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January 25, 2005

{     Interview : Pontani Sisters     }    

Nobody does it quite like The World Famous Pontani Sisters. Their particular brand of burlesque is a truly post-modern affair, incorporating a broad range of contemporary music and dance styles into the more traditional framework of burlesque performance, all executed with great panache, three incredible smiles, and Moxie to spare. Everything from 'Danny Boy' and 60's go-go to Bon Jovi and the Ramones is up for grabs, and the emphasis is always on sassy, sexy fun. Redefining DIY, the girls make all their own costumes, which can reach Vegas-showgirl levels of intricacy and proportion, and they choreograph their own elaborate routines. The Pontani Sisters just jumped off tour with luchadore-masked surf-gods Los Straitjackets, performing their fabulous Holiday Pageant across the US.

Adam: One of the things that I love the most about your work, and New Burlesque in general, is that it challenges the prevailing notion of feminine beauty. We're inundated with images of the waif-thin model and actress, but as Patricia Cardosa and Josefina Lopez put it best; "Real women have curves." Are attitudes about body type changing, or are we doomed to hold ourselves to unachievable standards?

Angie: I can remember the first time I saw Sophia Lauren in a tight dress, curves for miles- that's the sexiest thing ever, that's a real woman. I think body images are starting to shift, femininity and curves are making a come back and I think the Burlesque movement has had a hand in that for sure. There are so many different body types represented in the new Burlesque, performers of all shapes and sizes are taking to the stage and being glamorous and gorgeous and whipping the crowd into a frenzy. I think a lot of women have been inspired by that and are finding a new security in their bodies. I certainly hope so.

Helen: I feel that on one hand you have people like us who are getting some recognition for being voluptuous, but on the other hand the type of women who are still dominating magazine covers and the big screen seem to be getting thinner and thinner. I really don't see the attitude changing anytime soon. I think that with the images we are doused with everyday the battle is going to be a long one.

Tara: I hope attitudes are changing. I think, just from the response of our audience members, that body "image" is being re-thought. Unfortunately, that still has a lot to do with super-celebs busting the mold but it's awesome when the underground world of entertainment can do the same thing, then there can be a trickle-down and a risin' on up. It's all about being healthy, active and overall taking care of yourself

It seems a shame that Johnny-Come-Latelies like the Pussycat Dolls are offering up an image of burlesque that seems a bit at odds with the tradition, and more in-line with the stereotypical idea of beauty.
How do you feel about this starlet-fed version of Burlesque?

Helen: The Pussycat Dolls are like when you take a rock band and put them on Broadway. You lose something. It's more manicured and predictable. It's always nice to see any art form at the bare roots. Pussycat Dolls are like a scene from a Broadway musical or straight out of a movie. I am not saying that it isn't entertaining. I would actually love to see it! It's just different from what we are doing.

Tara: I don't think that much about it. If the girls are up on stage having fun, performing how they want to perform in the format they want, then more power to them. If the audience is entertained, great. That's what I think Burlesque is about, at least the new Burlesque.

Angie: I think Burlesque is a very broad term that a lot of performance styles fit into. The Pussycat Dolls' success has certainly helped shine a brighter light on Burlesque and that is a benefit to all performers. There are so many interpretations of Burlesque, and you've got people all over the country performing it in different styles, whether they are inspired by punk, glam rock, rockabilly, opera or even a current Hollywood ideal- dancing sexy girls + a lil' satire = Burlesque, and that's ok, it's good that there is something in it for everyone.


With articles in hundreds of magazines, profiles on network TV, and burlesque-inspired fashion and performance infiltrating Hollywood, has burlesque performance become a mainstream affair?

Tara: It's far from mainstream. Closer than it was five years ago, but it's got a way to go before the whole country and the whole world knows about it. It's still growing.

Helen: I think the word 'burlesque' is certainly more mainstream, but I still feel that while a lot of people have heard of it, most don't really know about the whole movement that is going on.

Angie: It is definitely become much more popular and it's definitely gathered a cult following, but I agree that it isn't exactly mainstream yet. Fashion typically takes it's nod from night-life and underground cultures, so garters on the runway are a sign that it is potentially moving in that direction.

How has the increased visibility of burlesque affected the Pontani Sisters, if at all?

Tara: I think the Pontani Sisters have really helped increase the visibility of burlesque.
We've been traveling the US for years, playing music-fests where people didn't know what the word 'burlesque' meant, and now they do.

Angie: We've been working pretty steadily for the past five years, and I don't think the increased popularity has really changed things for us. We've been fortunate to get great reviews, features, tours & television work, and that really started for us 5 years ago, before the major explosion.

