Burlesque — or at least the tassled-and-g-stringed version that arose in America — hit its peak of popularity in the early 20th century, before a combination of Prohibition and adult movie theaters largely wiped it out.
Over the last twenty years or so, however, there has been a growing revival of the art form that observers have dubbed “Neo-Burlesque.” The revival checks all the boxes of a contemporary social movement:
- Performers like Dita Von Teese have managed to build entire careers (and a bordello-inspired lingerie line) on burlesque;
- Performance troupes have sprung up that celebrate the moral laxity of interbellum Berlin (Vermont’s Spielpalast Cabaret is a prime example);
- The quintessential burlesque, “Cabaret,” has had a rousing revival on Broadway recently, initially headlined by Alan Cummings and Michele Williams;
- Bad movies have been made about it (“Burlesque,” a robust 36% on Rotten Tomatoes); and of course,
- The obligatory work-out routine that uses a variety of burlesque grinding and boom-boom to shake off the calories (tassels apparently not required).
Helping to fuel the Neo-Burlesque movement are a large number of burlesque festivals in various states around the country. Last fall, the 2nd Annual Michigan Burlesque Festival [NSFW, not surprisingly] drew burlesque performers from around the country. One of the performers, a Miss Lottie Ellington, traveled to the festival from Virginia. The Festival videorecorded all of the performances and posted the videos to YouTube (you can find them all by searching YouTube for “MBF14”).
Readers of this blog know what’s coming next. After sitting quietly on YouTube for seven months, the video of Lottie Ellington performing “I’m Twerking in the Rain” somehow was discovered by students at Hopewell High School in Oak Park, Virginia. (The video is embedded below; again, NSFW.) The students recognized the performer as Chandra Brown, a gym teacher and auxiliary coordinator of the school’s award-winning band.
Almost immediately, some parents began calling for Brown’s termination. “I can’t believe a teacher that’s supposed to be teaching our children the right way would do something like that,” Mary Peterson told a local television station. “She doesn’t need to be teaching my child or any child at all for that matter.”
Brown’s case illustrates yet again the tension between a teacher’s perfectly legal behavior on private time and the moral expectations of the school community (or at least a vocal minority within it). There is no question that burlesque dancing is protected by the First Amendment, and Brown has every right to engage in the activity. Moreover, she was apparently not the one who posted this video to YouTube. I suspect that she signed an agreement with the Festival that granted it permission to record her performance and use it to promote future festivals.
Frankly, I think that this could have proven to be a useful test case on whether perfectly legal activity can be said to violate a vague state morals clause, or whether a district could legally terminate a teacher’s contract simply because a few parents complained about those legal activities. However, that was apparently not a battle that Brown wanted to wage. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on Thursday that Brown had resigned and that the school district had accepted the resignation.
This past Sunday, Lottie Ellington posted the following to her Facebook page: “I am an adult, and I am human. I am not in any way ashamed of my art, my life, my sexuality or my choices.” She is appearing at the Ohio Burlesque Festival this weekend.
One obvious conclusion that can be drawn from these types of cases is that teachers, particularly in conservative districts, should avoid allowing themselves to be photographed or recorded doing anything that is contrary to the predominant social values of the community. After all, if a teacher engages in a legal activity that can be viewed by anyone around the world with Internet access, can it really be said to be private?
Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, I think that is a practical impossibility to prevent photographing and recording from occurring. More importantly, I don’t think teachers should be required to live their lives in constant fear of community scrutiny, nor should they deny themselves the pleasure of engaging in perfectly legal activities when not at work. Assuming that the activity is legal, the only question that is relevant is when it occurred. If the teacher is not on the clock, then it should not be any concern of the community or the school district. The response of the parents borders on bullying, and we owe it to our teachers to do a better job of standing up to it.