Over the last four years, the Savannah Sweet Tease Burlesque Revue has grown from a group of rag-tag, DIY dancers into a professional strip-tease troupe with more than just skin to share, while maintaining an original aesthetic that has proven successful.
In the beginning, founders Wendy Denney (Rebel Belle), Anita Narcisse (Rita D'LaVane) and Jessica Knapp (Miss CherryBox), conceptualized every aspect of the troupe's early shows. Pulling from each other's individual strengths, the three built the foundation of Sweet Tease by managing everything from the costume construction and choreography to the training of additional performers.
"When we started out, there wasn't anybody that necessarily had experience, as far as people we wanted to be a part of the troupe," Narcisse said. "We had to start out by showing them choreography and how to make costumes, or making stuff for them."
"We would come up with all of the acts and then cast the show," Denney added. "It just slowly evolved to the point where our performers had the confidence. It wasn't that they didn't have the ability. They didn't have the confidence."
This year when the group lost three members, a normal rotation for the evolving troupe, they were able to gain three new performers who all had previous experience. Fire-breathing, drum-smashing belly dancer Kami Sutra joined the award-winning crew, along with two other performers, Jane Holiday and Memento Mary, both of whom had prior theater and dance experience.
"All of them are super dedicated," Narcisse said of the new members. "At this point when we recruit, we're like, 'What are you bringing to the table other than the will to do this?'"
The success they've garnered over the years - most shows in their home venue The Jinx sell out - stems from a model not typically associated with burlesque. Embedded in the music community early on, Narcisse and Denney turned to their rock 'n' roll brethren for ideas on how to not only earn a following of fans, but also structure the troupe's operating mantra.
To attract new fans who were unfamiliar with burlesque, they would round out the entertainment bill with a band. For every Sweet Tease show in Savannah, they've had opening bands varying drastically in style and sound, ranging from metal to Americana.
"Maybe it's because we have a lot of friends in bands," Denney said. "That's all that we knew, was how they do it. When we were building tours, one of the people we talked to in the beginning was [Black Tusk bassist Jonathon] Athon. He was a good friend of ours. We were like, where do we go? What do we do? We wanted to stick to punk rock bars, because that's what we're used to."
Opening acts are one aspect of the Sweet Tease aesthetic, but everything from the programming to the merchandise has been constructed in some part like a punk band. Denney handles the troupe's programming, creating a feel that flows like a band's live set list. The troupe has sold T-shirts, playing cards and other merchandise to help fund tours and costumes.
"Wendy does a really great job with The Jinx lineup, making sure that each act builds anticipation for the next act," Narcisse said. "Sort of how a band would build a set. Wanting to keep the energy up throughout and ending very strong with a lasting memory."
Sweet Tease is also set apart from other burlesque revues by its own deep well of variety. All types of people are represented in their lineup, and everything from comedic parodies to LGBTQ identities are explored. They feature male performers as well, a concept that has garnered attention from an unexpected group of patrons.
"We also have guys with us," Narcisse said. "Some of these venues have never seen a guy perform in any sort of sexualized way. But they love it."
"Straight dudes love Buster Cherry," Denney added.
"And Butt Reynolds," Narcisse continued. "Some guys chant his name after he leaves the stage. It's awesome to open them up to the idea that they can be sexy, too."
The Sweet Tease have several shows coming up this year. First, they will open a five-show tour April 21 at The Jinx with "Fierce Femmes: A Tribute to Powerful Women." Among the honorees are Amelia Earhart, Josephine Baker, Rosa Parks, Cleopatra, The Virgin Mary, Erin Brockovich and more. Weak Wrists, a female-fronted, progressive, post-hardcore band from Asheville, N.C., will open the show.
More importantly, the show will feature a charity raffle. All of the proceeds from the raffle and a percentage of admission will go to a Savannah-based Planned Parenthood. Prizes include tattoos, photo sessions, artwork and gift cards to local restaurants.
The majority of the "Fierce Femmes" show will be handled by the women of the troupe, but the men will play a special role as well, tackling outdated gender stereotypes with parody. The Sweet Tease will also be joined by two members of the House of Gunt, a Savannah-based drag revue, setting the stage for a night of gender-bending, feminist-forward fun.
IF YOU GO
What: Savannah Sweet Tease Burlesque Revue's "Fierce Femmes: A Tribute To Powerful Women"
When: 10 p.m. April 21
Where: The Jinx, 127 W. Congress St.
Cost: $10, $15 VIP