This weekend, the Salt City Burlesque and Vaudeville Arts Festival will debut its first ever two-day festival in Syracuse. The age-restricted events will be held at the Palace Theatre and the Wunderbar on May 27 and May 28.

The inaugural event will present more than 40 performers hailing from across the U.S and Canada. All guests will have the opportunity to view 3 showcases, participate in workshops and attend a closing party.

This year’s headliner will be the current reigning queen of burlesque, Lou Lou la Duchesse de Riere, an afro-indigenous performer from Kahnawake, Quebec. 

She will perform her piece, “Peace, Power, and Righteousness,” an homage to her cultural and ethnic identities. The piece features a powwow dance representing her Mohawk heritage and voguing, representative of her African-American heritage. 

The overall importance of having a space, like a festival, is for burlesque performers to gather in a community to see, meet and network with other performers, said Talia Shenandoah, a member of the Mohawk tribe who identifies as two-spirited. Shenandoah is also a burlesque performer of nine years who goes by the stage name Harlow Holiday. 

Through Lou Lou la Duchesse de Riere’s performance, she has helped to re-open conversations about land acknowledgement for indigenous people. 

“It just seemed like a really powerful time to really focus on uplifting voices, which is something that the burlesque community is trying to do,” Shenandoah said. 

Central New York’s downstate neighbor, New York City, holds an annual burlesque festival, but the Upstate and Central New York regions wanted “the rest of the world to think about outside of New York City,” Shenandoah said.

In fact, a few years before the pandemic arrived, a group based in Ithaca, the Whiskey Tango Sideshow, began hosting its annual Empire Burlesque Festival. Both groups teamed up to recruit burlesque and vaudeville arts talents to showcase in this year’s festival. 

“Those experiences are super important in getting the exposure that you need,” Shenandoah said.

In addition to establishing partnership among regional troops to bring burlesque performers from all over the continent, funding was an essential part of ensuring the event would happen.

“We wanted the opportunity to expose Syracuse to a higher level of quality of entertainment and also an opportunity to create work for artists, because the festival scene, even in our industry, it’s not really known for paying people,” Shenandoah said.

Given her knowledge and experience in the industry, Shenandoah wanted to advocate for performers being compensated for their work and time. As a performer herself, Shenandoah understands equitability is what contributes to the sustainability of the art form and all the artists involved.

“I thought that would be amazing that if we could get grant funding to put this on, we would be different, in the sense that we are creating actual income for artists,” Shenandoah said. “This is a paid opportunity for people to do what they love and that would set us apart in a way.”

Shenandoah, who has prior experience in human services and working with state committees, saw an opportunity on the horizon when CNY Arts announced a grant for artists during the pandemic. On behalf of the Salt City Burlesque and all of the parties involved, she wrote a proposal. The grant was approved in mid-December, and the planning process for the festival began the following month. 

“When I wrote the grant, I was really wanting to focus on the importance of the networking that we do regionally,”  Shenandoah said. “And also how this would give us an opportunity to bring professionals from out of state or across the content, which is really what’s happening this weekend.”

It is common for most people to misconstrue what burlesque and vaudeville arts entail, comparing its likeness to the film “Burlesque”starring pop-stars Cher and Christina Aguilera,  Shenandoah said.

Modern day vaudeville arts draws on inspiration from what theater experiences were like a century ago: sketch comedy shows, plays, musical and dancing performances, and strip teasing — which happened accidentally, Shenandoah said. 

“Burlesque really gives an opportunity to push boundaries and break stereotypes,” Shenandoah said. 

For those who are apprehensive about seeing the show, Shenandoah encourages first-timers to “take a chance on something new.”

“There’s a lot of things that people walk out of there thinking about,” Shenandoah said. “It’s just really important to say, ‘Open your mind, open your heart, share this experience with us, and if it’s not for you, it’s not for you.’”

Salt City Burlesque and Vaudeville Arts Festival is an adults-only event and welcomes people of all identities. The first event will be on May 27 at the Palace Theatre. For the second event, on May 28 at Wunderbar in Syracuse, attendees must be at least 21 years old, and all guests must show IDs.  

To view Salt City Burlesque and Vaudeville Arts Festival dates, events and performance schedules, or to purchase tickets, go here

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