INTERVIEW: The Schlep Sisters – Minnie Tonka and Darlinda Just Darlinda. (Partnerships Series)
With their tenth anniversary celebration coming up this Saturday (March 8th – see details below), it’s the perfect moment to finally interview two of the most warm, intelligent and face-achingly hilarious women I know, and document a decade of achievement in words and photos. As The Schlep Sisters and as soloists, Minnie Tonka and Darlinda Just Darlinda have made endearing and uplifting contributions to burlesque and the international community, and I was eager to hear about their journey in more detail…
How and when did the two of you meet, and what were you both doing previously before you discovered burlesque? What were your initial discoveries and observations of burlesque and the ‘scene’ at the time?
MT: We met at a Flash Mob after party for ‘Buy Nothing Day’ on Black Friday, November 2003. Earlier that year I graduated with my M.A. in Jewish Education and that fall I started an awesome job as the Director of Arts and Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y, a Jewish Community Center in the East Village. The burlesque shows that I initially went to were Starshine Burlesque and Red Hots Burlesque. It took me a few years to integrate into the burlesque community, but when I think about those early years, it was a very exciting time. There were few performers, the aesthetic was much more comedic and neo-burlesque, and everyone had their own unique and distinct style. Rhinestones were essentially nonexistent! NYC burlesque was about the concept and cleverness of your act, not the glamour and sparkle of your costume. Don’t get me wrong, I love rhinestones as much as the next burlesque dancer, but my have times changed!
DJD: In 2003 I ‘discovered burlesque’ when I heard about burlesque from my college roommate in Monterey, California; she had just got back from Tease-o-Rama, she described burlesque to me and I thought, ‘mixing humour with sexuality? That’s what I want to do!’ So in June of 2003 we did a burlesque performance at our friend’s birthday. In November of 2003 I met Minnie Tonka at a ‘Buy Nothing Day’ protest after-party and we immediately connected and wanted to work together. In February of 2004 we did our first burlesque performance at what is now called The House of Collection (where we are doing our Anniversary Party on March 8th!) After that, I met Rhinestone Debbie, a long time performer and supporter of BHOF, at a bar I was bar tending. When I told her I did burlesque, she hired me for a gig go-go dancing at an after party for Cirque Du Soliel’s opening. I met Julie Atlas Muz, Little Brooklyn and Bunny Love at that gig and Little Brooklyn told me about Starshine Burlesque. I went to Starshine Burlesque and shortly after Creamy Stevens and Little Brooklyn booked me, and I never looked back because the community had been SO SUPPORTIVE! AND INCLUSIVE!
Can you describe some of your early routines and experimentation? Who and what were your initial sources of inspiration?
MT: Our first burlesque performance was February 17th, 2004. We did a reverse strip to the traditional Jewish song Hava Negilah sung by The Barry Sisters, a Yiddish Swing sister duo. We still do this act! At the beginning of my burlesque career I was bashful to show my body, so we did a reverse strip because I felt more comfortable putting on clothes rather than taking them off! I think our initial sources of inspiration have remained with us throughout the years; we love The Barry Sisters and have several acts to their songs. We also have fun experimenting and reinventing biblical stories and Jewish holidays through striptease.
DJD: Minnie described The Schlep Sisters first routine above, but my first solo routine was to Nina Simone’s I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl. Nina Simone’s music greatly inspired me and the first show I produced was called I Love Dr Nina Simone. I had some of the performers that inspired me the most in it, which included Julie Atlas Muz, The World Famous *BOB* and more! Julie Atlas Muz is one of my great inspirations. I love what she does as a burlesque artist, but as a performance artist she is incredibly accomplished, and that inspires me too as I am more and more inclined to make performance art!
At what point did you feel fully established and integrated into the burlesque community around you? Was there a particular routine and/or gig that you feel cemented your identity as a committed, recognised duo?
MT: Personally, it took me a handful of years to feel fully established and integrated into the burlesque community. 2009 was a very important year for me because I performed in my beloved hometown of Minneapolis for the first time and I met, bonded and worked with Ophelia Flame, Nadine Dubois, Sweetpea, etc. A few months later, I attended the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend for the first time and we competed for ‘Best Group’, which was, of course, amazing, eye-opening and life-changing.
