In western Massachusetts, where I went to college, there used to be a saying about how local guys regarded students at the area's two women's colleges: "Smith to bed, Mount Holyoke to wed." Smithies were considered the good-time girls, the ones who could match you drink-for-drink when doing tequila shots, or who might be caught skinny-dipping in the Connecticut River at 2 a.m. on a school night. Mount Holyoke girls, on the other hand, were more buttoned up -- the kind you could bring home to mom, the kind who played tennis and wore Peter Pan collars.
So it was with some fascination that I found myself sitting in a fluorescent-lit Mount Holyoke dance studio a few weeks ago, waiting to observe the school's erotic dance class for the first time. The class has been taught since October by Susan Scotto, a professor of Russian. It takes place a few evenings a month in a space borrowed from the dance department. It isn't formally accredited. But I'd heard that it was wildly popular with students and had raised eyebrows in the still-conservative academic community.
Scattered around me in the studio, also waiting for class to begin, were eight or nine young women. They were a wholesome, scrubbed-looking bunch, with freckled noses and short, well-groomed hair, their razor-stubbled ankles and unpolished toenails peeking out from beneath skirts and sweatpants. A few had glasses; one had a Band-Aid wrapped around her big toe. Why, I wondered, did girls like these -- who I couldn't even imagine wearing makeup, much less pasties -- want to learn to how dance with their clothes off?
"It's something I would never ordinarily see myself doing," Patty McCarthy, a sophomore, told me. "But it's good to be adventurous. Just the fact that there's a class like this, at this school -- how could I not try it?"
A senior, Sara Lawrence, was more philosophical: "The thing I like about going to an all-women's school is that you get the chance to define yourself independently of your connection to men," she said. "This class seems like an extension of that. It's a way to explore being sexy just for yourself."
The reflective mood was abandoned when Professor Scotto suddenly entered the room, cutting a svelte figure in high-heeled Mary Janes and a pair of skintight pedal-pushers. Dumping two huge shopping bags onto the floor, she tossed her long red hair over one shoulder and smiled at everyone.
"Hi, guys!" she said. "Ready to boogie?"
Scotto likes to wear racy clothes -- not just for this class, but in her Russian classes and around campus as well. And if other faculty members whisper that she dresses like a stripper -- well, she is a stripper. After putting herself through graduate school in the late '70s and early '80s by dancing professionally (near the University of California at Berkeley, where she received her master's and Ph.D.), Scotto found she liked the business enough to stick with it. Even now, at age 42 and with a husband, two children and a hectic teaching schedule, she still finds the time to work weekend shifts at a local nudie bar.
"I'm an erotic, sensual person by nature," Scotto told me. "And I find dancing very relaxing. Mount Holyoke can be a stressful place. There's a pretty strict idea of how you have to conduct yourself here; there are a lot of expectations you have to conform to. It's nice, after all that, to go somewhere where all people ask of you is that you take off your clothes."
Her goal in starting the class, however, was not to train professional strippers.
"So many young women are so obsessed about their appearance, so worried about measuring up to this cultural ideal of what's attractive," she said. "I wanted to create a space where it's safe for them to undress and look at their bodies with pleasure."
Before stripping down, though, the girls in class were keen on decking themselves out. Flocking around the shopping bags Scotto had brought, they dumped out the contents: feather boas, shimmery wraps, filmy scarves and several pairs of high-heeled platform shoes. At first, they giggled as they decorated themselves, flouncing around and striking poses for each other. But after a few moments, as I watched, they became more serious. Moving in front of the wall mirrors, they began to walk back and forth slowly, rolling their hips in a way that good girls usually don't.
"Oh, my God," Patty murmured, mesmerized by the image of herself wearing a pair of four-inch stilettos. "I feel like a different person."
