Siren Santina, The Southern Songbird from Knoxville, Tennessee and Queen of the 2011 Southern Fried Burlesque Festival talks Salomé Cabaret, topless yodeling, the burlesque festival circuit, European burlesque aesthetics, and creative costuming.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
Q: You’re the co-founder and creative director of Salomé Cabaret. Would you tell our readers more about its creation and evolution over the years?
A: I founded Salomé Cabaret in 2008 with three of my best friends. All of us had been performing in the local burlesque scene and were looking to incorporate some of our other performance interests in our art form. By founding a “cabaret” rather than a burlesque-specific collective we were able to include more variety in our productions, highlighting the non-strip-teasing skills of our friends and cast-mates. Over time we began blending some of these unrelated talents into our burlesque repertoire, creating a kind of hybrid half-naked talent show. The result is a rather unique aesthetic with striptease acts containing puppets, tap-dancing, historical re-enactments, instrumental performance, hula-hooping, stage combat, singing, and biblical parody (just to name a few). The flavor changes as we collaborate with new artists and pick up new skills. Our base mission is to let performers be themselves on stage, and not restrict them with any preconceived notions of what burlesque should be. We have troupe members whose aesthetic is very traditional and we have performers that make pasties out of roast beef sandwiches. We accept and love them all just the same. Ours is an equal-opportunity stage.
Q: According to an article I read, you majored in music in college? Or was it voice? You performed opera and you also did musical theater, correct? These skills translated well into your burlesque career, didn’t they? I mean, it almost seems a no brainer! Was it ever challenging adapting those skills into burlesque performance?
A: I studied vocal performance and music education at the University of Tennessee School of Music. It was a definite adjustment moving to burlesque from an art-form with a tradition that is centuries old. Coming from a world with a historically-based definition of the “right” and “wrong” way to perform it took me some time to adjust to the idea of having complete and total creative freedom. I do try to incorporate my training into my performance and I often sing while I striptease. I try to be very careful in how and when I include vocal performance in an act, always aiming for it to be organic and purposeful. I never sing in a burlesque routine just for the sake of singing. The addition of vocals is always an intentional character choice or storytelling tool that enhances the concept of the act. Building my musical numbers around character has provided me with the opportunity to sing many different styles of music that would have been unavailable to me previously in my traditional performance outlets. I’ve stripped while belting out opera arias, classic torch songs, show tunes, and rock anthems. I’ve done topless yodeling and even arranged music for a “boob bell” choir. If my professors could see me now they would be either very proud… or very confused.
Q: You’ve remained remarkably busy in the national burlesque festival circuit. Care to recap some of the festivals you’ve done and share some of your favorite festival memories with our readers?
A: I LOVE burlesque festivals and in the past couple of years I’ve been to a bunch of them. Highlights include performances at The Colorado Burlesque Festival, Southern Fried Burlesque Fest, The Alabama Burlesque Festival, The New Orleans Burlesque Festival, and The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend (in 2011’s Movers, Shakers, and Innovators Showcase). I love seeing inspiring performances and making friends with kindred spirits from all around the world. The legends Q&A panel at BHoF is always the highlight of my Las Vegas trips. I was shocked at the 2009 panel to look over at my boyfriend and find him in tears. He looked back at me and said, “These women have led such amazing lives.” It was a very poignant moment for me, a highlight of my burlesque experience. To know that these legends have a story and a presence that can impact a relative outsider to the burlesque scene so strongly only reinforced my admiration for them.
Q: You recently made your international debut at London’s World Burlesque Games, and you said in a Q & A shortly after that it was “was very interesting to see the aesthetic variances—you could see how the performers’ cultures influenced their performances.” I would love for you to elaborate on the aesthetic variances that you saw as compared to the aesthetic that you would see at the average national festival here in the States.
A: The most obvious difference to me, perhaps as a musician, was the European preference to perform to multiple pieces of music in one act. The majority of performers I saw had a relatively “normal” length of time on stage (four to six minutes), but in that time they danced to three or four short snippets of songs. This worked to some performers’ advantage, allowing them to build upon their concept with each change of music. In other cases where the songs were less-related in theme it was a little jarring, but afforded performers the opportunity to display multiple styles of burlesque dancing in one act. There is also a strong aesthetic leaning towards vaudeville and variety, with many performers exhibiting additional talents in their acts. My final observation is something more difficult to describe. I want to say that the European performers displayed a more “reserved” type of sexuality, but I don’t think that is really the case. There was just as much skin on display. There were just as many sexually-driven movements. SOMETHING was just very slightly different. It was more coy, more modest somehow. Whatever this small difference was, I liked it. The dichotomy of simultaneous reservation and abandon was very effective. It was very Gypsy Rose Lee.
Q: Tennessee legend Dolly Parton is an inspiration of yours, specifically your “passion for music and large breasts.” I too am a Dolly fan (okay, and a breast fan!) but could you tell us anything more about your love for Dolly?
