Unapologetic Burlesque: queer. consensual. anti-racist. not your average burlesque by Shaunga Tagore and kumari giles

Part of Special Issue #2 – Bodies as Archives: QTBIPOC Art and Performance in Toronto

Author: Shaunga Tagore (aka Scorpio Rising) and kumari giles (aka vena kava)

Unapologetic Burlesque, killin' it. June 2013. Gladstone Hotel Photo Credit: Max+Gna Left to Right: kumari, Matthew, Ebonee, Shaunga, Chase
Unapologetic Burlesque, killin’ it. June 2013. Gladstone Hotel
Photo Credit: Max+Gna
Left to Right: kumari, Matthew, Ebonee, Shaunga, Chase

Unapologetic Burlesque is a showcase series, movement, and dream to highlight burlesque performances by emerging, first-time, and seasoned performers who are people of colour, Indigenous, queer, genderqueer, trans, people of varying body sizes, people of all abilities, people from different class backgrounds, and other systemically marginalized folks. We are two Toronto-based burlesque performers, Scorpio Rising and vena kava, and we came together in 2012 to make Unapologetic Burlesque a reality.

As Queer People of Colour performers, we had been finding many Toronto burlesque spaces hard to navigate and uneasy to be in. We had both been called exotic by white performers or producers and questioned for showing our body hair as feminine presenting folks. We felt squished into the repetitive aesthetic of mainstream burlesque performance: first the gloves, then the thigh highs, bustier, bra, pasties. We saw many performers further exotify Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) histories and appropriate BIPOC cultures, by twerking while in blackface, incorporating cowboy and Indian storylines, dressing up as geishas – the list goes on. We tried to fight back against male gaze as a priority in burlesque performance, and advocate for empowered sexuality among performers. We wanted to see and share multiple forms of sexiness on stage. Yet, we were appalled by the wealth required for bedazzled costumes simply for an opportunity to perform. As well, the lack of BIPOC performers (though there were a few! We see you!) and gender bending, gender nonconforming people on stage was surprising and discouraging. It didn’t take long for us to bond over our rage towards the pervasive whiteness, heteronormativity, and racism that result in these culturally appropriative acts, heteronormative, scripted characters, and repetitive storylines that continue to cause harm in the scene.

We began talking together about burlesque at “Q? Y Art? arts exploration workshop series” – an arts, crafts and storytelling program for self-identified South Asian queer and trans youth. During a workshop with local queer POC burlesque performer, Masti Khor, we discussed the often forgotten radical and subversive history of burlesque – how it has throughout time been a place to comment on, make fun of, and challenge the status quo in terms of gender, class, race, and ability. We were inspired and began to dream of a contemporary space in Toronto for alternative, subversive, and radical narratives to be celebrated. We wanted to create a space where performers could: a) tell their own stories (not ones that are dictated by what white audiences and mainstream society expect), b) play with gender, and c) incorporate spoken word, singing, acting, dancing and any other talents they had!

Shaunga and kumari are excited back stage. December 2013. Gladstone Hotel Photo Credit: Chanelle Gallant
Shaunga and kumari are excited back stage. December 2013. Gladstone Hotel
Photo Credit: Chanelle Gallant

As of summer of 2015, we have organized and produced six hit showcases, one pride showcase, and one open mic event. In addition, we have also organized several skill sharing workshops and community brainstorm sessions for folks to explore their relationships to burlesque. We organized everything from the ground up, involving over forty unapologetic performers (both seasoned and emerging). Each show has been packed with over 200 audience members who laughed, cried, and cheered the whole way along.

Unapologetic Burlesque has come together with enormous community support as many folks contributed in any way they could: printing, photocopying, volunteering, visioning, financial contributions, and by showing up the day of and giving much love and support to all the performers, organizers, and volunteers. In 2013, we realized we needed to grow the team and invited Setti Kidane (Crew Coordinator) and Matthew Chin (Accessibility Coordinator) to join us. Chase Tam took on the role of Crew Coordinator for two shows, The Ground From Which We Grow (June 2014) and Revealings (June 2015), in addition to his original role of stage managing, something Chase has done for every show since the beginning. Without the work of these coordinators, Unapologetic Burlesque would not have come to life in the way that it has. Every person involved and every small task accomplished has brought magic: backstage areas filled with beautiful notes cheering performers on, water and food available for folks as they come off stage, active listeners for emotional support, accessibility ushers to keep the aisles clear, hosts who keep the performers and audience energized, and so much more!

