It was the 80’s. Seattle. Four books on feminism stack themselves perilously next to my twin bed, in a teeny apartment, on a narrow rickety dark wood table I stole from a Goodwill drop box. De Beauvoir. Robin Morgan. Kate Millet. Mary Daly. I ricocheted between each of them, since there was a fast-changing array of dogmas and shoulds, and I sought out stories of contradiction like mine.
Exhibit A in Irony: I loved prancing through construction zones with my girlfriend, sexing it up in glittery leggings, bra stuffed with cushy paper towels, and a jean jacket, faking heterosexuality, and collecting cat calls while throwing our hair back. Exhibit B in Irony: I loved leaving curves behind and starving myself into a boy body, shunning flesh, running long distances, chalking up rainy miles, mace in hand, in case my camouflage of maleness failed. I marched in midnight Take Back the Night marches, fueled with rage and righteousness about women’s freedom to walk the streets. My bedside books made my pursuit of a non-feminine body a conundrum.
Rights were out; feminism was in. Rights still meant being granted them. By men.
High heels were out; Ms. Magazine was in. Heels meant you couldn’t run. From men.
Protests were out; running for office was in. Protesting meant you were a victim. Of men.
Corporate ladder-climbing was out; being a CEO was in. Ladders meant working – Under men.
I looked up to these bedside authors as more than writers; they were movers and shakers, voices of our, for our, from our vaginas, activists, pioneers, and probably mother figures. I didn’t know all of that at the time, though. I was a skinny 20-something, escaping adulthood while trying to embrace it. Living alone and trying to prove I didn’t need touch or to be desired. Thus, the twin bed. I was learning to be angry at the patriarchy. It sounded so much more noble than being angry at myself, which I was, constantly. My body was the fight zone – punishing my hunger by eating countable calories and hoping it would just go away. Rising above my own body’s desires, and men’s desires was my sanctuary. To celebrate this, and dance with a sexiness that had no consequences, I frequented male gay bars where the regular guys said I danced like a stripper. Uh Oh. My feminist authors would turn that compliment into a warning.
My firm concept about strippers was that they were buxom slaves to the capitalist lustful whims of men. Movies depicted them as drug-addicted sometime prostitutes who objectified themselves in the name of dirty income. “How dare they use their bodies as a commodity!” I thought. Until I got a dare – from my lesbian girlfriend – to step into that dark dance maze of gyration. I was not known to turn down a dare. (Except the 3rd rail dare on a Chicago subway track in 8th grade). We argued, and she won, with a few strong points added to her dare, “You can finally make some real money dancing, instead of trying for starving artist grant dance money. The clubs are all just an arena of prancing show horses to these men, and inside this Disney World you could make an income from the patriarchy. You could play their game without ante-ing up.” Game on.
For the last few years, when I wasn’t rehearsing for a modern dance performance, or working at the rape crisis center, I was tearing up another kind of dance floor. I was a buzz-cutted lesbian in cowboy boots and muscle shirts weekend nights and finishing my counseling degree weekday days. I wanted women to swoon at my boy-shaped body, hard-won by Diet Coke and long runs at dawn. A boyish body equaled freedom – no jiggles or curves, just lean and able to swerve. In my fantasy of post-college, I envisioned an androgynous persona, “street counseling” teens in alleys, walking miles with them, while sorting out the basics of getting out of a gang, into a home, out of the street, and into recovery. I secretly idolized those ministers in documentaries, taking public transportation into areas where runaways lived, wearing jeans and their sacred white collars. They would be filmed sitting in alleys, bringing sweaters to teens and slowly saving their lives, with or without the church part. Resuscitating the discarded, the lost and lonely, the addicted and afflicted. With my degree, I was going to save at-risk youth, save the fine arts, and oh, save us from the patriarchy. But in the meantime, I had to earn a living.
So on with the dare. I had laid in bed the morning of the big event and pictured each of my bedside warrior women leaping out of their books and onto the stage and dragging me off. Lecturing me about objectification and slavery dressed up in sequins. Yet I was fully in forward motion. One whole day of worrying out loud to my girlfriend, excruciating pubic hair-shaving, high heel practice, and dollar-store eyeliner application later I showed up for amateur night. No curves. Just all the swerves I knew as dance moves. Handstands. Splits. Swiveling Hips. Three songs etched themselves into my body, and I didn’t stop moving, even though the actual disrobing was like a flamingo shaking off seaweed from its legs. I won the contest. $275. Cash. I was hooked on the drug of attention – and pinball machine motion.
My body goal of skin on bone shifted slowly to more hips and tips and work shifts in the stripping zone. Closed the door to the rape crisis phone. I was in the adrenaline of the stage, which seemed to tamp the constant self-rage. This high was wider and more stunning than long-distance running. Hips were in constant motion on that stage, strutting, posing, swiveling, humping, gyrating, jutting. Moving my rear to the beat – the butt I tried so hard to make look like a boy’s – was earning me eyes and sighs and money in my gartered thighs.
Combing thrift stores, I found feather boas to weave around my toothpick arms to give more arc to the whole montage. Years of punishing my stomach for sticking out in the slightest were gradually brushed aside, and I taught myself to make my belly button toggle from side to side to the musical beat. I learned to use that belly button to allure the eyes of men in my direction, instead of into their beers. Shaking my hips so that micro-movements emitted from my stomach attracted customer’s eyes away from my molehill mounds of breasts that did not shake and jangle like the larger endowed dancers. I developed my own moves, like handstands, and as I grew a slightly larger rear, my jiggle butt trick. One glute at a time.
