From Vegas to Waitsburg, classroom new stage for former showgirl

Patti Jo Amerein danced in Las Vegas shows for 15 years starting in the 1980s. Now, she's sharing her memories and lessons learned during a class for people over 50 at Walla Walla Community College. (Credit: Patti Jo Amerein)
Patti Jo Amerein danced in Las Vegas shows for 15 years starting in the 1980s. Now, she's sharing her memories and lessons learned during a class for people over 50 at Walla Walla Community College. (Credit: Patti Jo Amerein)



Glitz. Glamour. Las Vegas mob bosses sending down platters of crab and bottles of champagne on opening night; hobnobbing in brightly colored costumes and feathers; dancing for the Queen of England. This was the life of a Las Vegas showgirl.

Then, there were the quiet moments, said Patti Jo Amerein, 60. She danced in Las Vegas shows for 15 years starting in the 1980s.

She shared this memory of a rehearsal years ago.

“We’d all be on the floor, leaning against the wall, stretching or eating whatever food we brought and Sammy Davis, Jr. would just come over and plunk himself right down and tell us stories,” she said.

A ‘Quest’ For Lifelong Learning

Amerein, who now lives in Waitsburg, Washington, soon will share her memories and what she learned as a Vegas showgirl during a continuing education class at Walla Walla Community College. Registration for Quest classes is still open for people over 50. The deadline to signup is the day before each class begins. This class starts May 15.

Pat Henry teaches a Quest class about religious activism in the 1960s. (Courtesy Of Annaliese Baker)

Pat Henry teaches a Quest class about religious activism in the 1960s. (Credit: Annaliese Baker)

The lifelong quest for learning is engrained in the Walla Walla-area community, said Annaliese Baker, the manager for continuing and community education at the college.

“Being older in our society here, it’s a marginalized group,” Baker said. “You should get to have a second act, or a third act, or a fourth act, or a fifth act.”

While Quest classes are picking up enrollment, it’s been difficult to find instructors, Baker said.

She said program leaders were happy to accept Amerein’s untraditional course suggestion. Amerein already had taught ballet and tap classes for Quest.

“Now I’m getting older and I realize how important it is to keep your mind active, not only your body,” Amerein said.

Center Stage

As a young girl growing up in Las Vegas, Amerein dreamed of stage lights, but she grew up imagining pink tights and pointe shoes not rhinestones and feathers.

At 17, a ballet instructor asked her if she’d ever considered dancing on the Strip as a showgirl. She said she was stunned, she was aiming to dance in Europe or New York.

“He said, ‘Okay, well, how about this: while you’re practicing getting to Broadway, I’ll take you down for this audition. You’re perfect. You’re tall. You’re exactly what they’re looking for,’” Amerein remembered.

So, her ballet instructors drove her to the bustling boulevard at 10 p.m. to audition between shows. The hotel showroom stage was a far cry from her ballet studio with bright lights, mirrors and big windows.

“I had on my little leotard and my little character shoes and I gave it my best shot,” she said. “It was a disaster of an audition.”

She didn’t get the part, but that didn’t deter her. Six months later she tried again – and found her calling.

However, there was one problem. Her next audition was for an ice skating show and she wasn’t exactly in the Icecapades. She tried to practice her skating, she said.

“I did get to the point where I wasn’t flailing,” Amerein said.

The audition area was small, an ice rink under the stage surface. She danced some, and then the committee asked her to put on her skates. She circled the rink and then it was time for a full T-stop.

“I was thinking, I don’t want to tell them I don’t know what a T-stop is,” she said. “I’m skating across, and then I couldn’t stop. So, he was like, ‘Stop, stop.’ I just trotted into the wings out of their view and then I turned around, and I came back on stage. I said, ‘I’m so sorry, but I don’t know how to stop yet.’”

So, they taught her. The gig was hers.

A 15-Year Career

Over her 15-year career as a showgirl, she danced in three shows, with a side trip to Japan for six months. On her return to Las Vegas, she danced for 12 years at the Tropicana Hotel. She said they performed roughly 12 dances, or numbers, a night. Dancers had to re-audition every six months; the spot was never guaranteed.

In Las Vegas, the casino floors are bright and busy. The hotels pump oxygen in to keep you awake enough to gamble, she said. Head through the stage doors and you’d find a completely different atmosphere.

“You walk through the bowels of the casino, everything changes,” she said.

It’s dim and sterile. Then, you make it to the dressing rooms, filled with costumes fitted to each dancer.

The costumers would watch each person dance and design something suited to their personality.

“Let’s say that you were sort of a very soft and demure dancer, they would put something a bit spikier like bigger feathers, something a little harsher to balance that out,” Amerein said. “On a dancer who tended to be a little bit more rigorous and had a sharper personality, they would put the big softer, ostrich plumes that you would normally think of when you see a showgirl.”

The costumes weighed roughly 40 pounds, she said. Add to that three-inch block heels and dancing all-out to live music. It could be a tough job.

“When I look back on it now, I have a hard time getting out of bed,” she laughed. “I can’t even believe I did all of that.”

Like a Family

On the dance line, Amerein said she made friends for life. When she danced in shows in the 1980s, the mob ran the Strip, she said. However, she said that’s a big reason dancers had perks like maternity leave and insurance – the show family was important.

“I could bring the baby backstage with me,” she said. “You know, if I had to go do a number, one of the dressers would make sure that he stayed where he needed to stay. We all took care of each other.”

When Amerein gave up dancing in the mid-1990s, she said she needed another creative outlet. She found English dressage. “It was just like dancing only on a horse,” she said.

Her love of horses eventually led her to the Pendleton Round-Up, where she met her soon-to-be second husband, a cowboy.

A Home in the Northwest

The two moved to Waitsburg. Amerein now teaches pilates in Walla Walla. She keeps all of her dancing shoes in a plastic box, although she still remembers her rhythmic showgirl walk.

“The upper part of your body is always facing the audience. You want it to look really fluid, so you have to glide across the stage,” she said. “There is a particular way where you extend one leg out in front of you and you land on the ball of your foot. The back leg has a slow drag until you take your next step.”

Now, showgirls are a thing of the past on the Strip.

“There are no more of those big beautiful production shows. Now, they’ve been swapped out for the Cirque shows, which are beautiful shows but they just don’t have the showgirls,” she said.

Although she said she misses her life in Las Vegas, literally dreaming about it, she said what she learned there has helped her find success throughout her life.

“Always be determined,” she tells her students. “Always do the absolute best you can do because I always feel that everything in life could be a performance. You have to present yourself in the best way possible.”