Seattle’s Iva Handfull, 2013 Queen of the Kansas City Burlesque Festival, talks musicality, fierceness, impersonations, BurlyCon, accounting, Prince and more.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
Q: You’re known for your fierce, edgy and high energy performance style and every time I see you onstage I wonder about your background. You started performing burlesque in 2007 after graduating from Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque, but I’d love to know more about the creation of the Iva we know today. Do you have background in theater? Dance? What led to you enrolling in the academy?
A: I have no formal dance training, unless you count the year of dance classes I took when I was around 13. I’ve just always loved to dance. In high school, I was in Marine Corps Junior ROTC where I convinced them to have a dance-a-thon as a fundraiser, where people donated money based on how many hours we’d dance. Ever since I could sneak into nightclubs, I’d arrive right when they opened and dance until they closed. Often, there’d be a few people along the sides of the dance floor watching me dance. I believe my “hamness” came from my grandfather, Hubcap Charlie. He performed around Northwest Indiana with the Knights of Columbus, singing, pantomiming, clogging, and dancing at nursing homes, festivals, and parades.
I only want to be me on stage and perform what I want to, so theater hasn’t been of interest to me. I’ve never been in a troupe – the thought never even crossed my mind, although I’m an ancillary member of Stripped Screw Burlesque, since our styles are similar and they lovingly allow me to guest in their shows often. I will only dance to music I love and create acts that I’d love to perform for decades to come. I would say that when I’m on stage, it’s me put to a soundtrack. Many people are surprised by how quiet or subdued I am off stage. It’s because there’s no soundtrack playing!
I think the fierceness and high energy on stage comes from my love of Industrial music (pre-Goth). Industrial music mixed rock, electronics, screaming, angst (although I’m not an angry person), and sometimes hip hop and/or dance beats. Industrial fashion was very individualist, unlike Goth (at least to me). This genre of music is still at the core of my being. Musicality is of the utmost importance to me. Hitting beats and keeping up with the song tempo is second nature. As part of my subconscious, I think of my acts as a music video for the song; and when I’m on stage I feel like a rock star. In fact recently, I’ve found myself sort of standing on the edge of the stage, leaning out toward the audience, as rock stars often do. I try as hard as I can to blanket the audience with energy.
I learned about Burlesque and Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque at the first Burlesque show I saw in Seattle, WA – Tamara the Trapeze Lady’s Columbia City Cabaret, entertained by performers like Tamara the Trapeze Lady and Chica Boom. I sat on the edge of my seat the entire show, dying to know how to get involved in this art form. I checked in with the door person, Pidgeon Von Tramp, and she told me about the Academy of Burlesque. I signed up for the next 6-week Burlesque 101 course, which started on my birthday!
Q: I’m very curious to know about your process of developing an act from start to finish. Your movements always seem so precise and calculated, yet you balance it perfectly with your high energy so you never seem robotic. How do you achieve this balance?
A: I think the high energy, precise, and calculated movements come from my musicality and love of spreadsheets and detail. Once I’ve chosen a song and concept (most of my concepts lately have been to just dance the hell out of a song), I open a fresh Excel spreadsheet, copy the song lyrics from an Internet search, and begin breaking the song down generally to each beat or lyric. I record the start and stop time (ex: 0:01 – 0:10) of each beat, lyric, or small section of the song, the feel of the music at that section (ex: fast, hard, slow, breakdown), and the corresponding lyric and/or music sound.
As I mentioned prior, I will always follow the feel of the music and think of myself as creating a music video for the song. After I have an idea of the act, or sometimes before I have any idea of the act I want to create, I meet with my costumer Jamie Von Stratton. We search through high fashion magazines, couture fashion designer books, and runway videos for costume inspiration. I find the coolest way to show off and eventually take off the costume by looking at all angles and movements I can make while wearing the costume. Between removing costume pieces, I throw in ways to interpret how the song feels to me, as well as 10-30 seconds of what we call “Iva dancing” which is how I would dance to the song at a night club. In the spreadsheet, I also record each body part’s movement and sections of the act that need specific facial expressions. Since I’m fairly androgynous, I tend to lean toward male stripper moves instead of traditionally female sensual moves, for example in my “Relax” Marlboro Woman cowboy act. I still feel totally feminine on stage, but to me traditionally male moves are way more fun to execute and work better with the songs I love. Following that theme of “individualism”, I sometimes take private lessons from other performers for their feedback, ideas on how to fill in blank spots in choreography, interpret a portion of the song, or learn a technique I’m not familiar with. I do not take group classes, as I don’t remember what I learned and I’d just be taking notes the whole time (you’ll see me taking tons of notes during group classes at BurlyCon). In order to really get my creative juices flowing, I have to work under time constraints and usually finish the act from between a few days and one day before the show I plan to perform it in. I am now very self-aware of this and warn show producers.
