Can-can Dancers Get A Kick Out Of Theme Performances

Dolly Merritt

February 24, 1991|By Dolly Merritt

Ooo-la-la. Here come Colette and Fi Fi in their boa feathers and ruffled skirts, kicking their fish-net stocking-covered legs well above the heads of onlookers. With exaggerated French accents, the dancers intermingle with the audience, pinching an occasional cheek and giving out souvenir garters.

But having such fun is all in a day'sor night's work for Cindee "Colette" Velle, 32, and Debbie "Fi Fi" Braun, 39, co-owners of The Ellicott City Can-Can Dancers.

The 12-year-old business, comprised of 11 professional dancers, provides dancing entertainment about 15 times a year for private parties, hotels, organizations and restaurants.

FOR THE RECORD - Two photo captions accompanying a story about can-can dancers ("Can-Can Dancers get a kick out of theme performances") in the Feb. 24 issue of The Howard County Sun misidentified the restaurant where the dancers were shown performing. The pictures were taken at Tersiguel's in Ellicott City.
The Howard County Sun regrets the error.

"It's a lot of fun; we all love to dance," Velle said. As a matter of fact, the Ellicott City resident keeps on her toes directing 19 ballet classes six days a week at the Long Reach Community Center in Columbia. Her partner, Braun, a Baltimore county resident, is an account executive for Signet Bank in PrinceGeorge's County. She takes about four dance classes a week and occasionally substitutes as a dance instructor.

The can-can group beganas a fluke after Ellicott City restaurateur Fernand Tersiguel hired another group of can-can dancers from Baltimore to enliven a celebration July 14, 1979. The date marked the opening of Tersiguel's restaurant, Chez Fernand, and the anniversary of Bastille Day.

When the Baltimore dancers canceled less than a week before the event, Tersiguel was determined to find new can-can girls. Caryl Maxwell, who operates an Ellicott City ballet school, came to the rescue by recruiting five of her students. The five, all professional dancers, managed to collaborate and choreograph the can-can dance routine. Putting together some sequins, feathers and ruffles from past performances, the dancers were ready for their debut.

"It was wonderful," recalled Braunas she talked about the fun of interacting with the diners. "We started getting phone calls (for gigs) after the first experience."

"We decided to take the ball and run with it," said Velle. As a result,the two dancers formed The Ellicott City Can-Can Dancers. Originallyit was comprised of themselves and three other dancers -- Judy "Zi Zi" Pannebaker, a dental hygienist who lives in Baltimore County; Elaine "Elen" Sauter, an information agent who works at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and Kathi "Suzette" Ferguson, a ballet instructor, both of Ellicott City. The women remain members of the group, which has increased its number to 11. Periodically, when the need arises, the women will hire male dancers. And although the Ellicott City Can-Can Dancers have continued to help Tersiguel celebrate specialoccasions, like the annual Bastille Day and the yearly arrival of the Nouveau Beaujolais wine, they have expanded their repertoire.

"After a couple of years we started getting calls asking if we could put together other themes," said Velle.

"Every job is different," she said. For a performance by four dancers, the group charges $425; it's $100 for individual dancers. Their themes now include the Roaring Twenties, Country Western, Fabulous Fifties, Broadway and Sixties Beach Music.

But the can-can dance is still the most popular.

Spontaneity is a key ingredient of each show -- especially when performing the can-can. Because of the dance's raucous nature, glasses of water and baskets of bread have tumbled from restaurant tables as the performers danced. In spite of such spontaneity in their work, the groupspends hours rehearsing.

Most of their dance music is pre-recorded. The group also has at its disposal, Velle's husband, Mike, 35, their "sound man." A senior contract administrator for Bendix Corporation in Towson, Mike Velle is a disc jockey in his spare time and can bring his own sound system. He even sings "La Marseillaise," the Frenchnational anthem, during some can-can gigs.

"I like having him there -- it's a night out for us," said Cindee Velle.

Costume costs vary. Cindee Velle estimates that for the can-can performances, shoes,stockings, bodices and can-can skirts with layers of ruffles underneath it can amount to $200 per costume.

After 12 years of performances including shows at the Baltimore Convention Center, the BaltimoreMuseum of Art and a TV spot on Channel 13, the women laugh about some of the "pitfalls" of show business.

"We were doing clogging at acountry fair when one of the dancers fell head-first into a bale of hay," said Cindee Velle. Another time, a dancer's skirt fell off.

Despite the element of surprise, the seasoned dancers know that the show must always go on.

"We like the diversity," Braun said.

"Besides," said Cindee Velle with a mischievous grin, "there are no full-time opportunities in can-canning."

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