginal dancer I look up to, Lil Miss Sammie, was once told that her skin looked like a “bad bodybuilding competition tan”.
“I had just come back from vacation in Bali and my skin was darker,” she told me. “I imagine that like most people, my skin color has changed due to exposure to the sun. I happen to have become darker due to my heritage.
Similarly, burlesque dancer Kamilaroi Vudu doll published an article in 2021 describing how, after taking advice to keep quiet about Indigenous issues and then clearing her skin, she was booked for the same acts more often and treated better.
I have personally tried to fix these issues before. I once wrote an article about my experience of racism in the pole dancing space. I wanted to emphasize how finding other pole dancers of color, especially black women, was what kept me performing. But I felt censored when the article was printed, any mention of negative experiences having been completely removed. When I pressed for answers, I was told what people of color too often hear: I was being too aggressive.
When discussing the role of race in pole and burlesque, it is hard not to notice that the names of the pioneers of these communities are generally not white. They are the winners of the best competitions abroad, and they are the ones who brought striptease to American clubs and studios. But as these industries move away from their roots – and try to distance themselves from their origins as strippers and sex workers – non-white people are also moved away.
In my experience, studios and schools lack diversity, with teachers more often than not overwhelmingly white women. And while some studios may make an effort to be diverse, on the whole, the burlesque and pole scenes are run entirely by white women who glorify nefarious times — despite the diverse histories of those industries.
When I asked the Kaurna-based Chinese pole instructor and club dancer gia about her own experiences, she told me that incidents like these, as well as instances of cultural appropriation, are the result of complacency and a lack of dialogue in our industry.
It’s hard enough to get into pole and burlesque as a performer – there are upfront costs involved in almost every part. Classes, photo shoots, props and costumes add up to expenses. And this, coupled with self-doubt or low self-confidence, can deter people from moving from casual attendees to solo performers.
But these issues – in addition to cultural appropriation or insensitivity – are rarely listened to, or even voiced, due to the vast amount of white in these spaces.
This is something that Gia perfectly underlined.
“I would personally confuse the terms ‘complacency and lack of dialogue’ in this context with ‘whiteness’, as there seems to be a lack of ethnic diversity among the populations of pole dancers, pole studio owners, managers of clubs and owners.” she said.
“When the majority of dancers in a pole dance class – or a strip club – are white, is it any wonder that racism and cultural appropriation slips through the cracks and comes onto the stage? ?”
All the artists I spoke to noted that there is a lack of diversity in these spaces.
When people of color talk about cultural appropriation or racism, we’re often kicked out of space or told we’ve obviously “misinterpreted” the performance.
chinese burlesque dancer Ruby Corvette told me that the conversation is often about the abuser’s mental health, rather than what they did, why it was wrong, or how they can do better in the future. This is particularly aggravating: why does the sanity of the abuser matter more than the well-being and sanity of the performer whose culture is insulted and appropriated?
Every artist I spoke to noted that there was a lack of diversity in these spaces, which is causing these issues. It’s exhausting to constantly see posters and lines for events featuring only white girls, or shows created by whites with a small number of artists of color on a smaller stage as consolation prizes. , rather than reserved for main shows. We’re not lacking in talent, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t book us. We deserve to be in the spotlight and headlining just as much as white artists. Often, we feel like we’re overlooked just because we don’t look like Dita Von Teese.
The strength and power that people of color draw from each other is inexplicable. When I considered quitting pole dancing entirely because of racism, it was dancers like Gia and Lil Miss Sammie that kept me going. They had both created powerful shows on stage, in state and national levels, and told me that they were inspired to create and perform these pieces by their own journey of cultural pride. They could say “that’s shamelessly me” without the shame that is so often imposed on them by a scene where whiteness is the norm.
Solidarity is something artists of color had to find and create ourselves. initiatives abroad such as Black Girls Pole and The Cocoa Butter Club, at by Thalia Novela change point. Hashtags like “#asianpoledancers” have allowed Asian dancers to find and follow each other on social media, and finding others in this space with similar experiences to yours is infinitely reassuring. There’s nothing comfortable about being the only non-white person in a room. You notice it, always.
The desire to celebrate her culture in a way that others never could is what drove the Naarm-based Chinese dancer Andrea James Him to finally integrate his culture into a routine after a decade of career. Andrea told me that her initial motivation to perform the new act was greatly driven by the desire to do it before someone non-Chinese tried to do it first.
The reality is that performing an act inspired by your culture on stage allows you to dominate that scene and prevent white artists from taking that space away from you. Yes, Chinese artists feel the urge to create pieces that celebrate their culture, only for an uneducated white artist not to grasp the concept first and perform in yellowface.
From artists of color, the message is loud and clear: this space needs to do better.
White artists cannot continue to be afraid of our comments and occupy the space that people of color deserve. It is not difficult to inquire, ask questions and seek clarification. People of color in this community are crying out to be heard and it’s time for everyone to start listening. We shouldn’t have to create our own spaces or write about our experiences to educate other artists about these things – kindness, compassion and education should just be the norm. But for now, the least others in these industries can do is listen, pay us the same and, heaven forbid, be racist.
Artists of color deserve to be seen and heard in this space. We deserve the shows, the posters, the headlines. Using the same white artists over and over again sends a clear message: we don’t matter to you.
If you don’t know an artist of color, 1) yuck, and 2) look harder.
White people no longer need stage time, nor do artists who have appropriated cultures or been offensive in the past.
The history of burlesque and pole rests entirely on the backs of women of color.
The least you can do is pay us our due.
Bizzi Lavelle is a Wakka Wakka woman living in the Quandamooka country. She is an educator, performer and writer specializing in sociology, gender and sexuality and race-based works.