Wall-to-Wall Dancers

A retired showgirl parlays the stage aesthetic into an airport mural

Before becoming a full-time, self-taught artist, Terry Ritter was a showgirl for 20 years. During that time, she absorbed the aesthetics of the stage—stunning dancers, bright feather boas, glorious chevron headpieces, jeweled necklaces, flashy swagger and saucy struts.

Ritter captures the essence of her past life in the recently unveiled mural, “Folies in Flight,” in McCarran International Airport’s new Terminal 3. It’s a huge installation, a painted canvas measuring 50 feet across and 8 feet high, bustling with color. It features a dazzling line of showgirls and conjures the pre-Cirque heyday of Old Vegas entertainment.

“Three years ago, the architects were looking for something to depict Las Vegas in that new area,” Ritter says. “I was interviewed by the architects and I submitted a few designs. I even took them to see [now-defunct] Folies Bergere. They understood what I wanted to do.”

The mural’s three-dimensionality is achieved via layered cutouts made of multiple density boards. After painting the canvas first, she then cut and glued it to the boards, the end result being very different from a regular mural.

“It was an experiment, I admit it,” she says. “At times, I wondered why I wasn’t doing a regular mural.”

The 59-year-old has never done anything the regular way. She wanted to be an artist since age 9. The daughter of a military family, she moved around a lot until 1970, when she settled in Las Vegas and graduated from Valley High. But her artistic ambitions were tabled after studying art at UNLV and, by chance, enrolling in a ballet class. There she met the dancers at Folies, whose movements intrigued her enough to make her want to audition for the show. She got in.

“I was a late bloomer on the stage,” Ritter says. “While I had a long career in dance, art was always first in mind. Still, I needed to make a living, and knew I was going to return to art when I retired.”

Dance gave Ritter her subject matter and inspired her to render figurative movement, the illusory yet marvelous spirit of bodies in motion. Not just any bodies, however. Ritter’s mural pays homage to the 1983 version of Folies, the show’s zenith year in terms of popularity and attendance.

“The yellow boa number depicted in the mural is from that moment,” Ritter says. “But I used more current girls, too. I relied on other photo references. I had girls hold a pose for me. I even did a little videotaping of the show.”

So has what has the response been to her debut public piece?

“Very good. It’s the first thing you see when you enter customs. People tell me it has a calming effect. Psychologically, it has a positive effect. I did my job and grew as an artist. And I know I could do a lot more next time.”

Ritter would like to do another public work. Prior to “Folies in Flight,” she was known for her showbiz-related work for the Folies and Jubilee! shows, and for her commissions for Cirque and LeBron James.

“I would love to do something on the domestic side of the airport,” Ritter says. “I’m thinking dancers.”

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