Sacramento’s Sizzling Sirens burlesque

The women of Sacramento’s only burlesque troupe, the Sizzling Sirens, aren’t steak—and they’ll hold you to the flames if you think otherwise

Voyeur or observer: Window-shoppers take in Sizzling Siren “Carmen Estrella.”

Voyeur or observer: Window-shoppers take in Sizzling Siren “Carmen Estrella.”

Photo by Andrew Nilsen

Why are all these men window-shopping?

It’s just a handful at first, but then more guys, wives and kids in tow, begin gathering outside the glass facade of downtown’s Parlare Euro Lounge on 10th and J streets. The summer’s Friday night Concerts in the Park series has just wrapped up, so the throngs are heading south to their cars. They don’t make it far; what they see stops them dead in their tracks.

On the other side of the glass isn’t sports on a flat-screen or the latest iPhone display. Instead, a scantily clad burlesque dancer, one Carmen Estrella, perches high above the ground, dangling atop three vertical, boa-draped poles jutting up from a hardwood stage. The young woman swiftly maneuvers from pole to pole like an Olympic gymnast, only wearing fishnet stockings and leather. The crowd outside overflows into the street. Cell-phone cameras abound.

The occasion? The debut performance by the Sizzling Sirens, Sacramento’s only burlesque troupe.

Inside the lounge, women in cocktail dresses with V-cuts down to their navels welcome you. They wear eye masks and silk gloves, “SS” insignias painted onto their cleavage, and urge you to head upstairs—“Have a drink. Relax.” Red and black boas decorate the staircase on the way to the second-floor lounge, and two shirtless, chiseled males make sure you don’t get lost on the way. The whole scene is like a swanky version of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut—except for the lack of nudity, Illuminati-esque orgiastic sex, and, of course, Tom Cruise. Or maybe Tom Cruise is here—who knows?

Upstairs, a painter improvises a piece that later will be auctioned. Above him, a banner reading “The Sizzling Sirens” drapes across the wall. Clubgoers sip cocktails and draft beer. In the center of the room, a blonde Marilyn Monroe bombshell croons into a 1950s vintage deco microphone, black boa draped over her shoulders. A sign reads “Freedom, with Lorelai Love,” framing her on the stage like a retro art installation.

At the end of the bar, two more women perform an interpretive-dance scene, this one titled “Pride vs. Envy, with Lula Belle and Olivia Absinthe.” There’s a long chain wrapped around Absinthe’s neck, which is connected to an Earth-shaped beach ball. Belle, draped in purple silk, tugs on the chain, globe outstretched above her head, taunting Absinthe, who’s on her knees, begging, short crimson locks jutting side to side. A woman watches, sipping her martini in a panic, oddly transfixed.

It’s early in the evening, half past eight, but the lounge already is standing-room-only. At the bar, a rickety chap in his 40s with a ’stache and wrinkled cotton T-shirt—who let this guy in?—approaches a masked hostess. “How do I compensate the ladies?” he inquires. The woman shoots him a “pal, this-ain’t-no-strip-club” stare and politely informs that tips are not necessary. As the Sirens Web page says, their performance is all about celebration, collaboration and liberation—burlesque with a modern flair. There’ll be no lap dances or topless debauchery tonight.

Around 10 p.m., all five Sirens gather on a makeshift stage, horseshoe-shaped crowd surrounding. DJ Raquel starts things off, spinning a mix of trip-hop classics, electro and even the Deftones and Siouxsie and the Banshees, while each Siren performs a routine. Ava Aurore, a 6-foot-plus dark-haired hellion in leather, does her thing, dropping to the floor—the splits—slapping a riding crop against the hardwood, which excites the crowd. Oww! Later that evening, she spanks a few clubgoers—hard—but they don’t seem to mind. It’s sexy, yes, but don’t call these women eye candy. Hell, don’t even think it.

They might get angry. And you don’t want that.

Turn your back on the Sirens, they’ll turn their backs on you.

Photo by Andrew Nilsen

“It’s a lot more theatrical than your typical contemporary burlesque. The action never centers around a striptease. We’re a non-reveal troupe,” explains Jessica Swanson, mastermind and artistic director of the Sizzling Sirens. Yes, it’s performance art. No, there’s no nudity. “If that happens, it’s a surprise icing on the cake.” Wardrobe malfunction, right?

