Ophelia Flame, “the Burning Sensation” from Minneapolis and the recently named 1st Runner-Up Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2012, talks rebuilding, improv, competing in Helendale, her first set of pasties, the Twin Cities neo-burlesque scene and peacocks.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
Q: According to your bio you have been taking your “clothes off for friends, family and complete strangers for nearly twenty years” and you worked as a topless dancer in Minneapolis, Chicago, New Orleans and Las Vegas throughout the 1990s. You also studied various dance styles including flamenco, ballet, Latin and smooth ballroom, which makes you a force to be reckoned with! I was wondering, did the dance training come before you worked the club circuit or vice versa? Or did you take dance classes while working the clubs?
A: The short answer is… before, during and after. While I’m not a formally trained dancer, I’ve always been a student of dance. Like a lot of girls, growing up I took some tap, ballet and modern. Eventually I found and fell in love with ballroom dance, especially the Latin dances like cha-cha, tango, rumba and samba. I became a ballroom dance teacher just out of high school. Then in the early 90′s the gentleman’s club Solid Gold opened in Minneapolis. I knew a few dancers who started working there, but I swore I never would. Never say never! How I became a “Solid Gold Girl” is an entirely different story, but I did continue to take dance classes throughout my stripper days, including some Flamenco, which I adore.
Q: You were 1999 Miss Exotic World Runner-Up and competed multiple times at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Helendale prior to its relocation to Las Vegas. I’d like to hear your input on how the showcase has evolved since then.
A: The pageant has evolved a lot and it’s been exciting to be a part of it since the very early days. How I stumbled across Exotic World in 1999 is quite a story, actually. One of my friends from Solid Gold and I were hoping to find a museum of some sort that had burlesque memorabilia. We wanted to look at exhibits and learn a little more about our foremothers. We thought, “I wonder if something like that exists?” We looked online and found Exotic World. Of course we immediately said WE’RE GOING! A road trip was in order. I was able to connect with Stephanie Blake prior to the trip, and she was so helpful and amazing. When I got there, I was I blown away. These were my people! I had truly found my tribe. It was such a surreal juxtaposition of harsh sun and dirt, timeless beauty and brilliant color. It felt like John Waters or David Lynch could walk out at any moment and yell, “CUT!”
There were maybe 30 contestants in the pageant, which was held poolside. Each of us did two songs to recorded music or a live band. It took all day, and in the blazing hot sun! A lot of the legends were there like Daisy Delight, Tempest [Storm], Rubber Leggs, and of course our beloved Dixie [Evans]! And dear Charlie Arroyo was there. Catherine D’lish did a stunning peacock act with a birdcage shower. What?! I’d just died and gone to heaven! Even though it was a contest, I hadn’t considered winning. I was just excited to be on this crazy adventure surrounded by my beloved crazy, freaky weirdos. I had no idea what to expect performance-wise, so I just did what I’d have done at home at the club. Except I had never worn pasties! I attached a pair of rhinestone earrings and to a piece of fabric and stuck them on my boobs. I also used my Spanish paper fan. The crowd went wild, I got a big trophy and that was it. A monster was born.
I came back to perform in the pageant again in 2004, with as many people from Minneapolis as I could possibly invite. Five years later, the scene had exploded! That was the year Dirty Martini won. 2006 was the first year in Vegas, and though I’ll never forget those Helendale desert sunsets, it was exciting to have some control over the performances with proper stage lighting. (And air conditioning!) The following years progressed with some challenges but have always felt optimistic. I’ve had the privilege of performing for BHoF audiences numerous times, and though it may sound corny, each performance is an exciting new experience and thrill. I’m honored to be recognized as someone who consistently produces quality work.
Q: Speaking of the BHOF Tournament of Tease, congratulations are in order! You were named 1st Runner-Up Reigning Queen of Burlesque at the 2012 festival and your act was absolutely breathtaking. I read an excerpt about the preparation of the award-winning act, and not only did you work with a costumer based in Seattle (which would give most gals palpitations since you’re located in Minneapolis) but you also stated that it was the most personal act that you’ve ever done – one about triumph, personal reinvention and much more. Care to elaborate on those topics for our readers?