A: I wasn’t always a Dolly Parton fan. Growing up in Sevier County (Dolly’s birthplace and childhood home) I felt completely inundated by Dolly-mania. She was everywhere, from the guitar-wielding statue on the courthouse lawn to the seasonal labels of my favorite soda. If you drove down the highway fast enough the excessively frequent billboards for Dollywood (her Pigeon Forge theme park) turned into an animated flip-book of her face… I mean, not literally, but that’s how it seemed sometimes. I hated country music and I hated that my home was known for one of country music’s biggest stars. As I grew older I began to appreciate her more as a person. Her foundation does amazing public works for the community, like sending free books to every child and offering college scholarships to local students. Dolly as an individual publicly supports gay marriage and speaks out often on LGBT issues, preaching opinions which are not necessarily popular to promote in the buckle of the Bible belt. I also over time became fascinated by her image: her eccentric fashion sense and her penchant for wigs and plastic surgery. I personally identify with her gluttony for glamour and believe I have experienced, albeit on a much smaller scale, a similar rise to fabulousness from an unlikely cultural starting point. Dolly Parton made it okay for me to sashay around the Smoky Mountain foothills in fake eyelashes and five inch heels.
Q: In another interview you said, “I learned that simply wearing a smaller size wasn’t going to make me less concerned about my perceived flaws. I think this changed the way I thought about my figure. Instead of fixating on things about my body that I didn’t like, I started focusing on things about my body that I did like. I learned to feature my strengths and built my body confidence from there.” Do you have any other advice on this topic than you can offer our readers who struggle with body confidence?
A: One of the greatest things that burlesque has taught me is that everyone is beautiful. Some may be more conventionally attractive than others, but everyone has an allure of some kind to share. When I first started performing I had a lot of body issues. In my first show, in fact, I hadn’t planned to share very much of my body at all. I was part of a group number and I was really more of a featured singer than a stripper. I took a couple of things off, but ended the number mostly clothed. I remember the panic I felt as the emcee started the curtain call and each performer ran to the front of the stage and took off one additional garment. As he neared my name in the line-up I went through a mental checklist of what I was wearing. My mind found a physical flaw that needed to be hidden under each part of my garment. The time came for me to take my bow and I had to make a choice. In a split-second decision I went with the part of my outfit that came off the easiest and ripped open my skirt, exposing my aesthetic Achilles heel to the masses. I waited for a backlash of booing from the audience that never came. In a moment where my brain told me I should be ashamed and embarrassed, my heart felt pure joy. I was free! Whether anyone liked it or not, I had thighs… big ones… and a butt too! The pictures of me from that night are absolutely ridiculous. I was drunk on my own ass. “Dropping trou” in front of 500 people wasn’t an instant cure-all, but it did go a long way in building my body bravery. And the rest eventually followed. An audience doesn’t notice in four minutes the perceived flaws that you’ve had years and years to fixate upon.
Q: Tell me more about the Salomé Cabaret Burlesque Academy – its formation, course offerings, and instructors. What have has the team learned since starting the academy?
A: The Salomé Cabaret Burlesque Academy is an effort started by troupe co-founder Kisa von Teasa and myself in an attempt to expand the burlesque community in our area. Our first group of students was comprised mostly of women wishing to build their self-confidence and supplement their seduction skills, but over time we began to attract students with an active interest in stage performance as well. Eventually the burlesque academy became a pipeline of fresh talent for the troupe. This semester we expanded our instructor staff to include troupe members Tiger Tangerine and Delinda d’Rabbit, offering our students several different points of view on burlesque artistry. Our course and workshop offerings cover standard topics like basic burlesque choreography and boa work as well as more specialized subjects like facial expressions and burlesque disaster recovery. We also work hard to arrange workshops by our special guest performers whenever possible.
Q: Your costumes are all handmade by either you or your mother, who you have described as “your biggest cheerleader” and you said that she “loves being part of the creative process.” Can you tell me about the development of your favorite costume to date? What about the most difficult costuming project so far?
A: When it comes to costuming concepts, the sky is the limit. I never have to ask myself “if” something can be done. I know if I am unable to create something I need for an act my mother, a home economics teacher and professional costumer, will know what to do. We’ve taken on some pretty unusual projects over the years, and enjoy the challenge and the process of creating a unique costume. My favorite costume to date is probably my “Turkey Trot” outfit. I spent hours and hours cutting out hundreds of feather-shaped pieces of fabric plumage. The look on the audience’s faces when I flip up my tail feathers and start shaking my sequin wattle is well worth the time and effort I put into the outfit. The most difficult costume I have taken on to date is my “Boobs” outfit. The concept was simple, but the execution was unexpectedly complicated. This costume too has a lot of hand-made, hand-sewn details including a skirt, top, and hat covered in scores of nipple-colored pastie polka dots. The costume also includes a convertible top that starts as a normal bra and transforms into pendulous knee-length faux-mammaries. We made this costume three or four different times before we found a shape and design that worked for the number.
Q: What’s next for Siren Santina?
A: World Domination.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: Yes, I’d like to add that none of this adventure could have been possible without the support and assistance of my friends: John and Dustin Camp and their daughter, James Owens.