Story by Kristina Nguyen
Photos by Maya Coplin
To the left of the makeup-stained vanity sits a sewing station covered in thread and nipple pasties. Flashes of sequin and glitter peek out from behind suffocated garment bags hanging on a tiny rack pressed against the closet door. Sprinkled on the walls are photos of burlesque beauties in black and white, inspiration boards and a spinning arrow that declares the wig of the day. In the clutter of her quaint East Austin home, Wendy Sanders finds Ginger Snaps.
“Ginger Snaps is very outgoing, very over-the-top, exciting to talk to and flirt with and be that big party draw for everyone. Wendy, as a regular person, really likes coming home, playing with her pets, harassing her cat, reading sci-fi books and watching cheesy television,” she says.
Dressed in yoga pants and a tank top, Sanders sweats her daytime hours away as a performance manager and instructor at Sky Candy Studios. At night, with a little bit of rhinestones and rigging, she transforms into Ginger Snaps, an award-winning burlesque performer whose creative and whimsical shows have captivated crowds all over the country.
Sanders’ start in burlesque began after she moved to Austin more than a decade ago to pursue a makeup career. After constantly being mistaken for a burlesque performer, Sanders decided to look into the art of the theatrical striptease. One Delia Dread Craigslist ad later, she found herself as a member of the original Black Widow Burlesque troupe.
“Initially, I just liked the creative freedom of it. You could tell any kind of story that you want to tell,” she says. “As I got into it and started performing, I liked how it was not just for the performer, but it made the audience have a great time, and more accepting of female sexuality and different body types, and kind of owning your own sexuality and things like that I think is really important.”
In addition to using burlesque as a platform to promote body positivity and female empowerment, Sanders has produced benefits such as Legislate This!, an annual burlesque event that raises money for Planned Parenthood. Though she is passionate about using her art to advocate for important causes, she embraces a wide variety of performance styles and platforms and strives to keep every show as theatrical as possible. “I have stuff in my closet that’s like $800 fancy-ass flowy robes burlesque costume right next to my creepy Donald Trump jacket with a tiny hand sewn in,” she says. “With me, it’s really like, you really never know what you’re going to get.”
As an integral part of the “exaggerated storytelling” of burlesque, Sanders takes great pains to ensure that her “circus-heavy glamazon” ensembles are just as big and bold as the performances. Her costumes range from the kooky to the classical, but one thing’s for certain: she loves glitter.
“When she first started practicing in her burlesque costumes at the studio, you could tell she had been practicing because the day after, you’d be like, ‘Oh, there’s glitter on everything,’” says Winnie Hsia, the owner and executive director of Sky Candy Studios.
Though audiences seeking sparkle and shine certainly won't be disappointed, technical acrobatic and aerial elements are the real showstoppers in Sanders’ frenetic performances. With a spectacular array of cartwheels, splits and silks in her arsenal, she sets herself apart from her fellow performers.
“It just made sense when she found aerial - like, of course!” says Ruby Lamb, a veteran burlesque performer in Austin. “Ginger is going to find something she wants to do, and it’s going to hurt, and she takes pride in the pain that she sustains through her practicing, but it has allowed her to create things that are not only aesthetically beautiful but some very sensitive and emotional pieces.”
Sanders’ friends and colleagues agree that her acrobatic awakening was one of the most transformative points of her career and provided an innovative addition to the Austin burlesque scene. “She’s definitely one of the first people I knew personally to combine those two forms,” says Hsia. “It’s exciting to see Wendy be such a core part of the development of both of those communities.”
Last year, the two produced a show together called “Baconlesque: The Crispening,” after getting inspired by a photo of a friend holding a pan of bacon while naked. Hsia cites the event as an example of Sanders’ hard-working and tenacious nature. After a miscommunication with the venue, the pair had to fill up an additional hour and a half of the show. With some quick thinking (and a few willing participants), Sanders’ solution became one of the most memorable moments of the night: a “meat market” strip number danced by the male performers.
“She pushes for the things she believes are right and if things should be done in a particular way, but she’s also flexible when things change,” Hsia says.
As an established performer, Sanders has embodied the Austin burlesque community’s emphasis on encouragement and inspiration, sharing her experiences with other dancers like Zaftigg von BonBon and helping newcomers get a start on the scene. “She’s actually incredibly generous with her knowledge,” says von BonBon, who was burlesque baptized by Sanders in 2011 when she became a Black Widow.
In addition to her ability to answer the important questions (“How the hell do I keep these pasties on in Houston while we’re all sweating?”), Sanders has been an invaluable source of support in her co-productions with other performers. Her professionalism and talent both on and off the stage make her a celebrated performer with her audiences and artists alike.
“At first, I found her kind of abrasive and pretty mean, but that’s because she does not give a f*** about pleasantries,” Lamb says. “In a lot of ways, she’s just super easygoing and easy to work with, and really sweet when it comes down to it. I know that she is very well-respected and loved in the community and I cannot imagine Austin burlesque without Ginger.”