This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while because I wouldn’t be here if others didn’t talk about race, gender, and sexuality in burlesque. In fact, the stereotypes I knew would have to deal with probably kept me more from pursuing the art than my insecurities about my body (though the two are related). After I learned about queerlesque and found burlesque dancers who directly addressed the issue of race, I decided that I could use what I learned to break stereotypes. To put it simply, burlesque needs more Asian, genderqueer, grey-asexual dancers, dammit!
If you find yourself asking why is this important, let me introduce you to two wonderfully written articles about identity. The first, “Race and Burlesque: The curious case of the performer of colour”, addresses the stereotypes and discrimination that minorities still face today. The interviews that follow the article are also worth checking out. The second article, “Queerlesque, WTF?”, explains what queer is and why a safe space for those who identify as such is needed in the world of burlesque. Reading both articles made me decide to write about how identity has played a role in shaping how I approach burlesque.
Let’s start with the most outwardly apparent aspect of my identity: race. I’m Taiwanese-American, and it’s not really influenced how I’ve been treated in the burlesque community so far. It’s a breath of fresh air since I deal with microaggressions and really bad Asian jokes all the damn time– from my own friends too! Despite not having to deal with that in burlesque, there’s the phantom of the Dragon Lady and naughty Asian school girl stereotypes looming over my head. These fantasies lead to a dehumanization of Asian women. When guys (and sometimes girls) hit on me for being a “hot Asian (with boobs)”, they’re not interested in who I really am– they’re interested in a particular set of traits that I happen to embody. Because of this, I did not want to sexualize myself in any manner for a very long time, but a part of me still wanted to be sexy. The non-sexual Model Minority stereotype was just as hurtful. I started to come across Asian burlesque dancers of all styles: Noel Toy, Tura Satana, Calamity Chang, Shanghai Pearl, Stella Chuu, Di'Lovely to name a few. I realized that they were subverting the fantasy by simply being themselves. Sometimes they fit the nerdy image, and sometimes they look like they could be a Dragon Lady. However, they write their own narratives; they make the fantasy their own.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do in crafting my stage persona. Defying expectations is no problem since I want my punk rock side to come out. The bigger challenge is navigating how to honor my heritage without falling back into the stereotypes (i.e. how do I strip out of a qipao without feeling like I’m insulting my culture?). There will be a lot of thinking and learning before I completely figure things out, but I’m thankful to have some good role models.
To clarify, my attempts to desexualize myself have nothing to do with my grey-asexuality. It’s hard to explain why I identify as grey-a without getting into the dirty details, but basically I don’t experience sexual attraction save for a couple of exceptions. My curiosity about sex stems from not really understanding why people desire it so much, and I think that’s why burlesque intrigued me in the first place. I never thought I would be “good” at it because I have zero understanding of seduction. I also felt like I was betraying my orientation by pretending I was a "regular" sexual being.
Then I realized that sexy does not equal sexual. If anything, being uninterested in sex while doing suggestive moves made me the ultimate tease. Overcoming that mental hurdle has helped me become a bit more comfortable with the moves and with revealing my body. I still have trouble getting the seductive facial expressions right, but I’m learning how to reinterpreting the intent to something I understand better (even if I have to end up pretending to mind control someone).
Lastly, gender is a complicated topic because I was being caught up in seeing it as a binary for so long. While I’m okay with being referred to as a girl, it’s not completely me and that’s where the genderqueer comes in. I often compare myself to a prepubescent boy who has discovered drag. I like the glitter and femininity, but once I get home, I want to slip back into my baggy jeans and T-shirts from the boys’ section and not shave for the rest of the week. My intense hatred for shaving was actually a specific deterrent for getting naked because I couldn’t understand why girls had to be hairless and was shamed for my choice many times. I know of one dancer who doesn’t shave, and I hope I can one day have the same courage to rock my all-natural look.
When Lillith Grey started the Academy of Queerlesque, I immediately wanted to sign up. A tiny part of me did wonder if I wasn’t queer enough because I do appear to be a cisgendered, heterosexual female. However, there’s more than what meets the eye though, and burlesque for me personally is about stripping away those façades and presumptions. On top of that, the Academy’s site included asexuality in the acronym (LGBTQIA). That was the reassurance I needed since the inclusion of asexuality in the queer community has met some opposition. The safe space created in the classes gave me the confidence to sign up for the Burlesque Group class, which would be performing at the Panty Raid queer variety show. I’m very excited to make my stage debut this Friday; it’s a lot sooner than expected, but I was made to feel comfortable enough to take the plunge.
This is only a glimpse of how my identity has shaped my burlesque journey and ultimately my stage persona. I feel like my struggles with the issues of race, sexuality, and gender have been both an internal one and a much larger battle. I hope that the conversations continue and that there are more individuals, troupes, and productions that challenge the norms. Whenever I come across a dancer I can relate to, whether it’s because they’re Asian or they challenge traditional gender expressions, I get really excited. I’m hoping that I could do that for someone in the future.