Over 70 burlesque performers from 17 states and three countries will descend on Savannah for the inaugural Savannah Burlesque Festival over the first weekend of December.
For three years now, the Savannah Sweet Tease Burlesque Troupe has been plotting and planning a major festival that highlights Southeast performers and neo-burlesque acts from all over the world.
The Savannah Burlesque Festival is hosted by the Savannah Sweet Tease with co-founders Rita D’LaVane and Rebel Belle co-producing the event. For five years now, Savannah Sweet Tease has been busking locally and touring around the country with their unique Southern-grown brand of neo-burlesque, which incorporates a variety of styles from traditional burlesque to modern dance and comedy routines.
“Another really big thing for us, in the burlesque world, performers from the Southeast tend to be overlooked,” Belle said. “A lot of times, when you’re in the really high profile shows — like the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender, which is the Oscars of burlesque — rarely, very rarely is anyone from the Southeast represented in that show. It’s like we’re hidden for some reason. We really wanted to bring a burlesque festival to our hometown so we could showcase some of the people in the Southeast, and not just because they’re from here, but because there’s talent here. People need to see it.”
The festival marks an evolution for the troupe as they push to expand their brand, using their experiences as individual performers at other festivals to lay the groundwork for a brand new festival. Savannah also acted as a major lure for the over 200 performers who applied to be part of the festival.
“We’ve been out here promoting the brand for some time and doing the work on that,” D’LaVane said. “Also, Savannah is a destination city. Everyone wants to come here. People get married here. What it means to be accepted into a festival is you get exposure to people in the industry that are heavy hitters. The people who are at the forefront of doing burlesque. You get to be seen by those people and you also get to be held as someone who is at the top of their game. Pretty much that’s what it means to perform at an event like this.”
“I think we have procured a pretty good reputation for ourselves by traveling and just being forward about our marketing and busting our ass,” Belle said. “I think it’s 50 percent that, and 50 percent that Savannah is a really cool place that people want to visit. I think Savannah is really cool and more people should see it.”
Four main shows, headliners
Savannah Sweet Tease pulled out all the stops for their first festival. The three-day event features four main shows, some of the top names in the burlesque world, and classes taught by some of the best performers in the business.
The festival’s headliners represent the best from the world of modern burlesque. Blanche DeBris is set to MC on Saturday night. DeBris is one of the main headliners at the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend festival.
That same night, Jeez Loueez and Dirty Martini will headline at The Jinx. Dirty Martini is one of the biggest names in neo-burlesque. In the early 1990s, she was part of the main revival of American burlesque that transfigured the once popular theatrical format to a new era and audience.
Since those days, burlesque has come to encompass so much more than the traditional striptease it’s associated with, as performers took the art form into the realm of theatrical, comedic and modern dance, in a celebration of sexuality that shuns objectivity and curates individual expression.
“Dirty Martini is as far as our industry goes, that is the queen diva of what we do,” D’LaVane said. “She was at the forefront of the revival in the early '90s that brought it back. She tours all over the world.
“Jeez Loueez highlights POC (people of color) performers and gives them space. There should always be space for the marginalized. We’re also trying to do that with our event, as well, making it as inclusive as possible.”
A total of eight classes will also be held during the festival, on a range of topics from designing a dance routine to MCing. The classes will be taught by the headliners and other professionals like Belle.
“At any festival that you go to, there are going to be people who teach classes,” D’LaVane said. “It’s a way for people to maintain your skill set and grow as a performer in this trade. You learn from industry professionals who have had a lot of experience and whatever their curriculum is. It’s a chance to get one-on-one time with people you normally wouldn’t interact with.”
Thursday’s Dirty South Soiree kicks off the festival with 20 acts in the Bay Street Theatre at Club One with Savannah’s Ford Fatale as MC. Friday night, attendees get a double doze as the festival moves to The Jinx, the Sweet Tease’s home base. Opening Friday’s Freaks and Greeks double feature is nerdlesque, featuring the geeky routines, followed by the freaks. The double feature will showcase 28 performers and end with a routine from legendary dancer Gabriella Maze.
“I feel like burlesque is on the rise,” Belle said. “Dirty Martini was big on the neo-burlesque revival in the '90s. It’s kind of grown since then. More people are getting interested, like us, are holding festivals, or fundraisers, to put it out there. More people come and those people are inspired and they want to do burlesque.”