Faced with the decision to either attend a ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) ball with her first boyfriend, or a ballet class where famed choreographer George Balanchine would be observing dancers at the Capitol Ballet Company, of which she was a member, 18 year-old LaVerne Ligon wanted so badly to wear the dress she had designed herself that she skipped the class and missed the opportunity of a lifetime.
“You know, you have to make those choices, and I didn’t make the right one,” Ligon said of her choice to go to the dance instead of the class.
Although this led to her being dismissed from the company, Ligon went on to have a very successful career as a professional dancer, beginning with her first job in an all African-American touring production of Hello Dolly featuring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. After some initial tensions, Ligon became close friends with Bailey and her family, and would travel with them frequently. In fact, it was Bailey who first brought her to Las Vegas, not as a dancer but as a secretary and assistant when she performed at the International Hotel in 1970. It was an exciting stay for both Ligon, who had grown up a sheltered, only child in Washington D.C., and the globe trotting Bailey.
“I had never come to Vegas before,” Ligon said. “I remember she [Bailey] stayed in the suite that Elvis Presley stayed in. So she was really elated because she had been trying to get in that suite forever. I had my own room and it was like the penthouse. I had never seen anything like that before.”
After working on the road and for Bailey in Hollywood, Ligon spent a brief stint as a backup dancer in Joan Rivers’ touring comedy act. It would be the first, but certainly not the last time she was dressed by celebrity costume designer Bob Mackie. In 1973 Ligon attended an audition at the MGM studios in Culver City in hopes of winning a part in the production show, Hallelujah Hollywood, that was set to open at the MGM Grand Hotel, which was then under construction in Las Vegas. An elated Ligon landed the part, but was faced with a moral dilemma when the show’s creative director Donn Arden asked her if she would perform topless:
"...I said ‘no way.’ He said I was living in the dark ages and he didn’t know why I felt like that,” Ligon recalled of her encounter with the famed show director. “I just told him ‘no; I’m not going topless.’ And he really wanted me. And, in fact, I took off my blouse—they wanted to see me—and [I] posed. And they all agreed…" Despite the pressure, Ligon remained resolute in her refusal to go topless.
“Three weeks passed and I received a call from Donn Arden and he told me that I didn’t have to go topless; that I had changed his mind and he really wanted me,” she said. “So this Black line that he was putting together, none of us had to go topless. So I was pleased about that. I think that was the beginning of my sort of passive rabble-rousing.”
Show rehearsals in Las Vegas went on for months, and because the MGM was still under construction, Ligon remembers that the dancers often had to wear hard hats while practicing. Ligon’s talent, and the discipline instilled by years of ballet training were likely the reason she was chosen as dance captain for the show’s line of Black dancers after the show opened in April 1974. “I guess I was more serious and being trained in ballet technique I was more in tune to making sure steps were done correctly,” she said. “ I was a little OCD, okay, so. I’d get them together. We had regular rehearsals. When someone left I had to get a replacement. That was kind of hard because we didn’t have many African-American
dancers here, hardly any.”
Ligon was well-respected by all the performers in the show and was particularly close to dancer and choreographer Winston Hemsley. They had worked together since their days with Pearl Bailey in Hello Dolly, and she had always been in awe of his talent. “That’s the way Winston was. He was so exciting,” Ligon says of her friend. “I danced with him in Hello, Dolly! He jumped off of a set and his Achilles tendon snapped. I said, ‘Winston, you’ve got to slow down.’ That’s just the way he was.”
After an injury ended Ligon’s dance career in 1982, she opened the Simba Talent Development Center for at-risk youth with Hemsley. Together with other choreographers from the Strip, they offered a wide variety of classes to local and visiting dancers, and celebrities. “I mean anybody and everybody that wanted to learn to dance came to Simba.” However, their larger goal was to “involve the youth, especially at-risk youth, [exposing] them to the art of dance” and offering them career development opportunities. LaVerne Ligon’s oral history, jointly conducted with stagehands BJ Thomas and Leonard Polk, provides an honest account of life on stage and backstage in the production show spectaculars of the Las Vegas Strip in the 1970s-80s, as well as the impact of the Simba Talent Development Studio. It demonstrates both the progress and continuing struggles of African-Americans working in the entertainment industry. Read the full interview at: http://digital.library.unlv.edu/aae
Written by Su Kim Chung with assistance from Chanta Payne