The days of Discordia return: Greensboro burlesque festival is ‘here to stay’
The Discordia Days Burlesque Festival is this weekend, and it is what the Greensboro-based burlesque troupe, the Discordia Dames, have been preparing for all year.
According to their press kit, the Discordia Dames are a versatile and entertaining troupe composed of Memphis Muerte, Lux Valentina, Sadie Mae Hem, May Hemmer, and Allison Wonderland. The Dames “have something to tickle every fancy,” drawing on multiple styles and eras of burlesque such as classic burlesque, neo-burlesque, fetish art, sideshow performances, flow arts, and nerd-lesque. The Discordia Dames produce monthly shows as well as this yearly festival. The Discordia Days Burlesque Festival is this weekend, Aug. 16-18, at the Community Theatre of Greensboro and Chemistry Nightclub. The festival is co-produced by Stumble Stilskins.
Headlining is two well-known names in the burlesque world, Calamity Chang and Lou Lou la Duchesse de Rière.
According to a Vice mini-documentary, Lou Lou la Duchesse de Rière is from Montreal, Canada, and was the first Indigenous woman to be crowned Queen of Burlesque. She uses burlesque “to break social constructs surrounding First Nations women’s sexuality and imposes news standards of beauty in the burlesque community.”
Muerte, the “mama bear” of the Dames and a co-organizer for the festival, said that the “sweetest and absolutely phenomenal” Calamity Chang is a Top 100 burlesque performer who produces as well as performs two weekly shows and monthly shows in New York City. She has made an appearance in reality T.V. series and the film Shame by Steve McQueen. Calamity Chang is not new to Greensboro, in 2014 she headlined for the Discordia Days Festival when Muerte took over the reins for organizing the festival.
“I reached out to Calamity first because of her involvement and kindness the first year I took this over has always been important to me and has resonated with me,” Muerte said. “As a white-passing woman of color, it is incredibly important to me, because I am in a position of power, to make those offers. I always reach out to performers of color first and every year but one, our headliner has been a person of color.”
“She was the first burlesque performer that I ever saw in person that looked like me,” said performer and co-organizer Lux Valentina of Calamity Chang.
This year’s festival is a bit different than what it has been in the past. Last year, Muerte said the Dames were able to host a four-day festival, however, this year with the sudden closure of their former home venue, Shiners, they were left to improvise.
“Last year we did four days, which was amazing because it brought in so many people and performers, but it was so exhausting at the end of it,” Muerte said. “We all work full time, too. This year, we are doing three days.”
“Luckily, we are super, super excited to be at Chemistry Nightclub,” co-organizer and performer Allison Wonderland added. “We are doing an ‘afternoon delight’ show, at 3:30, right after the drag brunch.”
Muerte is especially excited to be performing at Chemistry.
“When I took the troupe over, several years ago, that was our home venue because I started there as a bio queen–I’m a female, but I still did drag,” she explained. “I still have a lot of friends in the drag community, so it is a really kind of a fun homecoming for me, personally.”
Muerte said the Dames would continue to do their monthly shows at Chemistry Nightclub starting in September.
“We are a smaller festival, and we don’t get any support from the city,” Muerte said. “Like, when you go to the Savannah Burlesque Festival; they have their own beer and all these other things, and the Chamber of Commerce gave us a letter of welcome. We don’t get that here in Greensboro.”
“Our goal for this year is to cement ourselves as here to stay in the city,” Wonderland said. “I think that people are becoming much more open to the idea of a burlesque festival and the performance aspect of it. We are different from many other festivals for the fact that we benefit a nonprofit organization every year and we are really interested in bringing things back to the community.”
This year, the Discordia Days Burlesque Festival will benefit the Greensboro Interactive Resource Center (IRC), which according to its website, “is Guilford County’s only day resource center for people currently facing, experiencing or coming out of homelessness.” The IRC provides everything from basic services (such as showers, laundry, or a mailing address) to medical and mental health care, case management, and employment services.
“The festival ends on Aug. 18, bills are paid Aug. 19, and on Aug. 20, whatever is left in our bank account, I am cutting a check for a charity,” Muerte explained.
Muerte said that each year, the Dames start with a zero balance, which is why sponsorships are crucial.
“We are a legitimate theatre, when you look at the roots of burlesque, it has been around for thousands of years,” Muerte said. “We are here, and we are a thing. And it is a double-edged sword, where we are a legitimate theatre, and I want that kind of recognition, but so much of what draws people to us is that illicit quality.”
“We try to implement the art of the tease as an art form in itself,” Wonderland added. “It is not dance entirely, it can be, but it is also all these different aspects of art we incorporate.”
Burlesque is not just taking off articles of clothing during a song.
“Sometimes it is costuming, dancing, acting; it is everything,” Muerte said. “Every burlesque act tells a story, sometimes that story is just, ‘I am really sexy and I want you to look at me,’ and sometimes that story is deeper and evocative. Sometimes it is political, sometimes it is personal, and you derive your own meaning from it. I want us to be recognized as here [in Greensboro].”
Valentina said the diversity of the Dames is what keeps people coming back for more. As Muerte explained, she is white-passing Latina. She started out doing drag as a “bio queen,” she is a plus-sized woman, and her burlesque is all about body positivity. Valentina is a Korean-American, who came from a Go-Go dancing and stripping background. She performs in the fetish, flow realm of burlesque, and she sometimes incorporates poi (fire spinning) in her acts.
“We come together, and it is very much like a sisterhood,” Valentina said. “It is not only a business, but we take care of each other, we are there for each other whatever we are going through in our personal lives. I think people can sense that when we are on stage.”
