I’m gripping my hands tightly on a twenty-inch plastic fan, its feathers stretching out towards the ceiling as if praising Jesus, Mary, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Damn, I think. I thought these would be lighter.
Nonetheless, the fans are beautiful: custom made with black staves and light blue ostrich feathers that twist and turn with the slightest movement. As objects alone, they are stunning, but when put into use by the best, it’s almost like watching poetry written into the air. I swish my wrists to give them the sultry flow that they are so well known for by parroting the moves I’ve seen so many do. I put them in front of my body, hinting slightly at my torso beneath, quickly moving them along to a basic dance routine we have practiced with baby fans. The difference is monumental and grace becomes slightly more difficult. The fans impede my vision and movement, but simultaneously make me feel amazing. I bring one fan around my head in such a slow and insinuating fashion that for a split second, I forget about the self-conscious overexamination that exists within my every thought and drop my anxiety, finally enjoying the way I look.
“Smile! Faces! Remember this is about your face!” Jezebel says. I come back from fantasy land to realize I’m making a half-pained, half constipated look, not bad per se, but not the cheeky, flirty look that performers are known for. Jezebel, as in Jezebel Express, the darling performer, “The Girl with the Curves AND the Angles,” is running the class through our routine, verbally emphasizing the hundred little details that go into putting on an act that looks much simpler than it is. “I want to see walks that RuPaul would be proud of! Make it worth it to be here!” She’s a force of positivity that fills up the room, acting like a much-needed shot of liquor to quell the nerves.
The fan dance is all about intimacy, a way to connect with the audience. Burlesque is about emphasizing your hands and fingers, making them devices to point and frame what you want to draw your audience’s eyes to. Fans act as an extension, but one that becomes larger than life, usurping the autonomy of your own digits and projecting the audience’s need for touch. The softness of the feathers (though one can make fans out of anything) are a perfect means for hiding something that’s hinted at or has even already been seen. They exist as a tantalizing barely-there barrier between the illusion of nudity and actual nudity, creating an ethereal presence to an already eye-catching mix of sparkle, shine, and exquisite flair.
There isn’t really a said first fan dance, though several stick out in history. In 1930s Britain, women were prohibited from moving around a stage naked by law in an attempt to curb live nude shows. One troupe, The Windmill Girls, got around this by devising multiple tableau vivant: A dancer would be concealed by her fans while doing her act until the very finale, when her attendants would take away the fans and the performer would be left posing naked for a few seconds. While the fans were beautiful, they existed more as ways to get around strict dancing and vulgarity laws that targeted clubs, but would eventually become a huge part of quintessential burlesque.
One of the most well known fan dances was by Sally Rand in 1933, at the Chicago World’s Fair, part of an act titled “Century of Progress.” Rand had purchased her fans at a second-hand store as a last minute decision and a panicked need for stage props. Its been written down in history that Rand danced nude behind her fans, but rumors floated that she was wearing a bodystocking or theatrical cream. Either way, the crowds were riveted– and scandalized.
“It wasn’t long before the shouts hit the fans,” writes Jim Lowe, of The Fantabulous Sally Rand. “Pillars of the community were outraged, public officials were consulted, and officers of the law were dispatched. Miss Rand found herself in court, answering to charges that certain performances at the Century of Progress Exposition were ‘lewd, lascivious, and degrading to public morals.'” But Rand revolutionized burlesque technique and popularized fans within the larger burlesque community. It’s a trend that’s not been forgotten, even today, where the fan dance exists like an umbrella term, having fans that range from traditional ostrich plumage to more untraditional materials like plants, flannel, and MTA cards (New Yorkers know what’s up).
“You don’t want people to remember your fans. You want them to remember you,” Jezebel says. There does seem something incredibly tragic about being overshadowed by an ostrich that’s seen better days. But the possibility is real, so while the fan dance is something that I gaze lustfully at, consumed by greed at those who have already mastered the tricks, I hold my distance till I’ve got more of this whole burlesque thing down. The idea of giving it all would turn to ashes in a second if I were to ever hear, “Eh, she was okay, but those feathers! Oh God, those feathers!” So I stay in the kiddie pool with my marabou fans (a brief note: Many performers use smaller fans in their acts. Big fans are not better than small fans or vice versa, I just want to perform with big fans and can only control small fans at this point), watching in awe at the ladies who get up in the spotlight and spin huge fans as if they were barely even there.
But make no mistake. The fans are my destiny and I’ll be up there one day too, spinning fans as if I was born to do so. It won’t be a quick journey, and with coordination like this, it may be painful. But for the whole five seconds I saw myself moving with fans in our big dance room mirror, it’s almost as if I didn’t recognize myself. Whoever stared back at me radiated more confidence than the person I catch in the glimpses of train windows or randomly placed mirrors. She was exuberant, she glowed (y’all, this is not a drill, she glowed). Sure, I might sound like I’m getting a bit sappy here, but for the first time in as far back as I can remember, I saw a reflection the person I’d always hoped I’d become (not just the loud, brassy take-no-shit person), a reflection of the confidence that had strung by the “fake it ’til you make it” motto. I was scared to say the least, but I was also oddly calmed by it. As the song ended and I placed the giant fans behind my head, posing like every sugary, sweet, pin up gal has been taught by god to, I thought, “Damn, I can do this.” The image disappeared and there was myself again, sweaty, hair a mess, and my leggings’ crotch down by my knees, returning to the person I recognize from the everyday. Maybe I’m being overzealous or even a bit naÃ¯ve, but I do believe in the power of radical change. It may not come in a flash like it’s often represented, but I do know it comes. So until then, I’ll keep believing what I saw ever so quickly, working more each time I’m in that studio, until it’s not a reflection, but part of who I am.
‘Cause honey, I don’t know where I’m going here, but I know I am going.