There’s a moment in the middle of “Magic Mike Live” when a spotlight shines offstage to a reveal a dapper man sitting on the railing of the balcony. He’s dressed in a velvety-red, sleeveless suit and holding a single red rose, which he begins to suggestively stroke, before giving a playful wink and respectfully distributing the rest of his flowers to women in the audience.
“Magic Mike Live,” based on the popular Channing Tatum films about male strippers, bills itself as a tongue-in-cheek, female-empowerment alternative to the more salacious all-male dance revues the Las Vegas Strip is known for. Patrick Packing, the man in the red suit, is the first Asian American dancer to join the cast since it debuted in April 2017.
“The guys on the show have told me that the women were always asking, ‘Why isn’t there an Asian guy?’” says Packing. “They were like, ‘Don’t worry. He’s coming.’”
Packing, who also works as a barber, filmed his audition tape over a year ago. He's only a month into his latest gig, but he has quickly been swept up in the fast-paced whirlwind of Vegas. He only had four days to learn the entire routine: dancing up and down staircases, emulating the film’s hip gyrations to Ginuwine’s “Pony,” donning a sailor outfit for a scene and interacting with often-handsy audience members all around the venue when he’s not onstage.
The dancers perform 10 shows a week at the Hard Rock Hotel, in addition to holding meet-and-greets for VIP ticket holders. He’s still caught off guard by the intensity and enthusiasm of Asian audience members who come and cheer for him.
“I’d say eight out of 10 times, I get them standing up, just clapping in my face, saying, ‘I’m proud of you! Thank you!’” he says, laughing. “It’s honestly really cool. I’m happy I can be that person and live it up for them.”
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Packing, who was born in the Philippines but grew up Southern California, has been going to Vegas regularly since he was a kid. First he went for family trips, then he partied with his friends. Once he became a professional dancer, he went for work. In 2017, he danced in the Vietnamese variety show “Paris By Night” at Planet Hollywood.
Now that he lives in Las Vegas, he joins a community of Asian American residents who are the fastest growing demographic in the county. And though the Chinese were the first Asian settlers to come to Nevada in the early 19th century, nowadays the majority of the Asian Americans in Vegas are Filipino; they make up more than triple the number of ethnic Chinese in the city.
Rozita Lee, a former commissioner of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, says Asian Americans are more welcome in the entertainment scene these days as well, especially as the community’s buying power grows. Asian Americans’ buying power in Nevada is projected to increase to $12.6 billion by 2019, according to a 2015 census study by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (PDF).
Lee moved to Las Vegas from Hawaii in 1979. At the time, the first Filipino entertainers she remembers seeing were The Reycards, the Filipino singing comic duo of Rey Ramirez and Carding Castro, who performed in Vegas from the ‘60s until the ‘90s, when Ramirez passed away.
“I remember talking to [Castro] at the funeral, and he talked about the difficulties,” says Lee. “Even though they were on stage making people laugh, they knew they weren’t really accepted as true comedians. They weren’t getting paid the way that [white entertainers] were paid, and he was telling me that it was so hard to get the contracts that they just took whatever was given to them.”
This was also a recurring issue she had with her own show, “Rozita Lee’s Drums of the Islands,” which ran from 1992 to 2000 — the longest running Polynesian dance show in Vegas.
“These casino and hotel owners I had to deal with, if they could just pay one penny, that's what they would pay,” says Lee. “But now more than ever, they understand the value of Asian talent, and that you have to pay for the talent. It’s about education, because some people still don’t realize that we have the numbers. And I always tell people that you should always stand firm for what you believe you are worth, because you are worth a whole lot.”
Lee is proud of the many Filipino-led acts that have come through over 40 years. Jonathan Potenciano and his band Jonathan and Music Magic, known as JAMM, have been regular performers on the Vegas circuit for more than 25 years. A long-running variety troupe, Society of Seven, expanded to Vegas in the 2000s and got some attention from a new generation of fans when “American Idol” finalist Jasmine Trias started performing with them in 2009. And since 2010, JabbaWocKeeZ, the first dance crew to headline a show in Vegas, have had shows at the Monte Carlo, Luxor, and their current home at the MGM Grand. And Edwin San Juan is currently the resident comedian at Planet Hollywood.
But Lee says the locals get the most excited when big names from the Philippines visit.
This April, Filipino pop superstar Sarah Geronimo will perform at the Cannery Casino Hotel in North Las Vegas. She will be joined by Sam Concepcion, the G Force Dancers and Mark Bautista, who was the first runner-up when Geronimo won the reality singing competition “Star For a Night” 16 years ago.
But locals also know these big-name entertainers often fly in and out of Vegas for just a day or two. It’s the DJs at the nightclubs, the bands that play by the casino pools and the everyday entertainers who make up the core of the glamorous Vegas entertainment experience.
And it’s folks like Ron Cabildo, founder of the agency Deftal, who build the foundations to support these artists by getting them work in the biggest casinos.
Cabildo came to Vegas from Chicago in 2004 to compete in the Battle of the Bands competition. He was with a band called In10ct (pronounced Intensity). They won the grand prize, a $250,000, year-long contract to perform in Vegas, so he moved, knowing that he wanted to build his booking agency.
“It’s very competitive in Vegas, so in order for me to penetrate the market, I had to specialize in the Latino and Asian markets,” says Cabildo. “Asian artistry has become more acceptable now, but we are still considered a niche market, and we have to embrace what makes us different from the mainstream, share the culture that makes us unique.”
One of the projects he’s most proud of is “Hot Manila Nights,” a recurring event launched last year that tries to replicate the experience of Manila nightlife.
“A requirement for bands to perform there was that they had to learn the full repertoire of music that you’d experience in Manila. “Bands that might normally play new songs or Top 40 music had to learn how to play Original Pilipino Music,” says Cabildo, referring to a genre of pop songs and ballads that began to take hold in the late '70s. “The reason it was successful was because it brought together Filipinos of all generations, all having a good time.”
Cabildo's business started small, recruiting the Michito Sanchez Salsa Orchestra for South Point Casino for Salsa Nights on Tuesdays, which led to handling the Prince tribute band Purple Rain on Fridays and the classic rock band Phoenix on Saturdays. Ten years later, he’s worked with almost every casino on the Strip. He’s looking for opportunities to place his entertainers in sports stadiums and cruise ships. And he’s opened a studio called Interactive.vegas, a hub to rehearse and make music, but also to educate up-and-coming artists about the inner workings of the business.
Packing says dancers are always thinking about “leveling up.” As a teenager, he was more interested in playing basketball, but his late, older brother introduced him to Michael Jackson DVDs and asked him to be a background dancer for one of his performances. Even when Packing watched "Magic Mike,” he never imagined he’d ever be a part of this pop culture phenomenon.
“I’m doing it for us, for both me and him, and taking it as far as we can take it,” Packing says about his brother. “My goal is to just live it and keep pushing forward. Keep leveling up.”
Need more Patrick Packing? Here he is, in the dance crew with Channing Tatum on Jimmy Kimmel Live:
From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI