I found him by answering an ad on Craigslist. I took to throwing knives straight away and we performed together for years, Jack Dagger and I. Appearing on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, the History Channel’s More Extreme Marksmen, Japanese television and a slew of Hollywood’s most questionable black box stages, Jack taught me everything I know about knife throwing but most importantly, taught me his philosophy on building a marketable act: Make it entertaining. Above all: Entertain the people.
When I pitched my new pole skills, I found it difficult to place and next to impossible to get a professional rate for.
A knife-throwing demonstration will appeal to and excite other knife throwers, but they won’t pay to see you demonstrate—after all, they themselves are throwing in their backyards every week. If you want to appeal to a mainstream audience, who won’t know enough about your skill to appreciate how impressive your world-class demonstration is anyway, entertain them.
With Jack Dagger, a 15-minute duet was 3 minutes of our specialty and 12 minutes of comedic banter. This recipe is the single most important thing I learned from my knife-throwing work with Jack Dagger.
I’ve taken this approach to heart when developing my burlesque acts, as you can see in my Circus Clown Burlesque, which happens to be one of my most sought after acts—warranting a standing ovation almost every performance: I clown, improvise and dance for 6 minutes, but reveal and perform my balloon-swallowing specialty for only 30 seconds. Why? Because as a performance artist, musician, radio host, writer, it’s one thing to have great content, but if you can entertain the people—make them feel something and leave them wanting more—they will be your dedicated fans and supporters for life.
I’ve been dancing professionally and acting professionally since before I graduated high school. I now perform burlesque for a major part of my income and act as my other major money maker. I also am a whip master, fire artist, grinder girl, stilt dancer, flagger and stunt woman. Over the years, of course I grow and develop new skills—it’s what keeps me valuable as a performer, what keeps me interested in myself as an artist and really is an essential part of my personality.
So three years ago I took up pole dancing and treated it like my other specialties: immerse myself fully into it, get really good really fast and then pitch it to clients for performance. That’s my successful approach to my career with all my other skill sets. Unfortunately, for various reasons this article isn’t about, it didn’t work so well with pole. When I pitched my new pole skills, I found it difficult to place and next to impossible to get a professional rate for—even though it happens to be one of the most difficult skill sets I practice.
I was frustrated until I recalled the advice of my knife-throwing mentor, Jack Dagger: Make it entertaining. If pole dancers aren’t getting placed and paid, then therein lies an opportunity: Appeal to the ticket-purchasing mainstream whom has seen very little of the skill, by building a full production that is so damn entertaining it wouldn’t matter if we were pole dancing or shaving our legs because we are making the people feel something and leaving them wanting more!
I’ve always felt performing is my gift to share.
I had a vision that pole dancers could be as entertaining as the great Vaudeville stars of yesteryear and from this vision, Tonya Kay’s Pinup Pole Show was born. I asked my champion pole athletes to do things they’d not explored before: learn choreography, perform sketch comedy, sing, and write burlesque storylines into each of their solos.
Then I chose a venue (The Federal Bar) that supported my vision and provided a classy diner theater and classic car cruise-in lot to raise the social status of attending our show. I added pinup photo shoots, vintage make-up styling, nostalgia films, Best Car and Best Vintage Dress prizes and an epic 16′ Platinum Stages pole to work on to assure LOTS of damn fun. I designed all of this into a production format that has an entertainment arc so smooth, the audience can sit back and trust us entirely. And I placed it all into a long-loved vintage 1955-1965 pinup theme so, truly, we could be whittling walking sticks on stage and still warrant wild cheers. This production is built to entertain!
I’m setting the standards for today’s burlesque and bringing pole dance to the mainstream by really listening to my audiences and dedicating myself to providing what they want. I’ve always felt performing is my gift to share (rather than impose, like many performers I witness) with the people. It is genuine love I feel for my audiences and to produce a successful show, like Tonya Kay’s Pinup Pole Show, is the result of my devotion to what people need: something real, something beautiful, something celebratable—something human. I learned everything I need to know about producing from answering an ad on Craigslist.
Click through for info and tickets to Tonya Kay’s Pinup Pole Show.