The showgirls at “Jubilee!” do more than perform. They’re living relics. Adorned in sequins, feathers and Swarovski crystals, the dancers in “Jubilee!” at Bally’s are an iconic part of the city’s history. Behind the statuesque beauties are years of tradition that have shaped what the Las Vegas showgirl means to people around the world.
“It’s an illusion of perfection and maybe a glamour that people don’t have anymore,” said “Jubilee!” Company Manager Diane Palm. “No one gets dressed up and yet the showgirl seems to symbolize that part that is really so glamorous and so mythic out there. I think when people come to Las Vegas, I think they’re looking for something like that.”
Palm has been with the show since it opened. She was hired as both a dancer and dance captain and has since performed almost every role including teaching choreography to dancers, scouting new talent, holding auditions and choreographing routines. Over the past 30 years she learned everything there is to know about “Jubilee!” from the former company manager Fluff LeCoque.
“I feel pretty confident that because of all her training I’m able to continue to keep ‘Jubilee!’ moving in a great direction so that is still has that great Las Vegas showgirl that people have come to expect,” said Palm.
That expectation was first set in 1958 when “Jubilee!” creator Donn Arden introduced his showgirls to audiences in Vegas with the opening of “Lido de Paris” at the Stardust. Featuring elaborate costumes, sets and beautiful showgirls, Arden’s “Lido de Paris” was an instant hit and set the stage for production shows in Vegas. It also set the precedent for the Vegas showgirl. The show ran for more than 20 years.
In 1981 Arden opened “Jubilee!” at Bally’s. The show cost $10 million to create and continued Arden’s tradition of combining grand-scale production elements with glamorous showgirls wearing extravagant costumes. Today “Jubilee!” is the only production where people can see Arden’s classic Vegas showgirl, a trained dancer wearing a glitzy costume, spectacular headpiece and who is at least 5 feet, 8 inches tall. Height was important because Arden felt that tall dancers showed off the costumes the best.
“You can’t really have a short girl and a huge headdress on because then you look like a hat with legs basically. So you have to be tall to balance out the costumes,” said Palm.
Male dancers in “Jubilee!” need to be at least 6 feet tall.
The show’s lavish costumes were designed by Pete Menefee and Bob Mackie, the same creator behind Cher’s exquisite wardrobe. Menefee is a designer well-known for creating costumes for the Radio City Rockettes and pageant gowns for Miss America and Miss Universe contestants. Menefee recently designed 20 new dresses for “Jubilee’s” Titanic scene that cost $250,000.
“Jubilee!” has a cast of 85 dancers who wear 1,000 costumes in the show. The costumes most notably feature a dazzling array of rhinestones in various shapes and colors made from only Swarovski crystal. The show has one of the largest collections of Swarovski crystals in the world, including many stones that are no longer in production. There can be hundreds of crystals used in a single costume for both the male and female dancers in the show. The vests that the men wear in the finale use 666 rhinestones on each one, and there are 19 dancers who wear them.
One of the other main costume elements is the feathers. There are several different types of feathers used including ostrich and pheasant. All of the feathers are imported from either South Africa or South America. Palm explained that working with the feathers can be very labor intensive as some of the costumes can use up to 5,000 of them. Each feather had to be individually wrapped with wire and sewn onto a form called a branch and that’s then sewn onto a steel frame that later gets covered with fabric and covered with applications like sequins and rhinestones.
Not only are the headpieces elaborate, but they’re heavy. The heaviest hat weighs 22 pounds and it worn by one of the singers in the show. The hats worn by the dancers are between about 12 and 16 pounds. Along with the hats some of the costumes include shoulder pieces or other adornments.
“By the time you get everything on, you’re probably carrying close to about 30 plus pounds on you, so it’s a lot,” said Palm.
With such intricate costume pieces, the show has a team of people who work during the day to clean and maintain everything. Their precise work has enabled the show to keep using some of the same pieces that it opened with 31 years ago. Some of the original pieces still used include the wire framing for the headpieces and a wire frame bikini top covered in clear Swarovski crystals worn by dancers in one of the numbers.
“You’re not just performing a piece of history, but you’re wearing a piece of art, and it’s part of history as well,” said Julie Taber, one of the dancers in the show.
Along with the wardrobe she explained that showgirls in “Jubilee!” have a classic look when it comes to stage makeup. MAC cosmetics created a signature look for the dancers that everyone must follow. The main elements are dramatic Cleopatra-like eyes and ruby red lips.
“Our stage is massive, and we have massive set pieces. We have massive costumes that we wear, so if we don’t overdraw some features we would just get lost in all of that,” said Taber.
Learning the makeup technique is part of training for the show and understanding another element of the showgirl tradition in Vegas.
Before joining the case of “Jubilee!” Taber was a Radio City Rockette, a Walt Disney World dancer and had performed in several musical across the country. She didn’t know much about the Vegas showgirl tradition before signing her initial six month contract. Taber has been with the show for four years now and has no plans of leaving anytime soon. For her and the other showgirls in “Jubilee!,” filling the role of a Vegas icon is a dream come true.
“You get here and you have the glamorous makeup. You have these one-of-a-kind expensive costumes, I mean you’re decked out in $10,000 worth of costumes. You’re getting to dance, which is our passion first and foremost, and then you have people coming from all over the world to see you. It’s wonderful. It’s glamorous times twenty-five,” said Taber.