Dance Like Everyone’s Watching: Dem Damn Dames
Leon casino, Photo: A.D. Forman
It should come as no surprise to you, if you’ve lived in Houston long enough; that we have some serious talented people here. We have so many great albums from local bands in the pipeline this year, so many amazing food artisans, and possibly more amazing dance outfits than you would have any idea of. One of those dance outfits is the world of burlesque. The burlesque artform is often misconstrued as one full of racy women in dark rooms filled with seedy men. However, if you look past the stereotypes, if you pay attention to the costumes, and if you watch the performances; what you’ll see is an art that’s far from naughty, and a lot closer to just plain nice. Houston has had a history of burlesque troupes come and go over the years, however one of it’s newest is also one of the most creative in Dem Damn Dames. The troupe is going strong in their fourth year, and they’re easily becoming one of our city’s most sought after acts.
It’s funny when you realize that the word burlesque, is from the Italian word burlesco, which basically means mockery. When one traces the history of the art, you quickly realize that it goes past the “Mae West” imagery that we’ve been bombarded with. Even The Simpsons painted burlesque in a less than flattering fashion. It actually dates back to the 17th century,and is referenced in the works of Alexander Pope and Samuel Butler. Those Mae West years were rampant from the 1860’s all the way into the 1940’s; though it wasn’t until the seventies that the art form got closer to what we see today. In Hollywood’s attempt to make some cash from burlesque, they produced films like “Cabaret” and “All That Jazz.” Then, burlesque hit a wall, and almost disappeared until the mid nineties, which brings us up to speed where the art is today.
And, it is art. It’s art if not for any other reason that it takes some serious commitment to get into, the costumes, the booking, the management; and of course, the acts themselves. There’s a serious time suck involved in every aspect of the form, which is what drew me too it. I have a joke I say all the time which is, “I’m only into two things, brunettes and people who make their own things happen.” These performers really make their own world happen, from start to finish. More than any other form of art I’ve ever witnessed; there’s some serious dedication, creativity, promotion, and production to any of these troupes. The creative nature behind the shows that Dem Damn Dames puts on, was that of which I’d never seen before. To name just a few, they’ve done a murder mystery themed show, the ever popular video game themed show, and now; they’re tackling Sin City with a Vegas themed show. The cast of the troupe is lead by a lead character in the literal sense of the word. When I tracked them down to have a sit down, the conversations were almost as entertaining as the show itself.
I’m a lucky guy in that I go out enough where I get to meet so many interesting and people. When I met the troupe’s Head Mistress, Tifa Tittlywinks, I got real fast as to why she was the troupe’s leader. It goes without saying that each one of these artists within the troupe is an attractive woman. It would be stupid however, if I failed to mention how gregarious, excitable, and well spoken Tifa is when you meet her face to face. She’s tall, even by the standards of the south, but there’s this inner ham, this need to perform and entertain that seems to dwell within her soul; that you immediately notice when she’s in your presence. The whole time we spoke, you see these little glances from this performer that pepper her face when she tells you the story of the troupe, and her history within the art. “Initially, I had no idea what burlesque was. When Tricia Gernard asked me to form the troupe with her, all I knew was it was a form of dance where I could do whatever I pleased,” she says about the troupe’s early days. It seems like an idea that the Dames have truly kept close as they prepare for a sending away party for master balloon smith Josh Clark. “It’s unabashed self expression. It’s a story that I get to tell live and in person, intimately; and however I see fit,” she explains. “It focuses strongly on sensuality and the human form; it’s pure creativity.” And, she’s right about the creativity factor. Later in the evening, I’ll see outfits made from balloons, literal acrobatics, and an alcohol fueled ending that would make almost any man blush. But, the creative nature of it all, is what ties it together.
According to Tifa, “the history of burlesque in Houston was that the scene was really thriving from the fifties to the seventies. A lot of big names like Yvette Dare and Parrot came through town.” In four years, the Dames have made a history of their own. What originally started off as a troupe of six, lost two members to , “life events,” as Tifa puts it; while two other members went on to other things. Midnight Joy went solo to pursue her swing act, while Kiki Maroon went off on her own. Through recruiting efforts, the troupe has stayed strong by picking up Emma D’Lemma and later Honey MoonPie. According to Tifa, “the beauty of this craft is that it’s all about celebrating womanhood and femininity. You’d think that means we’re all catty bitches, but we all understand. No hard feelings, go live your life.”
