At long last, dear readers, here is the second part of The Big Dance. If you haven’t yet read The Big Dance Part One I urge you to do so. Unless you want to read 2 first then ‘Tarantino’ back to part 1, it would certainly be in keeping with the post’s 90’s vibe. Don’t be confused when I switch back and forth between the word ‘stripper’ and ‘dancer’, they both mean the same thing. I didn’t all of a sudden join the Joffrey. Again, this one is a long read so bring water and a sweater. Maybe a flashlight just in case.
Probably the most frequent question I’m asked about stripping was if I ever got ‘turned on’ when I was dancing. My answer is always to find out what that person does for a living and inquire if they get turned on behind their desk asking customers if they’re happy with their long distance carrier. Stripping for me was a job. Nothing sexy about it. But – and feminists (of which I consider myself one) might hate this – it certainly made me feel better about myself physically, and that body confidence made me feel sexier and more assured in my non-stripping life. For years I had been a scrawny, gawky kid and had endured teasing and just being every guy’s ‘friend’. That didn’t fuss me too much, but it certainly meant my looks had never been something I could count on. I had never had a confidence problem because I was clever and funny and surrounded by a supportive family, but being called beautiful was something new to me and it was intoxicating. I do believe now that women – and indeed everyone – should be valued for more than their looks, but at the time it was something that was important for me to experience if only to realize how unimportant it is. No one has a right to question a woman’s approach to her own sexuality, but even now in the second decade of the 21st century, saying that I found stripping empowering is a hard pill for many women to swallow.
My first shift at Fanny’s started with a meeting with my boss, Gilles, who sat me down and explained how the job works. I got paid a flat daily rate by the club but the real money was on the floor*. Table dances were ten dollars but champagne room dances were twenty. The champagne rooms were semi-private seating areas walled off by glass bricks. The largest had about eight seats and the smallest had four. The patron’s chairs were like sports-car driver’s seats, bucket-reclined and low to the ground. In front of each seat was an upholstered ottoman for the dancer to sit on (If you’ve ever been to a club and seen a dancer walking around with a scarf, it’s to put on the ottoman so they don’t get the waffle-fabric imprint on their ass). The best feature in the champagne room was the closed circuit camera recording everything. That camera was Big Brother in the most comforting sense of the term. No one could touch me without it being seen, recorded and acted upon. Between that and the burly doormen roaming strategically about the club, I knew I was safe.
As a dancer I was always treated with respect by the club and it’s patrons. Remember, this was before the mainstreaming of stripper culture (to understand what I mean, go out to a dance club on a Saturday night now to see young women dressed in public the way I was paid to dress in private in 1994) and before the ubiquity of cell phones. If a patron tried to take a dancer’s picture back then he would be thrown out, usually head first. I have no idea how they control that now. Back then there was zero contact allowed between the dancer and the patron. Even shaking hands was iffy and could be misconstrued as ‘contact’ if an undercover cop wanted to be a stickler. If a patron asked me for sex (very, very rarely) I had to politely decline and not say something sarcastic like, “If you want a hand job go down to Vanier”, because that could be construed as ‘trafficking’. Lap dances were illegal, but I’m sure they happened. It was none of my business what another dancer decided to do to make a living. I never did lap-dances, not just because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t have to. The prettiest girls just had to stand there and look good, which I could do for hours. For most guys, that was enough. Did this ever make me feel exploited? No. I was a consenting adult in a room full of other consenting adults doing something perfectly legal. The only objectification that I ever witnessed was the strippers viewing the men as dollar signs.
I found out pretty quickly that dancers don’t dance. They strut and prance and pose. New girls try to dance, and they look awkward and unsure and, well, try-too-hard-y. That’s why they make the most money. They still make eye contact with customers and smile for real and don’t yet know how to fake being interested because in the beginning everything is interesting. Patrons find that fleeting innocence unspeakably attractive. The longer you work as a stripper the more routine it is, so pretending to be interested in your patron’s story about his ongoing custody battle, or having to endure the same dancer doing the same routine to the same shitty song, or just being in a loud, windowless room every day can be irritating. When some guy is sitting at the stage chomping on his dollar hip of beef lunch special, Amber’s still gyrating without irony to Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Closer’ and you’re PMS-ing, it’s hard to pretend to be sexy and flirty. Adopting that aloof stripper attitude is a blessing and a curse and it was inevitable.
I don’t want to give the impression that stripping was all tediousness and boobies (first time those two words have been together in a sentence, I’m sure). The most important thing it gave me was a place to build friendships with other women. I was a popular stripper and made a lot of money mainly because of my ability to think like a guy, having pretty much been one for most of my young life. I’d say about half of my regular patrons saw me more for my hockey and movie knowledge than for a dance. My sense of humour was definitely a plus. Being funny had always made me popular. Being funny and hot made me rich. The last thing a guy expects is a beautiful woman that can accurately quote George Carlin or impersonate Axl Rose. I had always felt like an outsider looking in to the ‘girly-girl’ world and the strip club environment amplified that by a thousand. When I first came to Fanny’s I expected all the dancers to look like models and act like bitches but that wasn’t the case. There was a bit of an underlying competitive atmosphere, as there is in any female-centric work place, but there was a predominant ‘Ta-Ta Sisterhood’ vibe among the women that I was thrilled to finally be part of. On my first day at the club the girls dressed me, did my hair and make-up and after our shift took me across the river to the male strip club for drinks. That was my first time at a male strip club and the girls bought me a slow dance with a guy that looked like Michael Bolton in leather pants. I realized then the inherent sexual differences between men and women by how dissimilar their strip club experiences are.