Wonderland is newer to the troupe, and she’s a white woman with an hour-glass figure that focuses on the bump-and-grind aspect of classic burlesque. But she is going to branch out by performing her first comedic act at the festival.
Sadie Mae Hem is a plus-sized white woman who falls in the realm of rockabilly and classic burlesque, but she doesn’t like to be type-cast and labeled. “Some festivals try to fit people in specific boxes,” Hem explained. “I know Memphis and I have been hit with the idea before that ‘fat girls do funny,’ but you don’t see that with us.”
May Hemmer is an Afro-Latina and First Nations woman who specializes in the realm of cosplay and nerd-lesque.
“It is not just that we are diverse ethnically, but we are diverse across body types, we are diverse across generations,” Hem said. “That is one of the things I like about burlesque; it is not about being 25 and being perfectly-shaped. You can see the power and the sexiness and what anyone’s trying to convey at any age, shape, color, or gender identity. That diversity is really important, and I know that Memphis especially makes an effort to make sure that we are diverse. That you see diverse performers do diverse things. You aren’t going to see strip-and-strut acts or just classic burlesque. You are going to see everything from nerd-lesque, to classic, neo-burlesque, fetish artist, comedic; it is a whole variety of things.”
“As a community, the reason why people should come to the festival, in general, is because it is for a good cause and also it’s a great burlesque show. It is great entertainment,” Wonderland added. “We’ve got people coming in from all over the world. We have people who apply from everywhere. I think that it is just a really unique thing that not every city has. I think that one of the reasons why people gravitate toward it.”
On June 28, I had the pleasure of interviewing the ladies of the Discordia Dames while they prepared for their show at The Crown that night. That show was probably the most entertaining live theatre performance I have been to so far this year. The variety of music and the different techniques from the performers were so structured and clean. You could tell this gig was something the troupe took very seriously, but at the same time, you could tell they were also having a good time. As far as their fanbase, it was very apparent that they have a loyal following as well an edge for attracting those who haven’t been to a burlesque show before. While I was there observing, I also “kittened,” which means making sure the stage is clean for the next performer or just helping the show run smoothly, collecting tips, and helping the performers get all of their garments back that they take off during their act. They had sold 50 walk-up tickets alone that night, and the intimate venue was full of people from all different walks of life having a blast.
“We get a really good response from the audience,” Wonderland said. “There are people that come to the festival because they have heard about it and they have never been to a show before. To be honest, if you are going to go to a burlesque show, the festival is a good place to start. You will see the best of the best.”
As a perk to other North Carolina-based burlesque performers, Muerte said the Dames offer $20 performer passes.
“If you apply [as a performer], the application fee pays for a weekend pass even if you don’t get accepted,” she said.
“As a group, we make a point to build people up, especially women,” Wonderland said. “It is not a competition; we are all in this together.”
As an amateur drag king myself, I sometimes find myself lost when it comes to choosing my next song to perform, and often I take a while to contemplate what story I want to tell in my performance. I asked the Dames what their process was for choosing their next piece to perform. Wonderland said it all starts with building a playlist.
“I start with one song and when I listen to Spotify or whatever, and I add to it.”
“I do that too, I keep a running playlist, but there are definitely times when I want to do this character,” Hem added. “I have a hard time staying in my comfort zone. I come from a rockabilly, plus-size pin-up space and so I have a tendency to do a lot of numbers from the ‘40s. Memphis likes to challenge people to do things that are outside of what people usually do.”
As the Dames “get as naked as the law allows,” I wondered, do they ever get nervous?
“Absolutely, every single time,” Muerte said. “When you stop getting nervous about it, to me, is a red flag because you are not caring anymore.”
Muerte said it is a challenge when she has to perform but doesn’t feel as confident as she usually does, but she doesn’t let that stop her.
“I am about body positivity, just be who you want,” she said. “The longest relationship is the one you have with yourself. It doesn’t matter how I feel that day; people paid for tickets, I can’t let my insecurity ruin the money they spent on me.”
I also asked the Dames if their art of the tease comes from within or if it manifests externally.
“I think it is a little bit of both; it is both validation and having confidence,” Wonderland said. “It is scary but also really fun; it is the most fun thing I have ever done.”
“I have gone out and had people yell at me ‘eat a cheeseburger,’” Valentina said. “I have gone out, taken something off, and heard some people go, ‘eww.’ I’m online (on Instagram and Facebook) and they comment on my pictures and call me a whore, but you have to get over it. Not saying what those people are doing isn’t wrong, but you have to just get that validation from within. You have to realize these people are gonna say what they are gonna say. If it is enough for you to stop, that is fine, it is your choice. But you have to feel powerful enough inside to overcome it.”
More information about the Discordia Days Burlesque Festival can be found on its website, and more information about the Discordia Dames Burlesque Troupe can be found on their website, as well as on their Facebook (discordiadames/) and Instagram (@discordiadames) pages.
Tickets start at $15 per day (plus an online service fee from Brown Paper Tickets, www.ddbf19.bpt.me/), VIP passes are $20 per day, general admission for the weekend is $30, and a VIP weekend pass is $40.
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.
Friday, Aug. 16, 8 p.m. at The Community Theatre of Greensboro (520 S. Elm St.)
Saturday, Aug. 17, 8 p.m. at The Community Theatre of Greensboro
Sunday, Aug. 18, 3:30 p.m. at Chemistry Nightclub (2901 Spring Garden St.) after the August installment of Greensboro Drag Brunch, benefitting the Guilford Green Foundation, featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Kahanna Montrese.