And, yet, she informs me, “Burlesque doesn’t usually pay very much. So I’m not really doing burlesque for the money, to be honest.”
Unlike other local dancers I’ve met, Martin is able to pay the rent and feed herself without a full-time job outside her industry. She attributes this not to burlesque, but to her arsenal of other talents.
“A lot of times, other burlesque dancers ask me how I sustain myself, I tell them it’s because I’m so versatile with the skills I can provide. I make more money doing corporate gigs, but it’s usually not burlesque. It’s more fire-dancing or hooping or belly-dancing. I do the other art forms because I love them, as well, but that’s the stuff that actually pays.”
She makes money through these other talents not just in performance, but by teaching classes every night of the week at Mission Valley YMCA, Aerial Revolution, Dance Place, Cuyamaca College, and UCSD. She also makes hula hoops out of irrigation tubing and sparkly tape and sells them through her website.
“I also keep getting retirement-community gigs,” she says, laughing.
Even with a life built around performing, Martin claims that the most challenging aspect of what she does is “working really hard and not making that much money.”
Although she is able to sustain herself and her business, most of what she makes goes back into the business of running her business. Last week, she sent in two videos with her application to compete at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, an event that takes place in Las Vegas and that the London Daily Mirror called “the Striptease Olympics.” In preparation, she rehearsed an hour a day for nearly two months for her solo act, and two hours a day twice a week for the group-act submission. She paid $200 for a new costume for one of the videos and a $30 fee per video as part of the application process. At the end of May, she’ll also have the expense of getting to, and staying in, Las Vegas for the event.
Martin refuses to reveal how much money she spends or makes on large productions such as her Burlesque Circus, but she does say, “You sometimes spend as much on a costume as you make to do a show.”
Lola Demure, a former ballerina gone rogue who also produces burlesque shows, is a bit more forthcoming about the cost. She won’t say what Sunset Temple charges to host her annual Breaking the Chains fundraiser (which benefits autism research), but she estimates lighting at $100–$200, flier design and printing at $100 and $200, respectively. Then there are the costs for sound and for water, alcohol, and snacks for the dancers (who donate their time). Because this is a charity event, all expenses come out-of-pocket. This year, two small-scale fundraisers (a pinup-girl carwash that brought in $300 and a “mini VIP show” that brought in $1100) helped offset those costs. Demure’s 2012 autism event raised $3000. This year, she doubled that.
The growing market for performances in San Diego has proven, as Martin suggests, both a blessing and a burden within the burlesque community. This was evident in “the schism” of late 2012, when all but one of ten dancers sent their resignations in to the management of Hell on Heels Burlesque Revue, a local troupe that’s been around since 2004.
Martini Bombshell, the troupe’s co-manager, tells me the story over a plate of hummus at, yes, Café Cabaret in Normal Heights. The hummus has caused the disappearance of much of her bright red lipstick — except for what had been painted on outside the official boundary of her lips — but the 30-year-old has come decked out in a leopard-print skirt and a black, fur-collared shirt with oversized 1940s victory rolls standing up stiffly from her crown. So, the better portion of her pinup-girl uniform remains intact.
When she first sat down, Bombshell was vague about the group’s split, citing “artistic differences,” but, eventually, she begins to offer more, explaining that some of the girls wanted to take advantage of the increase in performance opportunities.
Traditionally, Hell on Heels produces and performs three big shows each year, one on Valentine’s Day, one in the late spring, and one in the late summer/early fall.
“As a rule,” Bombshell says, “because this is not our full-time job and because we have personal lives and families and school or whatnot, after our big end-of-summer show, we take October, November, and December off [performance-wise]. It’s been that way since the  inception of Hell on Heels.”
During those winter months, the troupe would accept paid private gigs, but they would not produce any of their own shows. At the three-hour meeting, the dissenters had presented ideas and opportunities for the troupe to join up with emerging production companies. But management wasn’t interested.
“There were some things that sounded really awesome, artistically, but I’m too old to do it just for artistic purposes anymore. I’m not 23. I don’t have time for that. Time is money,” she says sharply. “And we all sat around and had a big discussion, and we thought we had it all worked out, so we started planning toward our February show, like usual. Then, a couple of weeks later, I received a letter of resignation.”
Although her voice takes on an indignant edge, she smiles as she pushes the hummus plate away from her, toward the edge of the table.
“I thought we’d all worked it out, so it did come as a surprise,” she says. “And then it came as even more of a surprise when I found out they’d started a new troupe. I thought maybe they just all wanted to go solo.”
Aside from the stage kitten (the “right-hand girl” in a burlesque troupe, responsible for, among other duties, tracking and retrieving every article of clothing that comes off during a show) and the owner, neither of whom dance in the shows, Bombshell was the only dancer not involved in the exodus.
For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory