Thursday, March 8, 2001

Step By Step

Deconstructing the showgirl.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2001 at 4:00 AM

They enter, arms akimbo, pink feathers flying. Three rosy boas dangle from each arm and silver rhinestones drip from each ear. On their faces are thousand-watt smiles; on their heads are fountains of feathers. Their bikinis sparkle as if woven with diamonds.

"I want to be a showgirl," my friend whispers in the dark.

The seven women take the stage in a whirl of plumage, feather fans swishing furiously for the Isle of Capri Casino's Las Vegas Nights show, a sampler platter of Vegas standards: magicians, comedians, singers, and stuntmen. They salsa to a Ricki Martin cover, tap like Lord of the Dance, perform the can-can.

I want to be up there, too.

Other women can get away with wearing bikinis (to the beach), gloves (black-tie functions), and fake eyelashes (um, around the house). But who else gets to wear tiaras or crowns on a daily basis, much less two-foot-tall trees of glitter and glitz on their heads? No one.

"Our lives are not like the movies," one of the showgirls tells me after the show.

"No Gs," a few of them say, almost in unison, referring to the Mississippi state law that forbids them from wearing a G-string on stage. They are seated around a table in the theater, still wearing their costumes from the finale, red bikini tops with silver studs and red trunks, talking about what a showgirl's life is really like.

They work two shows a day, six days a week. They're sore after every show; they're always injured. They go to Wal-Mart after the show because their adrenaline is still pumping, and nothing else is open. Most shows run a couple of months -- if that -- so they almost literally live out of their suitcases.

"We all love dance," says Chali Jennings, one of the featured dancers in the show. "You wouldn't make it if you didn't love it."

As they speak, pieces of their costumes are taken off and discarded in a pile of finery in the middle of the table: red satin gloves, throat pieces adorned with beading, headdresses the size of small European countries. Even without the entire costumes, they have a uniform beauty: long, fake eyelashes, hair pulled back with wig caps, and rosy red cheeks.

"Everyday, we're not glamorous," they say. On their days off, they don't wear makeup. They work out. They eat chocolate.

"There's a minute when I feel glamorous," one of them says. "When we get in the costumes, we are."

And as much as it sounds like showgirling is hard work, I want to be glamorous, too. They show me and my friend how to turn the headdress upside down, hold the brim with both hands, lean our heads into the headdress, and scoop.

When I scoop, something is not quite right. An elastic strap is supposed to hang down from either side of the headdress and clasp underneath the chin to hold it in place. But somehow I've managed to get the whole thing on sideways. I take it off and try again. Again the elastic hangs down between my eyes like a limp noodle.

One of the dancers tucks the offending elastic into the band of the headdress and I totter a few steps in my sneakers. The few pounds of headdress wobble to and fro without the strap, keeping me off balance. The flash of my friend's camera is not helping.

Balancing act: Kristi Rankin, left, and feathered friend.
"How in the heck do you dance in this thing?" I ask.

"Try it in three-inch heels," Kristi Rankin, whose headdress I'm wearing, retorts.

Partly, they say, you just get used to it. But of course, there're also years and years of dance training. All of the women, ages 19 to 26, have been dancing since before kindergarten. Which is a good thing, because they don't get sick days.

"So if you have cramps you still have to dance?" my friend asks.

They giggle and Jennings says, "If you have a broken leg, you still have to dance."

"The show must go on," someone else adds.

When we get our photos back, well, my friend and I look like goobers. Goobers in big feather hats. Perhaps without the fake eyelashes and high heels, it just doesn't work.

And then it hits me. The showgirls were the real magicians of the show. They were out there killing themselves and we didn't see anything but the sparkle.

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