In a world that polices expressions of sexuality and equates white, heteronormative ideals with beauty, there are those brave dissenters who would denounce these oppressive norms. These rebels are heroes and activists, and sometimes, they are burlesque dancers.
This desire to create space where expressions of sexuality and body positivity are free from white influence has manifested in ASSthetics: A Case for Reclamation, Northwestern’s first burlesque show produced and performed by people of color. The show occurred Friday night in Norris’s McCormick Auditorium, presented by the POC artist collective, Living in Color and produced by LIC juniors Courtney Morrison in the School of Communication and Yedidia Hubbard in SESP.
For those who may not be familiar with burlesque, it may be difficult to reconcile LIC’s mission of reclaiming beauty standards and the mechanisms of a show in which performers shed their clothes for a crowd. But performer Toni “Sweet T” Akunebu explained that unlike stripping, burlesque is a more intimate interaction between the dancer and their audience. She said that burlesque is a medium for self-expression rather than audience gratification.
“Burlesque is the art of teasing,” the Weinberg sophomore said. “It’s for the performer, the dancer, to feel empowered, to feel in control, to decide when they want to take off their clothes, and not so much that they have to take off their clothes.”
Akunebu, who is of Nigerian and Mexican descent, said that the show gave her an opportunity to express her identity on NU’s white-dominated campus. The POC burlesque show arose from desires like Akunebu’s. At the start of Friday’s show the MCs, who were McCormick senior Macs Vinson and Communication junior Darcelle Pluviose, explained that the event originated to represent POCs whose various intersectional identities and body types may not have been accepted into NU’s other burlesque show, produced by Lipstick Theatre.
Alex “Fireball” Furuya, a Medill junior, will also perform in the Lipstick Theatre production, but as a gay Japanese man he also wanted to participate in a show that had an explicit mission of POC representation, he said. Society damages POC’s sense of beauty or sexiness, he said, and Asian men in particular tend to be desexualized. By performing in ASSthetics, Furuya aimed to counter the stereotypes that say Asian men are not sexy.
Until college, Furuya did not have role models for body image, he said, but now he feels sexy and confident. That fact was exemplified Friday night as he deftly maneuvered a hula hoop while dancing and removing articles of clothing. He hoped his performance might set an example for those who struggle with body confidence, he said.
“Ultimately I want [the audience] to feel sexy,” Furuya said. “If there’s an Asian man in the audience that’s inspired by what I do that would be awesome.”
Whether anyone was inspired remains uncertain, but the audience Friday night was certainly supportive of the performers. The seats of McCormick Auditorium were nearly filled, and there were few, if any, moments of silence as the audience cheered themselves hoarse while the performers twirled and twerked on stage.
Emmanuel Darko, a Weinberg senior, was in attendance to support his friends who were involved in the production, and he had only words of praise for the performers and their purpose.
“Any event that is POC in this school is just a powerful thing because we are so white-washed. This is a very necessary event,” Darko said. “This show was beautiful, it was really powerful, and it was really fun too.”