Sep. 7, 2008
Our reporter stays on his toes as a performer in 'Folies Bergere'
"Stand in place and clap seven times!" Janu Tornell commands me.
The curtain has risen on the cancan, and "Folies Bergere" has just debuted its first showgirl with back hair.
"Now walk to the table!" continues Tornell, who has danced in the Tropicana revue for 13 of its 49 years. (The audience can't hear her over the blaring music.)
Walking anywhere is not easy while wearing drapes and a 3-pound hat that fits like Rush Limbaugh's head through a bagel. And stiletto-balancing requires an entirely different posture from hat-balancing, I've discovered, which is why my headpiece keeps threatening to fly off and take this show an additional kind of topless.
"Stomach in!" Tornell continues. "Now wave!"
Tornell -- best known as a reality-show contestant on "Survivor: Palau" in 2005 -- was raised in Las Vegas by a former Cuban showgirl who was not her father.
"My mom danced in Havana, right before Castro came in," the 43-year-old said earlier. "That's how she got to the States."
Tornell was crowned Miss Nevada USA at age 24, but didn't follow in Mom's two-steps until six years later.
"It was a fluke," said the Valley High grad, who was runway-modeling in Los Angeles at the time.
"A friend of mine who was in the show told me they were looking," Tornell said. "I auditioned and got it.
"It's not something I ever aspired to be."
Showgirls have played a major role in Las Vegas entertainment since the Copa Girls opened at the Sands in 1952. Although they're currently on the endangered list -- presented only by the Tropicana and Bally's in their native habitat -- they remain our city's official ambassadors (at least judging by how often Mayor Oscar Goodman uses them as 90-pound cufflinks).
"Do you really think girls walk like that?" asks Elaine Celario, the Tropicana's entertainment director.
It's dress rehearsal, one night earlier. And this is not the first time girls have circled me, pointing and giggling. I'm reminded of that fifth-grade afternoon when Debbie Lee beat the lunch out of me on the playground.
Actually, the girls did walk like that in "Evening at La Cage," my only other full-drag experience (that I will admit to).
Amusement is just one reaction of many during the fourth run-through of the show's 10-minute finale, called specifically to decrease the chance that I will mess it up.
"How many times do I have to kiss this guy?" protests dancer Don McCarthy, whom Celario has instructed to greet me by mouth.
I don't remember Elizabeth Berkley treated like this in the 1995 film "Showgirls."
"This sucks!" McCarthy adds. (Later, company manager Stephanie Jaynes explains: "He's one of the straight ones.")
For the record, Debbie Lee had a 5-inch advantage over me. Coincidentally, so do my fellow showgirls. The minimum height requirement is 5-foot-10, officially making me too short to be a woman, too.
"You'll be standing on one of the staircases a lot," Celario explains.
"Folies Bergere" gets its name from Paris' first music hall, which opened in 1869 with dance shows featuring elaborate female costumes that, eventually, became less elaborate in the top region. The Tropicana spinoff launched in 1959, making it the longest-running Vegas production.
"I love performing in this show," Tornell says backstage, minutes before the cancan, as she rings my eyes with a black liquid that stings almost as much as my male pride when I check the mirror.
"I get to do a glamorous job with beautiful costumes," Tornell continues. "And I only work four hours a night, so I can do my schoolwork in the daytime." (Tornell is pursuing a master's degree in foreign language at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she spends weekday mornings as an adjunct Spanish and French professor.)
Tornell's only complaint relates to the golden rule of showbiz.
"Saying the show must go on is hard when something very dramatic happens in your life," she says, explaining how she had to perform on the day her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, and the day her sister died of it in 2003.
The curtain opens, revealing an 18th-century bar scene. The song is the Galop infernal from Jacques Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld" -- which I had to look up because I knew "The Theme From ShopRite's Cancan Bash" probably wasn't correct.
A bar towel flies. This is the cue for all 45 performers to spring out of freeze-frame and into action.
My action is choreographed, yet is less a series of specific steps than a vigilant avoidance of lines of rampaging dancers, unicycle pedallers and somersaulting acrobats.
I am an extra, and Tornell and her commands are never more than 20 feet away.
After McCarthy's reluctant kiss, dancer Aaron Shanley guides me across the lip of the stage by my crimson-gloved right hand. Other than a slight wobble, my big moment goes off hitch-less.
"You did it!" Tornell exclaims as I walk toward my final mark: the third step on the center staircase.
Two women in front point, one with a distinctly "o"-shaped mouth. But mostly, it seems, no one in the audience notices Milton Burlesque.
"You never know what they're thinking," Tornell says afterward. "Maybe they thought you were the remnants of a bad drink. Or maybe they just went with it.
"Hey, it's Vegas!"
Fear and Loafing runs in the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.