I understand the Suicide Girls have their own version of a go-go/burlesque tour going on, including live punk and rock and roll bands backing them up. What's your take on the Suicide Girls phenomenon?

Angie: I've never seen the show, but it sounds like quite a production! I think its good- the more types of live performance the better!

Helen: I have only seen the Suicide Girls website, but from what I have heard about the live show, it's a completely different feel than what we and a lot of other burlesque performers do.

There is a definite line drawn between "burlesque" and "stripping", between bawdy entertainment and sexual exploitation. I know that when you first started out, there was occasionally some confusion and misguided expectation concerning the nature of burlesque. Do you still face that struggle?

Tara: Absolutely. It is rare that we don't have to explain what our version of burlesque is.

Angie: When we started out, even some venue owners and reviewers in NYC weren't hip to the term burlesque. It was a challenge to explain to folks what our act was about. You couldn't say 'dancer' without someone raising an eyebrow. Forget saying burlesque - that one put you behind the steak special and up on a pole. At first, it was always an issue. Now, it's not really much of a problem, most booking agents and event planners are pretty hip to the scene and know what a Pontani Sisters show entails!

Helen: I do think that people are beginning to understand the difference between burlesque and stripping since the term burlesque has become so much more popular and well known. When we are in a situation where there is just no way of getting across to a person what exactly it is that we do, we tell them we're tap-dancers, and that always seems to work.

You've had the opportunity to perform in some really unique venues. Which has been your favorite, and where do you think you've put on your best show?

Angie: Wow, we've played some really wild spots... I have to say our Vegas stint was amazing. I loved living in a suite at the Venetian for a month, that was tops! We were doing shows till 3am, then we would meet back at someone's suite and order eggs benedict and champagne. The venue itself was also gorgeous, so it was a fun stay.
We also do a ton of summer festivals and those are always a blast- you'll have an all-ages audiences of 5000+ and they are always enthusiastic and exciting. I think one of our best shows is our annual show in Coney Island at Burlesque on the Beach. We have been playing Coney for years and we really look forward to this show. We'll get together a cast of some of our favorite folks and just have a great time on stage and that really shines through. This year's show was a sell-out that ended with 1/2 the audience dancing to Footloose on stage with the entire cast. I loved it!

Tara: Gosh, I have a lot of favorites. Fitzgerald's in Chicago, they are just the best family in the world, with the best venue! Then New Orleans. We love New Orleans! And Coney Island, of course- there's no place like home.

Helen: I loved doing the Conan O'Brien Show. If we could do TV all the time I would love it! They work really quickly and its super fun to be around all the lights and action.
Outside of that, one of my favorite shows was at First Avenue in Minneapolis. That's were they shot Purple Rain the movie, and I am in love with Prince.

Given the serious props you pay to the Rat Pack and old-school glitz and glamour, it must have been a dream come true to perform in Vegas. Are you in love with Sin City, and was that experience all you had hoped it would be?

Helen: Vegas was amazing! We lived and performed in the Venetian hotel for a month and ate sushi everyday for dinner. We even went to see Wayne Newton for Tara's birthday. We did get a little freaked out when we realized that we had not been outside for about a week because everything we needed was built inside of our hotel. We never had to leave. There were even fake canals and blue skies. After a month it started to feel a little weird living in this fake made-up world.
The club in the Venetian, Venus, was gorgeous! It was a tiki bar on one side and super groovy lounge on the other side, with huge pictures of old Burlesque stars all over the walls, leopard carpeting and sparkly gold curtains. It was a dream club.

Angie: Vegas was a dream, but truly, I'm more in love with my Vegas vision then the actual place. I wish I were a good gambler but I'm not. I wanted to rock Black Jack, but that's hard to do when you count with your fingers. I did a lot of shopping while we were there. I virtually set up camp in the Gucci store at Caesar's. But I was disappointed by the lack of Rat Pack-esque lounging. The clubs were all boom-boom, flashing light types of places and the only gals who were rocking the Sharon Stone in Casino look were me, Tara & Helen. But in spite of that, it is an amazing place. We hung out at the Golden Nugget quite a bit and went to see our friend Wayne Newton as much as possible. That man is the spirit of old Vegas to a T. I love him.

Tara: Sin City is insane. It was a great honor, especially since the Venetian sits atop of where the old Sands was, where the Rat Pack ruled the house in all their glory. The shows we were performing were a real look back, an attempt to revive the "old Vegas". It was fantastic.

