Feel the Burn: Detroit's Torch With a Twist Turns Two

It's still early, just past noon on a frigid February day, but it will soon begin to heat up in a Grace Detroit minute.

Equal parts sultry chanteuse, bawdy vaudevillian and goddess of the sun, Grace is trembling slightly in a downtown doorway waiting for the man behind the door. Once inside, she and members of her artist collective, Torch With a Twist, will slither into tight costumes for a photo shoot and casual conversation about her business. As in glittery, fiery, funny, sexy, borderline fetish show business, like no business we know.

It's easy to talk to Grace Detroit, which has been her preferred stage moniker since the mid-1990s. Even when the temperature is in single digits and bitter winds careen down Park Avenue's urban canyon, pinching and pounding us as we huddle in the circular foyer at the entrance to Cliff Bell's.

"I can't believe I'm here this early not dressed up and without any makeup," Grace says. "I really need to put on some glitter." Now she's on the phone with Jeremy Summerlin, who works at the club and also does graphic art for the torch troupe. "Oh, good," she says, "he's on his way down." Other group members are also here: stage manager and fire breather Jeff Kramar; and the cute-as-two-buttons Welsh twins, Lauren and Rachel, who can be told apart by the color of their clothing. "Just remember 'red for Rachel,' " one of the sisters says later.

Flame on, St. Valentine

We're meeting here for a good reason: Torch with a Twist and Cliff Bell's have become inextricable, one associated with the other, since early 2007. That's when Grace's girls and boys took on a Sunday night residency at the gorgeously reconditioned Art Deco space that made an initial splash during the Super Bowl in the winter of 2006 and has been cruising at high altitude ever since.

On Feb. 15, Torch with a Twist will celebrate two years at the club. The Valentine's spectacle is called Stupid Cupid. Special guests include regular Torch With a Twist performers Chantal Dixon, Hob the Troll, Flec, Lady Borgia (from San Diego), Russell Taylor of Detroit's Satori Circus and others. Add a jazz band with torch tunes by Grace Detroit, and you have enough laughs and tears for a month full of Sundays.

But why Sundays, if we can be so bold to ask? 

"We wanted it more than any other day," Grace says. “Everybody wants to do something on Saturday night, but we wanted to build something new and different … and it just took off.”

Has it ever. Ignition on. All systems go. Blast off. That's more like it.

The performances are packed. People literally come in shifts to catch any or all of the three-hour, three-act show each month. The lineup changes all the time, keeping the experience fresh for fanatic followers of the "Twist." The night could include snake charmers, jugglers, belly and burlesque dancers, clowns, knife throwers, contortionists, tumblers and unclassifiable performance artists -- all romping across the stage to the plucky rhythms of a live lounge jazz band.

And during the two intermissions, it just doesn't stop. Oh, no. "We have fire performers outside, in front of the club," Grace says. "We're all Burning Man people" – as in people who trek to the annual Nevada desert gathering. "A lot of us met there or through the Theater Bizarre in Detroit. Fire is power. We like to have the heat on all the time." Oh, yes.

During the photo shoot, Grace Detroit wraps her silky hands around a vintage–looking microphone stand, tilting it back and forth as she poses in front of the carpeted staircase to the right of the stage. Her eyes look up and see something fluttering in the ambient red light above. The scene suggests a velvety David Lynchian dreamscape joined to funky Motown gritty reality. A cool-weird marriage made in heaven, where everything is fine, indeed.

Fire, walk with me

Over on the other side of the stage, dancers Lauren and Rachel Welsh pucker and coo for the camera, answering a few questions in between shots. We learn they went to Berkley High, graduated in 2003 and have been with Torch with a Twist since last March. Lauren (or is it Rachel?) says she used to work at Cliff Bell's and was drawn to join the group by seeing them perform. Rachel (or is it Lauren?) talks about the hot Romanian guys who work next door at the Park Bar's Bucharest Grill and wonders if the cutest one is just a bit too old for her. Another dancer, Chantal Dixon, joins the group and talks about her dream of opening her own studio one day.

Meanwhile, Grace Detroit takes a rest from all this preparation by leaning back against the baby grand piano at the back of the stage. She's joined by Kramar ("he does everything for us … he eats fire and he's my boyfriend."). She's been building her career for 15 years, playing coffeehouses, martini bars, jazz lounges, hotel ballrooms, Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre, and bigger events like the Fringe Festival at the Music Hall.

Living life in the rock 'em sock 'em razzle dazzle fire lane seems to agree with Grace Detroit, who wears her surname like a badge of honor for the city of her birth. She lives here still, spreading molten D-love with fiery talent wherever she goes.

"We want to build our own scene with variety and fun," she says, lighting a cigarette and taking a slow drag. "And we believe in always bringing out the power and the heat at every show."

We believe, Grace Detroit, yes, ma'am, we do believe.

Torch with a Twist's 2-year anniversary party, Stupid Cupid, is this Sunday, Feb. 15, at Cliff Bell's, 2030 Park Avenue, Detroit. Doors 8 p.m. $10. This show is for adults 21 and over.  

Walter Wasacz is editor of FilterD, your hot guide to weekly cultural cool. 


Grace Detroit

Shadow dancer

dancers Lauren and Rachel Welsh

Chantal Dixon

Fire performance outside of Cliff Bell's

Grace Detroit

All photos taken at Cliff Bell's

All photographs by Detroit Photographer
Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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