Not that doing burlesque comes off all rosey either. There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about the craft. “They think we’re strippers, not that I have anything against strippers; just that they seem to only focus on that aspect of the show. But because we strip they think that they have consent, and they think we’re easy…. you know, what pretty much any girl in a short dress faces. Also, people think it’s a glamorous life of glitz and money. HA! Let’s just pop that bubble, well the money part anyway. It is a TON OF FUN and I LOVE every second. But it is backbreaking in the amount of time it takes to get where you need to be. Yes it is DIY and anyone can get into it, but sustaining an actual career is just plain difficult. If you want to do Burlesque, do your research. It’s the most expensive hobby you’ll ever have if you don’t play your cards right,” explains Tifa.
But, with any form of creativity, there’s all that the audience doesn’t see. “In burlesque, you’re your own choreographer, set designer, costumer, promoter, and director,” the headmistress explains. Hours and hours of practice that will be over in just minutes are never seen by the patrons at the shows. According to Tifa, they meet twice a week to focus on group efforts and routines. They assist each other if needed on their solo parts, though the girls come up with their own ideas and solo routines. The promotional end of things means that she had to learn photoshop to make flyers, and do whatever it took to get the word out about shows. This is all before you factor in the costumes. “A real flashy showgirl costume can take up to twenty hours in just rhinestoning alone,” she explains as she alludes to the roles within the troupe.
When breaking down each of the Dames, it was just simpler to ask each one a set of questions. Starting with headmistress Tifa, it should be noted that the role of being in charge is one she seems suited for. That outgoing personality mentioned earlier oozes from her like that of any seasoned performer. As the troupe’s producer and owner, her role is to basically, “do all of the leg work, because I’m a control freak and I can’t help it. I just get last say if it comes to that, what goes in a show and what doesn’t; but mostly we agree on everything,” she explains.
FPH: How many types of theme shows have you guys done so far?
TT:We have done shows all over the map. Our most popular themes have been video games, which was picked up by Comicpalooza, and our murder mystery in October, which we will be having again.
FPH: Who decided who got to be the Headmistress?
TT: It isn’t really a decision as much as a happening. Once Tricia stepped down, we tried to drudge on leaderless. Naturally, that didn’t work and I stepped up and took the reigns. I am a super control freak so it works out.
FPH: What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?
TT: That I’m a natural. I’ve been working my entire life on dancing and the stage. There is a certain level of pizzazz that has to be inherent, but the skills required to do this well must be learned. I’ve been dancing since I was three years old. I’ve been on a stage since I was ten. And that isn’t to say that you have to have that kind of background, you just have to be ready to work hard.
FPH: You had told me that you had planned on doing this on the international stage, are you saying that you’d make this your full time career for the next twenty years?
TT: I hope it’s my career forever! I want to dance on the Orleans stage in Las Vegas on Legends night at BHoF. I’m going to shake and shimmy on 9 hip replacements if I have to…
FPH: How does everyone in your life like your family and co-workers feel about you doing burlesque?
TT: It took a while for my family to warm up to it. I think my mom took it the hardest because of what her friends were saying. But once she came to a show, she realized that I was good at it, and the proud mommy in her emerged again. My co-workers come to the shows. I get tickets for the bossman every time. I work at an apartment complex. It’s really funny when a prospective tenant comes in and recognizes me as a muggle.
If being the Headmistress is about control, than what can you say about the role of the troupe’s Creative Director, Lady Lush? That role within the troupe means that the way the show looks, the pace and rhythm of it, and even down to the costumes they wear, is all on her. According to Tittlywinks, “if we need it, she can make it.” Aside from the member who came up with the name, Dem Damn Dames, she is also the troupe’s only other founding member alongside Tifa. Here’s what I noticed about Lady the first time we met, she’s full of dynamics. To explain, she has this way of showing you what she’s saying through her words. Her description of the video game show at Comicpalooza, made me realize exactly what would be in store. I actually knew the act’s pace when I saw it firsthand, before I ever actually saw it. Creative Director isn’t just a title for her, it’s who she is through and through.
