Some people take offense when the term ‘shake dancer’ is associated with African American dancers in 1920-50s burlesque-type entertainment. And I can see why, as many view the term as a separate title created and used only for ‘Sepia Queens’ — as the ladies were frequently called. While there is little doubt discrimination was a rampant part of show business, as in every day life, I suspect the term ‘shake dancer’ had a more innocuous beginning.
Initially, at least, there was a difference between a shake dancer and a stripper. In early descriptions of shake dancer performances, the woman wore a skimpy costume and performed feats of muscle control or shaking (similar to today’s twerking), but she did not strip. She came onto the stage in a costume and left the stage in a costume. Whereas a stripper came onto the stage in an elaborate costume and the entire purpose of the act was to tease the audience through the seductive removal of the costume. So I suspect the term ‘shake dancer’, was initially coined to distinguish between the two types of acts. In fact, in the obituary of Rosemarie Black, known as “Rosemarie the Shake Dancer”, there is a distinction made between her career as a shake dancer , where she “never took it all off” but could twirl the tassels on her bikini, and in her later career as a ‘stripper’, or Burlesque dancer.
Even in period Men’s magazines, ‘shake dancers’ are usually pictured in elaborate fringe, feather and beaded full-coverage bikini-style costumes, whereas burlesque dancers were featured in pasties and g-strings.
Though not risque, occasionally you can find tid-bits of information or photos of famous shake dancers in vintage Jet magazines. Here are couple other performers, just so you can see the types of costumes worn by shake dancers. Though very revealing and much like burlesque costumes, the performers typically came on stage wearing this costume and exited the stage wearing the same costume.
However, as early as the 1940s there were performers who were combining the two dance forms. Baby Scuggs was originally a carnival-circuit stripper who was known for her act culminating in her twirling the tassels on her pasties and making her fringe belt dance and sway. Baby Scruggs never attained fame as a performer in the United States, but she would go on to become famous in London. Betty Brisbane was a New York City shake dancer that spiced up her act by removing a fringe skirt during her performance, but still far from the elaborate dis-robing of a burlesque stripper.
Also, some white burlesque dancers worked the art of shake dancing in to their finales after stripping out of their elaborate costumes. Both Peaches (Mildred Strange) and Trudine were separately billed as the Queen of Quiver.