A: First, thank you so much. It means a lot to me! And second, well… I will say it was a big, legal, terrifying deal that required that I completely rebuild my life from seemingly nothing. While the story is dramatic, the details aren’t really the point. Life is really just a series problems and it’s your job to solve them. I managed to overcome some pretty great odds but it took a lot of hard work, a positive attitude and tons of love and support from family and friends. Three years later I’m stronger, bolder and more fearless than ever. Everyone should be so lucky to have an experience that empowers them to say, if I can make it through THAT, I can make it through anything!
Q: Last year marked the opening of the Playful Peacock Showgirl Academy in Minneapolis, which you co-founded with Gina Louise. I’d like to hear a little more about your partnership with Gina Louise. How was your first year in business? What’s in store for the future of the Playful Peacock?
A: Awwwwww…….Gina Louise. She is my dearest friend and simply one of the greatest people on the planet. Who wouldn’t want to start a business with someone like that!? I met Gina at an audition for a burlesque show nearly 10 years ago and we just had an instant connection. She’s one of the most hardworking, generous and dedicated people I know, with a seemingly endless well of creative ideas. As producers we have a sort of magical synergy, an intuitive creative process, and we make an awesome team!
We began teaching classes in 2005 simply because we love burlesque and thought others would want to learn. As our local scene and demand for more classes grew, we formalized our school as the Playful Peacock in 2011. The last year has been wildly successful and rewarding. We have the most incredible core group of students and we’re constantly inspired by them! Our classes are geared to seasoned pros, new performers and even people with no interest in the spotlight. In addition to our weekly classes, we have lots of amazing guest teachers and special workshops. Last year alone we had Miss Astrid, Gravity Plays Favorites, Lady Jack, Frenchie Kiss, Tila von Twirl, Ray Gunn, Minnie Tonka, Foxy Tann, Musette, Jo Boobs, Jonny Porkpie, and Miss Indigo Blue.
Q: Speaking of peacocks, I’ve read that you consider yourself “closely related to the peacock.” Why peacocks? I’d like to know more about your attraction to them and identification with them.
A: Are there people who don’t like peacocks?! I love peacocks and especially now that I’ve learned about them in relation to The Phoenix. While working on my latest act I did a lot of research on the mythological phoenix, in particular the partnership between the phoenix and dragon in Chinese culture and art. Fascinating!
Q: Your website mentions that you spent 10 years not knowing what song was about to play before going on stage and because of that, improvisation has become not only one of your greatest strengths, but also brings you a tremendous amount of joy, and that you typically don’t strictly choreograph your acts, but rather “theme” them to leave room for improv. Do you have any advice for performers who feel the need to choreograph every second and could use some pointers on improvisation?
Well, I should be clear. These days I do choreograph my acts… loosely. I start mostly with the entrance, ending pose, big hits and transitions. As time goes on it becomes more fleshed out, but I like to leave a little room for flexibility. I’d say it takes me at least a good 8-10 live performances before I really feel like I own the act. It’s really important to know your music at a visceral level, which is why your selection is super important.
Being able to improv is a great skill, but that’s not to be confused with just winging it. The piece still needs to be confident, intentional and soulful. The legends danced largely to live music and I’ve heard many of them cringe at having to dance to a recording. This is because performing to live music is as present and raw as it gets. If you have a good understanding of music and can communicate with live musicians, it’s really great. One isn’t inherently better than the other. Both can be incredibly moving, and there are benefits to rehearsing to a recorded track that will be exactly the same in performance. What’s important is that it feels and appears organic and real. I liken dancing to live music to jumping into a river. If you let go and allow the current to take you, the ride can be fluid and seamless – but if you fight it, you’ll flounder and possibly drown.
I feel the key to connecting with your audience is to imagine them as a trusted lover and remember you’re having a shared experience. It should happen organically with a natural flow that’s exciting and unexpected. Can you imagine choreographing every single sexual experience?! Weird, right? Strong performers are comfortable with the unexpected. I’ve seen burlesque performers tied to rigid choreography crumble when something unexpected happens. A flawless performance is great and it’s something to strive for, but I think it can be even more exciting when something goes wrong. It can be memorable and fun. You’ve gotta think fast and not panic. Who cares if your corset is stuck? You don’t just stop dancing and turn your back to the crowd. Because guess what? They can still see you, my little hedgehog! Your audience WANTS you to succeed. They’re rooting for you! Allow yourself to be present and share the experience even when – no, especially when – you can’t control it.
Q: You’re known as a founder of the Twin Cities neo-burlesque scene. I’d like to know more about the beginnings and its changes over the years.
