“They called her The Body. She was built like a double order of pancakes — sweet and stacked. The only light in the room bathed her as she emerged from a thick velvet curtain, incandescent, platinum hair piled high on her head. As the band struck up a slow, seductive wail, her intricately beaded gown glimmered with each step. By the end of the tune, the dress was gone, and she wore little more than heels, a few strategically placed rhinestones, and a smile.”
That’s how burlesque performer Sarah Klein (aka Sparkly Devil) described Detroit’s burlesque powerhouse Lottie “The Body” Graves, in a 2005 Metro Times article about the legendary dancer. There’s been a resurgence of women of color taking up the art of burlesque, and this prompted me to wonder about Black Burlesque performers of yore, who literally shook things up and enthralled the masses... So enters Lottie “The Body” Graves; who has been hailed as Detroit’s own Gypsy Rose Lee. While burlesque isn’t for everyone, the art, pomp and circumstance of the striptease has always fascinated me and Lottie definitely mastered it in spades, as the quintessential ecdysiast -- (a term coined by writer and literary critic H.L. Mencken and coincidentally, despised by Gypsy Rose Lee, by the way).
Born in Upstate NY, Lottie began her professional dancing career in Brooklyn at the age of 17. Classically trained, she traveled extensively before falling in love with and deciding to settle in Detroit; where she started her illustrious career as a performer at the famed Twenty Grand nightclub sometime in 1960. Known for her elaborately made costumes, deliberate dance moves, and savoir-vivre, Lottie mingled with an enviable social circle that included Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday. While Lottie and her Harlem Globetrotter husband Goose Tatum spent time in Cuba, she reportedly also schmoozed with the man himself, Fidel Castro. Lottie stood out amongst other performers during her day, because of her classical dance training, which was a welcome deviation from the usual “bump-and-grind” shake-dance style employed by other exotic dancers.
A Motor City favorite, City Council often commemorated Lottie for her contribution to the city’s breadth of entertainment. Lottie worked her magic across the U.S. and Canada, often performing in White clubs during the height of racial segregation.
A living legend, Lottie “The Body” Graves is canonized amongst a list of notable other Black burlesque and vaudeville performers in the tradition of Aida Overton Walker, Josephine Baker, and Toni Elling, who traveled the world breaking racial barriers and headlining venues with their own brand of sex appeal and talent.
Today Black striptease performers like Perle Noir, the Black Pearl,
Jeez Loueez, and Vagina Jenkins continue that tradition, putting their own unique spin on the art of the striptease and carving out impressive careers for themselves in the world of burlesque, in the process.