I was hoping you could tell us a little about how you hooked up with Los Straitjackets and Big Sandy?

Angie: In 1999-2000 we did a weekly Friday night show at Windows on the World. Every week a different band would play and one week it was Los Straitjackets. Their manager called and asked if we would dance with them during their set, they sent over a CD and we just loved it, especially their version of the Titanic theme. We threw some moves together and danced with them a bit during their set. The performance was so much fun, that the before the guys left they were joking about us going on tour with them. 6 months later, we met them in Minneapolis at First Avenue and kicked off our first big tour together. Big Sandy came along as well, and Mark Lindsay from Paul Revere and the Raiders guested with us twice on that tour. Since then, the shows together have been getting bigger and bigger every year, and we're going out again this December for our Christmas Pageant tour (our answer to the Radio City spectacular)!

What's it like to perform on Conan O'Brien?

Helen: It is amazing! I really enjoy the quick pacing, everything happens so fast. It's a huge rush.

Angie: It's a blast, really great. Everyone at Conan is super sweet, we've befriended some of the folks there and they are a really nice group of people. Television is super fun as well. Seeing yourself on national TV is awesome, five minutes into any national segment airing, the phone starts ringing; your aunt Linda, your high school boyfriend, your old boss from the diner! You don't realize how many people are watching!

Tara: It is simply fantastic. Every time we've been on it's been better than the last time.

I saw my first Pontani Sisters performance at Tease-O-Rama in 2001, down in New Orleans. Back then you performed a Ramones tribute dance that really hit home with me. Is that a piece that you still perform, or has it taken on too much poignancy?

Angie: We actually did that piece just for Teasorama - I think we taught it at the Go Go Robics class we did for the convention. We did do another Ramones piece a few years ago, here in the city- 20 people dancing to Rockaway Beach, that was great. I think given the right circumstances, we would perform it again - we are all big Ramones fans.

Are you still involved with Tease-O-Rama?

Tara: We've been involved with all of them.

Helen: It has been a great venue, and provides a lot of opportunity for performers to introduce themselves. We really have such a great time every year. It's always nice to reconnect with performers from all over the country.

Do you enjoy conventions, or have they lost their appeal?

Angie: At conventions, our schedule is usually so loaded we don't get to experience anything. But the energy is very exciting and it's always a pleasure to see some of our performer friends.

Tara: Conventions are great. They bring together friends who enjoy the art and introduce it to new lovers of the art.

Helen: I don't think they have lost their appeal at all. Really, I think it's just the beginning for Burlesque conventions.

You're known for incorporating some really unique themes into your performance. Which have been the most fun to develop and perform?

Helen: It's great to live out the lives of so many different characters. One minute we are waitresses performing to Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" and the next I am an Italian Princess. I think Italian Princess is one of my favorite numbers to perform, because I feel super-tough when I do that number.

Angie: Danny Boy is probably our most "out there" theme, I think it's the clover headdresses that make it so nutty. I love performing that number, it's so much fun. I also love Italian Princess (for obvious reasons) and Apache, of course. For me, Apache was really a major labor of love - when we started working on the concept, we decided to go to the Cherokee reservation in the Smokey Mountains to gather inspiration. We detoured there on the way home from a tour and got all the costume materials from Cherokee crafters. It's the only time I'll wear real fur! The dance itself is very intense and we just get so into it, it's magical to perform.

Tara: They are all fun. I love it that we get to embody such tough women, who kick serious ass- that always makes me happy.

Have you ever tried to put together a theme that just didn't work? What went down?

Tara: When we get ideas, we just run with them.

Angie: Currently we have about 40 shows/routines prepared. I think there's only one dance we did once and never again: Elvis' "The Clam". It just didn't gel, though we still get requests for it. We tried to bring it back, but couldn't remember it!

Helen: We have been working on a Mexican hat dance. We were going to have huge sombreros that mechanically turned with us sitting on them. It's going to be some time before that one hits the stage. We do have the costumes finished though!

I'm certain there's a plethora of stage-mishaps in your performance history. It seems the nature of burlesque that sometimes things go a bit awry. What's your most memorable disaster?

