About 25 people are mingling around a rockabilly clothing store on a Thursday evening in Washington, D.C., perusing the clothing displayed on steel pipe racks—leather jackets, black and red dresses— and drinking champagne out of plastic cups. A few of the attendees are dressed in costumes, high heels, stage make up, feathers and glitter. These are the Chocolate City Burlesque and Cabaret members (CCBC), and three of them are performing tonight.
The first performer, whose stage name is Fox Martin, dances seductively to an unusual version of Khia's “My Neck, My Back” sung by someone who sounds like Frank Sinatra. It’s an effective mashup between the totally inappropriate and the refined. Her performance receives loud and encouraging applause from the small crowd gathered. Next up is Dainty Dandridge*, co-founder of CCBC, a clearly seasoned performer. She's great with the audience, and in a stunning voice sings a song that is once again baldly sexual, but delivered in a style that emphasizes the refinement and inappropriateness that Fox conjured. The final performer, whose stage name is Queen Nefertittie, ends the preview with a piece that flirts with notions of healing and witchcraft, using props that reference African religious traditions.
The preview show is just a brief teaser for the main event, Summer SOULstice, the second big show put on by this relatively new troupe. Tonight, they’ll debut 12 acts by an assortment of their 18-member troupe at the GALA Hispanic Theatre. I met with Dandridge and Chè Monique, the two co-founders of CCBC, for lunch a few blocks from where the show will take place to talk about the troupe.
Dandridge, a government employee by day, is a native of Detroit and has been performing for five years. Monique, a massage therapist, was born and raised in Alexandria,Virginia, just south of D.C., and has been performing burlesque for eight years. CCBC came together last summer, when the two sat down to plan a show that would feature all black performers. That became their Black Friday show, which debuted during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend this past November. Even the planning of that show demonstrated how they set out to do something a little different. “The white people I usually go to for advice in terms of production,” recounts Dandridge, '[told me] Black Friday weekend? It’s your funeral.'" D.C., a highly gentrified city, is often described as emptying out on holiday weekends when all the transplants travel home to see family. “But some people live here,” continues Dandridge. The show ended up being a huge success, says Monique, with standing-room only after about 250 tickets were sold.
“I had friends who would come to me with stories about how hard it was to be a black woman in the burlesque scene,” says Monique. “They would tell me: ‘They are only ever going to book one black girl in a show,' or 'I tried to do a Beyoncé act and they said it was too obscure.’” Dandridge chimes in with her own story: “I once tried to do a Ray Charles act in a blues show, and they said it was too obscure.”
In addition to creating space for black performers, explains Monique, she wanted to bring glamour back. “When I think of burlesque I think of this big, glamorous, exciting thing and D.C. burlesque is something that happens in dive bars. I wanted us to exist in a situation where people can have dressing rooms. I wanted to be able to pay people well.” For Dandridge, there was also an important historical aspect in starting CCBC: “White burlesque dancers in the 1990s wanted to revive this lost art, but they forgot about black people, even though black cabaret was such a huge part of history. It was important to me to preserve what is happening now and encourage black revivalists.”
At $35 a ticket, in addition to a VIP option at $65, the CCBC shows are a far cry from the dive bar shows Monique referenced. The business side of burlesque isn’t just a practicality though, it’s also a highly debated political question, particularly when it comes to whether a show will encourage tipping of the performers on stage. “If you run up here with your dollars,” explains Dandridge of the stigma associated with tipping, “You’re telling me that I’m a ho.” The distinction between stripping and burlesque is not just political, it’s also a question of the local laws governing where nudity can and cannot be allowed, and also those who want to draw a distinction between the art of burlesque and sex work. For CCBC, they seem to be melding all of these aspects into one—holding their show in a highly respected local theatre (whose space is a regal and historical building with an elaborately decorated dome ceiling), charging a real ticket price, providing the audience with an actual seat for their show, but also encouraging tipping and interaction with the performers on stage. “I love the tipping dynamic,” says Monique. “At the November show we just told people to get up and come up and tip. It added to the energy. So many people were coming down the stairs to tip [and] people were throwing tips from the top of the theatre.”
Although CCBC’s mission is “dedicated to celebrating and preserving the art of black burlesque,” the troupe is not all black, and is open to non-black members. “The intention was never to create a space that was all black,” says Monique. “But the intention was to create a space that was safe for black people and to uplift the black experience through burlesque and cabaret.” So far they have one member who identifies as Indian. “You have to be moved by our mission,” says Monique.
In reflecting on what makes being part of a mostly black troupe different, Dandridge shares: “The issue is that [in mixed burlesque spaces] when you are wearing your gimmick a little bit—blackness can be that for people often in mainstream burlesque—you represent everyone. So if you are a diva, then black burlesque dancers are all divas. If you can’t get your shit together, then we’re all a hot ghetto mess. It’s really hard to be creative.”
It looks like the two have hit on something special as they prepare for another nearly sold-out show. And amidst the constant news of the deaths of black women at the hands of police and others, CCBC offers something distinct. “There are not very many spaces where it is safe to worship black women,” says Dandridge. “Let us be the queens that we all know that we are. It’s nice sometimes to be worshipped, but more than that it's nice sometimes to worship yourself.”
*Article has been updated to correct misspelling of Dandridge