If you’ve ever seen a pretty but somehow freaky sideshow girl stick a nail up her nose and have it disappear, chances are you’ve met Scarlett Xander (also known as Reanna Craig). She has been performing sideshow, fire tricks, the Human Blockhead and other physical performance art in the Valley for about two years.
Xander’s first big break was at Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare a couple years ago. The Mystic Freak Show hired her, and she performed on stage for the first time in Las Vegas. “I actually got to meet Rob Zombie the first night I was performing,” she says. He was standing on the stage only inches away from her.
Xander was inspired to go into circus arts after learning about real, traditional circus sideshow freaks of days gone by. Unlike the little shows and skits you might see at the Arizona State Fair, the original sideshow performers were what you saw before you went into the “big tent,” she says. “It was a little more vulgar—they did more shocking things,” she says. There would be people with genetic disabilities on display, such as the Elephant Man and Lobster Boy.
After learning about these freaks, Xander became inspired and wanted to learn how to be a “human blockhead,” hammering nails through her nose and shoving other objects through her nose and mouth. Now she has an entire repertoire of tricks, including fire eating, putting mouse traps on different parts of her body, breathing fire, lying on a bed of nails and even having someone break heavy cinder blocks on her body. She also swallows coat hangers and is training to perform as a sword-swallower. “A lot of people think sword-swallowing is fake,” she says. “But when they see that I can bend the coat hangers using the muscles in my throat—that is impressive!” she says.
Xander also dances on broken glass that she’s smashed with a hammer. “The glass is the most dangerous thing I do because I cut myself a lot,” she says. She does bleed, and there’s a shock factor for the audience. “I don’t really get hurt. They are just baby cuts,” she says. She recalls one time when she spent an entire night walking around Vegas with a piece of glass in her toe. Fortunately, Xander’s boyfriend is a doctor, and he’s always ready to stitch her up as needed.
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Contortionist Cleodora Mathers cools her heels at Sky Harbor Airport for a short phone interview. She’s on her way to Vegas to hang out with friends from Cirque du Soleil. Since she’s been doing contortion for years, Mathers has amassed quite a network of big-top performing friends. “Circus people are so accepting of other circus people,” she says.
Mathers uses her full body for contortion work, performing all kinds of bends, poses, handstands, headstands, elbow stands, chin stands and pretzels. She also does some aerial hoops and chain work. “It’s definitely a full-body workout!” she says.
For one of her most jaw-dropping tricks, Mathers casually reclines onto her elbows, as if reading a book on a sofa, except that her body is bent almost in half, backwards, with her legs and feet hanging over her head (hard to imagine, but her photos on Instagram are worth a thousand words). No matter what pose she strikes, the look on her face is always calm and relaxed.
Perhaps the ease with which Mathers gets into these awkward-looking positions comes from the fact she’s been training since she was nine years old. She started as a rhythmic gymnast, growing up in the Bay Area. She trained for about two years with Serchmaa Bymba, a world-renowned Mongolian contortionist and trainer.
Mathers moved to Phoenix four years ago with a friend and got involved in performing burlesque and variety shows with local company Scandalesque. Even though San Francisco has a much bigger scene for this type of performance, she stayed in Phoenix because she really likes it here, but visits the Bay Area often.
Mathers now trains dancers and gymnasts in this art form, offering flexibility classes and beginning contortion. Her students are often adults, and she believes almost anyone at any age can get into it. She has adult clients whom she eventually trains to get into splits.
When she was a kid starting out, Mathers couldn’t do the splits, but she worked her way up to it. “A lot of people think I was born this way, or whatever,” says Mathers. “But it’s all about training and being consistent.”
If you think walking in high heels is hard work, try towering (and not tottering) five feet above the stage, while dancing—yes, dancing—on enormous stilts. Graceful stilt-walker Crystal Cruz has been doing just that for three years. She had a background in burlesque for more than a decade prior to mastering the stilts.
Not too long ago, Cruz decided to expand her bag of tricks. She started adding more dance and fire to her routines. “Those are my staples. Then later I moved into circus stuff like aerials, stilts and sideshow work,” she says.
Cruz says the average stilt height in the United States usually ranges between two and three feet. But as you build your skills, you try to walk with taller ones. Her newest pair is five feet tall, which doubles her height (she’s 5′ 1″ without stilts). When she stands straight up, she would hit the ceiling of her home, so she has to “stilt-up” outdoors.
Even though Cruz performs on stilts regularly and even teaches other performers the trade, she’s still learning new tricks and perfecting her art. The first thing Cruz teaches anyone new to stilts is how to fall safely. “Once in a while a server might drop a tray of drinks, and there is ice and water all over the floor,” she says. A good stilter must know how to spring back up from a quick tumble. After all—the show must go on!
Cruz leads a performance group called House of Cirque. She previously led the burlesque performance company Provocatease, but has been getting more into the circus variety show, not just strictly burlesque these days. Her company likes to blend stilt walking with aerial work, sweeping up performers, spinning and tumbling them.
Another fan favorite is stilts mixed with breakdancing—a form of performance that requires a lot of contact with the ground, as well as the ability to spring back up to a standing position. There are toe stilts, contact and aerobic stilt performers and a branch of Afro-Caribbean traditional stilting that is more dance oriented, Cruz says. Some people even use pirate peg legs, although she is not really a fan.
