February 14, 2013

Sizzling Sirens fire up interest in burlesque

The elbow-length red gloves, gold garter belts and tasseled pasties conjure a bygone era of highballs and hepcats, of entertainers such as Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The elbow-length red gloves, gold garter belts and tasseled pasties conjure a bygone era of highballs and hepcats, of entertainers such as Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The sepia-toned vibe persists even when the chipper 1930s melody morphs into thumping hip-hop.

It was Super Bowl Sunday and Sacramento's Sizzling Sirens, self-proclaimed "leading ladies of burlesque," hoofed their hearts out at the Tower Theater in Roseville, shooting a video they hope puts them in their game's big show.

The 11-woman troupe, ages 21 to 43, brings its "good, clean, dirty fun" to Harlow's stage Thursday, where the women have been a recurring act since 2010.

Absent some cataclysm, their witty and wanton productions will continue indefinitely every third Thursday of the month at the same location.

"Performing live is like baking a cake from scratch using your own recipe and then feeding it to somebody and watching them enjoy it completely," said Jay Siren – nee Jessica Swanson – the troupe's founder and director. "It's wonderfully fulfilling."

Every Siren hopes the video of their tip-of-the- sequined-sailor's-cap to the Navy and their cheeky channeling of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. will earn them a chance to compete in June in the Burlesque Hall of Fame's Tournament of Tease in Las Vegas.

"With that number we just took all the things we love about vintage burlesque and transitioned it into something representative of our unique personality and flair," Swanson said. "That includes pop parody, political satire and sketch comedy, jazz, hip-hop and Latin dancing – all mixed with classic bump-and-grind and striptease.

"If you can dream it," she continued, "you can do it in burlesque."

Being a Siren is a full-time adventure for Swanson. She hails from Chicago with a background in business and theater. She considered herself solely a producer, but members of her troupe, which soon celebrates its fifth anniversary, hauled her onstage a couple years back, threatening to "mutiny" if she didn't sing, prance and peel with them.

"Now I can't resist being with them," she said. "The bonding is something we all cherish. And that directly translates into our performance. People can tell we're genuinely having a damn good time."

The other ladies winking, jiggling and shimmying with Swanson on this recent Sunday include an office worker, a bartender and a schoolteacher.

"We don't make any money. It all goes back into costumes," said Barb Hennelly, a graphic designer and mother of four. "At the root of it for me, is comedy. Without that, it would just be a bunch of hoochie mamas."

Resurgence to roots

Neo or New Burlesque has spent the past 20 years in a state of perpetual resurgence.

There are countless troupes and performers in cities across the country and on other continents.

San Francisco has the Hubba Hubba Revue, the Sin Sisters and the Twilight Vixen Revue, among other acts. In Chicago, the Dolls of Doom. There's the venerable New York School of Burlesque. The Posey Peep Show in Huntsville, Ala.; Bustout Burlesque in New Orleans; Bottoms Up in Indianapolis; London's Wam Bam Club; Gentry de Paris.

There are even male troupes, or "Sirlesquers," the Sirens laughingly call them.

Burlesque's return to pop-culture prominence has moved beyond the stage, influencing what many listen to on the radio and watch on big screens. The musical group Pussycat Dolls started as a burlesque troupe in the mid-'90s. A 2004 documentary, "The Velvet Hammer Burlesque," and 2010's "Burlesque," starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, flared interest enough to scorch Blaze Starr.

Why this rekindled love affair with a seemingly sexist, yesteryear diversion that was considered seedy even during its lascivious prime?

Partly, because for anyone under 30, burlesque is (relatively) new. It's risque. It's ribald. It's provocative, playful performance art.

In fishnets.

"There's always a sexual dimension" to burlesque, said John Kenrick, a musical theater historian whose offers an extensive and entertaining history of this "misunderstood genre," including its importation to the "colonies" by Lydia Thompson and her "British Blondes" in the late 1860s.

"Burlesque today echoes the past, but it's very much a fresh manifestation of a long-standing rule as old as entertainment, which is to make fun of the established or the overly important," Kenrick said. "We instinctively love to laugh at ourselves and burlesque allows us to do that."

But there's more than just humor at the Sirens' show. (Think revealing costumes and suggestive dancing, but no full nudity.) But they and other performers are quick to insist that New Burlesque is about empowerment, not objectification.

The Sirens talk about their troupe's diversity of body types and ages. They talk about how women outnumber men in their audience. They also talk about the positive way performing makes them feel.

New York City-based performer Dirty Martini (nee Linda Marraccini), an inspiration to the Sirens and a pioneer of New Burlesque, sees it this way:

"This is a form of art that's created by women, largely for women, in an industry filled with other women who as performers are making a statement to themselves and their audience.

"Objectification starts in a completely different place and a completely different industry. (New Burlesque) isn't at all about strip clubs with women hired by men to be part of a service industry built around the customer primarily being male."

It's not a stretch to say the Sirens are proud of their work. They devote countless hours each week creating costumes, brainstorming sketches and rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing.

"I was always interested in sewing, art and dancing, and burlesque combines all of them in one art form," said Niki "Indiana Bones" Kangas. "As a mother, it's also nice to have an outlet that makes me feel sexy again."

Built for laughter

Comedy – from parody to pantomime – is central to burlesque.

If there's any doubt, consider the Sirens' stage names.

Hennelly performs as "Skarlet Feverish." Troupe member Mary Haines, a personal trainer, yoga and Pilates instructor who teaches burlesque classes with Swanson at downtown Sacramento's Inspired Wellness, uses the sobriquet "Sass Herass."

Indeed, earthy and outlandish humor plays heavily into their performances, which have included routines that spoof holiday consumerism, as well as Catholic guilt and the homoerotic nature of comic book superheroes.

Their comedy is most definitely "burlesque," a French word meaning "grotesque parody," that first appeared in the 1600s. The more contemporary "variety show" concept of burlesque dates from the 1870s.

And while there was always some tease, the stripping was added in the 1930s as burlesque's popularity waned in the face of government crackdowns and later the lure of more explicit entertainments.

During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the satire and seduction of classic burlesque lost to straight skin. Topless, bottomless, all-nude-all-the-time strip joints pushed boas, balloons and brazen divas off the stage.

But in its heyday, American burlesque bolstered the careers of comedians Jackie Gleason, W.C. Fields, Al Jolson, Red Skelton and Phil Silvers, and its comedic style has lived on in entertainment such as "Saturday Night Live," "The Carol Burnett Show" and Mad magazine.

Now, generations later,burlesque is as bad and bawdy as it's ever been.

"It all comes back to that feeling of good, clean, dirty fun," Swanson said. "That's why burlesque will continue to go forward and evolve as our culture does."

Sizzling Sirens Present Good Clean Dirty Fun!

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Where: Harlow's Restaurant and Nightclub, 2708 J St., Sacramento

Cost: $20 reserve seating (limited presale); $10 general admission (standing room only)

Information:, (916) 441-4693;

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