Women on the Las Vegas stage: Showgirl Kat Day

Kat Day is a living testament to the glamour that built the Las Vegas Strip and to the power and perfection that allowed Vegas showgirls to become icons of feminine strength and beauty.

“When they opened the El Rancho, they really didn’t have anything but a dirt road to pull people down here (to the Strip),” she told me while we sat at her dressing table backstage at the Jubilee! Theater. “So they brought in some headliners [and] they brought in some beautiful girls wearing extravagant things that you couldn’t find in Bakersfield or Chicago or Milwaukee, and that’s what brought people here.”

Kat is both a symbol and an individual. She understands her role in history as well as she knows the steps in the show she performs six nights a week at Bally’s.

“If you look at the show in soft focus, you’re looking at a collection of beautiful women,” she says. “And then if you’re looking at it a little bit more finely focused, you’re looking at the history of pop culture.”

Kat calls “Jubilee!” a “shadowbox encyclopedia of memories” — something that reflects the culture of the time in which it was created and projects a vision of the future of the stage.

“It’s a little like ‘The Nutcracker’ would be for ballet,” she says, meaning that “Jubilee!” sets the standard for Las Vegas shows and has done so for decades and that its influence on other productions can be seen in everything from choreography to costume design to stage construction.

The show’s connection to the world of “The Nutcracker” is more than metaphoric. Like nearly all the 85 showgirls and showboys on stage each night, Kat is a trained ballerina.

“I never really wanted to be the sugar plum fairy or Aurora,” she tells me, recalling performing in “The Nutcracker.” “I wanted to be the mouse king.”

The ballet’s villain had the best choreography, Kat explains — plus, she said, she would be chosen for the role over “the 5’6″ perfect blonde girl” who was picked as the heroine.

But it wouldn’t be long before Kat, 5’11”, would find a place where being and a head taller than the other girls got her ahead.

She performed in a show in Branson, Mo., in which she wore costumes designed by Pete Menefee. Menefee also created the “Jubilee!” costumes, and the connection gave Kat an opportunity to come to Las Vegas to perform.

New dancers rotate in often (there are auditions a couple times a year), but Kat says that whether regardless of their prior knowledge about “Jubilee!” and its history, they all come to understand the show’s importance.

“Even if you didn’t get it when you came in, you get it after the first week,” she says.

Everything about “Jubilee!” — from its dancers’ famous headdresses to its enormous moving sets — was built to last. “Jubilee!” is the longest continually running production show in Las Vegas and the only remaining showgirl extravaganza.

“They picked the best of everything,” Kat says. “That’s why we take such great pride in it.”

One of Pete Menefee's original sketches for a "Jubilee!" showgirl costume

The bracelets Kat is wearing were made for the 1981 re-opening of “Jubilee!” and she says that much of the dancers’ jewelry was re-purposed from another show, which ran 15 years earlier.

The show uses more than a thousand basic bikini costumes that in 1981 cost $1,800 apiece — before the sequins and feathers.

Somewhat in contrast to the vintage value of “Jubilee!” — or maybe because of its history — Kat and her colleagues stand at the forefront of the crowd of very modern women performers in Las Vegas who embrace femininity as a source of power, honor and prestige.

“There’s an incredible benefit to being a woman on the Las Vegas Strip,” Kat says. She points out that she got her job in “Jubilee!” first because she is a woman.

When showgirls came to Vegas in the 1950s, the job provided a rare opportunity for women to make money, gain social stature and climb the economic ladder. The opportunities associated with the position continue to favor strong, professional, talented women.

Kat explains that their dance training helps showgirls continue performing if they want, after they take on more traditional female social roles.

“Because your whole life is pulling in your stomach, a lot of women make it into their fifth or sixth month [of pregnancy], she says. “We’re strong women with strong abs. ”

Most showgirls — there have been a few exceptions — can perform well into their 30s but retire from the show before they’re 45. Then they teach dance or design costumes (Kat already does), or take up banking or marketing, physical therapy or cosmetology, or any of a host of other pursuits.

“It’s kind of like Barbie,” she comments, remembering the doll’s 1980s slogan “We girls can do anything.”

Showgirls are usually paid more than their male counterparts.

“People didn’t necessarily come here to see the boy who holds us up and shows us off,” Kat explains. “They came here to see a tall, powerful, trained, charismatic woman.”

She says many in the “Jubilee!” cast come from performing families that lend support to a dancer as he or she trains.

“That support system in turn creates an adult that — this is how we live, breathe [and] find joy,” she says.

As for charisma — that’s what got her the job with “Jubilee!”

I spent yesterday at “Jubilee!” auditions and watched as dozens of girls who had great bodies and learned choreography quickly were cut after the first round. Those who made it through to the finish showed personality and conviction on top of extraordinary skill.

Kat describes “charisma” as “the ability to engage someone and make them feel like they’re the only person in the showroom.” She says it’s the intangible part of talent — and it’s the thing that makes a showgirl out of a dancer.

Outfitted in a bikini-style costume loaded with pounds of rhinestones and flaunting a feathery black tail and a satin top hat, she sit elegantly at her dressing table, one foot tucked behind the other.

Many authors have called the showgirl’s posture “statuesque,” but the word doesn’t fit.

Snapshots of her dogs Moxy and Gusto are taped up on her dressing mirror next to a photo of Kat in a ballet costume. The pictures help explain why a word for something still, heavy or permanent doesn’t describe Kat: She exudes confidence and enthusiasm, and she has the training to back it up.

I interviewed Kat in May, and though I was struck then by her intelligence, vigor and personality, it was not until yesterday that I understood that these characteristics are essential to every dancer in “Jubilee!”

Female dance captain Cathy Colbert, coaching showgirl hopefuls through their auditions, called out the qualities of a “Jubilee!” girl: “Proud. Sexy. Coy.”

Those are ideals that have allowed “Jubilee!” to rise to its status as a paragon of pageantry and continue delighting audiences for longer than any other Las Vegas show.

“Sometimes the most fun thing for me is to come up out of the floor and see a giggling, uncertain, pointing, laughing audience,” Kat says. “They’re very excited, but they don’t know how to react to all this feminine form that’s coming at them.”

In the scene she described, Kat is one of 27 topless showgirls who parade around the stage wearing six-foot hats.

She sums up the experience in three words: “It. Is. Extravagant.”