ATLANTIC CITY - Gina Cannuscio joined the singing and dancing troupe Almost Angels after the group started in 2008, but she now stands as the veteran of an unprecedented wave of dance squads performing in the city.
Since Almost Angels began in the Ego Lounge at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, more than half the casinos here now feature some kind of performing dance troupe.
They are iCandy Burlesque at the Bally's Atlantic City, Vixens at Wild Wild West Casino, Toga Dancers at Caesars Atlantic City, Backstage Dancers at Showboat Casino-Hotel, Rumba Dancers at Tropicana Casino and Resort and Jezebel Dancers inside Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino.
As a member of the Almost Angels, Cannuscio sings and dances to popular songs for four hours, three nights a week - fours nights after June 30 - at the Taj. Being in Almost Angels has made her a local celebrity - she signs autographs, is featured on billboards, gets Trump security to protect her and her troupe as they walk through the casino on show nights and has been recognized by fans when she stops in other casinos besides the Taj.
For the Margate resident, it's an incredible job.
"There aren't that many opportunties," said Cannuscio, 30, about how hard it is for a dancer to land a job like hers. "You might be able to get a one nighter, or a corporate event, but to actually get a job where it's just part time, and you have the freedom of doing other things and being steady at the same time, it is really not very often right now."
Watching a dance troupe perform in Atlantic City is usually a night of inexpensive entertainment. Most troupes are available to see at a nominal cost of either a one-drink minimum or a $5 admission fee. The troupes also appear to older visitors, who can sit, have a drink and enjoy some entertainment without having to endure possibly loud and unfamiliar dance music at many of the casino nightclubs.
The dance troupes are a great new trend, said Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority.
"I think what it does, first and foremost, is that it contributes to a multi-entertainment experience while they (visitors) are in the city," Vasser said. "Atlantic City is an exciting, sensual place to be if that's want you want to find."
Most of the dance troupes have a wrinkle that separates one from the other.
iCandy Burlesque, which features a few different twists, is the newest dance troupe to start performing here. It's the only show that features two male dancers along with six female dancers. The show tries to pull in audiences by having a celebrity singer along with the dancers. Angelica Bridges, of the now defunct TV show "Baywatch," handled the vocal duties earlier this spring.
Jodie McDonald, 39, the dance line captain of iCandy Burlesque, said her dance troupe has more costumes and choreography than the lounges with go-go dancers in Las Vegas.
"We will change around the set list just depending on the crowd. If we really have a really young crowd, then, we will probably do a lot more modern numbers. If it's more of an older crowd, we might do something more traditional like 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend' or 'Fever.' In between those numbers, we will go out on the go-go platform and dance," McDonald said.
Mike Callahan, a former DJ at the closed Limelight club in New York City, traveled here with his girlfriend on a recent Thursday just to experience iCandy Burlesque live after reading about it online.
"It's better than most of what happens in New York. The girls have tight choreography. These girls were good," said Callahan, 42, who lives in the Chelsea section of Manhattan and was brought up by the dancers onto the stage at the back of the bar. "I was pleasantly surprised... I will come back in a couple of weeks."
The emergence of the dance troupes has transformed the places in the casino where they entertain.
For instance, a person who visits the Ego Lounge can smoke, drink, gamble, watch sports, listen to DJ HotLinh, dance themselves and watch the Almost Angels perform, all while staying in one spot.
Dan Mulhern, the producer of Almost Angels, took the Las Vegas' party pit idea of dancers on a small stage on the casino floor entertaining the gamblers to another level by putting the casino experience in a lounge setting, said Steve Gietka, vice president of entertainment for Trump Entertainment Resorts.
"You have a female vocal group with a couple of guys in the band, so you have the female element... You have this show that is really very cool. In addition to that, you have freestyle dancers in Ego that are part of the same element. Everywhere you look, there is a beautiful woman, whether she is singing and performing a song, or she is on one of the platforms dancing," Mulhern said. "What you have is a very serious form of entertainment in a gambling space."
