The Fan Dancer: Sally Rand

fan dance
Sally Rand in 1935 in Boston, where a censor ordered her to wear more clothes in a performance. Photo by Leslie Jones, courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

August, 2014 

My assignment was to interview a 71-year-old grandmother who danced nude while waving a couple of big white ostrich-feather fans like the veils of Salome. She had been a star in 1933 when she created a sensation at the Chicago World’s Fair, but now she seemed more of a curiosity. A 1972 article in The Village Voice had been headlined, “What do you say to a naked 68-year-old lady?”

Sally Rand’s 1930s-era fan dance. Photo via Flickr; photographer unknown.

What indeed? My first question to Sally Rand (mercifully, I didn’t have to interview her nude) was, “Why are you still doing this? Why are you still taking your clothes off in public?”

“If I were to give it up, what would I retire to?” she replied. “Sitting on a patio doing needlepoint? Yecch.” She had been doing the fan dance 40 weeks a year for the previous 42 years, and planned to keep going until she died.

I asked her about the notorious Chicago World’s Fair engagement, which resulted in four arrests for indecent exposure (the convictions were later overturned on appeal) and having her performance talked about in Congress. An Illinois representative seeking congressional funding for the Fair said her fan-dance show was “one of those places where you have to pay to get in and pay to get out. You have a good time while you are in there.” Congress approved the appropriation. Rand told me she had actually developed the fan-dance routine earlier at a Chicago speakeasy, where she took a striptease job to put food on her table during the Depression. She said her decision to do the show completely nude came about by accident.

“I had planned to use a short Greek tunic for costuming,” she told me. “But on opening night the rehearsal took so long there was no time for me to go home for it. While I was wondering what to do, the announcer called out my name and my music started. I panicked for a moment, then said to myself, ‘So, who’s going to know what’s under the fans?’ And they didn’t!” She chose the ostrich plumes (“I bought them on credit for $200”) to evoke the graceful flights of herons that as a child she had watched flying over her grandfather’s farm in Elkton, Missouri. Whenever someone asked if she was really nude behind the fans, she replied enigmatically, “The Rand is quicker than the eye.”

I asked her about exercising. She said working 40 weeks a year, doing three to six eight-minute shows a night, kept her in shape. “Isn’t that enough exercise for a woman of my age?” During the other 12 weeks of the year, she worked out regularly at a ballet studio near her home in Glendora, California. She had learned from painful experience that any lapse in her conditioning schedule could be disastrous. Muscles tightened by inactivity didn’t loosen easily when one turned 65.

She told me she had a longtime connection with Canada in general and Calgary in particular. Her first husband was a Montana bronc rider named Turk Greenough, and they honeymooned in Calgary during the 1942 Stampede. “I rode grand entry in the rodeo,” she said proudly. She returned to Calgary six years later as the headline attraction on the Stampede midway, performing her famous fan dance in the Royal American Shows Revue. By that time, she was a young widow. Her husband had died in the Second World War. She later married again and became a mother and grandmother.

Sally Rand. Photo: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Public domain
Sally Rand. Photo: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Public domain

When she got back to Calgary in 1975 for two weeks of performances at the Summit Hotel, Rand was greeted by a network television crew with their lights set up to film her show. Would she perform under those bright lights? Never. Rand stamped her foot, folded her arms, and refused to dance until the offending lights and cameras were removed. There was a half-hour delay while the CBC people from Toronto tried to make her change her mind. But she was adamant. There was no way Sally Rand was going to dance with those cameras present.

Eventually the television people relented and the cameras and lights were removed. The house lights dimmed and the room was bathed in a pale blue glow similar to moonlight. The strains of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” filled the room and Rand emerged in a diaphanous gown carrying her trademark fans. When the music segued into Chopin’s “Waltz in C Sharp Minor,” a hotel employee reached out and whisked away her gown. She then re-enacted the mildly erotic dance routine she had not changed for 42 years, “not a whit, not a step, not a feather.”

Afterwards, Rand said she had no regrets about kicking the TV people out of the room. “The people here wanted to see a nostalgic illusion, and I have to give the best performance I can or not at all. Those bright lights would have destroyed the illusion and ruined everything.” To appease the TV people, however, she agreed to do a sit-down interview with them after her final set. “One still needs the publicity, and one can’t afford to make enemies.”

In my review, I described her performance as graceful, tasteful and elegant, and said that the body stocking she wore – made of a gauze material called mousseline de soie (I got this information from her press kit) – created the kind of illusion that you see in motion pictures where reality is softened by diffusion filters. She was obviously upset by this comparison because she phoned me the day after the column appeared. “I was not wearing a body stocking,” she insisted. “I was nude!” So there.

Rand continued to perform professionally for another three years after the Calgary gig, until ill health forced her to curtail her public appearances. She was hospitalized for congestive heart failure in 1978 and died the following year at age 75 after suffering cardiac arrest. According to The New York Times, she was remembered as a brave showbiz pioneer who had rescued her type of once-shocking performance from the striptease joints and made it acceptable for the legitimate stage.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014

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