Jean Idelle, often called “the Sepia Sally Rand,” was the first black exotic fan dancer. She was active from 1950 – 1963 and performed internationally during a time of intense segregation. Jean was instrumental in integrating whites-only dance clubs. Her famed fan dance broke racial barriers long before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and she was known to travel with a chauffeur and security guard for protection.
Jean was discovered at 20 years old by a Broadway talent agency while attending the famous Katherine Dunham School of Dance. Although she had never even laid eyes on a burlesque show, she began working with a choreographer who trained her to become a burlesque fan dancer.
She soon became the headlining attraction at Minsky’s Rialto Theatre in Chicago and other top nightclubs throughout the United States and Canada, earning approximately $12,000 a year (the equivalent of roughly $125,000 today). Her thrilling performances garnered standing ovations, and she was featured in Jet, Hue, and Our World magazines, among many others.
Jean Idelle retired from burlesque in the 1960s and married Bill Holliday, who was famous in his own right for being a prominent trumpet player, ventriloquist, and balloon-twister (see a vintage photo of Jean surrounded by his balloons here). When they both were active in burlesque, Bill and Jean often toured together. Holliday was the only black man in the entire cast and the master of ceremonies in Jean’s troupe.
In June 2012, Jean Idelle was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame. At 82 years old, she performed for the first time in decades at the Titans of Tease showcase. During the Weekender, she also taught “The Art of Performing with Ostrich Feather Fans”.
In 2013, Jean was featured in the Burlesque Hall of Fame exhibit “Not-So-Hidden Histories: Performers of Color in Burlesque”. She’s been honored by the American Heart Association, and she’s been featured in the 2013 Emmy award-winning television segment “The Jean Idelle Story” and the 2015 film “Getting Naked”.
Many details of Jean’s life were revealed in this 2013 news article