Women act like maniacs at male strip clubs, screaming and grabbing and drooling at the beef-cake. If a man acted like that at Fanny’s, his face would be unceremoniously introduced to the sidewalk. But for female patrons it’s an opportunity to act outrageously instead of being the polite little girls they were taught to be by society. Men buy dances from strippers to see them naked. Women buy slow dances from male strippers to re-create the prom scenario they never had. It’s the narrative that female strip club patrons seek. Sure, a woman may be a plump soccer-mom now, but for the duration of ‘Every Rose Has It’s Thorn’, she’s dancing with Brad, the high-school quarterback she had a crush on and who in a few minutes will be on stage pretending to be a fireman. I never enjoyed going on stage. It was a chore. Not because of the clothes-taking-off part but because it was so false. There was no suspense. I don’t think anyone in the audience sat there with bated breath wondering, “will she or won’t she?’ Not a lot of things in life are a guarantee, but you’re pretty well assured that if you walk into a strip club you’re going to see some boobies, which is why strip clubs are so popular. It ain’t the dollar hip of beef lunch special. But it isn’t all about the nudity either.
At its essence, a strip club offers a place for a guy to go where he can watch sports on a big screen TV, have a beer, and talk to a pretty girl without consequence. The original ‘man-cave’ if you will. If his team loses or the beer is flat, there’s a pretty, naked girl to look at. In my experience the majority of patrons were there for those simple reasons. Those few other guys were there to get drunk to celebrate a birthday or a bachelor party or just because “hey it’s Saturday,” and were obnoxious and loud and arrogant. But that was at night, which is why I only worked days. If I man goes to a strip club during the day, he’s going to spend money, and that’s why I was there. It certainly wasn’t for the buffet. Not long after starting at Fanny’s I got hired as a bartender at the Bulldog (a crazy busy pick-up joint formerly on Elgin and Gladstone). I danced during the day and tended bar at night. I soon realized that bartending was really just stripping with my clothes on, but less subtle. I never had my ass grabbed at Fanny’s, but it happened several times at the Bulldog. Not once at the strip club did a guy open with ,”Hey, nice tits,” but behind the bar it was a standard conversation starter. I never felt safe walking home from work at the Bulldog, but I had no problem doing so after a shift at Fanny’s. There’s an ‘unspoken rule’ at strip clubs that if a guy gets even a bit out of line, he’s going to get his ass kicked. At a regular bar it’s a free-for-all. Funny how I never felt exploited at Fanny’s, where I was treated better naked than at the Bulldog where I was fully clothed.
I have five nieces. Would I ever want one of them to work as a stripper? Hell no! Not necessarily because I think it’s a bad job, but because I want better for them just like every aunt wants better for her nieces. If I were the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation I would want them to strive to be Prime Minister. It’s not about the job so much as it is about aiming higher. When I made my choice I was far more mature than I ever hope for them to be when they are 21. My maturity came from loss and sadness that I wish they never have to face at such a young age. If one of them did become a stripper I would support her as I had been supported, but I’d worry just as much if one of them got a job as a bartender. 1994 was a simpler time, when my generation of women were questioning and reinterpreting our gender roles and expectations. When I see those young women I mentioned before – out on a Saturday night dressed like extras in a Kanye West video – I don’t think it looks good, but I also don’t get to judge how they depict their sexuality. Women in the 50’s and 60’s asked the tough questions about equality so the women in the 70’s could challenge expected norms, and the women in the 80’s could break glass ceilings and my generation in the 90’s could redefine sexual and social boundaries. I don’t get to tell young women of today how they should characterize themselves or interpret feminism. The torch has been passed, and if they want to make out on the bar with each other by it’s flickering flame there’s not a damn thing I can say about it without branding myself a hypocrite.
Exactly two years to the day after my first shift at Fanny’s, I quit stripping to work as a bartender at another strip club Gilles had opened. He had never hired a dancer to work the bar and was a little apprehensive but his daughter Julie, the main bartender at Fanny’s, and his wife Bev assured him it would be a good decision. Julie and I had become friends at the strip club and she’d hung out at the Bulldog with me when I DJ’d there on Saturday nights. She was my ‘security’, turning away creepy guys and people who requested Coolio, often both. I have a feeling if Julie and I were in a Turkish prison we could find a way to make it fun. Julie and I worked for her dad for the next twelve or so years at various bars and restaurants that he ran in Ottawa. I was, and still am, treated like family. The last thing I ever expected when I first walked into Fanny’s was that some day I would consider it one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I only went to a male strip club one other time and that was for Julie’s bachelorette party. As her bridesmaid I made sure she got a slow-dance with Mr. Bolton and she giggled the whole time. The things Julie and I have been through in 18 years would be enough to fill a whole separate documentary. Sometimes she’ll look at me funny, like when I’ve just fallen up a flight of stairs, or I get offended by a sexist ad for floor wax and she’ll shake her head and say, “I can’t believe you used to be a stripper.” Because she’s never thought of me as a stripper, even when I was a stripper. And I guess I never did myself. Every now and then I’ll drop a casual remark like, “Oh, I used to strip to that song,” just to get a reaction out of people because I enjoy the shock value. I’ve always been a fecal agitator that way**. I’d love to be a contestant on Jeopardy if only to have the best introduction story ever. How awesome would it be for Alex to look down at his cards and blurt out, “Di, it says here that you used to be a stripper.” It would totally beat the returning champion’s thrilling story about coming in second at a pie-eating contest.
* Yes, I was one of the few strippers that paid my taxes, and one of the only strippers not to get audited.
** Shit disturber, for those of you that speak french.