Latina Performers Lead Burlesque Movement in U.S.

Dita Von Teese, the leading lady of burlesque these days, may want to watch her tassels: Latinas are taking over the art of striptease.

From New York to Los Angeles, pinups decked out in their finest Swarvoski corsets and towering stilettos are strutting on stages after the 9-5 grind. It’s not a reenactment of the Hollywood musical film from 2010. Rather, this is real burlesque, a seemingly forgotten theatrical spectacle. Not only is this steamy trend continuing to raise temperatures among ladies and gents, but more Latinas are now batting their fake eyelashes, pouting red hot lips, and showing off sparkling pasties, leaving little to the imagination and impacting a movement throughout the country.

Natasha Estrada, a Los Angeles-based Mexican blonde bombshell who goes by “La Cholita,” has been hailed as the “Latina queen of burlesque” since she first made her grand debut eight years ago. Now, she’s thrilled more Latinas are dressing up to take it off for the masses.

“Burlesque is extremely empowering,” says Estrada. “I think it pertains to Latinas more because of the way we’ve been repressed to a certain extent or growing up with these ideals to cover your body. It’s been such a key factor for me owning my confidence and becoming a strong woman. It’s a creative outlet for me to design my costumes, come up with the music to dance to, and embrace my culture in front of an audience.”

Burlesque, which uses sultry choreography and comedic sketches, was a popular form of adult entertainment from the 1860s to 1960s. But it wasn’t until the ‘90s when performers would resurrect this forgotten art in nightclubs and theaters.

While this style of seductive performance may appeal to some Latinas, many still face obstacles for pursuing this path. Oakland’s Xandra Ibarra, also known as “La Chica Boom,” believes today’s burlesque community lacks women of color.

“I wanted to portray and perform a Latino-based sexuality,” says Ibarra, who’s producing a show exploring her frustrations being a performer in a scene often white-dominated. “What I found frustrating was that all the different types of burlesque were showing, what I call, white sexual femininity. It was a little aggravating for me to explore on stage because it was viewed as different and it seemed like I wasn’t doing burlesque correctly. It’s not something I can easily overcome. I’ve just been portraying my Chicana sexuality, the one I understood growing up on the border.”

Ruby Champagne, who has been performing in the Southern California region for six years, says few Latinas are easily recognized in burlesque because many do not disclose their nationalities to avoid being typecast. However, this can provide an opportunity for women to channel their heritage and reveal it to audience.

“I market myself as a proud Mexican-American and often receive praise for doing so,” says Champagne. “One of the most rewarding comments I receive is that I’m an inspiration to other Latinas. That’s tremendous. I’m proud and humbled to be able to represent the beautiful Mexican culture.”

Other Latinas choose to keep their night lives a secret from their families, which many find the idea of women performing strip acts for entertainment taboo. However, women like Estrada and New York City-based showgirl Kita St. Cyr are open in letting their relatives know about their glamorous alter egos.

Still, St. Cyr said even though she was upfront about it doesn’t mean she’s bringing her mother to one of her shows.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” says St. Cyr. “She really likes everything that goes into burlesque, except for the taking off of the clothes. And I understand her reluctance. It’s not for everybody. I don’t know if it’s because she’s a traditional Latina or if it’s because she’s my mom. But I did tell her right away. And I think that has to do with me being Latina. Our family is very close knit and there’s no way of hiding something like that because it would be hurtful if they found out later.”

To some, burlesque continues to serve as a dazzling escape for curious viewers craving an inexpensive good time. Others see it as a unique way to be involved in performance art. But in the case of Selene Luna, a Hollywood-based performer who’s recognized for being 3’10,” it’s a chance for any woman to deliver a message.

“When I was about three years old, my family immigrated illegally to the U.S. because they were concerned I wouldn’t get the right kind of treatment in Mexico for my stature,” Luna explains. “Since then we’ve become citizens, and truthfully, becoming a performer doesn’t have anything to do with my heritage. It just inspires me as a woman because of my unconventional body. I took it as a challenge and I found that very liberating in a way I didn’t think it was an option for me. For the first time in my life, I could be seen as a powerful, sexy female just for being me.”

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