Monday, January 22, 2018

A Conversation with Burlesque Performer, Siren Santina

Siren Santina is a burlesque performer, educator, and producer from Knoxville, Tennessee. Miss Santina has traveled throughout the country, performing at burlesque and vaudeville festivals from coast to coast including notable events such as The New Orleans Burlesque Festival, The Show Me Burlesque Festival, The New York Nerdlesque Festival, and The Burlesque Hall of Fame’s “Movers, Shakers, and Innovators” showcase. She made it reign as Queen of the inaugural  Southern Fried Burlesque Festival in Atlanta, GA and represented the United States at the World Burlesque Games in London, England. Siren is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Salomé Cabaret Burlesque Revue, Lead Instructor of the Salomé Cabaret Burlesque Academy, and Executive Producer of the Smoky Mountain Burlesque Festival.
You can find her on her website at www.sirensantina.com and on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) as sirensantina.

First things first, how did you get started in Burlesque?

Kismet. I didn’t necessarily go out and pursue burlesque. It came to me. I was an active participant in our local goth subculture. When a promotor from the community decided he wanted to have a burlesque performance as part of one of his special events, he started looking for people from within the community that had stage experience or interest in burlesque and pin-up culture. I was already known to him as a singer, and had spoken to him about how much I enjoyed a visiting performer with burlesque influence, so I ended up on his short list of folks to discuss the idea with. The rest, as they say, is history!

What is the biggest misconception about burlesque that you’d like to correct?

I think the most common misconception regarding burlesque that I encounter is the art-form’s relationship to “stripping” as we know it in today’s culture. Sometimes I encounter folks that consider burlesque to be the synonymous with the type of dancing seen in modern-day gentlemen’s clubs (i.e. “strippers” or “pole dancers”). I encounter others that are staunchly opposed to the comparison of the two art-forms, implying that one is better or worse than the other and that both are entirely different animals. The truth is that the art-form exists somewhere in the middle. I believe it is important to be aware of the art-form’s history. Burlesque dancers in the art’s heyday WERE adult-industry entertainers. While their performances may have been less risqué than those of today’s exotic dancers, they were no less a part of the sex work industry of that time. I like to explain the difference like this: “Strippers” are performing to the audience’s definition of seduction, a set of unspoken standards often driven by the male gaze. “Burlesque Dancers” are often performing to their own interpretation of the same thing, highlighting what they personally find attractive or arousing about themselves regardless of how it fits into society’s beauty standards. Are the two different? Yes, they can be. I, however, don’t find them to be nearly as disparate as some people describe.

Tell me about your first burlesque performance.
 
My first burlesque performance was a bit of a “trial by fire” experience. I began performing in 2006, while the neo-burlesque movement was still relatively young. While there were developed communities practicing the art-form in larger cities, the resources available to us here in the conservative Southeast were extremely limited. There were no shows being produced that we could attend for inspiration. There were no classes being taught. We built our material based on written accounts of live performances and clips of vintage stag films from the internet.
I had been approached about performing in Knoxville’s first burlesque show based on my stage experience as a singer, and it was my intention to provide live vocals while other more confident performers disrobed. This was a common format of the vaudeville and variety show striptease I had encountered in my research. When our big group act was complete, the emcee started introducing each performer from one side of the stage to the other. As each name was called, the performer ripped off an extra part of their costume and took a bow for the audience. This improvised reveal sent me into a panic. I was not prepared to take my costume off and I was embarrassed by my size at the time. When my name was called, I made the split second decision to follow the pack. I ripped my skirt off and braced myself for the backlash of the audience. To my surprise, my plus-sized pantslessness was met with applause and adoration.
I was approached by a multitude of audience members after the show, many of which were also plus-sized or otherwise unconventionally shaped women. All of them expressed gratitude and pride in my participation, in my bravery, in my confidence. I realized in that moment how important it was that I had taken off my skirt. Although I had felt terrified and insecure I had sent a message to those watching that my body (and others like it) was beautiful, desirable even, and deserving of sharing the spotlight with those more closely resembling society’s ideal.

Tell me who/what inspires you from the following:

Old School Burlesque:
I am inspired by the glamour of old school burlesque in general. Finding recorded performances of classic burlesque starts can be challenging. Many were never recorded, and those that were have often had the original musical accompaniment replaced with jarring or disconnected generic canned music due to copyright concerns. Jennie Lee, founder of the Burlesque Hall of Fame museum, is a favorite based on her contributions to the modern community. Candy Baby Caramelo was an inspiration to me as well, as comedic, singing burlesque performers were not necessarily the norm in the artforms heyday. I got to see her perform several times at the BHoF weekender in Las Vegas and always found her campy shtick to be sexy AND entertaining.

Neo-Burlesque:
I am routinely inspired by the innovation I see coming out of the neo-burlesque community. At this point there is a long and established history, with documented examples of art-form archetypes. I love seeing someone pay tribute to that history while applying their own unique spin. For example, Iva Handfull is known for performing fan dances to modern, electronic music. She uses the same traditional fan dancing movements, but alters the speed and affect to fit the more modern accompaniment. The result is a very different, non-traditional fan dance. I am also completely enamored by performers who have mastered another art-form and incorporate it into their striptease performance. For example, Mr. Gorgeous with hand balancing, Midnite Martini with aerial silks, and Roxi d’Lite with cyr wheel. I attempt to do that myself by incorporating my music talents into stripteases with live vocal accompaniment.

What Non-Burlesque sources inspire you?

I am inspired greatly by strong female entertainment personalities, particularly those specializing in comedy and/or music. Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Bette Midler, Vicki Lawrence, and Julie Andrews are particular favorites.

Do you make your costume pieces or buy them/alter them? 

I am the daughter of a retired Home Economics instructor and professional costumier, so the majority of my costumes are hand made. Some of my costumes are created to ready-to-wear bases, but all have at least some level of unique hand-crafted embellishment that help them to illustrate the creative vision of the piece for which they are created.
 
What is your favorite costume or piece?

My favorite costume piece is probably the tail skirt I use in my turkey trot act. It is an unusual and unexpected costume element that I collaborated with my mother to create. The skirt construction is based on a common peacock costuming trope. I hand-cut every single feather in the costume out of crafting felt, so it has a unique “elementary school theatrical production” aesthetic.

What’s your favorite burlesque moment (This can be past or present/yours or someone else)?

My favorite burlesque moments are almost exclusively surrounding the “legends” of burlesque, the women and men that were performing in the art-forms heyday that are still actively involved in the community as mentors, teachers, and (in some cases) performers. Every year at the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender in Las Vegas, NV the organization holds a panel where the attending legends speak about their lives and take questions. It is always impactful in many ways to hear these incredible individuals talk about their lives. Depending on the era in which they performed, their experiences were very different. Some speak about the glamour of the stage, others speak about the work ethic the burlesque lifestyle required. One message that is consistent amongst them all is female empowerment. Even those that performed only out of necessity to support themselves spoke about the independence the work provided them. Burlesque, in its early days and now, allows women to control how they present themselves to an audience, glorifies the beauty of womanhood in all its various forms, and demonstrates the power that women have to captivate… with as little as a ripple of chiffon or revealed wrist.

The best piece of advice I ever received was from one of the legends at this annual panel. She told those of us in the room “If you can’t fix it, feature it”. Those words echoed in my mind as I later watched her perform. Unable to walk or dance, she performed her act seated in a wheelchair. Rather than treating the wheelchair as a restriction interfering with her previous abilities, she utilized the chair as a prop. It might as well have been Dita von Teese’s giant martini glass they way she lovingly slid her legs across the arm rests to assist with her hosiery removal. She turned the focus of the wheelchair into a celebration of innovation rather than a hindrance or obstacle to navigate. I use that memory not only when facing challenges in my burlesque performance, but also when facing challenges in my day to day life.

What’s the funniest (or strangest) burlesque experience you have had?

I think one of the funniest moments in my burlesque career was rather early on. I was debuting a new act in which I sang a song with some quite suggestive and inappropriate lyrics. I looked out into the audience and was surprised to see one of my college professors sitting close to the stage. As I walked out to great him, I heard a familiar voice. I turned to find my mother as another surprise attendee to the show. The two of them ended up sitting together, chatting about some of my collegiate vocal performances, both excited that I would be singing in the show that night. When it came time to perform I was extremely nervous. What would my professor think about my song choice? Would the graphic sexual lyrical content embarrass my mother. I found out near the end of the first verse, shortly after dropping my fourth or fifth musical “f-bomb” when my mom screamed out in a moment of silence “THAT’S MY DAUGHTER!!!” I couldn’t help but laugh, and neither could the audience. I did them both proud that night, in a weird and awkward way.

Tell me about a time your act went awry.  How did you overcome it?

