Performer and Activist Bella Sin Helps Ohio State University Build Burlesque Archives

Cleveland performer, activist, and archivist Bella Sin is helping the Ohio State University (OSU) burlesque and exotic dance archives document the burlesque revival that began in the 1990s and is still going strong.

Roxy Burlesk Theatre newspaper ad
News ad for Roxy Theatre, 1960, featuring Crystal La-Vegas.
Courtesy of OSU Libraries 

Cleveland performer, activist, and archivist Bella Sin is helping the Ohio State University (OSU) burlesque and exotic dance archives document the burlesque revival that began in the 1990s and is still going strong.

Materials in the Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs, drawn from a personal collection of striptease research and memorabilia, date back to 1851. But thanks to collectors like Sin, the archives—housed at OSU Libraries’ Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute—are up-to-the-minute, and have been featured in a series of exhibits that examine performance, femininity, and activism.

McCaghy (1934–2019), professor emeritus of the Department of Sociology at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, specialized in criminology and the study of deviance. His collection of books, photographs, periodicals, sound recordings, promotional materials, videos, personal notes and interviews, and other assorted memorabilia, augmented by contemporary materials, explore all aspects of striptease in performance, from early burlesque and vaudeville to modern strip clubs and the neo-burlesque movement.

OSU’s McCaghy Collection, and the adjacent Burlesque Collection, which holds materials dated from 1931–2004, document more than 70 years of American exotic dance. The collection, said University Libraries Curator of Dance Mara Frazier, includes photographs and portraits of performers, clippings, and ephemera: posters, programs, menus, promotional and cards. In recent years that ephemera has expanded to audio materials and costumes, including tassels and other props.

The collection attracts faculty and graduate students interested in researching the lives of performers, said Frazier. “And we get burlesque community folks who would like to learn more about their own history. That's been really amazing for us, bringing in people who might not come into an academic research library otherwise, because they want to learn more about their own community.”

In addition to the current online exhibit, “Loose Women in Tights: Images of Femininity in Early Burlesque Performance,” elements from the archives have been part of exhibits such as a recent food-themed collection, which included menus from burlesque venues.

 

BURLESQUE, POLITICS, AND HISTORY

Full figured woman in patriotic corset with baton
Marguerite Laurel publicity photo. Caption: "If Figures Were Fortunes She Would Have More Money Than She Needed."
Courtesy of OSU Libraries 

Sin is currently one of the McCaghy Collection’s most prolific donors, having given OSU hundreds of items that they acquired on the burlesque circuit as a performer, executive producer of the Ohio International Burlesque Festival, and founder of Le Femme Mystique Burlesque troupe.

For Sin, art and politics are intertwined. Their family in Mexico had ties to the Zapatista movement—“It was always: We don't get to choose to be activists, we have to speak loudly to save our own lives,” they explained—and performing onstage gave them a public platform. “Burlesque itself has been activism before activism really was a word,” they told LJ, pointing to its roots in Greek satiric comedy, Shakespeare, and Victorian theater.

Sin immigrated to Denver as a teenager and was one of the few Latinx students in a mostly white high school. There, Sin found a dusty copy of Bernard Sobel’s 1956 A Pictorial History of Burlesque in the school library and was immediately fascinated. When they were 17, Sin lied about their age to take a burlesque class from local legend Vivienne VaVoom. They debuted as a performer at 18—“My first number was horrible,” they admitted—and, after moving to Akron, OH, founded Le Femme Mystique Burlesque in 2004.

“The more that the stage gave me notoriety, the larger voice I had,” said Sin. “I didn't choose to hide and assimilate to society. I chose to question.” But as a nonbinary Latina they were still an outsider even in the world of burlesque; using Spanish-language music or celebrating their heritage was frowned on, they noted.

That didn’t stop Sin bringing politics into their performance, however. “I come from a background of drag queens—it's like being raised by wolves, but with rhinestones—so that political movement made sense,” they said. Sin began studying Cleveland’s burlesque history, with a particular interest in those considered to be outside the mainstream, such as BIPOC, queer, and plus-size performers.

“I started going to the library and told them what I was looking for, and they showed me how to use the scans,” Sin recalled. “Then I started looking through Cleveland Press stuff. I started looking through Cleveland Plain Dealer. I started going through associations, started finding old burlesque performers through the Burlesque Hall of Fame and through the League of Exotic Dancers.”

Local librarians also put Sin in touch with Nena Couch, head of area studies and Thompson Library Special Collections at OSU, where they discovered the burlesque archives. “I always thought that [using archives] was academic, something a college student—and educated person—would do,” said Sin. But the OSU archivists reassured them, “You're educated, you know how to research, and you’re naturally curious.”

Sin had gathered memorabilia on the burlesque circuits for years—8x10s, flyers, posters, business cards, and more—and without a facility to store it, they were happy to pass it along to the OSU Neo-Burlesque archives. As the scope of Sin’s collecting grew, the library gave them a budget to work with. “I told them, I can't ask a burlesque legend who is an elderly person to gift me pictures for you,” they said.

They also began to focus on the burlesque stories that weren’t being told, “the Latin history in burlesque, because the more that I kept trying to look for myself in it, the more I found that stories of Black and brown folks in burlesque were being buried and not being archived or talked about,” said Sin. They knew of small archives of Black, Asian, and Afro Latin burlesque dancers, but very little of this material turned up in academic collections. Much of the existing burlesque scholarship, they noted, is generally white-centered and influenced by a male gaze—and the historians writing about burlesque rarely interacted with their subjects directly.

“I started noting where to find things and how to find them,” said Sin, who began talking to historical societies from San Francisco to New York City, with stops in Chicago, Detroit, and Mexico. They have worked with Danielle Colby from the History Channel’s American Pickers, who is a burlesque historian, collector, and dancer. And Sin is the subject of Erin O’Brien and Rob Perkoski’s Rust Belt Burlesque: The Softer Side of a Heavy Metal Town (Swallow Press, 2019), which traces the history of burlesque in Cleveland from the mid-1800s to the present.

In addition to posters and photos, Sin has collected burlesque music, costumes. and accessories from headdresses to fans, jewelry, letters, tickets, programs, lucky trinkets, and luggage. Often, they said, they will pay $10 or $15 for boxes of memorabilia at estate sales, where relatives are happy to get rid of evidence that “grandma was a burlesque performer”—although sometimes they are fascinated to hear the details Sin turns up and sends them. What OSU doesn’t take goes to the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, and Sin keeps a few costumes for their own collection. Sin has also introduced OSU archivists to sources throughout the burlesque world. “Last year we got papers from Dusty Sage, who's a legend and has a lot of stuff from Minsky's Burlesque,” said Frazier.

Sin wants to see the stories of marginalized burlesque performers and theater owners told—not only Gypsy Rose Lee and Josephine Baker but Jadin Wong, who started out dancing at Charlie Low’s Forbidden City in 1930s San Francisco and became a talent agent for Asian Americans, or Detroit-based Lottie “The Body” Graves-Claiborne, who performed with Motown acts and was a show business civil rights pioneer. “We don't see them being spoken about with the same connotations, even though they all had equal amounts of success,” Sin told LJ. “There's a lot of historical correction that needs to happen.”

“The work Bella has done being a historian of Cleveland burlesque, and of burlesque nationally, is a move to say this is an art form and it should be taken seriously,” Frazier told LJ.

Author Image
Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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