SISTER ACT: Burlesque Dancers Villainy Loveless and Lola Frost Keep it in the Family


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Photography by: Tina Krueger Kulic

Photography by: Tina Krueger Kulic

Chanté sits in her underwear on my couch. Her pants are drying over the back of a chair while she and Danielle cradle mugs of tea to recover from their rain-drenched walk. Chanté and Danielle are known, respectively, onstage as Villainy Loveless and Lola Frost. These stunning burlesque dancers are glamorous even when lounging without makeup or pants and snacking on Smartfood popcorn. Chanté and Danielle Swanson are women you immediately want to know.

The first time I saw Danielle I was struck by the drama of her elegant bob, feminine tattoos, and stately height. Her appearance was such a contrast to Chanté’s firecracker features: platinum waves, pierced red lips, and compact curves. A subtle movement and the sound of Danielle’s voice instantly revealed the two as sisters. “We’re so close we call each other ‘incestors,’” Chanté says. They discuss how people often mistake their intimacy for a romantic relationship. “When we’re out the bartender will say, ‘Your girlfriend already ordered you a shot,’ and I say, ‘No, that’s my sister,’” Danielle laughs. “And they don’t mean ‘girlfriend’ as in, my girl friend. They mean lesbian lover,” adds Chanté.

With no other siblings, the two were always close but experienced a rough and tumble relationship in the early years under the care of their single mother. Hardships have created strength in their family. “It was tough growing up. We refer to ourselves as gypsies since we lived everywhere,” Chanté says. “We fought hard and we played hard,” continues Danielle. “We fought more. There were times, more than once, that her hand print was on my face,” Chanté says. “Only once!” protests Danielle. “But then I got big enough to take Danielle down and it never happened again.”

They have always been fiercely supported by their mother, father, and extended relations and radiant smiles emerge at the topic. “Our mom loves it. She named her motorbike Lady Lola,” Danielle gushes. When they first told their grandparents, their grandmother was seemingly oblivious to burlesque. Chanté does a robust impersonation of the old Scottish man telling his wife, “Oh, for Chrissake, Sharon! It’s the cancan girls!”

Their grandfather was not far off; both the striptease and the cancan dance were pioneered by the Moulin Rouge in the late nineteenth century. Pictures from their burlesque performances now line their grandparents’ shelf alongside family wedding photographs. Their appreciation for family is grounded by their fellow performers’ situations. Many girls hide burlesque from their families, a situation that neither Chanté nor Danielle can imagine. “At a very early age, I told my mom I wanted to be a stripper,” Danielle says. “I didn’t understand at the time, obviously, but it was the provocative, expressive nature of it that appealed to me.”

In North America, burlesque began in nineteenth century lowbrow vaudeville acts that parodied classical theatre. During the early twentieth century, it developed into a satirically flavoured striptease involving gimmicks, alter egos, and elaborate costumes, decidedly placing more emphasis on the “tease” than the “strip.” By the 1930s, burlesque had temporarily faded under social restrictions but thrived in Vancouver and along the West Coast from the 1950s–70s, as Becki Ross outlines in her book, Burlesque West. Having reemerged in the mid-’90s as neo-burlesque, it harks back to its history, which emphasizes humour, drama, fantasy, and being sexy rather than sexual. Men are even getting involved in boylesque routines. Danielle accounts the burlesque revival to its empowering pro-body and pro-women qualities as well as to the abundance of producers in Vancouver.

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Chanté and Danielle began their performing careers in their childhoods when they choreographed dances with friends, which continued until Chanté accidentally smacked Danielle’s chin during a routine, splitting her tongue. Both grew up figure skating, doing gymnastics, and never hesitated to explore any platform that would allow them to express themselves. As a teenager, Danielle slipped into the rave scene, although she insists she “never did energy ball.” Living apart for six years, Danielle took a variety of dance seminars, honing her technique and classical form while Chanté trained in Latin dance as she travelled through  Venezuela and took part in the fetish scene after returning to B.C. 

They credit their different styles to this separation. “While she was raving, I became a dirty punk rocker for a long time, so I think that plays out in our aesthetics,” Chanté says. A self-described spitfire, Villainy Loveless bursts onstage mashing energetic bad-girl attitude with classical flair. “She’s always been the feisty one,” Danielle verifies. Once known as Lady Villainy, Chanté underwent a name change to something that she felt more fittingly encompassed her persona. “I realized I was never going to be a lady. The charade is up!” she snickers, unafraid to indulge in a self-deprecating laugh. Villainy Loveless is a gritty character who embraces burlesque’s vaudeville roots in the flesh.

Lola Frost’s routines leave the audience hanging on to every calculated movement. Her name complements “Roxy Heart” and “Velma Kelly” to suit her ’20s appearance, and Lola assures she will “only melt your heart.” Though their styles are different, they are able to collaborate because of their close relationship. The choreography for their duets verges on unspoken as it develops and they connect in a way that other dancers cannot.

Danielle and Chanté have been supporting each other in burlesque from the start. Four years ago, Danielle was intrigued by her coworker’s involvement in the scene and by fliers she began seeing around the West End, where she was living at the time. Chanté’s curiosity, however, was sparked while in Victoria: “I saw a performance by the Suicide Girls and thought ‘I could do that. I could do that better!’ Just after Danielle picked up on the scene, I started coming to Vancouver for shows. There were no collectives in Victoria at the time and it was easy to take the ferry across,” Chanté recalls. They began performing with three other burlesque dancers and propagated neo-burlesque in Vancouver. Eventually, Chanté moved to Vancouver and the five ladies formed their own collective, the Starlet Harlots, and began booking shows. 

Despite burlesque’s resurgence, it is not exactly profitable. No burlesque dancer commits to the craft as a profession. A burlesque performer is motivated by many factors, whether it is to gain confidence or to bask in the astonished expressions of the audience. “There’s no money in burlesque, baby. We don’t do it for the money, but we like money,” Danielle says. “Burlesque is the one thing that defines every aspect of me, and to have people accept it and like it and embrace who I am and where I’m from—it’s so satisfying. It’s amazing to have a platform to be as sexy as you want and have it be okay and not weird, not awkward, not dirty. It’s immensely sexy and it’s accepted and safe and really lovely, light, and fun.” 

Having experienced body image issues, Chanté is empowered by flaunting her physique and embracing her form, no matter what its shape. “I’ve had girls come up to me after shows. They say ‘I have big arms too and you don’t care and I’m not gonna!’ And you say, ‘Yes! You go! Take on the world!’ It’s not something that happens after every show.” “Oh really? Speak for yourself,” Danielle cheekily interjects. Chanté laughs and continues, “knowing someone sat silent and felt better because of what you’re doing while you’re having fun is so rewarding. I think that most hobbies don’t offer the opportunity to touch a lot of people.” At this inadvertent double entendre, Danielle erupts in laughter, spitting out her tea.

Like all professions related to physical shape and aesthetics, the performance span of a burlesque dancer is short. “For me, I think performing will transition into teaching— not teaching burlesque per se—but drawing that sort of interaction experienced in performing out of students as opposed to an audience,” Danielle says. “And I would like to provide a platform—a stage for them to dance upon. Ideally, I would love to own a theatre,” Chanté says. Danielle discusses her desire to tour on the East Coast. Chanté affirms that Vancouver is the first place she has thought of as home. When asked if they will continue to work together, Danielle looks at Chanté and smiles. “She’s in my forty-year plan.”

This piece was first published in 2009 for Issue No. 2: Olympic.
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