Tallulah St. James likes to peel off her evening gown and prance across a stage twirling tassels from her ta-tas. But in real life, the woman who plays St. James is a married 30-something who works at a very not-sexy real job where even a hint of cleavage would be a no-no.

St. James (not her real name) is the leader of Zircus Erotique Burlesque Company, a two-year-old burlesque troupe that performs regularly at The Lodge at Santa Fe. She and the other members—including Doutelle, Belladonna, Mena Domina, Lady Lux and Lily La Dee—perform individually and as a group. (One group number St. James calls the pussycat song, saying "It's very tongue in cheek.")

With Valentine's Day in mind, SFR talked to St. James about what it takes to be as sexy (or just feel as sexy) as a burlesque star.

SFR: So…about the tassel thing. Could anybody learn to twirl tassels? Not that I’m interested. But seriously, how long would it take?
TSJ: Ha! I teach a burlesque class over at Au Boudoir on Mondays, and we’re doing a tassel-making class this coming week.

Does it have to do with, you know, how well equipped you are?
Oh, no. Anybody can do it. Guys and girls!

Whoa. So it’s really not about the equipment. It’s just talent?
It just takes a little bit of practice and some techniques that you pick up…You could learn within 30 minutes or so, but it’s just a matter of getting that muscle memory, to know what to do with your muscles and your legs so you can get the momentum going. 

It looks hard.
We have this one number, a finale, and it’s all choreographed tassel-twirling. That can be a little intense. We usually just have a little bit of [twirling] in most numbers.

How much of what you teach is easy to impart and how much of what you do is just who you are?
It’s like 30 percent dance and 70 percent is just character. In the burlesque world, some people dance, some just strut, some have little gimmicks. I tend to be more dance-y because I’ve always been a dancer…The first couple of classes they’re really shy and they want to do everything perfectly, but it’s all about making it your own. I always tell them, ‘Don’t do exactly what I do.’

What’s the most important element of burlesque? Is it the fishnets, the feather fans, the dancing skills or the attitude?
It really comes from confidence. The costume adds a great little element—it can really make a character—but great costumes don’t make a great performer. If you go on stage with the bare minimum but you can embrace that sensuality and that sexuality, then you’ll own it. No matter who you’re performing for, your dog or your partner or your friends, just own it.

That probably sounds easier than it is. What kind of tips do you share with your students?
During the late ’60s and ’70s, when porn came out, there seemed to be this whole switch of, instead of being burlesque clubs, strip clubs opened up, and, well, I wouldn’t say it was ‘degrading,’ but everything changed. So now, women are wanting to take it back and own the stage instead of being objectified. [In terms of technique], it’s not about being right; it’s about getting in that place. People think burlesque is just fishnets and panties and a corset and a bra, but there’s a lot more to it.

Santa Fe is so small. And it’s not really known for burlesque…
That’s been one of the hardest things about keeping this going. I know as long as I keep the troupe going and keep them motivated and do these shows, then Santa Fe will really come out to support us. Our shows have been so successful the last six months or so. It’s nice to see older crowds coming in, too, people in their 60s and 70s.

Wow. Have you had many older ladies in your classes?
No, I haven’t. The ladies that I’m working with now range from like 18 to mid- to late-40s. I really love [teaching] the sensuality that goes along with burlesque. I like to bring a little bit of etiquette in there, too—you know, how to be a lady.

Have you ever had a partner watch you perform?
Oh, yeah, I’m married. I think that my husband probably thinks he’s the luckiest man in the world because he gets to see beautiful women take off their clothes all the time and he loves it. But, you know, I’ve never performed for him in…uh…in an intimate setting. I always perform on stage. I’ve actually never asked him.

Catch Zircus Erotique Burlesque Company at SFR’s Pre-Valentine’s Day Party on Saturday, Feb. 5 at the Inn and Spa at Loretto. Tallulah St. James and Zircus Erotique will be performing at the star-studded Southwest Burlesque Showcase, scheduled for Feb. 11-12 at the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque. Tickets ($14-$22) are available at the KiMo box office in Albuquerque and through Ticketmaster.