Five questions with: Dolores Sparkles, burlesque comedian

Dolores Sparkles and Friends ft. Josh Francis, Champagne Sideshow

The Mill — Saturday, Jan. 18 at 9 p.m.

Dolores Sparkles — Meagan Foster / Caught in the Act Photography

Several years before being “born” onto the “Wall of Babes” at Studio Vitality dance school in Cedar Rapids, the nouveau-vaudevillian soon to be known as Dolores Sparkles was a New Jersey medievalist who followed a series of family tragedies to Iowa and stuck around as they continued to compound.

“I picked up a ukulele to help me cope,” she told me in an email, “and immediately started writing some storytelling songs and songs dealing with/making light of some spiritual beliefs I was trying to work through.”

She’s so deft at smiling through her heartache that you’d rightly guess she’s had some clown training to go along with the classes she’s taken in improv, sketch comedy and musical comedy. She started playing ukulele in 2017 (she purchased her newer, “fancier” one — Pedro — about a year ago). But it was in 2018, when she took a risk with burlesque, that all of her disparate talents really started to gel.

“Personally, the first impression of me is that I’m cute, and then I say things that can sometimes shock people, but I’m not working to have that be a subversive switcheroo of expectations every time,” Sparkles wrote. “That’s just me, baby! Mostly I’m out to get people to laugh and relate.”

She debuted her solo show in New York City and has played in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. You can laugh with and relate to her this Saturday, Jan. 18, at The Mill in Iowa City. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

Dolores Sparkles brings her bawdy hilarity to The Mill on Jan. 18. — Meagan Foster / Caught in the Act Photography

How did Dolores Sparkles come to be? What elements of your own personality are fused with hers, and what can you tell us about the name?

I named myself Dolores Sparkles while I was dancing at Vitality, where we are all encouraged to make names for ourselves to go on the “Wall of Babes.” I feel like Dolores evokes 1950s-era classic movie performers, so it’s an old-timey sort of kitschy name, but it also etymologically/personally implies that I went through a sad period after losing my mom where I cried a lot, but now I sparkle. And also tears sparkle. So it works both as a full sentence and as a first-last name combo! Might seem weird considering I’m a comedian but, well, without getting in the weeds with some mythological precedent, it feels right to me. 

Dolores Sparkles is a stage name … I have for many years looked up to musician/performance artists like Lady Gaga and David Bowie with his various persona and have wondered a lot about what it means to have a persona, the heightened self vs. the ideal self vs. the complicated normal human under there. But really at the end of the day, like any burlesque performer, I go by Dolores to keep a bit of mystery between my performance art and my normal life, to maintain a separation in an age of Google where I do have a 9-5 office job. But I don’t feel like I have to get into a “Dolores” headspace to write my songs — beyond the work of allowing yourself to be free and get into a creative flow. I am Dolores, it is just my normal self dialed up to 11, saying and doing the things I can’t in day-to-day society. 

You’ve performed with troupes in the area, including Bawdy Bawdy Ha Ha and Rebellion. What drove you to strike out on your own? 

We are so lucky to have Bawdy Bawdy Ha Ha and Rebellion! This past year I have performed many times with both troupes, a couple times as a dancer but mostly with my original musical comedy. Both groups have been AMAZINGLY welcoming of my funny approach to burlesque. This summer Rebellion put together a show combining stand-up comedy and comedic burlesque called Tits and Giggles where I got to play a 20-minute set of my songs. I had just started meeting some of the local stand-ups playing my songs at comedy open mics, so this combo was a dream cast and audience! Currently Rebellion is pushing more into boldly bringing social, political and other issues to light through the art of self-expression, and I applaud them for that mission and do personally find ways to touch on the craziness of current events in my songs.

Bawdy Bawdy Ha Ha brings many working artists and writers together to make burlesque; I love their practices and what they have to offer when workshopping routines. I have much to learn from them regarding classic costuming [and] costuming choices that lend themselves to burlesque dance. Most of all, their practices and performances have greatly inspired me to bring clear storytelling and a sense of poetry into my burlesque choreography. And again, their love of vaudevillian/classic burlesque is a natural fit for my ukulele and my wordy flirty ways!

I remain an independent performer mostly because I make so much stuff I wouldn’t want to limit my performance opportunities. I might do future incarnations of “Dolores and Friends” showcasing various performers, but the idea of this show wasn’t about “striking on my own” but more just celebrating that I have this amount of material. At a burlesque show, I typically get to do one dance routine or one to two songs, so making this show at The Mill is an opportunity to show my friends and fans more of what I’ve got and to make a bit of a storytelling arc with the material. 