Angie: We've got a few! In Danny Boy, we've got these huge green clover headdresses with really long and thick red braids attached to them. One night we were doing the routine and I see this thing fall onto the stage. Tara's braid had fallen off her head and was lying in the middle of the stage. It happened right at the start of the routine and we were all laughing and dancing, and that is so hard to do!
Once we were doing Mambo Italiano on a really small stage and we've got on these long strings of pearls that trim the hems of our costumes, and mine and Tara's had gotten entangled. It was like a scene from I Love Lucy. We were totally Lucy and Ethel breaking into Ricky's show - that's what we looked like, connected at the hip!
But the absolute BEST one was when we were doing our Jungle Exotica dance. There is a section where we each solo and that night the crowd was so into it. I got really pumped for my solo and I decided I was going to do a gazelle-style leap over Tara who was kind of kneeling on the ground in a still pose. I was so excited, I didn't remind myself that I can't gazelle leap, so as I approached, I ended up doing more of a leap frog and I put my hands on her head to support me. I freaking went right over her and in my hands was her wig! I got so spooked I just laid her hair back on her head and ran away. Tara was so confused she just stood there with this wig askew on top of her head. Helen realized Tara was frozen so she ran up, took the wig off her head and started running around and shaking it over her head like she was the victor and it was part of the show. Tara snapped out of it and started chasing Helen trying to get her wig back and tear off Helen's. Meanwhile, I was just running around trying to stay away from both of them! It was insane- Tara standing there with no wig on, hair all messed up, Helen holding Tara's wig and trying to keep her own wig on her head, it was a sight. People at Marion's still talk about that, and it was literally 4 years ago! The best part is that I totally started it all and yet I got off scot free!

Tara: There have been a couple of times where we came off the stage looking like we "lost our contacts". The most recent was at a "Burlesque Against Bush" event in NYC. I just went into orbit, like someone slipped me a mickey. I practically made up my own dance, but I didn't panic, I just kept on dancing having a great time. Angie and Helen couldn't believe it and kept asking me if I was ok. I was just fine, but I can't figure out who took over my body. That was surreal.

Helen: We were doing a Christmas show with the Straitjackets, and the dressing room was a door right off the side of the stage. We had to close the door, but not all the way or it would lock, just leave it cracked so the light would not shine out on to the stage. As we took the stage we accidentally closed the door all the way. When we ran off stage to do our quick-change we realized we were locked out of our dressing room. Angie ran out while the Straitjackets were playing to see if she could find a manager with a key or something. Tara was trying to pick the lock with a bobby pin and I was just standing there trying to figure out what the hell to do. We only had about 5 minutes before we had to be on stage again, and there was really no way to communicate with the Straitjackets that we couldn't get to our costumes. Angie came back with nothing. We remembered that there was a window next to the dressing room, so we picked Angie up and boosted her through. Somehow, we made it in and got changed out. That's definitely one of the funniest and most memorable moments I look back on.

Music plays a huge role in what you do. What are your favorite songs or artists to perform to?

Helen: It can be anything from Tom Jones to Bon Jovi, but my personal favorite is the 60's go-go stuff.

Tara: Elvis.

Angie: It's all about getting a good song. I love to perform to a live band, but as far as pre-recorded music goes, I really love the Tom Jones tracks we do. It's hard to say. DJ Brother Cleve really is our musical consultant and he hooks us up with some amazing stuff. I truly love every song we dance to.

What do you listen to when you're not on stage?

Angie: I've got pretty eclectic taste in music. I've got a great vinyl collection that is pretty broad. I love the oldies; Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis. I'm really into Neil Diamond, Wayne Newton & those Italians- like Jerry Vale, Jimmy Roselli, Connie Stevens. I play a lot of Big Band, swing style, 1920's Charleston tunes, Gene Vincent, The Burnett Brothers, and real great rockabilly. Marty Robbins, anything penned by Burt Bacharach, old country music that tells stories too. I love me some John Denver and I rock out to classic rock about 2 times a month, AC/CD and/or CCR. What I listen to totally depends on my mood and I have a lot of different moods!

Tara: Elvis, Sinatra, lots of jazz, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Bob Marley, Hendrix, The Who. I like it all.

Helen: I listen to a lot of 80's music. My favorite artists are Bjork, Prince and Moloko.

You three are some of the hardest working girls in show-biz. What do you do to relax when you're not on stage?

Tara: I love to run. It's meditative. I love to knit and read. I wish I could do all three at the same time. Plus drink red wine and eat, I love to eat and drink.

Angie: I'm really into arts and crafts, I've got a room dedicated to it. I love to paint, and I'm starting to experiment with Paper Mache. I crochet and sew as well. I love to make things. I also cook quite a bit, and the place where I relax most is in my garden. I swear I could just sit there sip a glass of wine and watch my tomatoes grow for hours.

Helen: I love to drink red wine and cook.

