I was born to strip. It hasn't always been pretty — it certainly hasn't been easy — but I love my innate talent. Despite all the straight-A report cards I got as a kid, despite the countless art and dance awards and the ever-present compliments on my poise, I've somehow always managed to suggest sexuality with my existence.
When I was 20, I was just a culture-shocked Indy native studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Following an intense fascination with Annie Sprinkle, I became centered in performance art, using my body to violently express my simultaneous acceptance and denial of objectification. I was also attempting to earn a specialization in the art history program with a thesis about the importance of sexual image in fine art when a professor critiqued me for lacking an opinion on the subject. Having experienced precisely none of the things I was studying first hand, I decided the best way to develop an unbiased opinion was to try some field research. After a quick browse of stripperweb.com, I settled on the world famous Admiral Theatre — what I now know to be the most upscale club I will likely ever work for.
It was much larger and lovelier than I expected, with red velvet chairs and curtains on an enormous cabaret-style stage. I was quickly hired and shuffled off to a senior stripper, Tiffany, who I later learned was Ms. Nude Chicago. She explained how VIP (our only "lap dance" option) rates worked: $75 per song, $25 of which I was to give to my manager. The rules were straightforward: The patrons, or "custies," as they are affectionately called, were not allowed within 6 inches of my body. I was not allowed to chew gum or curse. I was expected to be fully nude when dancing but covered when walking through the club. (Oh - and I wasn't allowed to strip to rap songs.) Tiffany told me I could expect to make $250 per night "without even doing anything" and demonstrated how lap dances work. She sat me in a booth and leaned over me so that I felt the heat radiating off her chest and tasted her cool perfume before bowing over and breathing down my neck. That was that — my shift had begun and I was officially a stripper.
Performing for my first customer was a truly moving experience. An Indian man who spoke no English negotiated through his friends to buy a 30-minute set from me. Once we got in our highly reflective little den, he simply stroked my hand and cried in awe of me while I fought tears of my own. When the "dance" was over, he stood, bowed, tipped me and kissed my hand. I had made my $250 for the night, and I asked to go home. Returning the next night was, however, slightly terrifying — I knew it would be my first time to take the stage. Strip club standard procedure is as follows: a DJ you've just met asks your musical preference. You reply with your stylistic weapon of choice. I picked industrial music and hoped for a little comfort in the gothy tunes of my angsty teen years. To the intense drum intro of "Head like a Hole," I tumbled out of the red velvet wings and onstage. The next 9 minutes were a complete blur of terror, thrills, and relief at the absence of a pole. I levitated offstage to my manager waiting on the floor, who greeted me with excited praise. "I love your raunchy style! You belong in burlesque!"
The rest of my stay at the Admiral was a dream come true. Staff took wonderful care to protect me, clients were mild-mannered and complimentary, fellow dancers made for sweet and genuine mentors. Friday night shifts required floor-length expensive gowns. Wednesdays were the worst: College kids got in free and usually couldn't afford VIP treatment. I was required to get regular mani-pedis and since I could easily afford it, had a weekly Brazilian wax. I had a newfound body confidence. Every person there treated me like a delicate, exotic thing of beauty.
And then the dream ended. To my dismay, many clubs in smaller cities were nothing like the Admiral. I jumped from place to place, looking for the kind of luxury I'd seen at my first gig. In some clubs, everything was dirty. Dressing rooms often lacked chairs, good lighting, nice lockers, enough outlets, proper mirror space, and private bathrooms. According to some state laws, I had to affix pieces of band-aids to my nipples — "titty tape"— and be mindful of the width of my thongs. I also had to deal with drunk customers who tried to put their hands all over me. I learned to spray my skin with hairspray to fend off the occasional rogue tongue. I saw a few girls on hard drugs. I saw a few girls prostitute themselves.
And there were moments where I actually feared for my life.
One night I was abducted from a club by a gang that had come to pick up a fellow dancer. They held me at their place for hours. When I was finally allowed to leave, I called it quits. I thought I was hanging up my platforms forever.
A year went by and my boyfriend took me to see my first burlesque show, a production put on by some girls he distantly knew. As soon as I laid eyes on the ladies of the Rocket Doll Revue back here in Indy, I knew I was one of them. The confidence, the raunchy sexuality, the hilarity, the camaraderie, the style — there was even a group number that reawakened my childhood dreams of dancing; really, really dancing. I was enamored and reached out to them immediately.
After sitting in on a few practices and "kittening" (taking the stage at the end of an act and picking up discarded items after dancers exit) I prepared a routine to audition. I was truly terrified that I would have some unnatural hiccup and the Dolls might reject me, but that never happened. Instead, they coddled me and eased my anxieties, taught me essential burlesque basics, helped me fix my hair and makeup at shows, shared costuming tips and tricks, applied tape to the back of my pasties backstage. They encouraged me to explore my years of formal dance training, my funky performance art ideas, my tendency to lose myself when dancing improvisationally, my desire to dance with snakes and my choreographic visions —even performing group numbers that I've arranged. They wiped my tears when I had awful moments and cheered me on when I rejoiced. As I developed as a soloist onstage, I also watched an astounding net of acceptance form behind me so that I never fell when I struggled personally. They even helped me realize my calling to teach dance and find a place to start.
I couldn't imagine my life now without the combination of sisterhood, support system and creative outlet they provide me. It's not that my burlesque life is classier or better than my club days, but the fact that it's entirely directed by my own fantasy instead of serving others is endlessly gratifying. I was born to strip, and now I can finally be comfortable in my own 7-inch heels.