DJD: As The Schlep Sisters being established in The Burlesque Community, I think 2009 was the year that happened for us! As a soloist 2007 was a big year for me: it was the first time I performed solo at BHoF, and that fall I flew to London to speak at a Symposium about Feminism and Burlesque at The Central School of Speech and Theatre. (Here is a link to the speech.)
As much of your discovery developed once you had met, you must have really shaped each other’s experience and exploration. It sounds like Darlinda may have started to perform as a soloist early on, but did it take more time to grow in confidence and establish individual identities?
MT: Yes. In our very first conversation, Darlinda expressed excitement and interest in doing burlesque; I only had a vague sense of what it was, but I was very intrigued. Darlinda dove deep into the burlesque scene quickly and started performing solo right away. During those early years, my day job was quite demanding and gave me the creative and artistic outlet that I needed so I wasn’t pursuing burlesque as heavily as Darlinda. It took me about three years to feel truly comfortable performing on my own and to really branch out beyond The Schlep Sisters. I performed at the first Toronto Burlesque Festival in 2008 and the only New Yorkers in attendance were Tigger!, Dirty and I, so it was great to represent NYC. Performing at that festival helped me to feel more confident and establish myself as a soloist.
DJD: As I said above, I found it in California through my roommate and then performed at a couple of house parties, one being my going-away party before I moved to NYC. My first solo performance, outside of the show that Minnie and I did at The House of Collection, was at Starshine Burlesque in the summer of 2004. Then I continued to do solo work after that at The Slipper Room. I was so excited to be performing in NYC I just went for it! A bonus of being 23 and excited to be in NYC doing something new and inspiring!
Some troupe members struggle to distinguish themselves as solo performers when they try to stand alone, instead of or alongside their work as a group member. You two, on the other hand, have achieved recognition, independence and success as soloists. What do you think is the key to that; does it simply come down to having enough creativity, distinct persona and stage presence to go it alone?
MT: Yes! Darlinda and I have different performance styles and when we perform together it’s a whole new and wonderful experience! I am so proud of us and love that we bring diversity to the stage. For example, if we’re in a show together and we each do a solo and we do a duet, the audience is getting three distinct types of performance experiences. I love that about us. I think the key to this is that we remain true to ourselves individually when we perform solo, and together we collaborate and create a whole new energy and style.
DJD: I agree with Minnie, but I also think the key for duos to have their own distinct persona is the actual drive to have it. I’ve seen group/duo members not be as successful as soloists because they don’t promote themselves or they rely on the success of the group/duo. It’s a fine line of nurturing your group/duo and promoting yourself as a soloist. I also think it’s very important to recognise your partner in their solo work, give them props and support them. When Minnie performs solo at BHoF it’s really exciting for me to see her on stage, because I’ve known her since the beginning and her success is really meaningful to me! Minnie and I try to give each other gigs when one of us can’t do it or if there is extra work to go around; that’s also a bonus of having such a close duo that also supports each other’s solo work!
You soon began to produce your own shows, too. Did the dynamic between you change when you started to produce together, and did it have a positive and/or negative effect on your collaborative process as performers?
MT: I started producing Kosher ChiXXX in August 2004, only seven months after we started performing burlesque. The first show Darlinda and I produced together was Menorah Horah in 2007. In the early years I was pretty adamant about doing Jewish themed shows, much more than Darlinda, and we didn’t always see eye to eye. I’m not sure if the dynamic changed when we started producing together, but we’ve certainly been through growing pains over the years. We’ve had our share of fights and hurtful moments, but we always make up and grow stronger. Our relationship is the most unique and intimate relationship and like no other I’ve had. We’ve worked through a lot together over the past decade, growing and learning as individuals and as a team.
DJD: I started producing shows in 2005 at Galapagos Art Space when it was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I did shows there until 2009. I produced shows for my Year in Rainbow Project in 2008 and 2009. Since 2011 I’ve been co-producing Bushwick Burlesque. I really agree with everything Minnie said above. I think when we produce shows together it only elevates us a duo, and when we produce our own shows it’s great for our duo because the more positive publicity one of us has, the more it elevates us together!
