With resounding applause erupting in the evening air, the fabulous “Folies Bergere” went dark last month at the Tropicana after a 49-year run.
Nostalgic reminiscences were plentiful and heartfelt, but as Terri Buffet thumbed the pages of her photo album it became clear the “Folies” meant much more than that. For professional dancers, the “Folies” and shows like it provided an opportunity to work in one place, to earn a good living, raise a family, and enjoy things others take for granted.
For a generation of dancers and musicians, that was the saving grace and secret blessing of Las Vegas. There are job openings for doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, but just try landing steady work as a dancer who doesn’t use a pole.
Buffet’s album was filled with glossies of her in the prime of her working career. There she was as a spotlighted adagio dancer being lifted by her partner, Aleco. There she was again high atop an elephant named Bashful.
With so much gaud and glitz, it’s easy to underestimate the devotion it takes to perform two and three shows nightly. Contrary to the image projected by Hollywood, when not working, the real dancers of Las Vegas are far more likely to take stretch and technique classes than party all night with high rollers.
Buffet took her first ballet class at age 5 in Endicott, N.Y. More courses followed, and wherever the family moved she found friends in her dance classes. She danced in ballet companies in Ohio and Wisconsin, and studied with the Royal Danish Ballet. It was there she met people who introduced her to Peter Baker, an agent for legendary Dublin-born choreographer Margaret Kelly, better known as “Miss Blue Bell.”
Miss Blue Bell recruited only the tallest dancers from Europe for her production shows, including the “Lido” at the Stardust. Buffet was an American dancing in Europe in 1970, and the choreographer made an exception.
Although at 5-foot-91/2 Buffet had literally outgrown the ballet, she was barely tall enough to dance for Miss Blue Bell. She received a six-month contract, a plane ticket back home, and an introduction to the Las Vegas production show scene in its heyday.
“I really came from a very conservative, Midwestern family,” Buffet said, recalling how she had refused to dance topless. “The whole concept of Las Vegas was stepping out of the box.”
But Las Vegas meant steady work and, despite its surreal shadings, normalcy. She danced at the “Lido” and “Folies” for more than a decade. She married professional dancer Claude Buffet and had two children.
“I trained all my life,” she said. “We would train between shows every day. Some days we’d go to Robert’s School of Dance downtown or the Backstage and would take classes in the daytime.”
With constant training, she managed to avoid most of the ankle, hip, and back injuries that sidelined other dancers. The rigors of the craft took a toll, and today many of her friends are having knees and hips replaced.
At night, with her heavy “slap” of makeup on, she would enter the spotlight spinning and twirling with Aleco. Adagio dancing leaves no room for error, and that made working while pregnant a challenge.
“You’re in the spotlight,” Buffet said. “If you mess up, you’re going to end up on the floor. There’s nothing you can fudge about it.
“When I was pregnant, Aleco would tease Claude and say, ‘I used to be responsible for your wife. Now I’m responsible for your whole family.’ “
With Aleco adjusting his lift to compensate for the shifting of the baby, Buffet managed to work until she was five months pregnant.
She returned even after her second child was born, but the stage longevity of dancers is similar to the careers of other professional athletes. By the early 1980s, Buffet transitioned into teaching.
“It would have been really difficult to retire had I not been so into being a mother,” she said. “The further I get away from it now, the more I miss it. It was great to be able to revisit all of that and feel some of that appreciation at the ‘Folies.’ That part of my life had sort of disappeared for a while.”
It’s a part of Las Vegas life that’s disappearing forever.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.