I haven’t stripped in over a year but I do continue to pole dance regularly. Pole dance is fast becoming mainstream. There are pole athletes with over 150,000 followers on Instagram who travel the world teaching workshops and events. Pole expos and conventions featuring hundreds of pole centered businesses. There are even whispers of pole dancing becoming an Olympic sport.
The stripping taboo is slowing falling away. The success of voices like those of ex-stripper current rapper Cardi B, SlutWalk founder Amber Rose and stripper turned author Jacq the Stripper are helping tear down the age-old societal stereotype of women who bare it all (or almost all) for cash. Since starting pole dancing, I have witnessed a wide range of reactions to the subject. It makes most people feel uncomfortable, or at least a little weird. I imagine that is the source of the initial #NotAStripper hashtag trend.
Like any sport or art, pole dance has infinite styles. There is the probably most widely considered standard, erotic style, but there is also artistic contemporary and fitness/sport. As the industry grows so does the diversity of pole dance expression itself. Pole dancers are rapidly developing personal dancing styles for which they are known, such as Michelle Stanek’s sexy-contemporary or Jordan Kensley’s signature fast and fierce style. The #NotAStripper #YesAStripper hashtag beef orginally escalated last year when a few barefoot lyrical-style pole dancers probably got one too many judgmental comments on their Instagram video and got defensive. #NotAStripper spread amongst women who pole dance, but don’t want to be associated with stripping. Then, Strippers took offense (and rightly so, as they pioneered the entire art form), striking back with the sex-positive #YesAStripper hashtag.
With the recent reemergence of these hashtags in the pole community, I’m left wondering where I fall on the stripping spectrum.
It all started one afternoon in June 2009 while scrolling through Craigslist on my iBook G4 from my bedroom in Washington Heights. “This position is to bartend in a Bikini and dance in a Bikini on the counter with two or three other dancers at the same time, you do both, five nights a week (Wed thru Sun) thanks.” A few email exchanges and a one-mile walk uptown later, I found myself changing into my Billabong bikini and my very best Steve Madden heels in the dingy bathroom of “21 Bar,” a place described on Yelp as “the kind of bar creeps go to”. It was probably quite evident I had no dancing or sex work experience as I cheerfully took my place next to the other dancer/bartender hopefuls. As I waited my turn to interview I wondered what my father – a firefighter and the coach of my little league softball team, a man who regularly worked overtime and started a window cleaning business so that I could attend private art school to “study” film & video – would think. Always the early arriver, I was up first. “Benny”, the manager, directed me to step behind the bar. He again told me that the gig was alternating 15 minutes tending bar, 15 minutes dancing on top of the bar til the end of the night.
He asked if I understood and if he could snap a polaroid of me. I agreed and struck a pose with a big smile. The flash went off and I stood there for a moment before he gestured me to move out from behind the bar and that was it. I could start the following week.As I walked away, I knew I’d not be back. I didn’t need to bikini dance when I could just live off student loans and a credit card my entire senior year. But somewhere on the downtown A train between 181st and 14th street I had an idea. “What if there was a TV show about a comedian who becomes a stripper and it was called Comic Strips, get it, like comic…strips…” The train doors opened at 8th Avenue and I hopped out and walked to the diner where my sketch comedy group, Pink Axe, regularly met. One of Pink Axe’s members was Angelica Pasquini, whom I met in a Directing 101 class at the School of Visual Arts. She is one of those kind of sparkly, special people who just stand out by nature. I told her my little play-on-words TV show idea over a plate of fries at the Good Times Diner and her eyes lit up. A few weeks later she came to me with a notebook page filled with character and plot ideas for the series. “There could be this one stripper who’s obsessed with yoga and is always meditating in the locker room” Angelica’s eyes were wide, fingers fanned out expressively. “and a bus boy who dreams of becoming a famous chef!” A few years went by, as did several iterations of the idea, a feature outline, a few pilot scripts, a web series treatment. It wasn’t until 2014 that I committed to walking a mile in seven-inch heels to truly do the idea justice.
Several hours spent on YouTube and I was completely mesmerized by pole dance. I signed up to take an introductory class at Body & Pole. We did the basics, barefoot, in a basement studio in Hell’s Kitchen, led by a petite and feisty instructor-slash-actress named Rica de Ocampo.I was so buzzed with excitement after that first class that I walked all the way home to Brooklyn positively overflowing with adrenaline. And all we really did was walk around the pole and do some crunches. Still, I couldn’t wait to be hanging upside down by my pussy lips with hundreds of dollars in singles thrown at me under strobe lights.