FPH: How did you become creative director for the troupe, did you have a background in it?
LL: I helped start the troupe with Tricia-Licious and Tifa Tittlywinks about 4 years ago. As the troupe started growing and becoming more reputable, Tifa and I sat down and discussed our roles within the Dames. I started thinking about what I contribute to the dames and our productions and I realized that I spent most of my hours making costumes, building sets, and creating the themes on stage. Im a very visual person and practical person. Tifa and I have big dreams but sometimes our budget doesn’t fit within those dreams. Thats where I come in…I figure out ways to do things on a big enough scale that won’t break our bank accounts. I have been a part of creative teams in the past, helping photographers develop storyboards and themes, but I have no formal training in artistic directing, I guess it just comes naturally to me.
FPH: You came up with the troupe’s name, what were some of the other ideas?
LL: Honestly, I can’t even remember what the other ideas were. I know it was between “Dem Damn Dames” and “Them Damn Dames” so we took a poll and asked everyone we knew and the decision was made for us.
FPH: Do you get positive or negative reactions from friends, family, and co-workers about doing burlesque?
LL: We really have to educate people. A lot of people have no idea what burlesque is but they know we take off our clothes. So most of my family and some of my friends thought I was just stripping, but its so much more than that. Burlesque is a beautiful form of art that can be funny, witty, sexy, and liberating. I think once my family and friends see how much work is involved and how much fun I have doing it, they’re opinion will change, if it hasn’t already.
FPH: What’s something about you that people would never think about a burlesque performer?
LL: Im quite shy, and a bit of an introvert actually…unless I have a couple of drinks in me. I have to build up some courage to approach people sometimes but it gets easier the older I get.
FPH: Do you see yourself doing this another ten or twenty years?
LL: I don’t know, really. I, definitely, see myself performing, in some way, forever but I’m not sure if burlesque is my true calling. I want to act and maybe do stand up comedy in the future and I believe burlesque is a big part of that journey. I feel like the sky’s the limit and I cant wait to see what my future holds!
The Media Director for the troupe is also possibly the most athletic. If you find Dem Damn Dames on social media, or you hear their name in a promotion, then it’s all coming from D’Lemma. Emma D’Lemma is all kinds of energy packed into a small punch. If Tifa is tall by southern standards, then Emma is most definitely small by the same measure. Coming in at under five feet tall, D’Lemma does something that adds such an insane element to the shows, that I think Craig from Heights Vinyl put it best when he said, “half of me is worried she’ll fall, while the other half of me is mesmerized by all of this.” Aside from the media, she’s also the aerial acrobatic for the troupe. Dangling from a silk fifteen to twenty feet above the concrete, you can’t help but realize how insanely talented she is at her craft.
FPH: You do aerial silk work, how did you get into doing that?
ED:During the summer of 2011 I attended the American Dance Festival at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I did some google-fu and found a studio there that taught silks. Being curious, and always looking for new ways to move, I scheduled a private lesson. Have been in love ever since!
FPH: Did you have to train to learn how to do it without killing yourself?
ED: Of course! It takes so much time to build up the strength to do everything safely in the air. If I’m not sure about a move or wrap I practice it on the floor. Once I’m comfortable with it, I’ll climb up a little ways and try it….with a crash pad underneath me….
FPH: Have you ever fallen or had any kind of crazy accident?
ED: No crazy accidents yet! (knock on wood) But I have obtained some gnarly bruises and fabric burns in some very peculiar places… I’m happy that this is the worst it’s gotten for my body!
FPH: Do you see yourself doing this ten, twenty years down the road; and if so, is there a type of acrobatics you’d like to incorporate?
ED: I hope to still be doing this in 20 years! Working with the ladies at VauLt has taught me one thing: keep moving! If a woman in her 40s can kick my ass in an aerial workout, then theres hope for me to still be doing this when I’m in my 40s. I hope to supplement aerial work with gymnastics or acroyoga type acrobatics in the future. I haven’t trained for either really, but it looks neat and both can be artistically incorporated.
