THIS weekend, watch a star-studded lineup of burlesque dancers perform their heart out in Savannah’s favorite haunts.
The inaugural Savannah Burlesque Festival features 60 performers, including burlesque royalty Dirty Martini, Jeez Loueez and Gabriella Maze.
The festival, already international in its first year, has been in the works since co-producers Rebel Belle and Rita D’LaVane founded the Savannah Sweet Tease Burlesque Revue five years ago.
They’ve got a lot of strong local support, with Wax and Wane serving as the presenting sponsor and additional sponsorship provided by Lulu’s Chocolate Bar, Green Truck Pub, Savannah Slow Ride, and Moon River.
Volunteers from the Sweet Tease, House of Gunt, and Tied and Tasseled Fetish Cabaret are also helping the festival run smoothly.
We talked to Belle and D’LaVane last week.
Tell me about the inception of the Savannah Burlesque Festival.
Rebel Belle: When we first started the Sweet Tease, about a year into the conception, more of us started attending festivals. Number one, there's not a lot of Southeastern festivals to begin with, but there are a lot of really talented performers in the area. People just don't know they exist. The point of festivals, first and foremost, is to celebrate burlesque and bring it into the forefront, but secondly, it's a great way for performers to network with each other. The only way these Southeastern performers are getting noticed is traveling to festivals in other places. I'm like, we need to have one here so those performers can be seen, but also so people from other states can come and see what we have to offer as well.
Rita D’LaVane: There were people saying, “We wish Georgia had a festival,” and we felt the same way, but we knew that ultimately, we wanted to be able to grow into being able to host one. That happened by putting ourselves out there and networking and traveling and performing, but also submitting to other festivals ourselves to go see how everything was run and how people do that and what it looks like.
Belle: When we decided this was something we wanted to do, we wanted to pick and choose what we like and didn’t like. For our festival, I’d say the majority of it is stuff we’ve nit-picked from other festivals [laughs].
D’LaVane: Everything has been a learning experience from the beginning. We took our experiences and began to brainstorm together and make it unique to Savannah.
What did you learn from other festivals that you used for this festival?
Belle: Our festival is really modeled after the Smoky Mountain Burlesque Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. We have become a sister festival to them; we've helped cross-promote for them. Their attention to detail and organization is super strong down to the way they run their backstage and their kittening crew. We have two of their producers as our stage managers, and I'm really excited to have them. They have a firm grasp—they've been doing it for three years now. It is a huge undertaking. Since the summer I've been putting in an hour to three hours a day on this festival, in addition to my jobs and being a mom.
D’LaVane: We wanted to be able to offer a well-rounded weekend full of classic burlesque and neo-burlesque and things that are more subversive and nerdlesque—get it all in there. That’s very much how we are as a troupe. We’re a bunch of different kinds of personalities and we wanted to have a very inclusive experience and offer space to POC performers and queer performers.
Belle: Our festival is going to be just like the Sweet Tease are: well-rounded. We have all kinds of performers. Our festival is not sexist, sizeist, racist, ageist—it has a little bit of everything, but the one thing all these performers have in common is they’re insanely talented. We got almost 200 applications, and we were only able to accept 60 performers. You’re looking at the top 40 percent of applications—and they were all great.
Your headliners include some of the biggest names in burlesque.
Belle: Where we spent our money was the headliners. We wanted people to see who these headliners are. We have Dirty Martini, who is the number one burlesque performer in the world. She won Miss Exotic World 2004. She is one of the pioneers of neo-burlesque, one of the people responsible for bringing back burlesque and making it a thing again.
D’LaVane: She tours with Dita Von Teese. Without a doubt, we wanted her. She’s someone that both Rebel and I have idolized in burlesque ever since we knew what that was.
Belle: Then we have Jeez Loueez, who is amazing. She produces her own festival and her own all-POC-performer show called Jesus Juke Joint.
D’LaVane: Not only is she an amazing performer, but her mission is to highlight and showcase other POC performer through her own productions. Doing that, just alone, is enough for me to love her and what she does, and she’s a fucking amazing performer.
Belle: Gabriella Maze is a legend. Legends are women who were performing in the 50s and 60s and 70s who still perform. We owe it to them to give them work and show people that they are still the deal, man. These ladies can perform. They paved the way for us. People need to see them and know who they are.
What can attendees expect from the festival?
Belle: Moon River is brewing us a signature festival beer called Sparkle Britches. It's a peach golden ale with edible glitter. They're tapping that beer on the Friday before the festival and then having a pre-party here on Wednesday. We're going to have a couple performers walking around telling people about the festival. You'll only be able to get that beer at Moon River or at our Saturday night show.
D’LaVane: Thursday is the Dirty South Soiree, a warm-up to the rest of the weekend. It’s a nice little mix of everything you’re going to see for the rest of the weekend. Ford Fatale is emceeing that night. Friday is a double-feature night, Freaks and Geeks, so there are two shows. The Freaks showcase is something that offers more avant-garde burlesque, and the Geeks showcase is nerdlesque stuff. There’s an Evil Dead routine, I’m doing a Hormone Monster routine. Fancy Feast is emceeing and performing.
Saturday is the main event, so it’s all the most dynamic performers that have been invited to perform. Dirty Martini is headlining, Jeez Loueez will be on. The featured guest emcee is Blanche DeBris.
Belle: Both Fancy Feast and Blanche DeBris have emceed for the Burlesque Hall of Fame—they are the real deal. They’re awesome.
Your headliners are also teaching classes. What’s the importance of including classes at burlesque festivals?
D’LaVane: You have people who are noteworthy within the industry for obvious reasons coming to perform for your event. Of course you want to be able to have some time where you can learn something from them that they've learned through their own experience. It's good to take a class from someone like Dirty. Learning from another and supporting one another and paying for classes is another way we can thrive and exist while putting the information out there and trying to teach other.
Belle: Jeez Loueez’s class is the Honey Badger Technique because she’s the Honey Badger of Burlesque. It’s a class on killing it onstage and learning to take what you want and dish it all back to the audience, giving the audience your sex. A class like this, committing to character—that’s all confidence. I feel like that kind of class is great for someone who loves going to see burlesque and loves the way that performer makes them feel. No matter if they don’t have dance experience, what age they are, what sex they are, what color they are—taking this class is a way to get that feeling.
I’m doing a contemporary dance class. It’s mostly dance-based and I talk about you can use contemporary dance in burlesque, but it’s not just for burlesque dancers. Another reason people come to festivals is for class opportunities.
D’LaVane: People ask us, “How do you get into burlesque? What do you do? What are the steps?” I always say, “If there’s a class anywhere you live, take it!” It’d be something I would do. That would be the first step.