A few weeks later at my very first strip club audition I quickly learned that stripping and pole dancing are two very different things. I walked into Vivid Cabaret in Midtown Manhattan in November 2014 with 2 shots of tequila in me, ready to dip-turn and pirouette til I was rich, filthy rich. But first, I had to audition.
I sat in the locker room and filled out application paperwork given to me by the “House Mom.” One dancer came in with a motorcycle helmet tucked under her arm, “Is there promo today?” My writer’s mind went nuts. Holy shit who is this girl she rides a motorcycle oh my god that’s so cool I wonder where she lives and where she’s from what are her hopes and dreams and A MOTORCYCLE?! For the uninitiated, “promo” is when dancers hand out complimentary admission tickets to the club, outside of Madison Square Garden or wherever a sporting event is taking place that day, in exchange for a waiving of their house fee. And yes, you often have to pay to be a stripper. Dancers pay several fees each shift: a house fee, of which the amount depends on what time you clock in, a house mom fee, and some dollars to security and the DJ. If it weren’t illegal, they would have charged a breathing fee and a blinking fee. Some clubs even allow strippers to pay an out-of-rotation fee, for which they are taken off of the DJ’s pole stage rotation list. This allows them to maximize one-to-one time with customers rather than “waste” time dancing on stage.
I never really understood any of it (never been that good with money) except that if I wanted to work I basically walked into the club a hundred bucks in the hole. Honestly, I still want to know why those DJs get $20 per stripper to play a Spotify playlist and an occasional air horn noise.
Once my W2 was all filled out I was instructed to change into my outfit and meet the manager on the already open club floor.
“Are you the comedian?” the manager asked. His Macy’s-level suit was actually pretty nice.. ” I hadn’t mentioned anything about that in my online “Entertainer” submission. “I googled you” he shrugged, “We love hiring dancers who can also hold great conversation.” Uh oh. He then gave me the audition instructions, 2 songs dancing on the side stage pole, first song top on, second song top off. I mustered all of my level one pole skills and twirled and twerked my heart out leading up to the triumphant removal of my top which I carefully hung from hook on the wall nearby. I respected my stripper clothes. Not 10 seconds into officially dancing topless the manager stopped me. Uh oh, is my inverted left nipple a problem? “Ok great! We just like to make sure girls will actually remove their top. I think you’d do great here, you can go upstairs and house mom will give you the orientation.”
The first six months working at Vivid were hard. I had expected to easily make hundreds of dollars a night. After all, that’s what movies and TV always said! In reality, I was regularly walking out of the club after 8 hours of dancing on the pole, writhing on the stage and grinding on some dude’s greasy jeans with nothing but $47 and an ass covered in pimples. It’s true, I’m easily susceptible to buttne. I once mentioned how little I was making to a fellow dancer in the locker room. Her advice was simple, “I won’t leave until I’ve made $500. Otherwise it’s not worth it.”
That’s the other reality I discovered: VIP rooms are the only real way to make hundreds of stripper dollars and your convincing skills have to be on point… It isn’t easy to get just anybody to pay $400 per half hour to take you into a tiny dark room closed off by a velvet curtain. You try to convince a 50-year-old marketing investor to part with half a grand without the promise of sex acts, while competing with 100 other beautiful, scantily clad women. It’s not easy. It’s a buyer’s market and it’s totally fucked.
I wasn’t always a loser, I did get my $1000 night and had a string of $400-600 nights before I called it quits. I worked at two other clubs in New York, Ricks, a “gown” club where dancers have to wear floor length gowns so the customers can feel classy (I guess), and Sapphire, where the vibe was half steakhouse half Wolf of Wall Street party scene.
So as much as I want to hashtag every single pole video on my Instagram and proudly proclaim I’m #YesAStripper something has always held me back. As a stripper coming from a place of privileged curiosity rather than necessity is it appropriate? Stripping wasn’t my last resort. I could always just leave when I was too tired or not in the mood or got my butthole touched in a VIP room without permission.
With the release and promotion of Comic Strips people are often incredulous when I tell them, yes, I really did strip. I did, however, have two other part-time jobs to pay the bills, so I didn’t have to truly hustle. I was lucky. When I made money it was awesome, when I didn’t, I went home and watched Netflix.
I used to joke to people “Yeah I was a stripper but I was really bad at it.” The fact is I wasn’t good at it because I didn’t have to be. I do know making any real money as a stripper takes a certain level of self-assuredness and intelligence of which I certainly did not possess in my stripper days. I also had the support system to walk out and walk away at any given time. For now, I’m retired. However, I do like to think of stripping as a skill that I now know how to do, that I can pick up if I decide that’s how I want to vanish my credit card debt. Until then, I’ll keep making my minimum payments, buying pole dance class packs and being #KindofAStripper.