What is a Las Vegas Showgirl?

What is the definition of an authentic Las Vegas showgirl?

Jubilee! Finale costume

“Showgirl” is defined on several websites as  “A woman, typically attired in an elaborately decorated costume, who performs in a musical or theatrical production.”

So what defines a true, classic Las Vegas showgirl?

  • Height,
  • long legs,
  • beauty,
  • dance technique,
  • costumes,
  • elegance,
  • grace,
  • unattainability,
  • topless (sometimes).

Height. 5’8” and over.  Period.  Most shows used to require 5’10” and over!  Many had girls over 6’0”.

Long legs.  Long legs make the showgirl look statuesque, and show the costumes off to a better effect.

Beauty.  Showgirls embody and celebrate exquisite feminine beauty.  Their features are enhanced with long, thick false eyelashes, bright red lipstick, fishnet stockings, high heels and excellent posture. Fishnet stockings are ubiquitous, because they smooth out the leg skin texture and color.  Stylized poses and choreography on stage maximize their curvaceous and womanly assets.

Dance Technique.  Most showgirls have years of ballet and dance training, and many were members of ballet companies.  That’s how they developed those long lines in arms and legs that make them look even more statuesque when dancing.

Les Folies Bergere, Tropicana Hotel

Costumes.  Costumes in Las Vegas production shows have always been lavish, imaginative, and glittering.  They usually include g-string bottoms, rhinestone-encrusted bras, and huge headresses.  Feathers of all types of birds are used (ostrich, turkey, chicken) to augment the size of the costumes without adding much weight.  Even so, many of the more lavish outfits weigh 30-40 pounds, usually due to the weight of the rhinestones and the steel frames they are welded to that form backpacks, hip packs or headpieces.  Moving gracefully while wearing these on one’s head, shoulders or hips can be quite challenging.   There are even bras made of steel wire with rhinestones welded to them, that a showgirl wears against her bare skin.

Jubilee! Bluebell Line costumes

Elegance.  A Las Vegas showgirl carries herself regally, moves sinuously, and always keeps an alluring look on her face.  She maintains a refined presence at all times.

Classic showgirl choreography eschews open-crotch positions or movements, preferentially keeping the groin area concealed with crossed thighs and demure positioning that is sensuously seductive.

Grace.  Showgirls must move gracefully at every moment, no matter what costume they are wearing or what surface they are walking on or climbing.  Showgirls are taught a special way to walk that accentuates the swaying of hips and a gliding motion.  These techniques are essential, especially when walking topless while carrying a 30 pound backpack on her shoulders and walking down a long staircase in 4 inch heels without looking down.  It takes poise – and skill!

Unattainability.  Las Vegas showgirls are gorgeous ladies who are literally up on a pedestal – the huge sparkling stage.  Their goddess-like beauty inspires reverence and adoration from afar, and the audience is never allowed to believe that they could actually touch or obtain them.  They remain ethereal mirages of splendor.

‘Les Folies Bergere’ was at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino for 45 years. Photo courtesy of Cari Byers.
Fluff Le Coque, Legendary Company Manager of Jubilee!

In the pre-showgirl Las Vegas shows of the 1950s, the dancers and topless girls (called “nudes”) were required to gamble, drink and ‘accompany’ the VIPs in the casinos after shows.  When Margaret Kelly (“Miss Bluebell”) brought the first showgirls (called “Bluebells”) from Europe to Las Vegas in 1958, she set the precedent that her showgirls did not mingle with the audience after the show.  They were protected, glamorous enigmas to audience members.

Topless.  In Las Vegas, showgirls perform topless for most of their show, although not all the time.  So most showgirls must be comfortable revealing their female assets to strangers while dancing or walking on stage.

However, showgirls do not traditionally dance in bawdy or vulgar ways while topless. Showgirls are not burlesque dancers.  The original showgirls and showgirl style imported from Paris by Miss Bluebell involved walking or dancing in a dignified, elegant manner.  In fact, there is a walking technique used by showgirls called “tipping” in which the walking motion is so smooth that exposed breasts do not bounce or jiggle.  This is considered to be the epitome of classic showgirl style and takes practice and grace to accomplish.

Les Folies Bergere

Showgirls do not necessarily have to perform topless to be considered showgirls.  Many times showgirls will perform ‘covered’ (wearing a costume that covers the breasts) for all-ages shows, public events, TV appearances, or because of what the choreographer wants for a particular dance number.

In the classic showgirl-show in Las Vegas, Jubilee!, showgirls were called “nudes” if they perform topless, and “Bluebells” if they perform covered (see a video of Jubilee!, a wonderful homage to Jubilee!and a slideshow of Jubilee!).

Showgirls who make appearances for public and special events do not go topless.  They carry themselves with dignity, speak courteously, and maintain their costumes impeccably.  They eschew vulgarity in words and actions.  They do not encourage event guests to manhandle them.  They inspire respect with their refined beauty and poise.

What is a showgirl not?

The term “showgirl” has been hijacked by many strippers, strip clubs, escort services, and topless dancers.

Each of these other professions and dance styles fulfills legitimate needs and tastes of the public, audiences, and choreographers.  However, this blog addresses specifically the definition of what a classic showgirl is, so it bears clarification of what a showgirl is not.

Dancers whose movements simulate sex, with bump-and-grind, raunchy, suggestive, or more recently, hip-hop style are not classic showgirls. Classic showgirls glide, twirl, and entice in a demure and elegant fashion, using highly-trained dance technique.