Class, once it began, seemed like less of an instructive course than a slightly irreverent free-for-all. After showing a few video clips and discussing them with the students (Natalie Wood in "Gypsy" got a unanimous thumbs up, as opposed to Elizabeth Berkley in "Showgirls"), Scotto turned down the lights in the studio and asked everyone to find their own space in the room. Putting some "trance music" on the stereo, she waited for the hypnotic, pulsing sounds of sitars and tabla to fill the studio. Then she moved in front of the room.
"Just do whatever feels comfortable," she told everyone, beginning to sway back and forth. "Watch yourself in the mirror. If you're using a wrap, you can try tying it different ways, or sliding it across your body. What looks sexy to you?"
The girls got into it immediately. A few started to slowly gyrate their hips, raising their arms over their heads belly dancer-style; others imitated Scotto, who was arching her back and rolling her shoulders. Sara, clearly a trained dancer, pirouetted around the room and swirled a multicolored scarf around her body, while two of the more self-conscious girls shyly swished their boas around their shoulders, standing close to one another as if for support.
The next song that came on was faster, with a sexy bass beat. A few of the girls had loosened up enough by then to take off a few pieces of clothing. One, who'd arrived at class dressed like an accountant (calf-length navy skirt, white dress shirt, low-heeled loafers) watched herself in the mirror as she teasingly unbuttoned her blouse, toying with each button before undoing it, then finally shrugging the shirt to the floor to reveal a pink bra. Another tall, muscular girl slowly unzipped the fly of her denim shorts, and then forcefully kicked them off over her clunky high heels.
"Oh, no!" she cried, as the shorts flew through the air and landed on Scotto's shoulder. "Sorry!"
"No problem," purred Scotto, who was expertly skimming a gold lami wrap over her breasts. Somehow, she had managed to strip down to nothing but her heels and a shiny black G-string.
Within the next 15 minutes, all but a few of the girls had shed their outer layers of clothing and were wriggling around in their underwear. Scotto and a few others had grabbed plastic chairs from the sides of the room to practice "chair work": They straddled the chair seats, bent over them with their butts in the air, leaned back in them and shook their hair around. The girl who had come dressed like an accountant was on her back doing "floor moves," undulating her hips and kicking her legs in the air, wearing just her white cotton panties.
Although what I was witnessing wasn't technically so different from the post-shower dancing I sometimes engaged in myself (in the privacy of my own apartment, of course), I was starting to understand why certain people, especially parents, might find it distressing. After all, this probably wasn't what most of them had in mind when they imagined their daughters getting a Mount Holyoke education.
"There are a few people here who are worried word will get out about this, that people will start saying, 'Send your daughter to Mount Holyoke and she'll come home a stripper,'" said Donal O'Shea, dean of the faculty.
But the more I watched the girls dance, and they did so for the better part of an hour, the more harmless their frolicking began to seem to me. What was actually so bad about dancing around naked, or nearly so, and practicing how to act and move seductively in a room full of other women? Most of the students I spoke to couldn't imagine dancing in the buff in front of anyone. Instead, like the good girls they were, they seemed to enjoy just admiring themselves in the mirror and trying on the sexy-siren roles they saw in movies and on television -- without having to worry about consequences.
"It's easy to be playful here, because we have the privilege of being able to do that," Sara told me, as the class began to wind down. "All of us here are white, educated, from pretty financially secure families. None of us have to dance for a living, to get by. So it's fun."
When Scotto finally turned the music down and the studio lights back up, the girls slowly, almost reluctantly, put their clothes back on. But once their sweaters were buttoned up, their shoes and socks pulled on and their hair smoothed, they looked as virtuous and guileless as they had at the beginning of class. They waved goodbye to Scotto and hurried off into the evening, except for one girl, pretty and heavyset, who dawdled behind, watching Scotto stuff abandoned boas, scarves and heels back into her shopping bags.
"We need to learn this," the girl told me. "Just like you talk to your friends to learn what to do on dates, and practice putting on makeup in the mirror -- this is something we need to learn how to do."
In other words, even for girls who are the type "to wed," it doesn't hurt to know a few tricks -- for bed.