My acts have gone awry on several occasions. I love to create authentic, organic performance experiences and structure my material in a way that leaves room for improvisation. My performances are tailored to each specific audience and their unique energy and response. For the most part, when something doesn’t work in an act the way it is supposed to it creates an opportunity for me to react in real time and add completely unplanned elements to my performance. Some of the most magical moments of my career have happened in those situations.
Other times stage accidents haven’t been so happy. Relatively early on in my burlesque experience I gave a performance in which I severely injured myself. Part of the act included me cutting through some fake blood capsules that were bandaged to my wrists atop of steel safety plate. For this particular performance I had forgotten my safety plate at home. Thankfully, one of the other performers was able to secure me a solid metal guard and I continued with my act as planned. When I approached the stage effect in my act, muscle memory took over. I glided the knife through the blood capsules as usual, but then felt a snap. It took my brain a couple of seconds to understand what had happened. The blade had slid off the side of the plate and cut through the side of my arm. I looked into the audience and yelled “I cut myself!” The audience roared with applause, thinking it was all part of my act. I screamed again, “No, really. I cut myself. Does anyone know where the closest hospital is?” I then proceeded to step out into the audience and directly into the car of a front row volunteer. I headed to closest emergency room and endured the most awkward medical experience of my life.
Needless to say, that act has since be retired and I now teach a class to help students safely navigate performances and respond to unexpected challenges as they arise on stage.

What’s your favorite move?

My favorite moves are the old standard bumps, grinds, and peels. At burlesque’s height in popularity, stripteases were performed to accompaniment by a live band. Musical elements, particularly those performed by the percussionist, were used to accent the dancer’s movements. In today’s burlesque performances, which are often accompanied by recordings, the reverse can be applied. Bumps are perfect for quick percussive accents, grinds for repeated motives, and peels for long legato melodic elements. I use these choreography elements intentionally to emphasize musical cues and parallel compositional elements, effectively creating that same collaborative effect between myself and the music that was present in traditional performances.

Do you have any other extracurricular activities besides burlesque that might surprise someone?

I am a classically trained singer, originally focused on choral performance and direction. I occasionally belt out an operatic aria for a burlesque show, but more commonly use that skill to incorporate showtunes or jazz standards into my performance. This year I have also started to experiment with drag performance, focusing on gender illusion and exaggeration. This allows me a platform to express my femininity in a way that depends more on my general appearance and mannerisms than my actual physical form. It has been a similarly insightful experience of self-discovery.  

What do your family and friends think about your burlesque?


I am lucky to receive a great deal of support in regards to my burlesque. My mother attended my debut performance, collaborates with me on costume design and construction, and frequently suggests songs or concepts for performance. I have been doing this for such a long time now, most of my closest friends have become part of the burlesque community themselves – either as fellow performers, producers, or dedicated fans.

Do you associate the body-positive movement with your work, or is it simply burlesque for the glory of burlesque?

I definitely associate the body-positive movement with my work. The neo-burlesque community does such an amazing job of glorifying performers, regardless of their size, age, gender expression, or personal interpretation of what is sexy. One of the most fulfilling parts of my personal experience has been teaching and mentoring new performers and observing their journey to the stage. Watching as students discover their best assets and ways to creatively showcase them is an inspiring experience. As each performer’s confidence builds, so does my love of the art-form.

What one piece of advice would you give to rookies thinking about trying burlesque?

My advice to a new performer would be to remember that BURLESQUE IS SUBJECTIVE. There are quite a few highly opinionated voices in the burlesque community at large, and sometimes those voices can be discouraging. The most appealing aspect of this art-form to me is the creative control that each individual performer has, and it is important to remember that in the end there is no right or wrong way to perform burlesque. Yes, take feedback from your peers. Yes, learn from your mentors and take their advice into consideration. But also, create art that YOU find fulfilling. Don’t let another person’s idea of what burlesque is or isn’t determine how you express yourself on stage.

Is there something you would like to add that I’ve not asked?

No, I think you covered A LOT. I’m so excited to see you embarking on another project! Things have changed in our group dynamic since you left. If you ever feel inclined to stop back by and see if you’d be interested in stepping into the occasional performance, PLEASE DO!

 Will you tell us where we can see you perform?

You can see me perform regularly with the Salomé Cabaret Burlesque Revue. Show schedule and ticketing information is available at www.salomecabaret.com


Thank you so much for taking the time, Siren. I want to say that not only are you an excellent performer, you are one of the most welcoming audience members I’ve ever seen. Your face watching others at work whether they be rookies or pros is always one of appreciation and pride. That is a rare thing!

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