At the height of their popularity in the early and mid-20th century, burlesque halls were overwhelmingly segregated spaces. Although women of color performed as shake dancers in nightclubs, they rarely shared the stage with white dancers. It was up to them to make a name for themselves in an industry in which their identities were easily obscured, exoticized, and even forgotten.
Here, we're celebrating some of the Black women who broke into the world of mainstream burlesque, and in turn forged pathways for future generations of Black performers and challenged standards of beauty.
Some of these women, Eartha Kitt and Josephine Baker among them, enjoyed illustrious careers and maintain their fame today. Then there are others, like Lady Ernestine, who are known only for their stage names and little else. What all of these women have in common is the drive to prove their talent to a society that expected little of them. They changed what it meant to be a sex symbol, proudly owning their Blackness and their bodies in a way that the American public certainly didn't see every day.
Click through to get to know some of the most prominent Black burlesque performers.