Q: Your performance repertoire is one of the most versatile I’ve seen; your unconventional fan dances to Firestarter and Psalm 69 are crowd favorites, your burlesque “impersonation” acts include Prince, Annie Lennox, David Bowie and more, and you also have a number of nerdlesque acts including a hilarious Napoleon Dynamite impersonation, Ivy Valentine from Soul Calibur, Spike from Buffy, and many more. Were many of these acts created to fit a show with a specific theme or based on some other inspiration?
A: Most acts are not created with a show in mind. My signature number, Firestarter, was created based on the idea that this song by Prodigy felt like it should be performed with fans. The only way to exert as much energy and strength the song holds seemed to be through fans. Psalm 69 was similar; listening to the flow of the music, it feels to me like it should be performed with fans. One key fan dance lesson I learned from The Shanghai Pearl is to use the fans as an extension of my hands. That’s exactly what I do.
I usually shy away from themed shows unless I already have an act that fits; because in general, I won’t create an act for other people’s ideas or a theme that’s too specific where I cannot perform it elsewhere. But there are exceptions (there are always exceptions)! For example, Stripped Screw Burlesque asked me to create a Cruella de Vil act for their annual Disney After Dark Burlesque shows, that was a no-brainer. Science & Smooches Productions produce an annual fundraiser show for Seattle’s Geekgirlcon, a show centered around video games. One of the producers, Steven Stone, said that I looked like and had the energy of Ivy Valentine from Soul Calibur. I watched him and my husband play the game and decided it would be a cool act to create. I created the act in a way where I could perform it at just about any burlesque show and market it as a general video game character act and most of the audience would understand it. Jo Jo Stiletto produces Whedonesque Burlesque and asked me to perform an act as Spike from Buffy. After watching hours of Buffy, I decided I would take on this challenge and create the act. My Spike act is the only act I don’t think I can perform at just any burlesque show, as a general audience might not understand who I am and what the significance of my movements are.
I have grown quite a repertoire of impersonations – Prince, Annie Lennox, Billy Idol, David Bowie, Cruella de Vil, Napoleon Dynamite, Spike, and Ivy Valentine. Impersonations are so fun to me and are just as hard to create as a regular Burlesque act. Above, I’ve mentioned individualism over and over and honestly, this still stays with me when I impersonate people. There’s always a part of me on stage with the artist I’m impersonating. Regarding specific impersonations, I always say “who doesn’t want to be Prince?” I mean really? He’s such his own being, and it’s so exciting to replicate his moves. It took me 8 hours to learn Napoleon Dynamite’s 2-minute routine. Annie Lennox and Billy Idol are no brainers to pull from my personal look and style. People have asked me to impersonate David Bowie for years and I’ve always said no, until recently when I teamed up with Ernie Von Schmaltz as Freddie Mercury in a duet to “Under Pressure”. It’s extremely important to choose people to impersonate who are entertaining on stage and have signature moves. David Bowie is entertaining, but he really doesn’t “do” anything on stage, he doesn’t need to because he’s just that cool. So, I thought the only way to impersonate David Bowie, without boring the audience after about a minute because I’m just standing there lip syncing, was a duet as David where I could interact with another performer. Our duet came so naturally and was a huge hit!
Q: Just this year you were crowned Queen of the Kansas City Burlesque Festival – congratulations! What act did you perform? What were some of your favorite memories from the event?
A: I performed my Firestarter fan dance. I hadn’t submitted it specifically to perform in the competition but that’s where the show producers placed the act, and I was lucky they did. We didn’t know what the judges were scoring us on, but we learned of those categories after we performed. If I remember correctly, at least two were stage presence and costume, but I don’t remember the others.
As when competing for Best Debut at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, when I compete, I try not to think of it as a competition. My goal always is to entertain the audience and that’s what I strive to do.
