Movement Matters is a monthly column by Michael Workman that investigates performers whose work intersects politics, policy, and issues related to the body as the locus of socio-cultural dialogues on race, gender, ability and more.
For this installment, we sit down with dancer and performer Jeez Loueez to discuss her joy at fusing traditional dance theatre with her love of stripping, how she came to found her black burlesque cabaret Jeezy’s Juke Joint, pushing back against cultural erasure, and the spectrum of audience responses to performing in her own skin. An edited transcript of the interview is presented here.
Michael Workman: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
Jeez Loueez: I’m originally from St Louis. My dad’s a musician and a singer, and he plays drums and keyboard, and my mom was always doing plays and poetry and dancing. But that’s the end of it in my family, no one else in my family is really artistic.
MW: So, a little bit of the black sheep syndrome?
JL: Yes. I started taking dancing when I was 5. I really wanted to do it and my grandmother on my dad’s side started taking me to classes and would say, “Get her to do something.” Then I just loved it. So, I started when I was 5, but then later wanted to quit dancing because I was like, “I want to be in a band. I want to play trumpet now.” So I started playing trumpet and keyboard. I was in a jazz band, but I didn’t like it. I wanted to be in a band of some kind, but I didn’t want to specifically be a jazz musician, which was just random, and out of left field. So, then I went back, in high school, to dancing and acting. I was in all the spring musicals and in all the plays, and I was dancing, and I was in a jazz band, and on the tennis team. I was all of those things. I love that dancing can encompass musicality, you know? I love music so much, and even though I might not be playing music so much, I can use my body as an instrument and tell a story without using a word, I can take you to the resolution of a story like that. My thing is the standard jazz, tap, ballet — my top 3.
MW: And so, when does this community dance side of it come in for you? Social dance?
JL: In middle school and high school, I kind of hung in the back a little bit. I wasn’t in the middle of the circle. It was still sort of stressing me out. Especially if everyone knows you’re a dancer, they’re all like, “Ohh, you better bring it.” But I love going out and dancing. Now I’m definitely less self-conscious, I love going to dance clubs.
MW: Is that something that started in St. Louis, going around to dance clubs and night spots?
JL: That was more in Chicago. I was still more of a teenager in St. Louis. I came to Chicago to go to Columbia College in 2005 to study musical theater. Because in musical theater, you can combine dancing and singing and acting. For the longest time I was like, “I’m going to go to Juilliard!” But they didn’t have what I was looking for — you had to pick and I didn’t feel like I wanted to have to pick. Columbia College has open enrollment so anybody can get in. I got a little money — a few grand — and I came to Chicago. My first professor there was Sheldon Patinkin, and he was the biggest influence. I feel like up until I went to college I didn’t really know what theater was, I didn’t really know enough about it. We had things like drama class in high school but I hadn’t really had any theater background or training. It was a very eye-opening experience. I was like, “What is happening?”
Stephanie Shaw was a huge influence and she cast me in my first play there. That’s where I met people like Po’chop — Cruel Valentine, who is on the board of Jeezy’s Juke Joint, I met in keyboarding class. I started doing burlesque while I was still in school. I graduated in 2010 and had started performing in 2009. I had a friend who was in a burlesque troupe and I’d been working strip clubs. Somebody dropped out of their show, and they needed somebody last minute. This was a troupe called the Ripettes. They literally needed a last-minute replacement, and I was like, “I’ll do it!” and I’ve been doing burlesque ever since. I love that I can do musical theater and combine that with my love of stripping, I loved the fact that I was in control of my own narrative, character-making, in control of how I dress and photographing myself and not having to fit into other people’s feeling about me so much.
MW: When did you start stripping?
JL: I went to my first amatuer night when I was 19. Then I started working regularly at this club in Chicago in 2008. Every venue is different: There’s theaters, there’s nightclubs, with burlesque shows the audience knows its art, knows what to expect—it’s adult entertainment, but it’s also art. It’s different at nightclubs, it’s different performing in gay bars than in straight bars. I was way more shy and self-conscious about my body when I first started doing this, when I started doing burlesque. I thought it was for voluptuous women with an hourglass figure and nice shoes. and I was like, “I don’t have a pin-up body.” People say shit all the time. So I was very nervous about taking my clothes off, even though I’d already worked in the strip club, there was this time I was performing for an HRC event and this woman in the crowd was basically saying that my body was gross and too skinny. I was like, “First of all, I can hear you bitch. You’re right there, I can hear you.”
MW: This was coming out of another woman’s mouth?
JL: Yes! People have been saying rude things from before when I started performing, and so it definitely made me feel more positive, and people who have my body type say, “Thank you so much! When you come out there, I never thought I could do burlesque, and I see you doing it and it makes me feel better now.
MW: It’s sounds like there’s notable difference for you performing for a white crowd versus an audience that’s majority of people of color?
JL: Yeah, and the only real differences depend on the story you’re trying to tell. Especially if I’m hosting, and I’m hosting in front of an all white audience, it’s going to be a different deal. But when I started doing this I was like, “Where all the people of color performers at?” I wanted to know all the burlesque legends, and the one they always tell you about is Josephine Baker. She’s amazing but she wasn’t the only black burlesque performer ever in life. But, a lot of that history has been erased, so I started my blog, interviewing people trying to preserve that history and then I said there should be a show, let’s start a show. That’s how Jeezy’s Juke Joint was born.
Please send questions, comments or tips to Michael Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each Spring and Fall, as a corollary to the Movement Matters column, we also present a series of symposia and performances at different locations throughout the city based on topics developed out of and indexed from both the columns and live discussions.