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Fine-Feathered Friends

Shelly Hepburn & Olivia Ambris
Robert Scheer

Sleeve Well-Enough Alone: Shelly Hepburn, Vegas showgirl turned SC dance teacher, helps student Olivia Ambris, 5, don a pair of gloves.

Following the high-kicking, stiletto-shod footsteps of a plumed Las Vegas showgirl to her new gig as a Santa Cruz County dance instructor

By Kelly Luker

TAP, SHUFFLE, SLIDE, SLIDE. Tap, shuffle, turn and slide. The two women--teacher and student--are weaving their way across the worn studio floor as precise little staccatos from the taps on their shoes echo off the walls. Sort of a Ginger Rogers and, well, Ginger Rogers duo, they hold arms aloft as if waiting for a pair of Astaires to sweep them onto the set of Silk Stockings.

For the student, named Judith ("no last name, please"), these dance lessons are only the latest in a series of recreational classes, like pottery or weaving, that she has dabbled in over the past few years. Yet for Judith's instructor, Shelly Hepburn, dancing is a tad more akin to breathing. Jazz, rhumba, ballet--you name it, she can hoof it. For that reason, a steady stream of toddlers, teens and not-so-young are finding their way to her studio, the Shelly Hepburn Dance Academy, to learn a few moves of their own.

Santa Cruz is a long way from Hepburn's original home in Johannesburg, South Africa. It's even further, reality-wise, from the floorboards of Las Vegas, where the lithe young dancer did a few magnificently costumed turns before moving here to Surf City.

Hepburn was born with boogie in her blood. "All I knew was the studio," recounts Hepburn, whose mother was a dance teacher. She did her first solo at
3 years old and was teaching dance by the time she was 13. At 16, she was performing for casino shows in her native South Africa. Bitten by the travel bug, Hepburn got a job both choreographing routines and dancing for shows on cruise ships in the Mediterranean.

"It was like a paid holiday," she recounts in a clipped accent. "I got to see the world." At 21, Hepburn headed back home to start her own dance studio, then moved into choreographing, producing and directing glitzy extravaganzas for the casinos where she'd once performed. But South Africa was in the throes of revolution as apartheid began to crumble, and the young Hepburn decided to move to safer climes. So she pliéd from the frying pan to the fire, choosing New York City as her next digs.

"I left South Africa with $700 in my pocket," Hepburn laughs. Times were tough and opportunities slim for a gal with no green card, so the dancer was left with slinging hash and cleaning apartments to make ends meet. She finally sent a video of her work to the producer of Splash, Las Vegas' long-running and most popular dance review. Within three days she was on a plane, winging it to her new job in the desert.

The Claw of the Jungle

FORGET THE GLITTERING neon of Vegas--Hepburn insists that Joe Esterhazs' trashfest Showgirls could serve as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls that await, um, showgirls. "It was sex, drugs and rock & roll," says Hepburn. But there also was a downside. She figures that 90 percent of the dancers were fueled by coke, speed and eating disorders in order to keep their energy up and their weight down. The behind-the-scenes backbiting, clawing and strategic sleeping around was business as usual, just like the movie, Hepburn admits.

Eventually, it became too much for the dancer and single mother, who was trying to raise her young daughter. "I was a showgirl at night and a mom during the day," she says. Like Elizabeth Berkley in the hysterically wretched Showgirls, Hepburn decided to hit the road and leave the neon lights of Glitter Gulch for--San Jose?

"I had to think of my future," explains Hepburn of her move, which eventually led her over to this side of the hill to begin a studio on 17th Avenue. Holding down its small niche between a barber shop and workout gym, the small room with the big mirrors in front is lined with photos of--what else?--showgirls that Hepburn has either danced with or choreographed for.

By the way, she makes it clear, she prefers the term "dancer." Showgirls, in Las Vegas parlance, are the scantily clad, long-legged props that parade around the stage in 45-pound feathered headresses. That merely calls for a killer bod and pumped-up neck muscles. But Hepburn remembers dancing everything from hip-hop to jazz for hours in uncomfortable costumes and masks that make vision impossible--all while shod in painful 5-inch heels.

But even hoofers are misunderstood in this country. "In South Africa, being a dancer is very elite," explains Hepburn. "Here, they look at you weird if you say you're a dancer."

At the rate Hepburn is going, her young charges will not suffer the same indignities when they grow up. She requires that they begin with ballet--"It is the root of all dance," the dance diva explains--and she also makes her more dedicated students take exams in order to pass on to the next level. In addition, Hepburn offers both dance and model summer camps and teaches aspiring showgirls--er, dancers--the secret to portfolios, makeup techniques and auditions.

Although Hepburn's present studio only opened in April of this year, she is already thinking of opening another on the Westside. And she has dreams, big dreams for this sleepy slip of a town. "I'd like to have a dinner theater here," muses Hepburn. Not stuffy, boring dinner theater, but a little slice of Las Vegas. Think sequins, feathers and can-can. Uh, Shelly? In Santa Cruz? The Type-A tapper admits that perhaps this may be the wrong side of the hill for Vegas-a-go-go.

Nevertheless, whatever else happens in her professional life, Hepburn can rest assured that those high-kicking genes have been passed on to the next generation. "I've got a little 16-month- old daughter who practically wakes up with tap shoes on," she chuckles.

The tiny tot hopefully will grow up to slide, shuffle, slide past--way past--the feather-bedecked stages of Las Vegas, but if she's got Mom's drive, she'll do fine. As Hepburn says, "I've always had the fire in me."

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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