Before I discuss the festival itself, I want to explain why I came to Kansas City in the first place. During BurlyCon, I meet awesome people from around the country and world. Two performers who stood out as amazing human beings were Sweet Louise and Goldie Goldstein from Kansas City. They do not produce and aren’t specifically part of the Kansas City Burlesque Festival, but they are 100% the reason I came to Kansas City. They are the nicest, most welcoming, ladies you could ever meet. Talk about the power of awesome people to draw you to a city!
Some of my favorite memories of the event are from both the festival itself and exploring Kansas City. I watched Burlesque Legend and actress Stephanie Blake perform and was blown away! She can get up from the floor through a backbend! She was one of the Queen competition judges and I was tickled pink to be judged by the woman who played the naughty singing telegram nurse from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. On Friday night, I saw Lady Jack from Chicago, one of the festival headliners, perform a beautiful serpentine number that made my jaw drop to the floor. I immediately asked her to come to Seattle to perform in Seraphina Fiero and I’s annual two-woman show called Relentless. I met Dangrrr Doll from New York and we are now friends. I also love having Damian Blake as King of the festival. Venturing around the city, I spent a day with Xander Lovecraft from St. Louis shopping for jumpsuits, vintage neckties, and eating Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ. I can’t wait to go back in 2014 to crown the next queen and enjoy the entire event and weekend.
Q: I think many who don’t know you would be surprised to discover that in contrast to your fierce persona, you are a certified public accountant in your day job – a career that sometimes gets a bad rap for being boring. I have to ask – what made you want to pursue being a CPA? Do you find it exciting or is it “just a job”?
A: I loved Accounting in high school. It was fun, involved easy numbers as I like to call them (add, subtract, multiply, divide and not much more), and was methodical while also involved problem solving and detail. After high school, I first went to college for court reporting; but then at 21 years old, decided to attend Indiana University Northwest in Gary, IN for Accounting. I’ve never worked for a large accounting firm and never wanted to and actually didn’t do accounting but went into Finance instead – not the kind of Finance with stocks, interest rates, and etc but the kind where you create financial forecasts and budgets for companies. An easy way to explain the difference between Accounting and Finance is that Accounting looks back at the numbers and records what happened already and Finance usually looks to the future to predict what will happen in the business financially.
I studied and obtained my CPA license just because it looks good on a resume and people seem to trust you more when you are a CPA, although many CPAs don’t actually keep up with their licensure and still use the title. As a Finance Manager, I didn’t need the CPA licensure, but since I’ve changed careers over to Accounting, it’s very helpful to be a CPA and the classes needed to keep an active license are now relevant to my career. Accounting and Finance are exciting to me. I love numbers, I love detail (as you’ve read regarding how I create an act), and I love finding ways to make businesses more money, save money, and grow financially.
Q: Speaking of, congratulations are in order, because I hear you just got job bookkeeping at an art gallery, which means you’re now officially working full-time for the arts! You must be so thrilled! Tell us what this means for you as an artist.
A: If you would have asked me about whether I thought it’d be a goal or it’d be cool to work in the Arts prior to me becoming a Burlesque performer, I’d ask you why that mattered and why is this question even coming up, because I wasn’t part of the arts at all.
Since becoming a Burlesque performer, I have an appreciation for the arts, artists, and how are everyone works so hard to create fresh, exciting ideas and almost never receive raises, health benefits, or bonuses for their efforts, but yet art is extremely important to all parts of society.
Since I started my bookkeeping business in August, I’m now a bookkeeper for a Seattle theater nonprofit, a fine art gallery, specializing in blown glass, an event space, and of course my own burlesque and rhinestone tie business. I love that I’m immersed in art day and night now. It also allows me to not “feel bad” when I need to leave early to get ready for a show or travel for a festival or performance gig. Since I’m hourly as a bookkeeper, it gives me to flexibility to still get my client’s work done and do everything I want to do as a performer and artist.
Q: You’re the co-owner of Haute Under the Collar, which has been selling fabulous rhinestoned ties since 2010. How did you get started and how have things evolved over the years? What are the plans for the future?
A: My friend, and co-owner, Miss Elaine Yes and I started Haute Under the Collar (HUTC) because we noticed a deficiency in raffle prizes and shopping opportunities suited for men, as well as women who dress masculine, at Burlesque shows. We first rhinestoned ties for friends and family members and have since grown it into a business. Haute Under the Collar is now a brand name in the Burlesque community, which is such an honor. We sell not only hand-rhinestoned neckties and bow ties, but also vintage cufflinks and tie bars. We love each tie individually so much that it’s sometimes sad to see them go.
