“There’s this club with poles we can dance on,” Alex said. “You want to try it?”
I turn to Alex with lifted eyebrows and a smile. I love this woman, I think.
I didn’t know there was a such thing as a Bulgarian pole-dancing club but there’s a pretty live one in downtown Manhattan, right off of Ludlow St. I had on my super sparkly 4-inch open-toed pumps, so I was feeling spunky and up for the challenge. Considering that some men find feline-like belly dancers attractive, I figured I could make it work.
Despite my mom’s enthusiasm for the project she occasionally teases me. She suspects this whole venture is just an elaborate mask for a strange fantasy I have to work as an exotic dancer. I’m really doing the project because I want to see how strip club imagery relates to (black) women’s pleasure and hypersexualization. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious to see what it was like dancing up there! During an interview with a stripper named Rocky, she told me that despite the amount of slut-shaming she and her co-workers get for their work, they still ultimately hold the power in the club. She said strippers command viewers’ attention while establishing boundaries through verbal demands and models of their own conduct.
That point isn’t inserted here to glamorize strippers’ work. I’m sure there’s plenty of strippers that like their job, but there’s also plenty of strippers that dislike what they do but still do it because they don’t have other viable options. Even so, I think it’s worth exploring the agency strippers have in their work (despite how limited or menial it may seem) because I think it has commonalities to the ways heterosexual females experiment with power dynamics when vying for sexual attention from the opposite sex. Rocky’s point seemed credible to me. I was in the mood to test it out for myself.
The upper level of Mehanata was blasting Eastern European folk music with a crowded bar and strobe lighting. I opted for the basement where there was contemporary pop and plain dim lighting. It still wasn’t hip hop but at least I’d get the pole dancing experience for the project. To the left was “The Cage,” the giant icebox where patrons don authentic Soviet Union uniforms and down as many as six Vodka shots in two minutes. In the back were the shiny gold poles. The only problem—save for the bartender and the DJ, there was no one down there.
I look over to Alex. “If we dance, they will come.”
I was right. Alex and I made our way across the room and started gliding on the poles, goofing around and egging each other on as the DJ fumbled with his MacBook. After one straggler noticed us on his way to the bathroom he called more people downstairs. Within minutes the bar stools were filled and people were dispersed throughout the dance floor. I noticed a couple guys gazing at me from the bar but being a novice, I was too uncomfortable to look back.
The DJ started playing reggae remixes. Finally, something I can work with! I giggled and bounced, swiveled and whined in my platforms. I was impressed with how easily I could turn myself around the pole in my heels, despite the puddles of vodka someone had thoughtfully left behind on the floor. But I was disappointed at how sour my thighs were. Geesh I’m out of shape. Who knew pole dancing could be so strenuous?
Sweaty from the spotlights and the dancing, I walked to the bar for some napkins. The gentleman eyeing me from afar introduced himself and offered me a drink. His name was Adam*. After such a sexy performance (his words, not mine) we had a surprisingly geeky conversation. I talked about graduation, the project, the magazine I was starting. He talked about his job in marketing and sales for an online networking company based in Massachusetts. We spoke for over an hour.
Sitting there with Adam I didn’t feel like an object. I didn’t feel pressure to have sex. I didn’t even feel pressure have a second Corona. If I had met someone more aggressive that night I might not have felt as comfortable or as in control of the situation. But what resonated with me about my chat with Adam was how quickly I was able to switch roles. I was first in a position that many would see as being a sexualized object. Minutes later, even though I was still seen as a sexual being, I was still being pursued through an extensive and intelligent conversation. I had a high level of privilege in my experience because I never at any point had to (nor did I) take off my clothes in public, as I was in a fun, club setting where I was a patron, not a professional performer. Being a middle class, college-educated woman who lives at home with my good ole supportive Mommy, I don’t have to work as a stripper and I probably never will. But I still walked away from my experience feeling like it is possible for a woman to be sexualized but not necessarily feel muted, burdened or uncomfortable in her position.
I say this for myself but also potentially for others with highly sexualized professions like strippers and other entertainers. My favorite example, as always, is Nicki Minaj. A few years back I remember being blown away by Jasmine Mans’ poem entitled after Minaj. Mans spits that the rapper holds the weight of the world in her giant ass, suffocating on her microphone and possessing the “heartbeat of a suicide bomber.” Mans lines are still powerful but now I question how much her interpretation of Minaj’s pain and dilemmas as a commercial female rapper actually align with the real person, Oneka Maraj. I went pole dancing the night of my college graduation not because society has labeled me a black jezebel, but because I love dancing, I was restless and I hungered for the spotlight. Have we really thought about Oneka’s personality traits or personal motivations that attract her to hip hop’s roughness or explicit sexuality that the public isn’t aware of? Just because female artists like Nicki Minaj are pressured by corporate media to use their sexuality as a large part of their brand, should we really be so quick to label them as being oppressed?
This is what makes my job so much fun, because I can keep asking these questions and making guesses but until I sit down with Ms. Minaj herself, I’ll never really know.
Tired of dancing, Alex sat down at a stool next to me and signaled that she was ready to go.
“So when’s the next time you’ll be in New York?” I asked my new friend. I genuinely wanted to know—perhaps not for a date, but certainly to talk. His sense of humor was charming and he seemed to be aware of his own intellect, but wasn’t pretentious.
“When my wallet and liver are done recovering,” Adam quipped. I’ll let you know when so you can show me all the cool spots in town.” He smiled as he looked me in the eyes.
“Sounds like a plan,” I responded.
Alex and I stepped out of the club and onto the pavement. Alex looks to her phone and realizes it’s 2:00 in the morning. “You guys talked for a long time,” she said. Light from neon signs gleamed in her hair.
“Yeah, he was pretty cool.” I look over to another club on the next street. “Ever been to Fat Baby?”
“Nope,” says Alex. We exchange glances, shrug our shoulders and walk inside.
This is how my graduation night ended. Read about how it began here.