Spectacles of Agency and Desire: Dance Histories and the Burlesque Stage

Exotic Dancers and Celebrities with their Exotic Pets

Josephine Baker and her Cheetah
One of the most famous Burlesque Dancers to incorporate exotic animals into her dance routine was Josephine Baker. Born into extreme poverty, Baker quickly rose to fame when she began dancing and was constantly reinventing herself thereafter. With a strong presence in the media, she could be seen walking her pet cheetah who was also incorporated into her shows. In a biography, Elizabeth Scholl explains that “Chiquita, the cheetah, performed with her on stage, and often was seen wearing a diamond collar and strolling down the streets of Paris with Josephine” (Scholl 19). Throughout her career she maintained her presence in the spotlight through both her exotic pets and her political activism and presence in the African American Community. Because of this she was under a lot of scrutiny for being a political activist and exotic dancer at the same time. Having this chained wild animal as a companion could be related to her attempt to appear powerful in the public eye. Similarly, the cheetah has a strong connection to her African heritage which amplifies Baker’s exotic and authentic appeal. Being able to tame a wild beast gave her control over her public perception as well as influence over her racial discrimination.

Zorita and her Snake
Burlesque Dancer known as “Zorita” was famous for her pet snake that she performed with as well as took on walks. This snake was in the public eye numerous times due to animal cruelty complaints while Zorita was touring, as well as the absurdity of her being seen walking down the street with this exotic creature on a leash. In a 1949 Los Angeles Times it describes that “for Zorita, the snakes are her dancing partners. She squirms around with them nightly in an act which she represents as a love dance taken from Greek mythology. For purposes of safety and convenience, Zorita places Scotch tape over the snake’s mouth before the dance. For some unexplained reason she also blindfolds the python before beginning her gyrations in a G-string and bra" (Los Angeles Times). The use of the Scotch tape raised anger among the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Her snake was confiscated after her last performance in New York and she was charged with accounts of animal cruelty. Zorita and her snake were very prevalent in the media and it shaped the way the public viewed her as a performer and celebrity in terms of exoticism and the amplification of her persona. Click here to learn more about Zorita and her snake. 

Irma The Body and her Corgis 
In a clipping from The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine in 1966, the article titled "The Shape Burlesque Is In" it states that “Irma the Body brought along her Welsch Corgis” backstage with her and wherever she toured or performed (The Plain Dealer: Sunday Magazine 1966). Aside from this quote there are many photos as well documenting her with her dogs back stage. Another picture shows Irma and her corgis winning best in show at a breeding competition. After Irma retired from dancing, she spent her time breeding and showing corgis. Irma the Body found a way to have companionship and deal with loneliness as a famous touring burlesque dancer as well as found a hobby to carry on after her burlesque career.

Celebrities and Singers with Exotic Pets 
Outside of Burlesque Dance, there have also been famous actresses and singers that are known for having exotic pets. For example, Michael Jackson had a pet chimpanzee named Bubbles (Rocha). Audrey Hepburn had a pet deer that she took grocery shopping with her. Actress Sarah Bernhardt, in addition of famously sleeping in a coffin, was notable for having goats, spiders, a boa constrictor, a puma, two horses, a parrot, and a baby alligator - the last of which died from drinking too much champagne (Leffler). Similar to Zorita, Britney Spears was seen in one of her most popular music videos dancing with a snake. What these celebrities seem to have in common is using animals to draw attention from the press and media. Animals in performance, particularly exotic ones, tend to amplify the performer and the persona of the celebrity which can be seen both inside and outside of burlesque dance. 

Works Cited:

Scholl, Elizabeth. "Josephine Baker: Charming Paris." New Moon 15 (March 2008): 18-19. Proquest. 2 Dec. 2015.

"Dancer Accused of Taping Snake's Mouth." (February 1949): 16. Proquest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File). 2 Dec. 2015.

“The Shape Burlesque is in.” The Plain Dealer: Sunday Magazine (January 1966). Newspaper Clipping. Series 5, Box 1. Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theater Research Institute, Ohio State University Libraries, Columbus, OH. 2 Dec. 2015.

Rocha, Veronica. "Animals in L.A.'s Urban Jungle." Los Angeles Times. N.p., 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.

Leffler, James. "Gallery: 7 Reasons You'd Be a Sarah Bernhardt Superfan." Asterisk. N.p., 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 02 Dec. 2015. .

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