One of our favorite things about this business is receiving tie donations from our clients! We love being able to rhinestone ties they no longer use, then offer these rhinestone ties at a lower price, since the tie was donated, and find them a new home.
We are evolving HUTC by continuously pushing ourselves to create new designs, ask our clients what kind of ties they’d like to see, and create custom orders. Up next for Haute Under the Collar is the January 2014 Offbeat Brides Bridal Expo in Seattle. Also, in 2014, we want to try exhibiting at an accessories or fashion wholesale expo.
Q: It’s well known that you have an affinity for Prince, and this year a monumental life achievement happened in which Prince beckoned you onstage while he was performing and you were dressed in your Prince costume at the time, right? I’d love for our readers to hear the full story.
A: I do have quite the affinity for Prince. He’s such an individual (there’s that word again), no one is like him, or even comes close. He’s a multi-talented artist that lives and breathes music. As mentioned earlier, I love impersonating him because he has such quirky, and of course sexy, facial expressions and dance moves.
Prince put on a set of smaller-venue shows in the spring 2013, which I got tickets for the moment they went on sale. Burlesque has taught me to always be ready, looking my best and never have regrets, so I chose to wear my purple velvet 1984 Prince costume, sparkle painted-on mustache, but leave the wig at home, opting for my regular mohawk. So, here’s the story.
Seraphina Fiero and I stood in line at 5:30, doors opened at 7 pm, so we did not get there that early. The venue’s green room bar was full of people who were there before us, some arriving hours earlier. The green room was supposed to get in before the regular line we were in; but the venue, or Prince’s crew, created an even more preliminary line. As we stood in line, a regular looking guy came up to us asking us about Prince, how many times we’ve seen him in concert, etc. He then gave us some wristbands to get in the preliminary line. Since I’m getting older, I didn’t believe this guy, so one of us stayed in line, while the other asked a bouncer about this “preliminary line”. Finding out that the preliminary line was in fact real, we took our spot as the first people in line.
I ended up being the first person into the entire show, even before people in the green room. We stood right in front of Prince’s mic, about 2 feet away from him, with only an amp between us. We watched him perform as if he was only playing for us. He was so close we could see his makeup in detail and even individual chest hairs. He is phenomenal to stare at for 1 ½ hours straight! He only played about 2 older songs, the rest were newer songs and 60s/70s rock songs; but the entire show was amazing. Prince’s guitar work was magical and so beautiful to experience up close. He had an all-female extremely hot band, who could play like crazy.
At some point in the show, Prince reached his hand down and I slid my hand over his. Then, during the second to the last song, a Jimi Hendrix song that morphed into a jam session, Prince motioned for me to come on stage. Being a performer myself, I wanted to be certain he meant for me to come on stage. I gave him a look to ensure that’s what he meant, and he did it again. I jumped on stage and started busting a move. Since Prince and his band were jamming, I jammed out as well. I always thought that if I were ever on stage with a celebrity musician, I would dance my heart out, instead of standing there dumbfounded while everyone screams at you to do something. Prince was facing the audience, playing guitar, so I just kept dancing. Seraphina said I was up there for about 20-30 seconds. Eventually, I thought it was rude of me to be dancing over on one side of the stage, so I made my way over to Prince. He said something, and I backed away a bit. A bouncer then took me off stage, tried to kick me out, then another bouncer told him Prince had waved me onto stage and I was able to stay. But, that was the end of the concert. I heard that during his 2nd Seattle show, he brought 4 people on stage; so the fact that I was on stage by myself makes the experience that much cooler.
Afterward, tons of people thanked me for jamming out on stage – doing what everyone else wishes they could have done. Outside, tons of people took photos with me, which was cool. The entire night was amazing!
The only regret I have is there are no video or photos, as Prince doesn’t allow photos or video at his concerts. I put out an ad on FB and posted to his fan site asking if anyone had a photo or video, but no luck.
Now it’s time to meet Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (who I always thought would be easier to meet than Prince).
Q: What’s next for Iva Handfull?
A: In November at BurlyCon, I’ll be teaching my first class ever. BurlyCon is a community-oriented professional growth and educational convention for the Burlesque community located in Seattle, WA. I’m teaching “This Class Goes to 11”, how to be fierce on stage. The idea of creating a curriculum and teaching is scary and exciting all at the same time.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: Nope, your questions were so good!