Shake Dancers Vs. Burlesque Dancers

La Bommie, or GLoria Howard as scanned from the October 29, 1953 issue of Jet magazine.

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.

http://www.suntimes.com/news/obituaries/21413917-418/exotic-dancer-known-as-racetrack-rosie.html

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.

Rose Hardaway as scanned from the December 1952 issue of Wink magazine.
Rose Hardaway a famous shake dancer, that would later pursue a singing career, as scanned from the December 1952 issue of Wink magazine.  They have one photo of a shocked Rose caught backstage, but in the rest of the photo lay-out she is wearing her full costume.
Rose Hardaway a famous shake dancer, that would later pursue a singing career a singing career, as scanned from the December 1952 Issue of Wink magazine.
Rose Hardaway as scanned from the December 1952 issue of Wink magazine.
Also from the December 1952 issue of Wink magazine, Michele Marshall is posing for a photo by another burlesque dancer.
Also from the December 1952 issue of Wink magazine, burlesque dancer Michele Marshall posed backstage for a snapshot by a fellow dancer.  Admittedly, Wink was overall a less risque magazine, as the dancers both have had fuller coverage panties and pasties drawn onto the original photo.  But it still shows that the costume differences between a shake dancer and a burlesque stripper.

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.

La Bommie, or GLoria Howard as scanned from the October 29, 1953 issue of Jet magazine.
La Bommie, or Gloria Howard, as scanned from the October 29, 1953 issue of Jet magazine.
China Doll, or Elizabeth Dickerson as also scanned from the October 29, 1953 issue of Jet magazine.
China Doll, Elizabeth Dickerson, as also scanned from the October 29, 1953 issue of Jet magazine.

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.

Signed photo of Baby Scruggs.
Signed photo of Baby Scruggs.

 

Betty Brisbane, as scanned from the April 1953 issue of Eyeful magazine, shown removing a fringe skirt on stage.
Betty Brisbane, as scanned from the April 1953 issue of Eyeful magazine, shown removing a fringe skirt on stage.

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.

Mildred Strange, who danced under the name of Peaches and was known for her muscle control and shimmying.
Mildred Strange, who danced under the name of Peaches and was a burlesque dancer known for her muscle control and shimmy work.
A 1955 program from the Empire Burlesque theater, where Trudine is billed as "The Queen of Quiver".
A 1955 program from the Empire Burlesque Theater (Newark, NJ), where Trudine is billed as “The Queen of Quiver”.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *