by Ilona Westfall
From pasties to fairy wings to fake blood, when you attend a Smoke & Queers show, you know you’re in for an endlessly entertaining night of sexy—and sometimes delightfully weird—burlesque, drag, and performance art.
Founded in 2019 by Christina Coobatis and Clarity Amrein, the duo thought Cincinnati could use an amateur queer dance troupe where folks of all skill levels would be welcome to express themselves. The result is a robust roster of costumed performers who gyrate, bounce, and dance their way through DIY themed shows like last year’s Halloween show “Trick-or-Tease” and a slumber party night.
The Buckeye Flame talked to co-founder Coobatis about what sets the troupe apart and how they have been weathering the pandemic.
How gay is burlesque?
With the way we approach it, very. I think the reason is because everyone in the troupe has come from some sort of performance background in a way. A lot of us came more from a spoken word poetry background. Some people are more seasoned actual dancers. Some people have side jobs working in strip clubs. Some people, it might be their first time dancing at all.
But I think for all of us, the reason burlesque has been the thing to bring us all together and that we all have gotten really excited about is that it has this history of speaking to power, being that art form that was a little more underground. It was happening in the speakeasies and it was this medium where a lot of performers were able to be super experimental. And I think that translates so well to being able to express queerness and being able to control your appearance and your performance, to be able to portray yourself maybe in ways that you’re not even able to on a daily basis.
What sets Smoke & Queers apart from other burlesque troupes?
When we started, we made it very clear that we were open to people of all levels of skill which I think helped make it this more accessible thing, compared to the many other dance troupes in the city, a majority of which are highly professional. There wasn’t really this sort of avenue when it came to performing arts where people could even dip their toes to try it out in a more accessible way.
In addition, it’s just embracing the absolute diversity of everyone’s backgrounds: of where they’re coming from and their prior experiences. We work hard to create this collaborative environment. When it comes to our show planning, for instance, yes, we have troupe leaders where we might come up with some show themes to start, but then we hold troupe discussions where everyone can give their feedback. Once we come to group consensus, people throw out their own personal solo ideas. They’re able to bounce ideas off each other, help build them. Other than very loose guidelines, we really leave it open to performers to get as weird and wild as they desire. And I think we’ve already built this reputation of doing that at our shows. With each new show I feel like it’s become this unspoken goal that we’re always trying to top the last one, which just helps encourage this highly creative atmosphere.
How are you surviving the pandemic & what does the future hold?
When the shutdown first happened, it was incredibly hard. I think [it’s hard] in a very specific way for anyone in any type of live performance because we get our energy from being in a room with tons of people. That really took us for a turn. We had a one-year anniversary show we were going to be doing in April that unfortunately had to be canceled. So we took some time just to recoup. We made an anniversary video in lieu of being able to do a live show, where all our members contributed some fun little pieces.
Interestingly, these past few months, because of the Black Lives Matter movement, we changed gears and because that sort of political awareness—again, that wanting to speak truth to power that comes in our performances—when things got real in real life, when it came to social and racial justice, all of our troupe members were out there in the streets suddenly. Through that we realized we’ve been surrounding ourselves with the right people. When it came time to shift focus a little bit everyone was on board and already planning to do that, which was awesome to see.
But now that it’s been about six months into this pandemic, and we’ve watched so many different performers and how they have experimented with things like virtual shows and live streams, we really want to be intentional. We do have plans in the works for a virtual show but no date [set]yet. We are planning to finally make our digital debut and we’re super excited about it.
A few of our favorite Smoke & Queers shots:
- Follow Smoke & Queers on Facebook or Instagram for updates on virtual shows, in-person events and recruitment.
- Wear a mask.
Ilona Westfall is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. When she’s not penning articles for a variety of northeast Ohio publications, she’s roller skating with Burning River Roller Derby, rolling d20s with her D&D group, or getting muddy in the woods. Follow her on twitter @IlonaWestfall.