Written by Otaymah Bonds

Otaymah Bonds is a second-generation burlesque performer of color hailing from Detroit. She shared her story with us here, and will be teaching a class titled, "History of Performers of Color in Burlesque" at BurlyCon 2015.

My journey into the magical land of all things glittery and burlesque has been tumultuous to say the least. I have been dancing and performing for over 20 years. Before burlesque I'd been more focused on classical types of dance, and the structure gave me both discipline and freedom. But here was a dance where individual expression reigned supreme. The confidence with which the women of all different shapes and sizes peeled made me feel like this was a world where I could be accepted and actually express myself.

Dita von Teese and Immodesty Blaize sparked my initial interest in performing neo-burlesque, as they displayed the grandeur that burlesque is. (I discovered burlesque through my mother, Dr. Judy Hankins, who used to do burlesque in its heyday). However, it was seeing the shining and beautiful Perle Noire that let me know that I could actually do burlesque today.


burlesque education

Perle Noire teaches a class at BurlyCon 2013.

I reached out to some neo-burlesque headliners for greater understanding and Roxi D'Lite answered. She was so down to earth and encouraging that it literally propelled me forward. After that I set about learning as much as I could about the genre of burlesque. I started taking classes at one of the only alternative dance studios in the metro Detroit Area, Pole Addiction. It wasn't until I met Rachel McCollough that I began to understand what was happening in the overall world of burlesque in terms of [performers of] color. Rachel had the revolutionary idea of developing a space where black performers could come together - International Black Burlesque Performers (IBBP).  With the establishment of IBBP, performers of color could express themselves, meet, and promote their work. Most of all, it let us all know that we are not alone in our struggles as performers of color.

Although I was armed with talent and had performed in my local area, I still had a heck of a time getting booked for shows. This was and is because burlesque remains predominantly caucasian. When I was accepted into the Fierce Burlesque Festival, I learned that I wasn't alone in my thoughts about this imbalance within burlesque, and I learned that burlesque can indeed be a family word. Fierce gave me the opportunity to teach classes and to hold a panel to openly discuss the issue of race in the burlesque world, not just in Detroit. The response was startlingly positive! Performers of color came forth with their own stories, feelings, and experiences about being in burlesque. Viva Valezz (founder of Fierce) helped me to understand that I am welcome in the burlesque community and that it is a community in every sense of the word. It was here that I met JZ Bich and learned that you can not only make great professional connections in burlesque, but also friendships that are lasting and very real. I later performed at HyperGender Burlesque in New York, which was established by JZ Bich. HyperGender was enriching because it was here that I ceased to be labeled as a performer of color. I was hired as a performer for the first time since I entered the burlesque world stage. My talents and skill level were revered and my skin color was not looked at as a hinderance.

burlesque education

Glamorous peeler Otaymah Bonds

During all these experiences I kept hearing the word BurlyCon, like a preeminent whisper.  Everyone at festivals and shows just kept talking about this arena to openly learn and hone your craft in a loving environment.  This year I plan to apply and hope that I am able to experience classes that will help me to enrich my body of work and to improve as an artist.  I also hope to take courses where being a performer of color is discussed openly and honestly.  I seek to add my voice to the burlesque scene, because I will be applying to teach as well.  Let me tell you… although it hasn't been easy being a performer of color it's been interesting. Overall, I'm happy with my experiences as a burlesque performer because they made me who I am today. I can proudly say I am a peeler baby! I look forward to what is to come!

Come meet the compelling Otaymah Bonds at BurlyCon 2015, where she'll be presenting her class, "History of Performers of Color in Burlesque," November 12-15 in Seattle, WA! 

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