Which shows are you most proud of? Obviously your annual Menorah Horah revue is well known…
MT: We love and are very proud of the second incarnation of our Burning Bush VS. The Second Coming that we did in 2012. It’s our Passover VS. Easter burlesque showdown and is a comedic and theatrical show rather than a straight burlesque show. Plus, we get to do one of our favourite acts: our Exodus from Egypt act where we retell the biblical story of the Jews Exodus from slavery in Egypt through striptease to an 80’s musical montage. It’s epic.
DJD: I agree with Minnie completely! Burning Bush VS. Second Coming, all the way!
Speaking of Menorah Horah, I would like to spend a little time on your Jewish heritage and the way you incorporate cultural and religious references into your performances. Some of your numbers poke fun at the ‘forbidden’, such as your bacon-indulging ‘I Hate Myself For Loving You’ act, and your sentimental, playful routine to a Yiddish rendition of My Way is a gentler nod to your heritage. How has your incorporation of Jewish culture and heritage evolved and developed over time, and is it particularly enjoyable and/or important to you to explore it?
MT: I have a strong Jewish identity and during my first few years of performing my Jewish identity was particularly strong, so I only created Jewish-themed acts. My bacon act to Joan Jett’s I Hate Myself for Loving You was actually my second act and I still do it to this day. Combining 80’s rock ‘n’ roll with Judaism – hells yeah! Once I started to perform more often, I didn’t want to limit myself to Jewish themes. The Schlep Sisters have always celebrated our Jewish heritage through our acts. I think all but one of our acts has a Jewish theme, and include acts to The Barry Sisters, which gives a nod to our heritage.
DJD: Yes, The Schlep Sisters acts are mostly celebrations of our Jewish heritage! Most of my Jewish themed acts are ones which I created for shows that Minnie and I produced with Jewish themes. One of the things I like about having Jewish themed shows is that it gives me an opportunity to explore my Jewish heritage. I probably wouldn’t do it otherwise, so our shows are a fantastic occasion to learn!
Were there particular Jewish performers and productions which informed your work (I think of Indigo Blue and Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, for example)?
MT: In 2005 we started touring regularly, and for several years with the variety show Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad. NJGGB, which was created in 2003 by Susannah Perlman, gave us the opportunity to experiment and grow as a duo. In 2004 when I co-created Kosher ChiXXX with Raven Snook, we recruited Jewish burlesque performers Little Brooklyn, Dottie Lux, Old Ma Femme and Rose Wood, to name a few. At the time, identifying as Jewish and incorporating Judaism into burlesque was a new idea in the neo-burlesque scene.
DJD: I think working with Little Brooklyn was a great inspiration to both of us as solo artists and as a duo. She blends comedy with storytelling and makes it sexy, light-hearted and fun, which something we aim to do as The Schlep Sisters.
Are you both ‘practising’ Jews at this time? Do you have faith? I know a number of Jews who observe cultural aspects of their religion and upbringing but examine the strength of their faith less closely…
MT: Judaism and my Jewish identity is very important to me. I celebrate and honour Jewish holidays, but on a daily basis I am not a practicing Jew, rather more of a cultural Jew. I am a spiritual person.
DJD: I’m definitely a ‘cultural Jew’. While I am spiritual, I’m not a practicing Jew; I do find comfort in some of the Jewish religious ceremonies that Judaism has to offer.
I read an article a while ago in which you describe the largely positive reaction you have had from Jewish audience members. Can you describe the range of responses you have received, and any interesting discussions that have resulted? Have you ever received criticism or particular praise from other Jewish performers?
MT: Darlinda and I are blessed to have the support of our family, friends, colleagues and the Jewish community. At the 2006 New York Burlesque Festival we performed our Havah Negilah act. Trixie Minx introduced herself and thanked me for our performance; our act inspired her to incorporate Judaism into burlesque. She has since created her ‘Hot Jewish Chicks’ act and Trixie performed at our first Menorah Horah in 2007!
DJD: I think there is a general feeling of inspiration that I hear from other Jewish performers. When they see us perform they are inspired by our Jewish expression and they want to do the same!
