As she sat enjoying a cascara tea under a portrait series of a Chippewa District 40 years removed, Ebony Jones reflected on her journey in the timeline of Buffalo’s burlesque history.
“One day I was talking to a friend and she said, ‘Have you ever thought about burlesque?’ ‘No, I don’t think I have. Let me find out what it’s about,’” she recalled.
She was 19 and in her first year of college when she discovered burlesque dance. Intrigued, she reached out to two troupes in Buffalo and heard back from one – the now-defunct Eye Candy Burlesque that had run for 10 years in the city.
“I took to it like the first day of dance class. I loved everything about it…I met amazing women who I still mostly talk to, to this day. From all walks of life – teachers and lawyers and accountants – any and every woman was in that company,” she said.
Ebony Jones has been trained in dance since the age of 3. “My mom took me to dance classes religiously Saturday mornings. I just took to it. It was everything to me. I didn’t want to quit, I loved it,” she said, reminiscing about those first years of discovering movement.
“I watch videos now of myself [back then], and I think, ‘You knew what you wanted to do way back then, before anybody could even tell you anything.’ It’s crazy.”
After studying dance for several years growing up, Ebony settled on Niagara County Community College to begin her university studies and soon thereafter joined a dance company. “I got to be creative and do my own choreography but I still wasn’t feeling fulfilled,” she said. Burlesque soon made itself known and was just the thing Ebony needed that she never knew she needed.
She spent a couple lackluster years at community college — where she eventually dropped out — and embarked on a fervent training period with Eye Candy Burlesque, then relocated to Florida with her immediate family.
I want estrogen oozing from the walls.
“When I was in Florida I did a lot of soul-searching and a lot of self-reflection. I didn’t have the distraction of my friends or my family, their obligations that they had for me… I didn’t have all that. It was just me, and my mom and dad and sister,” she said.
Down in Florida Ebony happened upon the Lingerie Company, a pole-dance studio/lingerie store/sex toy store, and told the manager she was interested in being an instructor. The day after that, one of the shop’s teachers quit. “[The manager] auditioned me and loved the way I taught things, she thought I had a real knack for teaching,” she said.
For the better part of a year Ebony worked and meditated on what was next to come. “I had nothing but time to literally dance and fulfill whatever I needed to fulfill. So, when I came back here I knew it was time. I was ready to do it,” she said. The decision to come home had taken shape.
Ebony reconnected with her old college and dancing pal ‘Vivi L’amour’, confiding that she had an idea and wanted to bring other girls on board. Vivi was enthusiastic from the get-go. “We just started getting choreography together,” Ebony said. “Femme Noire” had been spoken aloud to the universe.
Auditions for this new company were held in April of this year, and that’s when Ebony (now ‘MaDamn Noire’) and Vivi L’amour Noire got to see ‘LayDee Noire’ and ‘Cocoa Noire’ in action for the first time. “They both wowed me…I was impressed. The way they moved, the way they looked…It was my vision of the company,” Ebony said.
The foursome got to work like they’d been dancing together for a decade. Buffalo was introduced to the troupe during the 2016 Infringement Festival, with an official debut show held in August at the Town Ballroom’s Leopard Lounge. Shortly after they brought ‘Satine Noire’ into the mix, bringing their current number to five.
To Ebony’s knowledge, Femme Noire is the first and only Black-owned burlesque company in Buffalo. “Which is not uncommon in a lot of other cities either,” she said. Struggling to reconcile her identity in the world of burlesque wasn’t a new task for Ebony; she felt the rift even during her training years with Eye Candy.
“The burlesque world is already very rigid, as far as looks go. There’s not a lot of women of color in it. And the women of color who are in it don’t get highlighted,” Ebony said. “Seeing that, feeling that, I decided that I wanted to do a company and I wanted to do it right. I wanted to be the leader that I always thought I could be — I wanted to be a mentor to people,” she said.
It wasn’t just race that obstructed Ebony’s newly laid path, however. Perhaps even thornier was the little matter of being a Baptist preacher’s daughter. “Coming out to my family when I first started doing it was not easy. I come from an extremely religious background,” she explained.
“The moment I told my dad was difficult. But then he asked, ‘So, can I come see your show?’…At the time it felt like an invasion of my world. It’s like, I discovered myself and was liberated and free…Just let me have this, you know? But then he said, ‘I’ve always watched you dance, and this is sad for me because I can’t be in the audience supporting my daughter.’”
Ebony feels differently now about sharing her work with her folks. “Maybe [it will] get the scary feelings out of his head,” she said.
Ebony fondly remembers growing up watching black and white movies with her mom, whom she calls a “glamour queen,” full of beauty and elegance. “She always admired Old Hollywood, and that’s what I grew up on,” she said. Ebony too finds inspiration in her foremothers of dance, especially Josephine Baker, the legendary dancer, activist, and World War II spy.
“Josephine Baker is why I do what I do. I admire her; I try my best to channel her when I’m performing,” she said.
America again is on the precipice of yet another tumultuous political age, and it’s during these times especially that entertainment can play a critical, lasting role in a shifting society.
“I think that’s the mindset that most artists need to have right now. We’re giving them honey but, somewhere along the lines we have to stand by something as well,” Ebony said.
“I don’t want to be out here just entertaining people. While it’s of a great benefit — times are hard, people want to see something and be happy and joyful and I love giving that to people — but at the same time I definitely want to incorporate more social commentary into our numbers,” she said.
Indeed, burlesque itself has consistently been a medium for social commentary. “Burlesque, in its nature, was satirical, and comedy, and making fun of references that were of the day,” Ebony said. “Taking the fact that you’re telling us that we need to be housewives and we don’t have a voice and turning it on its ear and throwing our vaginas in their faces is literally a statement in itself.
“To stand for anything is amazing, so that’s what we’re aiming to do. If we all did that, we could definitely make some kind of statement,” she said.
Although it’s not even a year old, Ebony has a grand vision for the future of her troupe and of burlesque in the city in general.
“I hope to make Buffalo — not a hub necessarily, for burlesque — but I definitely want to make it a destination,” she said. “It used to be…We’re sitting on a block that was literally a red light district. The Riviera Theatre [in North Tonawanda] hosted burlesque shows. Most of these clubs hosted burlesque shows at one point in time, if not strip clubs straight up,” she said, referring to the Chippewa District where we sat, an even seedier den of iniquity 40 years’ prior.
After their successful near-sell-out debut with the band PeaceBridge at the 200-person Leopard Lounge and a feisty, S&M-laden Halloween performance at this year’s Witches Ball, Ebony is excited for what’s next.
“Down the road I want this to be a whole entertainment thing. I want female comedians. I want female-identified band members. I want female everything. I want estrogen oozing from the walls,” she laughs.
Ebony would be remiss to not give props to her hometown where she now gets to fully pursue her dream, of course. “There’s no place like Buffalo. As much as I want to tour and see other places, my network is here. My support is here. Even if you’re starting over and finding new support, you’ll find it. You will find a group that’ll support you. And it’s great,” she said.
Catch Femme Noire Saturday, January 7, 2017, at Babeville’s Asbury Hall, where they will be featuring for bellydance troupe Fleuron Rouge. Tickets are on sale now.