Unapologetic Burlesque end-of-show thank yous. March 2014. Gladstone Hotel Photo Credit: Claudia Chavez Left to Right: kumari, Chase, Shaunga
Unapologetic Burlesque end-of-show thank yous. March 2014. Gladstone Hotel
Photo Credit: Claudia Chavez
Left to Right: kumari, Chase, Shaunga

It has been important to us to prioritize consent and access in all our organizing. We started by asking questions and listening. For us, a consensual burlesque show is a show where performers choose who gets to see what, where and when on their bodies: they choose what they want to wear, take off, or put on, and what stays on the whole time. This choice is significant given the ways that racism, heteronormativity and the gender binary play out in mainstream burlesque spaces and create oppressive norms and expectations of what someone needs to look or act like while taking off clothing on stage.

In response to ongoing community feedback, we have learned, unlearned and committed to what it takes to create an accessible show. In our show, accessibility means seating for those who use mobility devices, having American Sign Language interpretation and closed captioning, and hiring space hosts who welcome audience members and help them find what they need, whether that is a place to sit or a shoulder to lean on if triggering subject matter comes up. Accessibility also means advocating for a scent-free environment: designating scent-free seating, encouraging audience members to come scent-free to our events, and hosting workshops for folks to access resources and learn how to limit and exclude fragrances in their daily lives. These are some of the things that we have learned from the communities that have been involved in the show and we are still learning new things every day!

Unapologetic Burlesque end-of-show thank yous. March 2014. Gladstone Hotel Photo Credit: Claudia Chavez Left to Right: Ravyn, mel
Unapologetic Burlesque end-of-show thank yous. March 2014. Gladstone Hotel
Photo Credit: Claudia Chavez
Left to Right: Ravyn, mel

In 2014, we received a grant from ArtReach Toronto to do workshop programming in addition to the shows. Though exciting at first, we soon realized that money really did change things. With the funding deadlines and constraints, it became a challenge to maintain the integrity of Unapologetic Burlesque. We found ourselves not only developing workshop content, which is the fun part of the work, but also spending a lot of time and energy negotiating payment and working hours among the team, and working on reports. We began to have different priorities for our time and energy and that changed the way we listened and worked with our communities. Furthermore, it was difficult to place a monetary value on the different kinds of labour (emotional, physical, logistical, spiritual) associated with our showcases and workshop programming because there wasn’t a standard wage scale that we could refer to for labour that is emotional and spiritual work as it is so devalued by mainstream society. With a large number of folks contributing and limited funding, it became a challenge to offer fair remuneration to each person involved. In our final report, we articulated the challenges of working within funding programs that value and center certain kinds of labour and how that changed how we were able to fulfill community needs. We felt stuck in our predetermined outcomes, which funders require applicants to state in their initial applications, and a lack of flexibility in adjusting our goals and deliverables based on what the communities in the show wanted as we were developing the project. Although we later learned that ArtReach supported flexible outcomes, which would have shifted that feeling of stuckness, the challenge of allocating limited funding to a large number of people who share multiple kinds of labour remains.

As we reflect on our journey with Unapologetic Burlesque, we want to share our introductory remarks from our World Pride 2014 Showcase production. We were given a stage to curate a 45-minute performance program at World Pride and we wanted to showcase the brilliance that had been shared at the Unapologetic Burlesque shows leading up to it. Space and money were provided by World Pride but our values of consent and accessibility were challenged. Communication with the World Pride organizing team was difficult, last-minute and full of mixed messages. On the day of our show, we were informed that there was not going to be an ASL Interpreter as promised (we ended up only projecting closed captions).

We wanted to take up space at World Pride to reaffirm and demonstrate our commitment to performance and the political movements that we wanted in our future. To express our discontent with World Pride, while simultaneously taking space, we began the show with this statement:

We have much to celebrate, as our resiliency and presence as superqueeros go back for centuries and have histories all around the world. This celebration is happening here on this ground, now in this moment, and while so much of pride celebrations get co-opted into white, rich, cis male depoliticized versions of things – we for certain will not stay silent. In the midst of all of this, we invite you to be your most badass self, get your burlesque on, and share with us as we take the stage!!

