Dancing lessons

I was a college girl stripper, and while I'm glad I got out, it beat the hell out of working at Starbucks.

Published July 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's a few minutes after 9 on a warm June night at Visions nightclub in Madison, Wis. Despite the fact that it's amateur night, when women who are not regular dancers have the chance to audition, the place is quiet.

A dozen or so middle-aged men are sprinkled around the stage, drinking beer and watching a tall redhead dance. Sequins flash off her G-string as she thrusts her hips next to the metal pole. She approaches a man at one end of the stage and squats down to talk to him, bending her long, tanned legs and balancing on her stiletto heels. I can't hear their conversation over the din of thumping techno music, but I see her smile as he slides a bill into the black garter around her thigh.

She glances my way and studies me with no expression. I understand her curiosity. Women are rare in the audience of clubs like this. After another moment, she pivots on her high heels and turns away, moving on to the next man and the next dollar.

Like a magician watching a colleague perform, I know where the rabbit comes from. I've been on that stage and it's hard for me to watch without imagining her thoughts.

It's been almost four years since I worked my last late shift as a stripper, and I've come back, this time as an observer, to see if things have changed, to take a closer look at the strip scene, and gain a better understanding of what drew me, a "good" girl from a solid, middle-class family, a college grad, a feminist and veteran of several women's studies classes, to go onstage and take my clothes off for money.

I wasn't the only one. Just as I began dancing in 1993, a wave of media coverage discovered a new brand of exotic dancer, coeds like me, who were stripping their way through college. Articles ran in magazines like Glamour, Swing, Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan. Books appeared, including one titled "Ivy League Stripper" by Brown University student Heidi Mattson, who began topless dancing when her financial aid was pulled in 1990. Celebrities such as Courtney Love and members of the band Bikini Kill confessed to former lives as strippers.

The new wave of dancers borrowed heavily from riot grrrl ideology, a manifestation of feminism that grew out of the Seattle grunge movement in the last decade. So-called riot grrrls encouraged women to break stereotypes and support each other regardless of what they choose to do -- including working in the sex industry. Spin magazine even listed strippers alongside witches and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as manifestations of Girl Culture.

Today's strippers justify dancing topless as a validation of their bodies and their sexuality, a way to turn the tables on a sexist society and get paid handsomely for it. Spin wrote that, by "turning men into human ATM machines," stripping had become the ultimate act of feminism.

Such theoretical musings about the motivation of the modern stripper fade quickly in the smoke and dim light of Vision's, the Madison area's only strip club. Men in Green Bay Packers T-shirts sit at the bar, checking the TV sets for the latest score, or at the stage feeding singles (this is Wisconsin, after all) to their favorite dancers. The dancers stroll around the club in sequined bikinis or lacy dresses so short that the top of their lace stockings peek out under them. It is shockingly politically incorrect to the uninitiated, and yet so routine, it quickly becomes mundane.

Downstairs, the dressing room is a teenage male's fantasy movie. Women lounge in various states of undress, talking, laughing and smoking the occasional cigarette. Except for the bare skin, there is a leisurely sense of sorority that's broken only when a dancer loses track of time and rushes into her costume, exclaiming, "Shit, I'm late."

The dancers at Visions are healthy, small-town girls. The stereotype of drug-addled, emotionally crippled women making money for their next fix doesn't apply here. There is "Amber," a girl-next-door blond who attends college in northern Wisconsin; "Monique," a stunning African-American who tells me she has a day job but works here on weekends to support her son; and "Sara," the redhead from onstage. No dancer gives me her real name; they don't even want me to use their stage names, but they are candid and likable. When Sara tells me she recently received her master's degree in art, I'm not surprised; she is smart, articulate and funny.

"Exploitative?" she repeats when I ask her how she describes stripping. "I always hear that, but what does that mean? I feel this is a million times less exploitative than, say, working at Starbucks, which I used to do. When I was working there, and someone was mean to me, there was nothing I could do. Here, I say one word, I can have them thrown out."

She has a point. Before dancing, but after I had received my B.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I worked for a couple months in a cafeteria of one of the state buildings downtown. Talk about demeaning: I had to wear a hair net, brew coffee and swallow the bilious attitudes of crabby state workers at the crack of dawn. When I would complain about my job, my friends and I used to joke that "Visions is always hiring."

It really wasn't that much of a leap for me. As an undergrad, I had worked as a nude model for figure-drawing classes, so the nudity didn't bother me. Finally, after flirting with the idea for several weeks, I found myself short on rent. A guy at Visions told me I could make more than $100 for one night's work. When faced with the specter of moving back home, I decided to try it.

The first time I walked onto the stage was frightening, but also exhilarating, and probably the first real thing to pierce my post-graduation depression. Far from feeling degraded, I found it exciting; it was fun. And for the first time in a long time, particularly after a vicious breakup with a boyfriend, I felt sexy. And then there was the money. For the first time in my lower-middle-class life, I had disposable income. I was able walk into a store, and if I liked something, I could buy it. But as anyone who has been poor will tell you, money is much more than clothes or toys; it is health care, cars with air bags, child-care and the freedom to stop -- from time to time -- worrying about money.

I felt tremendous pride over the fact that I was taking care of myself, able to pay my rent and buy a car. It was a lesson in self-reliance far more satisfying than any I'd learned at the university. I felt strong and resourceful.

But, as with most "easy money," there were consequences. Occasionally, perhaps illogically, I feared repercussions. Although I never took chances -- bouncers walked me to my car each night, I never drank while at work or met with any customers afterwards -- I kept half-expecting to end up like some foolish victim in a made-for-TV movie. If I ended up dead or raped somewhere, wouldn't I have been asking for it? I could imagine my life summed up in a few paragraphs in the paper: Stripper disappears, stripper's body found. It was as though by entering that world, I had consented to any abuse I might get. Although I understood intellectually it was wrong, I couldn't shake the sense that somehow, by entering this world, I was asking for it.

I was lucky. I was able to stop dancing after a couple of years when I went to grad school; I know that most other women I worked with did not have that luxury. But I disagree with those who say I did something wrong, that I degraded myself and other women by stripping. In many ways, taking that step provided me with lessons about the world, about class and sexuality and body image I would never have learned. Stripping isn't the feminist utopia some claim it to be, but it isn't the road to degradation either.

People have asked me, If I had a daughter, would I want her to do this? as if that's the ultimate test. I have to be honest. I've had a lot of different jobs I wouldn't want my daughter to have to do, but stripping wasn't the worst of them.

By Nicole Grasse

Nicole Grasse is a writer living in Chicago.

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