A: Things have really blossomed in Minneapolis and St. Paul during the last decade. I’m fortunate to have found Exotic World in 1999 when the renaissance was happening in other parts of the U.S. That early experience combined with events in my personal life paved the way for me to become an important part of the Minneapolis scene. I was no longer satisfied with what was happening in the gentleman’s clubs, I had been searching for a new performance outlet, and in 2003 I met like-minded people at an audition for what became the first new burlesque troupe in Minneapolis. In 2004, I ushered the Lili’s crew to Exotic World where we all made connections we hold dear to this day.
In 2006-2008 our community was under great scrutiny due to archaic laws. This slowed our progress significantly. I know many other towns and cities who have dealt with this as well, and I understand your pain. But my fellow performers and I persisted. We tried as many creative solutions as we could muster: different types of gigs, private venues, playing games with semantics, not playing games with semantics, making phone calls, never giving up! We have the Ritz Theater to thank for opening their doors to us when no one else would, and helping us convince city officials that we are legitimate artists.
My observation is that the cities with established, thriving burlesque scenes share a few important features:
- Someone with an early connection to the budding national community (i.e., first TOR, BHoF in the desert, NYBF)
- Someone with an interest in the history of Burlesque
- A solid burlesque school with ties to the national scene
- A strong arts community
Minneapolis has all those things! It was a great day when I could no longer rattle off the name of every burlesque performer in a single minute, and now there are more burlesque troupes here than I even know. The so-called “high arts” are even starting to embrace us! Well, not always… but that’s okay with me. Taste and censorship are two different things, right?
Q: The Best of Midwest Burlesk Festival just had its fifth anniversary this year. What is your role in the festival?
I was a producer and creative consultant for the first three years of the festival, but I could never take credit without noting that like any huge production, it takes a village of hard working people to pull it off! The true creator of The Best of Midwest Burlesk Festival, however, was my business partner Gina Louise.
Until about five years ago, most of us Minneapolis folk were kind of floating in the Midwestern abyss. Because of our yearly sojourns to BHoF, our Lili’s crew actually knew more burlesque performers from Seattle than the entire Midwest. We wondered, is anyone else doing this in our region? And how can we get to know those gals from Chicago? We wanted to help burlesque in the Midwest grow. The decision to do a festival was a creative vision with a three-fold mission:
1. Unite our local Minneapolis community (which was somewhat divided)
2. Grow our regional community (helloooooo out there!)
3. Bring national awareness to the amazing performers and quality show production here in Minneapolis
Ding! 5 years later… SUCCESS!
Originally we figured it would be just us Midwesterners who wanted to attend. We hoped that the Chicago and St. Louis crews would join us, and we predicted that performers from Iowa, Wisconsin and the Dakotas would come out of the woodwork. We’re all used to the cold, can drive in a shitstorm of a blizzard, and will gladly rock a pair of heels through ice and snow. So who would have imagined that people from all across the country would apply and come to Minnesota in the dead of winter? Hilarious! I’ve heard some people complain and try to persuade us to move BoMB to the summer months. Many have said they wouldn’t come because it was just too cold. But I won’t apologize for that! Like it or not, our winters are what make us unique. We’re solid, dedicated people with cold hands, warm hearts, limitless hospitality and a zest for adventure. I think even the skeptics were beyond pleased with Minneapolis, and some of them even went sledding.
All good things must come to an end, and last year marked the final production of The Best of Midwest Burlesk Festival. That’s not to say there aren’t other new and exciting projects in the works, so definitely stay tuned!
Q: What’s next for Ophelia Flame?
A: I’m excited to have been invited back to Burlycon in Seattle again this year where I’ll get to teach several of my favorite classes, including “Calm The F*ck Down!” which is about overcoming stage fright. We have a big Playful Peacock show coming up September 15 at the Ritz Theater starring very special guests Roxi D’lite and Minnie Tonka! The show will also feature local performers, a new student group act, local comedienne Shanan Custer as our hostess, and musical guests Courtney McCLean & the Dirty Curls. It’s gonna be amazing! In October, Frenchie Kiss is coming to model for Dr. Sketchy’s and teach a class at the Playful Peacock. And in November we’re planning an incredible student showcase.
In the meantime, I’m in the middle of a crazy but exciting move. (Moving is always a big deal, isn’t it?) After 13 years, we recently sold our house and bought the swankiest party pad I’ve ever seen. I love entertaining and house guests, and I’ll just say that our new home has some incredibly unique features that Don Draper would approve of!