Topless dancers who gyrate lasciviously or employ poses or movements in which their legs are spread far apart to arouse audience members are not classic showgirls – they are topless dancers (and very often, quite good dancers).  Burlesque dancers frequently wear very glamorous costumes like showgirls, but in peeling them off and bump-and-grinding, they shed any vestiges of being a showgirl.

Despite similar exposure of skin, showgirls are very different than strippers and escorts.

Strippers are not showgirls.  The terms are not interchangeable.

Showgirls do not strip.

Strippers dance lewdly; showgirls dance elegantly.  For both, this is what their audiences seek out and pay for.

Strippers elicit lust; showgirls elicit desire, wonder and worship.

Escorts provide sex; showgirls provide glamour.

Strippers sell their assets; showgirls showcase their beauty.

Special thanks to Neil McGee and Bobby Bernhardt for their historical perspectives.

23 thoughts on “What is a Las Vegas Showgirl?”

  1. I was so proud to be a Las Vegas Showgirl and also a Showgirl in other cities as well!! I loved my jobs and the people I worked with and for. It was an honor. I have been trying to educate people about who we are. I also worked in Burlesque shows and also in cabaret type venues with a mixed type review of collaborations. Such as jazz dancing, strip tease, acrobats and more. I am proud of all the work I have been able to do. Showgirl and more!! Thank you!! Sincerely and love, Jan Drake Bakke 7-9-2016

    1. Thank you, Jan, for adding your voice and experience to this blog! Show business certainly is a wonderful and magical life, and we try to bring that wonder and magic into the audience’s life. Glad you are a part of it, and spreading the word to others.

  2. Wow it is so funny I have just read this because I have been wondering the same issue. I think a showgirl is much more appealing a profession than a stripper would be. I would love to be crowned with feathers and be part of something glamorous. Strippers? They get beer spilled on them.

  3. Such a wonderful description of the epitome of Showgirl style! As a costume designer focused primaily of feathered showgirl silhouettes, this is a great article to share with friends to help describe the essence of what I am striving toward. Thanks!

  4. I have just shared this with all my friends and family so maybe after 30 years they will finally understand. Thankyou Thankyou XX 🙂

  5. This is great Andrea! And to Lisa, above, I LOVED being called showgirl for all the reasons listed above! There is no negativity about in Paris, which was really wonderful. We were treated like celebrities, as we should be, ha! It’s up to us real showgirls to spread the word and show how proud we are. If we act embarrassed, then we confirm to people that there is a reason to be. I won’t give into that, ever! Bisous, xoxoxoxo Cynthia (or Cindy as most called me in Vegas)

      1. My sister used to dance in Jubilee..in fact she was the young woman on the marquee facing Flamingo. She also was in Fantasy at The Luxor for many years…very proud of her

  6. Eloquently written! Thank you for taking the time to research and accurately portray what a true showgirl is. I performed in “Hello Hollywood Hello” in the early 1980’s and often hesitate to tell people because of the negative connotation the word “showgirl” now has in our society. Some of the most talented dancers and choreographers I have ever known were once showgirls!!

  7. Thank you for writing so eloquently. This was wonderful to read, I danced at the Moulin Rouge in paris and was a Bluebell at MGM Reno, I always thought of myself as a dancer first because of the bad images given to the noun “Showgirl”.

    1. What wonderful experiences you have had! And you were one of the performers who embodied that direct France-America connection, as well. Arden and Ms. Bluebell only hired good dancers, so you can certainly consider yourself both a dancer and a classic showgirl. A true part of show biz history!

  8. Thanks for the very fine clarification and definition of a Showgirl. I am a native Nevadan who was fortunate to have a mother who taught ballet in a small rural town of 5,000. She taught many young girls classic french style (she always taught positions and movement “en Francaise).
    I would help stage her productions (which were often the only “cultural” events for many weeks in our hometown). I guess the influence was my start in show business. In 1978, I was fortunate enough to be the first head electrician of the MGM Grand Hotel in Reno and that year we opened “Hello, Hollywood, Hello”.
    Nevada’s unique tie to Paris via the classic “Les Folies Bergere” and “Jubilee” have actually been a boon to the cultural communities of the state.
    Thank you for the article. Often Nevada is painted as a “hick state” with no cultural heritage. It is truly a paradox to those who do not really know our lifestyle. Thanks to all those excellent dancers who give back to their communities by teaching.
    My mother is smiling at you (in her classic style).

    Mark A. Bosch

    1. Mark, thank you for sharing such special and historical recollections. I love hearing personal stories from those who were/are involved in the unique Nevada show biz world. We really have nurtured our own style of cultural arts for nearly a century, and outsiders are always surprised to hear of the connection it has to classic art, such as French-style ballet.

  9. Really appreciate such an informative article! I will post the site in my “Glamorous MGM Costume” facebook site so that people will have a better understanding of what a
    Thank You for such a great perspective.
    Karen Burns

      1. You are so right! That is the reason I have created a “Backstage Pass” show with “Those Fabulous MGM Costume!” Facebook & Exhibit – using the original “Hello Hollywood Hello” costumes – to try to keep some of this glamorous history around…….plus also have assisted Lou Anne Harrison with her “Showgirl Art” exhibits both here in Reno and Las Vegas.

  10. Your comments are very elegant as well, When I was dancing in Vegas I hated being called a showgirl. You have elegantly described showgirls here… I danced my tailfeathers off in my Vegas days and did B’way as well. My conclusion was the dancers I danced with in Vegas were better! I miss them all! Most dancers I have known and know wouldn’t last a week where I’ve been. Thank you for your clarity…I shall send people to your blog. Lisa

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