Swanson’s at Old Soul’s Weatherstone with all five of the Sizzling Sirens—“Lula Belle” (Monet HàSidi), “Ava Aurore” (Anna Ritner), “Carmen Estrella” (Jeslen Mishelle), “Lorelai Love” (Katie Wise), “Olivia Absinthe (Kristin Sweeney). When they enter the back patio of the coffeehouse, the heads of the mostly 50-plus men playing chess quickly spin toward their direction. The ladies are dressed to hit the clubs—no leather, however—they’re here to talk art, dance, burlesque—to extol the virtues of their artistry, not proffer titillation.

Swanson, who hails from Hawaii by way of Chicago but now considers herself a Sacramentan, comes from an entertainment background. Her mom was a makeup artist, her grandmother an actress. “I was really attracted to the glamour of burlesque and the female form in general,” she says, citing the Windy City’s Flaming Dames, a burlesque troupe with a punk aesthetic, as a major influence. Swanson put ads recruiting burlesque performers on Craigslist and MySpace earlier this year; Sweeney, who was browsing local roller-derby pages, was the first to reply. She then e-mailed the flier to her friend, Wise.

“It read, ‘Do you sing or kick ass?’ and I said, ‘Well, I sing and I kick ass,’” laughs Wise, who remembers dressing in lingerie and high heels and dancing on the living-room couch as a little girl. Her parents swore she’d be the next Madonna.

Ritner was the next to get involved, after spotting a burlesque-show flier at Modern Body. She did some Googling and stumbled upon Swanson’s ad and quickly joined. Then Mishelle, who had just moved from Los Angeles, came aboard, looking for an opportunity to dance. HàSidi, a hairstylist at Deeda Salon, was scouring Craigslist for work when she came across Swanson’s call for artists. That made five. Swanson invited the women to her place: meet, drink wine, share “horror stories.” Everyone clicked. The chemistry was there.

On Father’s Day 2008, the Sirens held their first practice at an apartment-complex gym. A crowd of sweaty old men were completely horrified when the Sirens opened up workout bags and pulled out patent leather thigh-high boots, whips and the like. Yes, they practice in full uniform.

And they kept at it. “You’re either in or your out, that’s pretty much how it is,” Wise says of the commitment. Five-hour rehearsals. Hand-stitching their outfits, except for the 6-inch-heeled custom boots, which they got from Naughty N Nice on Greenback Lane. “We’re all normal women. We all have jobs. It’s funny to be finishing up with work and be on the phone talking about whips and stuff,” Sweeney laughs.

“And how high a slit should be,” Wise adds.

And while they all get along, each Siren is different—and has a unique persona. Estrella is the savage sophisticate. “One side of me can be very proper, very eloquent. But I’ve been arrested; I’ve been in jail,” Mishelle explains of her character. Is there any semblance to real life? “There is,” she reveals. “I think I wanted to prove something as a kid, especially if it was a male disrespecting me. I remember being offended when men wouldn’t listen to what I had to say. So instead of trying to beat men mentally, I would just beat them up.”

HàSidi got Lula Belle’s name from family. “I figured that my grandmother had the perfect burlesque name,” she laughs. “I can be very friendly, but once you piss me off, I’m no longer nice.” HàSidi dressed as Chuck E. Cheese for two years, so Lula Belle’s her chance for payback.

Ritner’s Ava Aurore is an 18th-century French dominatrix meets androgynous femme fatale. She’s ferocious, towering more than 6 feet in her boots. How did the Parlare crowd react to her towering wrath? “They took it. They didn’t have a choice,” Ritner quips. “I have a French inhale and I snap at people. And then, when I get a boot and a whip, it’s all over.”

“We want to exude a different kind of sexiness,” Mishelle says. “Instead of this Nap—”

“Were you about to say Napkin Nights photo girls?” Ritner laughs.

“Yes, but I didn’t want to say that!” Mishelle exclaims.

To be sure, the Sirens aren’t about debasing men and women: quite the opposite, in fact. Ritner is apropos: “You see these submissive acrylic-nail girls clawing at men with their fake tans and you don’t feel that you can be sexual, because in this culture the concept of female sexuality has been reduced to a very basic image.” When the Sizzling Sirens perform Sunday at Badlands in Midtown, however, they intend to liberate said feminine image. And you can play the voyeur, of course, but be careful: This time, there won’t be any glass between you.