The Steampunk Empire

The Crossroads of the Aether

Q&A with Dancer and Modern Vaudevillian Jen Rae

In DANCING AT THE CHANCE, I write about the world of vaudeville as it existed at the turn of the last century, but if you haven’t already noticed, there’s a good deal of vaudeville to be found in the world even today. You can find it in theaters, in nightclubs, even on the street, if you know where to look. Thanks to modern performers like Jen Rae of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who infuses her background in belly dance into her act, vaudeville is still vibrant and thriving, even across the border.
Jen Rae caught my attention in a recent newspaper article (which you can find here), but I wanted to know more. I’m pleased to say she graciously accepted my questions and responded with thoughtful and entertaining answers – which it is my pleasure and delight to share with you.
Please allow me to introduce the lovely and talented Jen Rae…
A: I danced jazz as a child and found through that that I have a love of performance. I re-entered the dance world through Egyptian Bellydance in my early twenties, and then discovered American Tribal Style (ATS) Bellydance in my early thirties. This unique style, created by Carolena Nericcio in San Francisco, captured my passion with its earthy, synchronized group improvisation. I received my teacher's certification in 2006, and have been teaching ATS in Canada since.

A: Hopefully, it’s not too odd to say that Vaudeville found me when I needed it the most! I had been organizing the street busking of our ATS group at a local theatre festival and found it was difficult to capture and hold the attention of a wandering audience. We found the audience responded readily when we performed with a cheeky, playful style. The engagement of the audience increased if we performed “vaudeville” style with dangerous props, such as swords or a snake. We found that this family-friendly variety show format lent itself well to street-level interactions. Our troupe has since included a vaudeville-style bellydance choreography into our repertoire, taught to us by Lava from Vancouver. The audience responds readily to that number, whether street-level or on a stage!
A: I adore watching old movies, and many of the stars from the 1930s were originally from the vaudeville circuit. I found that these stars were the most multi-talented actors and really grabbed your attention when they were on the screen. Also, they seemed to be humble, down-to-earth people off-screen.

My favorite vaudeville inspiration has to be Mae West. Not only was she glamorous, cheeky and engaging on the screen, she also did so much good work behind the scenes. She taught me about attitude and “going for it” when you are on the stage.

Buster Keaton is another favorite of mine. Physical comedy is difficult and he makes it look so graceful. He was richly talented, and taught me much about projecting my stage presence even without cracking a smile.

There is a recent trend to incorporate vaudeville style into bellydance. The routines contain comedy, Jazz Age-inspired costumes, and cheekiness using Balkan and Jazz music. The dancer Rachel Brice and her show Le Serpent Rouge incorporates many of these vaudeville stylings.

My modern inspirations include a bellydancer from Vancouver, British Columbia, by the name of Lava. She is the director of the troupe Sisters of Alchemy . She has a love of comedy, vaudeville and can-can dance that she incorporates into her choreographies and performances. She is a delight to watch, and like past vaudeville actors, Lava is graceful, has lots of stage presence and is down-to-earth, too!

A: There is the work I do with our ATS troupe, and the work I do solo. When the ATS troupe members are together, we do strict ATS. However, the same troupe also performs the vaudeville-style tribal fusion bellydance choreography taught by Lava that I mentioned. We use different costuming to indicate we are not doing ATS, and to showcase the sassy moves!

The same troupe also performs work with props that could be described as vaudeville-style. One involves my corn snake, Lady, in a basket while I try and emulate my troupe mates who balance theirs perfectly. I open the basket to find a snake, and we work with different reactions to this situation. The audience seems to get a kick out of the absurd situation this supposedly dangerous animal was found in.

I have brought my snakes dancing and double sword balancing act onto the stage as part of a local band's act. The New Jacobin Club is a great group that has been very welcoming to my ideas. With them, I have explored the darker sides of vaudeville, more into the 1920s German Cabaret genre. I have an act where I smoke a long-handled cigarette and speak in German before bringing out the snake, the opposite of coquette. Not sure if this is classed as vaudeville, but it does garner the same reaction, and it is still over-the-top!

I also dance with my snakes in a solo act called “The Temptation of Eve.” In this story, I am dressed in a coquette outfit while acting out the interaction between Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden. Eve eats the apple right away and dances with the snake, at first shocked at the moves he evokes in her! They are all friends at the end, and Eve leaves with the snake, leaving Adam in the lurch.

I adore modern vaudeville for the paradox between a dangerous object such as swords or snakes, and projecting some lightheartedness into the situation. Members of the audience approach my snakes after such a performance, wanting to touch him and ask great questions, or try to balance one of the swords. That open and curious interaction is important to me, and I think a direct result of the approachability of modern vaudeville dance. I find that people appear very entertained by this style of dance, and that's the reason I am on the stage!

Thank you, Jen Rae! Look for her on vaudeville bills near you!

Photo credits:
Top photo: Jackie Latendresse
Middle photo: Laurie Bethel
Bottom photo: Charlene Bosiak

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