In this photo essay for #BodyPositivityInColor, burlesque performer Janna Zinzi (a.k.a. jazabel jade) writes about the transformative power of burlesque, its importance to Black and Brown dancers and body acceptance for non-normative bodies.
By Janna Zinzi
Burlesque is our legacy as Black and Brown folks. Its roots are in social and political commentary and it continues to be a rejection of what is considered “respectable.” Since its inception, burlesque has been about challenging the mores of the day and often the restrictions that are put on our bodies and sexual expression based on gender and race. It encourages free sexual expression and celebrates our bodies in all of their forms…not just white American “beauty” aesthetics. Women of color especially have used this art form for over a century to make political statements, challenge racial stereotypes, parody the bullshit we deal with on a daily basis, and be as sexy and glamorous as we wanna be.
Burlesque has kept me honest during my ongoing journey to maintain body positivity. It’s not just about weight or age or hair style. The constant goal is truly loving my body every day and freely expressing myself not merely for external validation (though I love the applause), but for my own pleasure.
I use my body as a form of resistance and joy. I walk in the path of my ancestors like Josephine Baker and Nina Simone: both were Black women who were courageous in their self-expression and used their art to make provocative statements. I am committed to creating spaces for Black and Brown communities (especially queer and trans folks) so we know that burlesque is for us and has always been done by us.
The term “burlesque” comes from the Latin root word “burla” which means to make fun of. As much as its sexy, a lot of it is also about satire. I love to use burlesque to be an exaggerated version of myself, in some ways a caricature of real parts of my personality—the things I’m supposed to “tone down” for the sake of respectability. Burlesque allows me to express different sides of my identity, sometimes embodying a more “masculine” energy and sometimes being more vulnerable than feels safe in the real world. When Janna is feeling uncertain or insecure, jazabel jade gets to be extra and give no f*cks, because the world she lives in doesn’t ascribe to the “rules.” In my fantasy, it’s safe to be naked and ridiculous. And I get to create this world on stage.
My body doesn’t have to be a certain size or shape for me to perform. I don’t have to be under 30 or have straight hair. I can eat pizza or ice cream or salads. I can have my pooch or my tits might sag, things that are frowned upon and shunned by “traditional” dance and Hollywood beauty standards. I’ll be honest that I have my moments where I judge myself against celebrities or professional dancers because we’ve been taught that these are “desirable” bodies. But I remind myself that burlesque is for EVERY BODY so as long as my costumes fit, there’s glitter and I’m enjoying my body then I’m good!
Performing to Hip-Hop and R&B inspires me, translating a historic art form that people associate with white women into a reflection of today’s Black culture. I came up in New York as a girl, woman, and performer, and I wear that as a badge of honor even as I ground myself across the country in Los Angeles. No matter where I am in the world, I want other women of color to see me and see themselves. I want them to know there is a world where they can be free too.
Community is important in burlesque especially amongst women of color. We provide each other with mentorship to bring new dancers of color onto the scene. We encourage each other to perform with our hearts and to go all out! We teach each other tips like how to put on eyelashes that stay on all night, make panel skirts and apply for festivals. We band together to reject the racism that still exists within the industry and in a society that still values certain body shapes, shades, and gender expressions over others. We work together to create opportunities for us to perform and produce…and to represent. We also laugh a lot and talk mad shit.
Egypt Black Knyle is the Golden Girl of Burlesque, winning the most burlesque crowns, awards, and titles in burlesque history. Seeing her perform is a breathtaking experience, and she will tell you that burlesque legends have thanked her for the “fucking” back to burlesque. Not just in her body movements, but also in her eyes and her energy. She commands attention and teaches mentees and students how to do the same (Her twerk class is also life-giving!). Egypt was born and raised in South Central LA and she’s a mama. She has two children and a family that supports her artistry (yup, they’ve seen her compete), and also is a mama to burlesque newbies and veterans through her “House of Knyle.” Yet she is also still a student, learning from our burlesque legends, who performed in the 50s and 60s, and from current queens like Perle Noire. As an award-dominating Afro-Latina burlesque queen, Egypt uses her platform and influence to advocate for performers of color especially in established festival spaces giving us more opportunities to perform and shine. Let it be known that she’ll shut down some bullshit…with love, grace, and raunch.
The ethereal Seraphina Wilder is “heavenly by name, Wilder by nature with legs so long it’s gotta be a sin.” Her burlesque superpower is seeing the colors and auras of songs and incorporating those vibes into her work. She is also a brilliant producer creating shows in the City of Angels featuring all shades and gender expressions. Her show “Hi-Fidelity” was as if your favorite mixtape came to life as a burlesque show. Seraphina captivates audiences with her confidence, mystique and presence!
Loretta E. is a new burlesque dancer with “hips that hypnotize.” She is masterful at moving slow and languishing in her body and its sensual movement. She’s been committed to her burlesque growth taking weekly classes with the dope LA-based performer and teacher, Miss Marquez, and performing in shows throughout Los Angeles as she finishes up her college degree. When she moves, you can see the love and appreciation she has for herself and the art form.
Introducing Caramel Knowledge, L.A.’s Sexual Intellectual. She specializes in tassels and assels, twirling them (seemingly effortlessly) to the rhythm of the music. Twirling the tassels on your pasties (nipples) is a classic burlesque skill and always a crowd pleaser. But Black gurls on the neo-burlesque scene popularized putting pasties on our booties (hence the name assels) and making ‘em spin for the audience. You already know that’s a crowd pleaser. Caramel is a certified traveling showgirl, performing on stages from El Paso to Montreal, from Italy to Australia. She’s also a total “nerdlesque” badass, bringing sex appeal and glitter to some of your fav sci-fi and fantasy characters, and showing folks that we can be sexy and smart (and sometimes silly too!).
Sex appeal isn’t about body parts, it’s about confident self-expression. My body is different since I birthed “jazabel jade, the minister of hype” nine years ago. My aesthetic is expanding as I learn to own my feminine energy. Sometimes body positivity is giving myself permission to be soft, to move slowly and to take up space. Time has tested me to practice what I preach, to challenge my own internalized biases and to accept all the ways my physical and emotional body changes. Through it all, I remain in awe of my body’s (and spirit’s) resilience. Burlesque illuminates when I’m comparing myself to others or when I’m critical of my body, its curves and how it moves. It reminds me there is room for all of us to define and own our unique version of sexy. Burlesque requires me to treat myself with love and respect no matter what, because I deserve it and I am divine.
All photos by Nathalie Gordon
Janna A. Zinzi is a traveling storyteller documenting changemakers in arts, culture and social justice. She is also a burlesque artist annihilating stereotypes by spreading love for all shapes, shades and sexualities. You can find Zinzi dancing and documenting her travels on Instagram and Twitter.
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