There was zero job training – just a cold dressing room on a Sunday afternoon, where I met the shift’s 6 other dancers. I had a feeling they did not have the same authors by their bedside. We sat either the plastic stools, or the stained off-white carpet, which looked like a sandy Dalmatian, since so much skin-colored makeup and mascara wands made it to the floor. Unspoken Rule #1: Refer to yourself as a dancer, never a stripper. In the club and on the street. The word stripper implies that you have no talent. Unspoken Rule #2: Ask other dancers about the management guys, but not the regular customer guys. It sounds like you are prying information out of the “crew” to find out if a guy’s rich. No rule was written down, and I signed only one single page contract, which made me an independent contractor, not and employee. But within a week I found out all I needed to know.
Costumes – 3 rules:
- Nothing reminiscent of death – aka no vampires or crossbones
- Outer layer must show body contour – aka no trench coats
- Can’t be worn twice in one night – except feather boas
Bodies – 3 rules:
- Boobs and butts can shake, but no other flesh can, otherwise you’re fired
- No birthmarks or tattoos larger than one inch
- Hair can be short or long, but no hair sticking out from thongs.
Music – 2 rules:
- Must be upbeat for the first song and slow down by the third
- Cannot play all rock
2.5) Cannot play no rock
That first day, the dancers asked me what costumes I had, and whether I needed any, which was far more than I expected of them. I hesitated, and when asked to show my thongs, they rolled their eyes and pulled some bling-covered ones out of their large duffle bags and said to wear those. Mine were all solid colors. No bling. They showed me where the tit cover-up tubes were. These were small squeeze bottles in a rickety drawer that felt like applying Elmer’s glue to your areola and nipples. An assortment of colors was supposed to match your boobs and make you look realistically topless. I had seen these in a movie once, where burlesque dancers put tassels on their tits, because then, in legalese, they weren’t technically topless. But we had to wear “flesh-matched” gunk. The upside? The club bought them for us. The downside? It took blow-drying to get it to dry like hard glue on us. There we were, shouting above the whirr of the blow-dryers, talking about the music sets we were planning for that shift. Dancers stared at my tiny breasts.
Up a few steps in a tiny hall off the dressing room was the tiny DJ booth – this is where, if the DJ was in a good mood, we were allowed to search through plastic bins of actual vinyl records. We could plan our playlists by browsing these, or, if the DJ was in a bad mood, we had to know all of our sets upon arrival, and give them to him on sticky notes. But those vinyl albums! In the age of Sony Walkmans, they were a treasure. Dancers joked about the other club, where there was only a juke box, and the dancer had to walk past customers and put quarters in for 3 songs to start her set. This is the club with full nudity, tattoos allowed, no dress code for the men, and biker chicks as waitresses. “No class.” “Skanky girls.” “They’ll even hire you with stretch marks if you agree to ‘do’ the manager in the back office.” So I was grateful for the vast song options.
Three songs became a new pursuit. Finding rock and roll that still had a down beat and yet raucous enough to shake Andrew Jackson bills out of onlooker’s wallets was a daily hunt. Def Leppard. Billy Idol. Van Halen. Good to shake nipples to, but not so good to swivel to, or “strike a pose” to! Madonna was a warm-up song, but rock is what I stripped and shook to. It was an annoying necessity and an eardrum-damaging job liability. It’s what brought out customer’s cash. Rehearsing to cassettes of Madonna and U2 in my living room pulled moves out of me I had no idea were there. It took many tries to get my sexiness to bubble up, and at first I made very few tips. I felt safer making sexy moves at the gay bars, where I had clothes on. A skimpy thong was scary to strut in, and awkward to step into, figure out where the front was, untangle during costume changes, and keep any hairs completely covered with. Costume Rule #4.
I step up 4 black stairs in 3-inch black heels, onto a 2-ended, 8-shaped black stage. It is lit from above with 6 pulsating lights. From below my heels it is lit with many embedded pink bulbs. 4 stairs and 64 stares. I await the first downbeat of my song, then step onto stage and kick up until my hamstring flinches. This became my signature move. Adrenalin flies through me to the ends of my hair, which I swing around to the beat, while the moving lights and pulsing pelvic sways all swirl together in a dance of seduction. Dominating the stage, taller than the bartender, bouncer, and customers, I am a bomb of rhythm; a slayer of shame. The bills in my garter light my adrenal flame, but more important are the body demons I must tame.
The slow grind of my body and the slow unwind of my mind meant I let a little weight onto my bones, and even though I still loved running, I also took to falling in love with high heels, one of the tools of the patriarchy, so I had sore calves all the time. I read that heels were designed centuries ago to make women not be able to run away. But the history of heels has myths. Some say they was for prestige and power, and to appear taller in hoop dresses. Others say they were an extension of Chinese foot binding. But I learned to dance in them, do one-armed cartwheels on stage in them, slip out of my costumes without ripping anything in them, and feel freedom. Just as much freedom as dancing with my gay boys in Converse high-tops from the thrift store.
I was writhing in feminist books and body hatred one year and writhing in sensuality and cash the next. I went from skinny-obsessed, long-distance running to make my butt like a man’s, to allowing it to have curves that appealed to the eyes of men! I saved my garter cash in stacks of each bill denomination, and brought them carefully and orderly to the bank. The dream of saving teens did not fade. More school was on the horizon. First I had to find a way into my body and let its hunger leak out. Only then could I help teens, starving in their own way.