Viewing the “fan dance” in the year 2018 is a quaint, cutesy activity on par with listening to an old radio play or riding a horse.
From the comfort of your own home, in front of the glow of your laptop computer, you can search for the dance online and get its general gist. The dance will involve a lady, maybe nude, maybe merely scantily clad, and she’ll be holding two large ostrich feathers in her hands. She’ll use the dual objects to cover herself, and now and then—purposefully or otherwise—she’ll allow a brief glimpse of skin to the audience’s prying eyes. That’s what the crowd—men, mostly—has been waiting for, and they’ll hoot and holler their approval at the sight.
By Rick Paulas
It’s fun, in an outdated, mostly innocent, sort of way. It’s a hobby for the privileged or curious, largely unnecessary for the general public to know or understand, certainly with no role in pushing the world’s culture forward. It’s time has come and went, sort of like that old form of the English language with its awkward misspellings and phrasings. Interesting to see, but in an era when you can see literally anything from one’s smartphone, we’re well past the allure that the fan dance originally created. For better or worse, we’ve moved onto more outrageous forms of self-expression.
“When it was first introduced, the fan dance was notorious and titillating. It was the inevitable next iteration of the showgirl spectacle, and like any innovation, that meant there was a large profit in it. This meant, like every other invention throughout history’s long game of leapfrog, there was a fight over who started it, and therefore, who owned the right to perform it.” Rick Paulas
But of course, this wasn’t always the case. When it was first introduced, the fan dance was notorious and titillating. It was the inevitable next iteration of the showgirl spectacle, and like any innovation, that meant there was a large profit in it. This meant, like every other invention throughout history’s long game of leapfrog, there was a fight over who started it, and therefore, who owned the right to perform it.
For the fan dance, this culminated in a battle between Faith Bacon, “the world’s most beautiful woman,” and Sally Rand, one of the world’s most famous showgirls of all time.
This fight is the driving force throughout Feuding Fan Dancers, Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating and page-turning dive into the lives of Bacon and Rand. But the book isn’t so much a stodgy legal thriller satisfied with merely picking the nits of creative ownership, but rather widens its scope to become a meticulous, behind-the-scenes analysis into the intersection of show-business and femininity in post-Depression America.
I won’t spoil the ending, or announce who prevails, other than to say, it doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is that here, finally, is the story of these two largely forgotten women. Part of that is because of the lack of media affordances that didn’t yet allow the ease of recording, but largely it’s been due to publishing gateways frankly not really caring all that much about the stories of women. The book’s ultimate goal—and increasingly the goal of Zemeckis’ work—is correcting those wrongs by filling in history’s blanks.
Leslie Zemeckis has been on a hell of a roll. Her 2015 book, Goddess of Love Incarnate, told the story of Lili St. Cyr, the so-called “highest paid stripteaser in America,” while her recent documentary Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer highlighted Mabel Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer. With Feuding Fan Dancers, it’s become even more clear how Zemeckis sees her role in the cultural discourse.
History, it is said, is the story of the winners, but really, it’s the story of those who storytellers consider powerful. Historical analysis has long been dominated with the stories of men, for the obvious reason men have largely held positions of what’s been considered power. But contrary to the inherent narrow framework of storytelling, power is not a top-down hierarchy. Kings get dethroned, managers retire or are ostracized, congressional officials retire or get impeached. Actual, real power comes from those changing society at its base. And one arena for that shift—the one that Zemeckis has chosen to focus on—is the world of popular entertainment. When it’s at its most potent, that is the true nexus of democracy and organizing, of creating and spreading propaganda strong enough to change the world.
It’s this lens that makes Zemeckis’ work important and vital, particularly in today’s post-Trump era, when the world’s most powerful positions are held by overtly feckless buffoons. The emperor has no clothes, but never really did, and there was never really a true emperor at all, just someone who happened to be sitting in a big chair. Now, like always, true power resides in the largely nameless figures who push the cultural football further down the field. They don’t campaign to get elected, or own billion-dollar businesses, or live in castles. They take what once was, and make it what it will be. Quite often, contrary to high school history classes, these figures are female. And now and then, they may even wear nothing but enormous ostrich feathers.
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