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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


Hippy Hippy Shakin' Siblings:
The Pontani Sisters Prepare for World Domination
By Amy Zavatto

You’re sitting in a cozy, downtown restaurant, thoroughly enjoying the chicken something-or-other and deep in conversation with your date, when suddenly the lights dim and a spotlight flashes on in the front of the room. Standing there in big Carmen Miranda hats and even bigger smiles are three women dressed in tiny two-piece turquoise outfits adorned with red fringe and roses. Rosemary Clooney’s feisty alto belts out “Mambo Italiano” from the sound system, as these tropical looking showgirls begin to tap and kick and shimmy their way through the room, skillfully avoiding waiters in the narrow aisles. As the number comes to a close, they flick their hips in one smooth, synchronized “Pow!” that, although possible illegal in some states, is reminiscent of a patented Ann Margret move in Viva Las Vegas.

Well, this ain’t Vegas baby. It’s Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And these performers aren’t your average chorus showgirls working for some slimy promoter, desperately trying to get to the top of the sequined food chain. They are the World Famous Pontani Sisters, and they’re doing things their way.

The next time I meet the Pontanis is at the bar of the Gramercy Park Hotel. The first one I see is Andrea, stirring her vodka gimlet at the corner table. She is dressed all in red and looks like she just walked out of Look magazine, circa 1954. Her sisters, Tara and Helen, flank her sides around the table, gingerly sipping their drinks and chatting conspiratorially, as siblings will do. They are all petite but curvy in the traditional Southern-Italian style. These aren’t the whiny, iconic, pre-engineered females of Showgirls ilk—these are real women with serious goals. And, judging from their gumption-fused accomplishments of the past year, they are well on their way to hitting their stride; a finely seasoned pot of marinara ready for the main course.

It all started when Andrea, the baby of the family (and, as she and her sisters like to refer to her, the Chairman of the Board), moved to New York City from Trenton, New Jersey, at the starry-eyed age of 16 after gaining early admission to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“I went to NYU for theater for a year. Theater, dance, and acting—the whole nine,” says Andrea. “But I hated it. I was like, ‘This is not what I want to do as performer.’ I didn’t want to ‘swing like a tree’ and ‘cry like a baby’—I wanted to dance like a faaaaaaairy!” After dropping out of Tisch, Andrea began her showgirl metamorphosis, appearing regularly in Dutch Weisman’s dance review in New York City. “Dutch’s show was amazing. Very showgirl, with the headresses and these sick costumes. They were just glorious. They felt like they weighed 10,000 pounds each. But they were so intricate, you’d be afraid they’d break!”

Andrea kept up her part with Weisman from ’94 to ’99, and also found work in other clubs. But all those years of hoofing it on tiny stages for tinier checks were about to pay off. In the Spring of 1999, Andrea got a call from the Flying Neutrinos, a swing band with a solid New York following and money to spend.

Given a hefty $800 budget, and the freedom to choreograph the numbers as she saw fit, Andrea set out to create a full-blown floorshow. It was about this time that eldest sister Helen got a little homesick. She’d taken off for Detroit several years before after falling for a trumpet player from the Midwest. While there, she studied at Norretta Dunworth’s School of Dance, but the frost from Lake Erie began to put the chill on more than just the city. Helen headed back to NYC and took up with her little sister, putting to work all those formative years of gestapo-like training at Miss Joyce’s Dance School in Trenton that each Pontani girl endured as a child. Together, Andrea and Helen honed their moves to the Neutrinos’ music, and when the band landed a video deal for their song “Cry,” they brought the sisters along for the ride, prominently featuring them in the clip.

Meanwhile, Tara, the middle sister, had met Rob Cittadino (aka Broccoli Rob), the bass-playing lead singer and progenitor of the hard-working New York swing band, Dem Brooklyn Bums. Rob was also was interested in adding some flare to his shows and, through Tara, learned of the Pontani dance talents.

“Back when I was dating Rob, he started asking Andrea and me to come and dance at the Coney Island shows,” recalls Tara. “So, I’d get dressed up in costume and go around with Andrea doing our ‘Banana Girl’ routine to the Bums’ version of ‘Mambo Italiano.’ Rob would always announce us, saying, ‘The World Famous Pontani Sisters are in the house, ladies and gentleman!’ So, even though it’s our own name, Rob totally dubbed us and gave our act an official title.”

And so, the World Famous Pontani Sisters were re-born as a full-fledged family act. Following their debut, their success began to snowball. They scored regular, weekly gigs around Manhattan at Marion’s, Barmacy, and the coveted Windows on the World Friday night slot. They have also been invited to speak at Tease-o-Rama, the first-ever burlesque conference, to be held in New Orleans this May. But the biggest score was over Christmas 2000, when Andrea got a call from the Conan O’Brien show, asking the girls to do their “Sleigh Ride” number with comedienne Amy Sedaris.

“The Conan thing has been our closest brush, and I’m really going to try to make that pay off,” says Andrea. “This year, I feel like we have enough credentials under our belt and we’ve done enough performances and know the right people.” Indeed, the demand for the act has made both Andrea and Tara take on the Pontani Sisters as a full-time job. Helen is getting closer and closer to doing the same: “I’m still working at a restaurant during the day, but I’m only working four days now. I’m slowly letting go. Every time we get another gig, I quit another day of my job.”

So, how do they do it? How did they take this oddball, retro dance act and make it into something that got the producers of Conan’s show sit up and take notice? It’s not their dancer’s stamina or their mutual love of all things vintage or even their fabulous, handmade costumes to which the sisters credit their success. It is, they say, simple sibling intuition.

“We are completely in sync,” says Andrea. “It happens in everything we do. It’s like water. It’s a chemical balance and it’s great. Like, when we’re performing at Marion’s, we’re looking at each other and we’re laughing and going back and forth. We understand each other and have the same feelings about what we’re doing.” To this, all the sisters nod in agreement and begin talking simultaneously with great enthusiasm about their familial intuition. It all jumbles into a pleasant, well-harmonized din and I can’t understand more than a word or two. But I don’t think that matters so much. The Pontani Sisters speak a language all their own that works for them. And, as Ms. Clooney would say, “That’s a-nice. (Ooo!)”

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