You trained in Cedar Rapids (at Studio Vitality) but perform in Iowa City. What is your take on the different philosophies of burlesque that sometimes seem to split the CRANDIC? What’s your own perspective on the role of burlesque in a feminist society? 

Personally I would not have thought to be involved in the burlesque community without having first taken classes at Vitality. It was, well, vital to rebuilding my self-confidence and finding my way as a performer in a totally new place. Vitality as a school is focused on group dance routines, with solo performance opportunities once you are on the troupe. So their shows are very different from the shows Rebellion and Bawdy Bawdy Ha Ha do; while the IC groups are also different from each other, their variety show approach of mostly solo acts on a theme are more typical of burlesque I’ve now sampled throughout the Midwest. Vitality’s “vintage” classes use props, storytelling and often humor, and so those are inspired by similar things to what Bawdy Bawdy Ha Ha does. Their “cabaret” dance classes are really different from what I do personally as a burlesque performer, similar to Britney Spears, Pussycat Dolls video dancing. It’s a very fun place to learn different styles, get comfortable dancing in heels, and meet a bunch of women looking to do something different. 

These groups have different clientele; for example, Vitality is dedicated to being a safe space for women and a fitness as well as a dance studio. They make a fun and welcoming show that is about celebrating each of the unique dancers on stage as they do a group routine and gives a valuable performance space for many women who had never identified as performers or dancers. As I mentioned, Rebellion is focusing on making noise about current issues and Bawdy Bawdy Ha Ha shows can have the most variety performers (pole dance, sideshow stunts, singers).

It is important to say that Bawdy Bawdy Ha Ha and Rebellion are not exclusive to women — there are men who perform burlesque with these groups and people of all sexual and gender identities are involved.

Mostly I was attracted to burlesque because all of these groups embrace self-love, self-acceptance (loving yourself today and who you could be) and self-expression: a celebration of the self! Burlesque etymologically implies parody, which can have some negative connotations for art snobs, but as a feminist I think seeing women shamelessly celebrate themselves, including embracing camp and gore and all of the things that burlesque can be, is important for freeing women from patriarchally set limitations. And so it’s personally key to me that all of these groups have fun with their routines and support self-expression over perfection! And burlesque is a performance art umbrella with some associated dance techniques; it allows each dancer to pull from techniques and traditions that work for them, so all of these groups are doing the work of spreading burlesque, not taking life too seriously, loving ourselves in our bodies.

What is the balance between comedy and burlesque in your show and in your life? Are you a comedian whose medium is burlesque or a burlesque performer who doesn’t take herself too seriously? Who are some of your inspirations/role models? 

I am definitely both, but I am more a comedian whose medium is burlesque. It is important to me that my songs work at stand-up shows and open mics as well as through burlesque, though honestly the sexual tension created at a burlesque show sure helps my songs get the big laughs! I had some clown training, and when you think about the history of the circus (singing clowns) and vaudeville, perhaps the whole act springs from that archetype. Often, my take on burlesque dancing pulls on a very old, irreverent, shaman-sort of clown, emotionally and physically free, transparent and not always “sexy” in my embrace of having a fleshy squishy body.

Some of my stylistic inspirations include Mae West, Fanny Brice, Clara Bow. The early 20th century torch song genre inspires some of my vocal choices, but I now also have a song that pulls from Bruno Mars and Lizzo, so it’s a whole world of influences! Generally listening to musical comedians. I am also hugely influenced by a host of bizarrely imaginative and irreverent writers from the late middle ages (I was a medievalist in college), which comes out in the detail-packed way I tell my stories and make my observations.

Where do you hope to take this show? What’s next for Dolores in an immediate sense and what’s the Big Dream?

Well, after this show at The Mill (stand up Josh Francis will open, then a half hour with circus arts group Champagne Sideshow, then intermission and my full hour show), I will be putting on a totally different show in Des Moines on the 25th at Vaudeville Mews where I will emcee a night of seven burlesque routines and play my songs in between the dances. Come to that too, everybody!

I am getting the Mill show taped and so we’ll see what I can do with that … I am hoping having the professional video can help me have a lot of great clips to submit to things in the next year.

I have been loving learning about choreography and storytelling with my body and I do want to keep that in the mix because it’s very freeing and there is this wonderful diverse burlesque community available to give supportive feedback.

I always have a bunch of different ideas and contingency plans, but I think the biggest dream I can properly visualize is to just play the songs (and improv some songs) and open for a stand-up on a Midwest tour or something. I touch on mental health issues in my act and would really like to open for Maria Bamford, who was a huge inspiration to me in being truthful about that stuff. Before that, I guess having a manager, maybe playing some casinos and colleges? I don’t know! Then once I’m a big deal with my own show, BAM, I bring back the dancing.

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