The dance troupes are either much closer to customers or much more interactive with patrons than dancers in nightclubs.
They will encourage people to come onto the dance floor and dance with them. They will stop inside a booth and dance with visitors right there. iCandy Burlesque dancers will run their fingers through a man's hair or flop their sweaty wet hair on top of a man's head.
After being in the Almost Angels show for three years, Cannuscio knows who she can approach and who she can't.
"You definitely have to be secure with yourself and really watch. You learn the people that you really can go up to and have fun with and the people you shouldn't," said Cannuscio, who dances in a bra top and booty shorts at times. "You can tell whether someone is going to be a creeper or rude, and you can tell someone who is really having fun and who is going to love you going up to them and dancing with them, or pulling them up onto the dance floor to get them out of their shoes."
The Vixens at Wild West offer something different from the other troupes by doing choreographed dances every half hour for three hours, but they dance in two locations - on the bar in the Mountain Bar, like in the 2000 movie "Coyote Ugly," and on the Main Stage where rock bands play cover tunes.
Monica Poulos, the Vixens dance captain, is more comfortable dancing with the Vixens than doing freestyle dancing in a nightclub.
"I feel like if I'm just freestyling and wearing something skimpy, I know it's just something for people to look at, but to do a show that's choreographed that took a lot of time, money and effort, I feel like we are actually doing something professional and good," Poulos said.
Poulos, who dances in a midriff-baring plaid T-shirt and Daisy Dukes shorts, said men and women react to her troupe differently.
"There can be two types of men, a shady man, which is just gross, and there is also a man, who really appreciates it, who appreciates what we do. Some men seem like they are in awe of you. They could have other thoughts in their head, Lord knows," said Poulos, 31, who added security will remove men who say profane things or touch the dancers while they are on the bar.
Poulos said she has run into more girls easier to deal with than guys at the Wild West.
"Women, we found to be really cool, really nice and giving us high fives," said Poulos, who added women also can show another side. "If their boyfriend or husband is looking at us, they get very angry. They turn their heads. They say, 'Don't look at them.'"
Not all casinos go in for choreographed shows.
The Backstage Dancers, Toga Dancers, Rhumba Dancers and Jezebel Dancers all perform freestyle dancing instead, with the women swaying as the music moves them. While the challenge of a choreographed show is remembering the moves, the downside of freestyle dancing is keeping up the enthusiasm and interest when customers really may not be paying attention to what you are doing, dancers in these groups say.
Chiara Strzesiewski, who freestyle dances and manages the Backstage Dancers at Showboat, said she thinks a person's personality comes out while dancing.
Strzesiewski, 30, tries to make her performances fun and engaging.
"People do remember and notice. The casino work has been a springboard to working with great professionals," said Strzesiewski, who added for her dancing at Backstage beats a nightclub.
Strzesiewski, who has been dancing since she was a child, said dancing in the Showboat is a safe environment, she meets many nice people.
"I think Showboat Casino is trying to create a very Las Vegas style within the Backstage PIT, and it seems to be working," said Strzesiewski, who dances from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. "I lose enough (weight) that I can eat what I want the next day. It is a hard workout."
Contact Vincent Jackson:
Dancers in A.C.
Seven dance troupes perform in Atlantic City casinos. Here's where to find them:
9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursdays and Sundays; 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays starting June 30. Ego Lounge, Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. Two-drink minimum
10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturday. First floor, Showboat Casino Hotel. Free
8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays to Saturdays. Casino floor near Boardwalk entrance, Bally's Atlantic City. $5, applied to first drink
10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Jezebel's Lounge, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. Two-drink minimum
10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays to Sundays. Rhumba Lounge, Tropicana Casino and Resort. One-drink minimum
10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays to Sundays. Toga Bar, Caesars Atlantic City. Free
10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, adding Thursdays and Sundays in July. Mountain Bar and Mainstage, Wild Wild West Casino. Free