I talked a good friend into coming down to Crunch for a Go-Go-Robics session, and he had an absolute blast. What inspired you to meld your particular brand of dancing with aerobics to create this Frankensteinian fitness craze?

Helen: In the beginning, our performances involved a lot of 60's style dancing and we even had some events where we would just strictly go-go. People would always say "You should have a class to teach these moves." We started an instructional class shortly after, and then came up with the idea for Go-Go-Robics later. I think the class has helped to really inspire us, because we've been able to realize how many people were really interested in it.

Are you happy with the Go-Go-Robics DVD?

Tara: It's hilarious. We laugh our butts off when we watch it.

Angie: It's so funny, we had no idea what we were doing in that first DVD. We watch it and one person is doing one thing, while I'm just staring off into space. We laugh so so hard, it's one wacky DVD - I love it. Go-Go-Robics 2 is currently in post-production and will be released 11/16/04. It contains much more material than GGR 1. We added a cooking segment where we cook a full-on Italain dinner. We also shot 2 music videos and one is set to our western routine, we even rode live horses in our sequined costumes. Then there is the actual Go-Go-Robics section where we teach a routine and just so much more, even an underwater segment.

Helen: I love it! I can't wait to show it to my grandkids someday.

What has the response been like to that "product"?

Helen: I think people really enjoy it. There is this bar in Texas called Beerland that actually plays Go-Go-Robics on the bar TVs just for pure entertainment. It's not just for working out!

Angie: So many different types of people like Go-Go-Robics. The Cramps even played the video before one of their concerts last year. I can't wait for part 2 to come out!

Tara: People love it. They really love it, for all kinds of reasons, whether they have it running at parties, playing in the bar or club or to exercise to.

Since being sexy is part of your job, I'm curious what you find to be attractive?

Helen: Confidence and a unique sense of style.

Angie: I'm attracted to optimism, people with a positive outlook on life and living. I love passionate people, people who love music, food, wine, art, family and the enjoyable things in life. I'm totally turned off by mean people, you've got to be kind and caring and neat! I love neatness. I really love a man who can cook & fix things. I can do those things myself, but I love it if someone else can too.

Tara: Comfortable confidence. Respect for others. A hunger for knowledge, and someone who wants to make this freakin' world a better place.

As leaders of the burlesque revival, I imagine you've had an opportunity to re-connect with some of the old-school dancers and performers, as well as fans of the form from back in the day. What has the typical reaction been like from that crowd?

Tara: We've been blessed with lots of affection, accolades, and applause. It warms my heart.

Angie: We met Dixie Evans at the first Tease-O-Rama and that was a thrill, she is a wonderful woman and I'll never forget meeting her. After she met us and saw us perform, she did an interview and in the interview she said, "Those three Italian sisters are really amazing entertainers." It was a high compliment. We met Satan's Angel at the last Tease, she is a firecracker!! Love her. We've also met a lot of older folks, mostly men, who were avid burlesque fans. They come out quite a bit and they are the sweetest and they love to see it coming back! They'll tell stories of going to the Burlesque shows out in Coney Island or how the girls used to come out and talk to them after the shows. It's fabulous to talk with them and hear their stories.

Helen: I think the old-schoolers love it! We have done our best to bring new life to the form.

Of all the voluptuous vixens of yore, whom do you most admire?

Angie: If we are talking Burlesque vixens, it's got to be Dixie Evans, not only for what she did back in the day, but for how hard she works to keep the Exotic World Museum going. She deserves to be retired in Capri, laying on a beach and sipping Pina Coladas, but she works her tail off to keep that muesum alive - it's amazing.

Tara: I also have to say Dixie Evans. She is an amazing woman that has worked to preserve her art and the artists who have made burlesque what it is. Love you Dixie!

Helen: Dixie Evans, for certain. And she is still performing!

Special thanks to Angie, Tara and Helen for taking time out of their very busy schedules to answer these questions.

    » Check the World Famous Pontani Sisters official websitefor tour dates, hot merchandise and other fun stuff.

Comments

loved 'em for years.

Posted by: huge ackman at April 11, 2006 9:01 AM

Great article on a great, great act. The pontanis just passed this way with los Straits and Kaiser George: AWESOME show and I'm guessing that the door mentioned above was at the Abbey in Chicago. My wife took a flying tumble off the last step down into the bar: a bit shaken by the mishap but not stirred enough to not enjoy the show.

Said it before: The Pontanis should get a MacArthur Grant for their work; ain't nothin' can touch them!

Posted by: Mark Braun at October 30, 2006 4:24 PM
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