In hosting this Unapologetic set at World Pride – we first want to acknowledge that this event is taking place on occupied and colonized land. We acknowledge the original people and caretakers of this land including Haudensaunee, Anishnabek, Wendat First Nations, Three Fires Confederacy, Mississauga of New Credit peoples, whose autonomy and sovereignty have been continually compromised and violated at the hands of colonial project-building and the spread and encouragement of colonial (read: racist, misogynist, transphobic, ableist, classist, homophobic) culture, knowledge and ideas – including the values and organizing principles behind this World Pride festival. Especially at World Pride do we want to acknowledge the global pervasiveness of this violence, as well as the resilience and genius of Indigenous peoples here and around the world; of the histories and realities around the world that are rooted in anti-colonial / anti-racist values of movement building, creation and caretaking.

In hosting this Unapologetic event at World Pride – we acknowledge that Pride festival is a deeply toxic environment for MANY of us for many different reasons. For those of us who are not white, cis, gay, male, able-bodied, thin and, yes, even straight, we do not feel safe, at home, or “proud” at the environment created during Pride. Further, the increased corporatization, security and police presence during Pride not only forgets the initial spirit of liberation centered around Indigenous, people of colour, trans, genderqueer, sex worker, and low-income folks but enacts further violence upon these people. Especially given the theme of our recent Unapologetic Burlesque showcase, we want to say firmly that so much of the presence and organizing behind World Pride comes at the expense of many of us; and comes at a disservice, disrespect and harm to the ground upon which we grow… as well as live, work, play and love.

Speaking as local community organizers and working artists – it is really damn fucking hard to work in this city. All this said – we still choose to be here. We still choose to host this set, and give space to this small group of unapologetic, lion-hearted performers, storytellers, truth-tellers to shine their brightest.

Being a part of Unapologetic Burlesque has been deeply meaningful and life-changing – to be a part of something that helps to create, build, and share work and art rooted in love, care, respect, consent, ongoing transformation. Unapologetic exists because we so often looked around ourselves and saw no room or place for ourselves as working artists, as storytellers. So we had to create those things for ourselves; and no matter what the project is, we will spend our lives doing so. Doing this work is rewarding, exhausting and beautiful.

Choosing to host Unapologetic Burlesque as part of World Pride festival holds this complexity. All at once: because of our interactions and (lack of) communication with Pride, we were not able to organize this stage according to many values of accessibility and balance/fairness in our curation and organizing process that we prioritize in our other shows and our own self-care. Still we know that for many of us it is important for us to be here; to carve a space for ourselves to exist, to be recognized, to get paid, to perform on bigger stages and in front of international audiences. Still we know that much of how Pride has allocated time, space, communication, and money toward local, people of colour focused programming (including but not limited to Unapologetic Burlesque) has not been anywhere near adequate.

STILL, we are here.

We are here, holding ourselves and each other, in the balance of these many contradictory things: struggle, anger, frustration, resilience, defiance, accomplishment, celebration.

The experience of organizing with World Pride and sharing this public statement made us reflect on how different it was to organize a show on our own terms, versus with a large, corporatized organization, like World Pride, that has travelled far from its radical, political roots. It confirmed for us that accessibility, affirmation and empowerment in a showcase only happens when it is built into the process of organizing, with ongoing conversation and consent. While it was frustrating that World Pride did not offer this to us, and that in consequence our showcase had less accessibility than we were comfortable with, at the same time it affirmed how special and gratifying it was to have been creating Unapologetic Burlesque not only as a showcase, but also as a way of organizing.  

Toward the end of 2014, we were both burnt out hard from exhaustion and overworking while juggling other commitments. In 2015, we slowed down, and only organized one showcase instead of three. Since then we have been taking time to breathe, reflect on changes that need to be made, and giving ourselves the space to reconnect more deeply to ourselves before putting Unapologetic Burlesque’s next endeavour into motion. We don’t yet know what Unapologetic Burlesque will grow into next. We have dreamed and envisioned ensemble shows, production and performance mentorship, travel opportunities, video series and more. The possibilities for the future of Unapologetic Burlesque are just as they were when we first began: bigger and more surprising than any of us could have imagined.