Professional pole dancer Lindsay Green doesn’t just spin the pole like you might have tried on the playground. She also bends and balances her body and does aerials and contortion from high up on the pole. Her special trick involves an aerial hoop called the Lyra. “There are many different aerial apparatuses that I use,” she explains. The Lyra is a metal hoop suspended from the ceiling that Green bends around, twists around and sometimes hangs from.
Green is self-taught, but she’s been doing pole for a “long time,” she says, and Lyra for five or six years. She got to a point where she wanted to start performing and started looking for companies. Eventually she became a member of a troupe called Aerial Intensity, who perform regularly.
One of the most intriguing and eye-popping tricks in Green’s repertoire is called doubles: two pole dancers perform simultaneously, dangling from the same pole and using the strength of each other’s bodies to get into poses and do transitions. Green performs with a partner a lot and has won doubles competitions.
In 2014, Green took third place at an event in Burbank, California, in doubles. In 2012, she won first place at the Pole Classics in Los Angeles. Recently Green performed alongside Cleodora Mathers and Scarlett Xander at the Fetish and Fantasy Ball, which happens every Halloween at the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas.
Getting into teaching was a natural transition for her. She started showing some friends how to pole, and it snowballed from there. Green is now part of an active studio, Prowess Pole Dancing, where she teaches people how to do tricks without getting injured and how to increase their strength and do more challenging pole and aerial work. Green has many students, and she trains both men and women. Green says she hopes the interest in pole work isn’t just a trend but continues to gain momentum.
There is new wave of flash-dancing beauties inspired by the James Bond and Elvis flicks of a far-gone era, but these ladies aren’t donning beehive hairdos and Nancy Sinatra knee-high boots. We’re talking about the new generation of go-go girls, led by queen-pin Miss Alexis (Alexis Borja) of BOSS Entertainment.
Miss Alexis says she hires enthusiastic girls to dance, go-go style, at all kinds of different venues, parties and festivals. “It’s sort of like ambient entertainment for parties,” she says. “We are usually on stages or on top of bars, free-styling to whatever music they throw at us.”
Prior to launching BOSS, Miss Alexis danced with a different Valley go-go crew. She says she started dancing in high school (Borja is originally from the Philippines, and moved to the Valley at age 11). She originally studied ballet, jazz and studio hip-hop, and after high school she performed with a hip-hop crew called Broken Toys.
After college, she took a year off and traveled. During her travels, Miss Alexis found herself at an exciting EDM festival—the Electric Daisy Carnival. She saw modern-day go-gos there in elaborate costumes, and this inspired her to want to do it herself.
When she returned to the Valley, she joined a team but was disappointed by their lack of costuming. “Three years after I worked for that company, after pushing and pushing, I had to just break off. I wanted people to take classes with me and I wanted to take costuming to a whole other level. Now that I’m doing my own thing I can direct the girls the way I want to direct them,” she says.
When her girls dance at District, for example, they follow the all-American theme. “We do a lot of pin-up costumes, pin-up hair and red, white and blue. Sometimes camo,” she says. For holidays they do candy cane girls. And when they dance at Gypsy Bar at Cityspace in Phoenix, they like to make things interesting with themes like “dominatrix unicorn.”
BOSS Entertainment recently had a gig at the Barrett-Jackson auto auction, and they are preparing for a big show April 30 at Wet Electric—a stadium event at Big Surf in Tempe, where Dadalife will headline.
Sometimes the world of performance leads performers to become multifaceted—it’s not always enough to be a one-trick Judy. Take for example the hula-hooping, fire-walking, stilt-walking contortionist Jessica Packard.
“I started out mainly as a hula-hooper, then me and some friends created the Heady Hoop Tribe,” she says. Initially her troupe staged performances that included lots of fire LED lights and elaborate costumes. But in time, their performances dwindled. So Packard sought greener pastures.
She moved on to perform with a local company called Altitude Aerials and bonded with the owner, taking her as a sort of mentor. Packard began doing more circus-style shows and tricks and did some stage managing.
Last fall, Altitude Aerials was acquired by another performance company, Showstoppers. “Showstoppers does a lot of interactive entertainment,” Packard explains. Instead of being on a stage or hanging over a crowd, nowadays she might find herself mingling a little more as a character or personality. “Sometimes I do gigs where I’m dancing in the crowd with the guests but dressed as a weird space character,” Packard says.
But her most fun thing lately is coming up with character gimmicks built right into the setting of a party. For example, she does a lot of “champagne skirt diva” work. As Bubbles the champagne skirt diva, she is rolled onto the floor in a giant metal skeleton of a skirt with five or six different tiers holding champagne glasses. As guests arrive, she offers them glasses from her skirt. “I try to adopt a flirty and friendly demeanor,” she says.
Another gimmick Packard has developed is her living red carpet act. The general idea is that at an event, the guests will arrive and set foot on a beautiful red carpet that attaches to Packard’s waist. She plays the role of the friendly greeter, welcoming folks into their star-studded event. The job is glamorous, and many guests want photos with her.
“I really enjoy entertaining and connecting with people,” Packard says. “I’m from Alabama and my Southern side—she comes out a little bit!”
Special thanks to: Cobra Arcade Bar, Ariel Bracamonte, Chuckie Duff, Genuine Concepts, Noelle Martinez, Lalo Cota, Pablo Luna, Yai Vila, Topher Bray, Liz Brice-Heames, Volar, Mr. Matt, JJ Horner, Carlos Lopez, Nico Paredes & O Von Ordovich