FPH: What do your family and friends think about your role in the world of burlesque?
ED: My immediate family seems to be more okay with it now. Which is nice. They’ve been to one show and seemed to enjoy it, but it isn’t their cup of tea and that is okay. My friends are very happy for me. I’m still a burlesque baby, but they think I’m good at it and like to support the shows. Both family and friends know I’m a performer at heart, and have positively criticized my ability to look at ease while performing for a crowd. It’s what I do! I love it and they love when I do it!
The newest member of the troupe, Honey MoonPie comes off as very quiet, like a sponge who soaks everything up. When you talk to her, you get the impression that she’s taking it all in, and then she answers any questions you have with the most thought of any of the Dames. Her role is yet to be decided, while she finds her place within the world of burlesque, and the troupe itself. It should go without saying that her pink hair and careful demeanor, make her very intriguing as you don’t know what to expect from her.
FPH: You’re the quiet one it seems, yet you appear to leave it all out on the dance floor. Is there something about you that would shock someone who just knew you as a performer?
HM: I guess it might shock people to know that about 2 years ago I was terrified at the thought of changing in public. Gym locker rooms were a scary place for me. You kind of can’t get away with that long in burlesque with all the different places that are slapped together as a “dressing room” so now I can pretty much strip down anywhere.
FPH: How long does it take you to sequin or rhinestone an item like your Pokemon bra?
HM: Poke-bra is the result of a manic fit after my precious pug passed away, so actually not that long. Maybe 6 hours altogether.
FPH: What about burlesque drew you into doing it?
HM: There was something about burlesque that I’ve always been drawn to, but in particular I like that it pulls from every medium. We have mimes, singers, dancers, hoopers, aerialists, you name it, someone has stripped to it. I also like the very DIY nature of it, which you have to enjoy to do well.
FPH: Have you had positive or negative reactions from family, friends, and co-workers about doing burlesque?
HM: My friends are excited for me, although probably tired of how much I bring up burlesque in casual conversation. My parents have been supportive in the, “That’s nice dear” kind of way. Although I have had to explain the gray line between stripping and burlesque to my mother far too many times, haha.
FPH: Where do you see yourself in ten years of doing this?
HM: I see myself, onstage, covered in crystals, gallbladder scar in full display, a full back tattoo of a fairy riding a dragon to hide the tattoo of my ex husband’s name (even though you can still make it out). I will be dancing to Gaga’s “Poker Face,” unironically. I will be the eccentric aunt figure of Dem Damn Dames, and I will love every second of it.
Of course, aside from titles and duties within, the Dames have, “July St Jupiter, she’s basically the fifth Dame. She’s a costumer who you can catch at our merch booth, or backstage doing emergency costume work;” according to Tittlywinks. When it’s all said and done, what you’re left with is a group of women who have to overcome the obstacles of what society puts on them; while also managing to keep control of their act and attempting to make headway with it. What isn’t mentioned is that they’re also script writers whose minds race at the idea of doing something different. Their creativity alongside their dedication cannot be ignored. When I’m closing things up, I ask Tifa if there’s a place where they wouldn’t perform; and her reply sums up who they are and their level of dedication to the art. She explains, “Your basement. Your hotel room. Your show for “exposure”. We are paid, real performers. If you want a class act, it costs money and a good space. Don’t get me wrong, we have used janitor closets for dressing rooms, tables for stages, headlights for stage lighting, the whole nine yards. But for the quality we produce these days, a stage would be nice.”
On Friday, June 27th, the Dames will get that stage when they begin a once a month residency at Houston’s historic dance club Numbers. In the Dem Damn Dames’ Tribute To Sin City show, the artists will bring their A game to the stage with all of the aforementioned characters, alongside Austin’s Bethany Summersizzle, Dallas’ Diverta Devotchka; and the show is to be hosted by Dallas’ Violet O’Hara. There promises to be circus antics, drug fueled fantasy-lesque, and of course classic showgirls. The doors are at 7:00 while the tickets run between $15.00 and $30.00, and this is just the start of last Friday performances from the troupe that the club will host. There aren’t too many times you can laugh, cry, gasp, and get a little excited all in one place. But if their previous shows are any indication, the best is yet to come.