How to select your first feather fans!
As any burlesque aficionado knows, feathers play a huge part in our history. The minute Sally Rand stepped out at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and made her name, she popularised fan dancing for burlesque performers of the future. Most performers’ repertoire includes or has included feather fans. When it comes to selecting and purchasing your very first pair, the amount of choice can be overwhelming. I get asked a variety of question from my débutant students so here is a little guide to help you with your decision making. 1. Purchase pre-assembled fans - I am incredibly crafty, however creating feather fans from scratch was a very humbling experience. I wrestled with wire, pliers, clamps and ostrich feathers which I might explain, do not like to lay flat. They roll and slide out of their place. Making your own sounds like a thrifty-fun-crafty time but I advise beginner students that it is worth the extra charge to let a professional do it and make it look nice.
2. Choose a colour YOU like - When I’m about to teach a term of feather fan dancing, I often get students asking if they need to buy (insert colour here) fans for their performance routine. Or if they should buy a white pair because it will ‘get more use and will go with everything’. I believe fans are an investment and therefore I feel it is exorbitant to ask everyone in class to buy ‘red fans for upcoming routine’. As for purchasing a white pair because it will go with everything, you might come to realise it goes with nothing because white is not a colour you like wearing (if it is, then great!) My advice is to choose a colour that makes your heart sing. You will likely want to create costumes using this colour and will end up being able to use your fans for more routines. Another thing to keep in mind is that most theatres have a black backdrop, so if you select black fans, they’ll disappear into the background.
3. Buy at least double layer fans - If you hold a fan up that only has a single layer (i.e. one feather per stave) you can see through them. Hold up a fan with double layers (i.e. two feathers per stave) and you have more coverage; hence your costume/body will not be exposed when you are trying to conceal with fans. Triple layer is best for maximum coverage, but keep in mind this will be much more expensive. More feathers also mean more weight. If you are an absolute beginner, you may not have the hand, wrist and/or forearm strength yet to handle triple layers. As a general guideline (and if your budget will allow), purchase double layer.
4. Staves –Staves can either be perspex/acrylic, aluminum or bamboo. Each material has its benefits and performers begin to prefer one or the other the more they practice. Acrylic ones are the most common when purchasing fans ‘off the rack’. They are easy to source and come in a better range of colours. A solid colour will give more coverage when concealing and clear ones make your feathers look like their floating in the air when you dance with them. Some performers find acrylic bulkier to hold and some performers prefer it for that very reason. Aluminum is the most durable and bamboo is the most flexible (but watch out for splinters!)
5. Zip ties vs wire for construction – Zip ties are more durable and make repairs easier. They are also recommended for faster fan dancers or regular performers. Wire is less noticeable, and some prefer this look (though no one notices when you’re on stage). Wire is also lower profile and your fans will close up more.
6. Sizing – This can be tricky because so many factors come in to play. There are the number of staves (for example 10, 12 or 14 staves per fan), how wide the fan opens, the length of the feathers and the size of the human (that’s you) that you are trying to conceal. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, especially if you are petite in height. Your face may get swallowed up when you are trying to conceal from the neck down. Also don’t forget what I mentioned about more layers = more weight; the same applies to more staves and/or longer sized feathers. Do you have smaller hands? You may find it tricky to grip all the staves in a large fan and keep it open. The majority of websites will list their fan sizes in inches (e.g. 30” x 54”). The number 30 refers to measurement between the rivet to the tip of the feather. The number 54 refers to the width of the fan when fully opened (see diagram below).
All that said, choosing a size is a personal choice. You can try taping up a couple sheets of newspaper together, cut out the dimensions and hold it up to your body to get an idea of sizing. It is a bit of time and effort involved figuring this out but well worth it if you are investing in something extravagant.
7. Where to purchase – If you would like to support local, I highly recommend https://www.sterlingstaves.com. If you are a showgirl on a budget, I recommend https://www.hot-fans.com. There are plenty of other websites if you google ‘ostrich feather fans’.
8. Order ASAP – Fans can take a while to arrive from the time of purchasing including ordering locally as your fan maker has to obtain materials and assemble (they may also be booked up with orders too). If you have signed up for a feather fan dancing class but you don’t yet own a pair, order (or borrow) some as soon as you can! So many times, I’ve had students walk into class week 1 of the term who haven’t yet sourced a pair of fans. This worries me for a couple of reasons. For one, even if they ordered online a pair of fans that night after their first class, there is a good chance they won’t arrive on time for dress rehearse in week 6 let alone for their performance at The Bombshell Ball. Coming along to six classes every week with no fans is not much fun either. The second reason concerns me the most; you need practice time with your fans. Feather fan dancing can be a little unforgiving on your hands/wrist/forearms if you are not use to it. I cannot stress enough that practice time in and out of class is key to building strength and endurance and making your fan dancing look effortless.
9. Bolting Fans – This is not related on how to select your fans for purchase but rather a topic that comes up once you have them. Bolting basically means tightening the rivet so that your fans stay open in place. This can be a heated subject as I’ve heard different tutors from all over say bolting makes it easier to learn while others say this is cheating and that you don’t learn your holds and gain the grip strength you need to effectively use fans. When students are first learning, I lean towards the side of unbolted. When it comes to creating your solo, it all depends on what moves and tricks you are doing (I prefer unbolted in general because I can make use of opening and closing them on stage, however I prefer bolted for fast weaving or heavier fans). As with all things, this is a personal preference but as a rule of thumb when you are first learning, leave them unbolted. The exception to this is if you have any kind of injury or disability.
10. Other tidbits – If you plan on gluing rhinestones, place them along the shaft of the feather so it doesn’t weigh down the flue (fluffy bits). Lastly, make sure when you order a pair, get a LEFT and RIGHT ;) With so many different styles of feather fans available, choosing your first pair can be a daunting task. However, investing the time in your research will help you a lot in making the choice with the feeling of “non, je ne regrette rien”
Thank you to Rosetta Sterling and Magnolia Knife for your input
xoxo Cello Bordello