Shopping for your first pair of feather fans can be confusing! Let me put your mind at ease.
I’ll make a separate post about building your own fans. This post is written to help you understand what you’re looking at when you’re shopping for a pair of constructed fans. Also, this post is only about feather fans, so it won’t discuss silk, paper, or other kinds of fans.
Common Feather Styles:
Marabou, when talking about fans, is a special type of down feather – the soft feathers that lie under the firmer, shinier feathers of birds such as geese and the actual marabou stork. The marabou you’re likely to encounter is often from turkeys. It’s often used as trim – the light and very fluffy boas you often see used on the hems of nightgowns, for example, or in rows on the hems of fine dressing gowns such as those made by Catherine D’Lish. Below are some links to marabou fans:
Standard 11-12 inch fans:
Marabou fans used as a base for ostrich feathers (ostrich feathers are actually from ostriches):
Ostrich Feather Fans
Ostrich feather fans are what most people think of when they think of a burlesque fan dance. Needless to say, the bigger they are, the more impressive they are. However, I strongly recommend most people who are new to fans begin with those with acrylic or aluminum staves, as those are the strongest. The marabou bases are pretty, but they're often built on more fragile staves. However, all fans are pretty! Just beware of "economy feathers" -- they are almost always a bit ore bedraggled-looking than you want them to be.
With bamboo staves
Single layer from hot fans with lightweight flexible plastic or acrylic staves
Double layer from Fancy Feather with acrylic
Ostrich with peacock
Specialty Feather Fans
Peacock feather fan
(Video of Frankie Fictitious using pheasant fans)
Boas (also known as tribute or waterfall fans)
From Fancy Feather
Ostrich tribute fans
The current gold standard is custom fans, like these from Donna Touch
Common Stave Styles:
As found on marabou fans, most fragile, may be designed to look like imitation ivory
Found on many kind of fans – more fragile than acrylic but less fragile than thin plastic.
Pretty much the standard and fairly durable. Can come in clear or colored versions, depending on from which seller you purchase. Ten staves is common on the smaller single-layer fans, 12 is more expected. Can also come in other variations, feel free to drop any you’re curious about in the comments on this blog post.
Less common but very useful; light, durable, and flexible.
I like it when the staves can be tightened by turning the screw that goes through them, meaning I can have the fan stay open or be floppy. You might think you don’t want floppy, but it can be fun because you can snap the fans open and closed.
Which is the best? The truth is that the best fan for you is the one you ‘vepractice with the most! With every new pair of fans you’ll find you adjust your holds, your poses, and your movement, and the better you know the fans and the more you’ve worked with them, the better your fan dance with those particular fans will be. You can dazzle with any size of fans, from 12’ to 12’, as long as you’ve spent time and effort learning them!
However, when you’re shopping, the best kind of fan is one that you can afford that’s sturdy. Fans can really take a beating! If you’re going for the big fans effect, you’ll want fans that open to a width of at least 36 inches.
Often people buy smaller fans and then later sell those to finance bigger ones, or use the feathers from one pair as the base to build a more elaborate pair.
The language around feather fans isn’t completely standardized, so you may find the style of fan going under several different names. Check out the links to see more examples, and don’t hesitate to ask questions or make suggestions in the comments. Remember, students will see what you read if you post it here! And please share and support these posts however you can, as I’m providing this service for free to help my students and other people interested in burlesque.
Remember -- there isn't a right or wrong way to do burlesque! Give yourself permission to enjoy whatever it is you find the most inspiring. There is no one right kind of fan!
Let's meet a few people who’ve made a difference in the history of dancing with feather fans.
Early Burlesque Stars:
Sally Rand, inspired by Faith Bacon (according to Bacon, stealing her act), popularized the feather fan dance as part of the Chicago World’s fair in 1933.
Above in 1933
Above in 1960s
Fans are originally from Asia, and Noel Toy celebrated that history by making burlesque fans her own at the legendary Forbidden City.
This famous Black fan dancer set the standard for elegant dancing of her time, and raised the standard of fan dancing in the neo-burlesque community when she was hosted at The Burlesque Hall of Fame and in venues in New York City.
One of the biggest influences on burlesque in the 1990s and 2000s, Catherine D’Lish has developed incredibly glamourous fans and taught her way of holding them to many pre-eminent neo-burlesquers. She is the artistic director for Dita Von Teese and has designed and developed many of Dita’s costumes, often with exquisite rhinestone and feather work that is the reason so many of use are using the trims on our corsets we currently do. Her fans of huge and often innovative. You can see her having a blast with one of her own creations, The World’s Largest Fans, here:
Dirty Martini used fan dancing to help define neo-burlesque, and to make it clear that dance and glamour are for all kinds of bodies:
Michelle L’Amour helped popularize pairs of fans with right and left handedness (My first several pairs of fans were all entirely right-handed) and worked with Fancy Feather to develop the waterfall/tribute fans, debuting them in this incredible tribute to Sally Rand:
Little Brooklyn, one of the most innovative performers in burlesque, proved that you can make anything into fan in her mechanic number:
Youc an also see her in The Burlesque Handbook using big foam hands for fans, in her “Number One Fan” act.
Perle Noire is currently one of the most popular fan dancing teachers on earth, and has developed and her own powerful style of fan dance that contrasts rapid swirls, made with figure-eights of the wrist, with slow feathery teases, dramatic poses,and athletic virtuoso dancing:
Fans come in at 6.30
Iva Handfull uses fans to whatever kind of music she pleases, including industrial rock:
If you consider me an influential fan dancer or teacher, you should know that the first film clip from which I learned fan dancing in 1991 was this routine by Diane Lane in The Big Town, which I had to watch on VHS because there was no Netflix, amazon, or youtube:
You can purchase a streaming video program of me introducing three fan dance techniques: silk fans, marabou fans, and ostrich fans:
I'll be teaching fan dance in person in NYC in August and September:
and you can learn more about fan dancing in my book, The Burlesque Handbook:
Who is your biggest fan dance inspiration? Drop your favorites in the comments, especially if they’re not on my list! I often forget something obvious. Give them some love so all my students can see. I usually only include routines I’ve actually seen live in my recommendations, so let’s expand those horizons – let’s make sure the deserving get their props!