Can you each recall a key weakness which the other has improved, and a quality you most admire in each other?
MT: Darlinda was fresh out of college when we met (we have a seven year age difference) and I’ve watched her grow into herself, mature, and demonstrate calm and patience that she didn’t have when we first met. For many people, it’s difficult to admit when you’ve hurt someone’s feelings and to apologise. This comes more easily to Darlinda. She is a forgiving and giving person. Darlinda continually wants to grow, improve, and evolve.
DJD: I wouldn’t really call it a weakness, because it’s more about comfort levels, but when we first started Minnie was pretty modest and didn’t want to strip down to a g-string, but now she’s very expressive and comfortable with her body, which is lovely! I really admire Minnie’s connection with her audience both on and off stage; she really gives them a very special gift!
You have already suggested some tough patches, but has it mostly been smooth-sailing over the past ten years? Has your relationship and work as a duo ever been significantly threatened by any challenges, changes or conflicts?
MT: Let me just say that we’ve come a long way, baby! I can be a know-it-all Capricorn and Darlinda can be a self-centred Leo. We’ve been through so much together and we’ve definitely had our share of conflicts and challenges over the past decade, but I feel like our partnership is strong and we are in a good place of trust and communication. It’s taken a lot of work to get where we are and I am very grateful.
DJD: Oh sure! A human (especially one in their twenties and thirties) goes through a SIGNIFICANT amount of growth. So we’ve changed and been challenged by many things, but our work as a duo has never really been threatened.
I have asked other couples in this Partnership Series about their tips for achieving longevity and long term harmony as a duo. What would you advise, drawing on your own experience?
MT: Commitment, patience, flexibility and a sense of humour!
DJD: I think partners must continue to respect each other, always give each other the benefit of the doubt and HAVE FUN! If the fun stops, then why are you doing it?
Are you happily anticipating another ten years together or do you anticipate a change of direction and focus in the future? What are your future plans and considerations as things stand?
MT: Yes, The Schlep Sisters are going strong and we have a very bright future ahead of us!
DJD: Yes, bring on ten more years! I think we are looking forward to bigger shows in the future: we’re having our ten year celebration on March 8th, Schlep-a-Con in the summer, and in two years we will have the ten year anniversary of Menorah Horah! We want to bring back The Burning Bush VS. The Second Coming, and later this year and next we’re headlining a few burlesque festivals!
Finally, tell me about your upcoming appearances, together and separately, and any interesting projects in the pipeline you can share at this time.
MT: After a majorly busy 2013 filled with two European tours, I am taking 2014 to ground myself back into NYC life and work on different projects and areas of my life. Teaching has become incredibly important to me and I am very excited about my new class, ‘Burlesque with a Purpose’. This year I’m not planning on any long tours, but rather shorter stints. The Schlep Sisters are headlining the Florida Burlesque Festival this fall and I am headlining the Iowa Burlesque Festival in October. Any shorter travel burlesque opportunities that come my way, I’m in!
DJD: I am continuing to produce Bushwick Burlesque with Scary Ben on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of the month at Bizarre. On March 18th I am celebrating ten years as a solo artist; the Schlep Sisters will be performing and Minnie Tonka will do a parody of one of my acts along with a cast of other performers that I have worked with over the past ten years! I will perform Friday night at Viva Las Vegas and heading to London in July!
THE SCHLEP SISTERS: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Celebrating 10 Years of Burlesque Sisterhood!
“THE SCHLEP SISTERS: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN is an exclusive event that features the couple’s most popular acts over the past ten years of partnership. The evening also includes performances by “Schlep Cousins” JONNY PORKPIE, the Burlesque Mayor of NYC, and The Coney Island Red Hot, LITTLE BROOKLYN – both of whom played integral roles in The Schlep Sisters’ rise to international notoriety. The House of St. Eve will provide delicious concoctions and the evening promises to be an unforgettable night of fun-loving entertainment with a touch of sisterly sentiment.”
Saturday, March 8th, 2014 @ 8PM The House of Collection (address with ticket purchase) Tickets are $25 in advance with limited spaces available. http://schlep10years.bpt.me/ Cocktail and Festive Party Attire encouraged.