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On The Edge Of Their Feet: Dancing In Las Vegas

Associated Press/Joe Cavaretta

Dancers getting ready for the now closed Jubilee! at Bally's hotel-casino

It’s true that Las Vegas doesn't’t currently operate any professional sports franchises. But if you think that means Las Vegas doesn't’t have any professional athletes, think again.

Hundreds of professional dancers and showgirls call Las Vegas home, and the landscape of job offerings for these professional dancers is constantly changing.

In February, "Jubilee!" -- one of Las Vegas’ last iconic showgirl productions, closed down -- an era of glamorous outfits, shining headdresses and massive stilettos.

Now, job offerings for Las Vegas dancers are those that require multi talents – circus acts, gymnastics, acrobatics or silk routines, for example.

The March edition of Desert Companion, took an in-depthlook at the culture of professional dancing in Las Vegas, and some of the pains that come with it.

Some of those dancers talked to KNPR's State of Nevada about what it is like to dance in Las Vegas. 

Anaisa Bates danced at "Jubilee!" from 2005 to 2008. 

“It was a pinnacle for me,” she said, "To me at that age, at the time, it was unreal to have a job where you just go in and you're dancing and that's your passion.”

Bates said cast members had to show up at 6:30 p.m. to get ready for the shows, when the show ended just before midnight they would often have to stay to work on a new piece of choreography, or fix a part of the show that wasn't working. She said rehearsals often wouldn't end until 4 in the morning. 

"To be rehearsing, running around in heels -still- after you've finished the show at 4 in the morning but it's just what had to be done," she said.  

Michele Chovan-Taylor worked at "Splash" at the now-closed Riviera hotel-casino and she was the dance captain at "Legends in Concert" at the old Imperial Palace. 

She said there are three categories of dancers in Las Vegas. First is the showgirl. They're usually taller women who perform topless. They perform simpler movements because they're usually wearing elaborate headdresses and costumes. They are usually paid more money because they perform topless.

The second is the dancer. Chovan-Taylor describes them as the "workhorses" of the production shows. They're perform fully clothed and are usually the shorter women and men and they make less money.

Finally, there are the strippers and we all know what they do. They actually make the most money, according to Chovan-Taylor.

Chovan-Taylor said she has seen a big change in production shows and how dancers are used now compared to when she started here in the late 80s and 90s. 

“The closing of "Jubilee!" is like the end of an era,” she said. 

The dancers who perform in Cirque du Soleil shows have to have gymnastic skills along with dance training.

“It’s more somebody who can do a variety of things,” she said.

Besides the differences in training, Chovan-Taylor said the ostentatious costumes and makeup for those big production shows don't allow dancers to connect with the audience like they once did.

“I feel like when you go do a show you don't necessarily see the dancer," she said, "I feel when we were dancing you would see our face and there was a little bit more individuality."

Bates agreed that the "dancers kind of disappear" in production shows. 

Ivorie Jenkins danced for Cirque du Soleil for five years, including at the "Viva Elvis" show at the Aria, which is now closed. 

She said the Elvis show was different than other Cirque productions because it featured a lot of dancers and was more centered on dance than other productions. 

“I really enjoyed dancing for Cirque because I did feel like a dancer,” Jenkins said.

Before joining Cirque, Jenkins worked in New York City, where she said dancers made very little compared with dancers in Las Vegas.

“Vegas is also a place where dancers can survive and actually make money,” she said.

But Chovan-Taylor believes Las Vegas is not a place where dancers can easily find work anymore. She said to work on one of the Cirque shows people have to be young and physically able to handle challenges of the shows, which are demanding.

When Chovan-Taylor was still dancing, she rolled her ankle, which she said started a whole series of problems. However, if you're hurt and unable to dance you don't get paid.

“You don’t get paid, if you don’t dance," she said.

All three women said they struggled with injuries throughout their careers from knee problems from running up and down metal stairs in heels and heavy costuming, to herniated disks. Some companies were better than other others at taking care of dancers.  

“I was lucky to be Vegas and dancing for Cirque," Jenkins said, "They treat their dancers, their acrobats very well when it comes to injuries.”

Despite the problems with health care, there is no union for dancers in Las Vegas. In fact, Chovan-Taylor said "it never even crossed my mind" to form a union.

Jenkins believes an effort to organize is hurt by the nature of performing.

“It is almost like we work against each other," she explained "Because of the competition in the dance world and because there is always someone who has already been fitted for your costume waiting in the wings, literally waiting for you to be rolled off stage, then they’re ready to come on”

However, despite the injuries, the low pay and the lack of health care, all of the women said they would be back up on the stage again and would continue to dance as long as they could.

"As long as I can dance, I'm going to pursue a career in dance," Bates said.

"It is something for me that no matter how I'm feeling sad, depressed, if I can dance I brings me such, such joy," Chovan-Taylor said.

"It's this beautiful mix between fierceness and ease," Jenkins said, "You are an athlete. You've been training your life to do this. You still train until you're ready to go on stage and then underneath all of that there is this beauty this ephemeral, fleeting beauty that you see."

Anaisa Bates, formerly of Jubilee! dancer;  Michele Chovan-Taylor, formerly of Splash at Riviera, Legends in Concert at Imperial Palace;  Ivorie Jenkins, formerly of Viva Elvis, Cirque du Soleil

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.