The first time I ever walked into the dimly lit trappings of a strip club, I was promoting Tommy Lee’s solo career. What better place to advertise than with a band who made ‘The Seventh Veil’ a regular L.A. destination place? I will admit that I typically thought of strippers with the ‘80s hair metal-mold in mind: big hair, little clothing, and the ability to gyrate just enough to crack a man’s wallet. I never imagined the kind of strength and gymnastic ability that many of the women I came to work with would possess. Nor could this former Olympic athlete envision the workout afforded to me through eight-hour days in 6” heels would mold my body into the best shape of my life.
Exotic dancing is often the polite term for what most people think of as a profession that consists purely of taking off one’s clothes. Truth be told, in all the clubs I’ve worked at over the years, a dancing background is not the foremost qualification to being an exotic dancer. Yet, as stripping becomes more mainstream, with thriving pole dancing studios like The S-Factor, more and more people are realizing the core conditioning and mind-body connection of this type of dance.
My job brought me from New York to San Francisco approximately two years ago, and at the time, I continued to dance in clubs to supplement my income. Prior to working at The Lusty Lady, I had been dancing for about three years and was developing long, lean muscles to show for it. My core strength developed from the slow, sustained moves I’d been perfecting. Yet, it was once I began working at The Lusty Lady when the dancing aspect of the job became much more apparent.
Located in North Beach, San Francisco, The Lusty Lady is quietly nestled in with the other adult entertainment establishments. All the neon-lit gentlemen’s clubs that line the intersection of Broadway and Columbus are owned by the parent company, Déjà vu; The Lusty Lady is the only one on the block that’s not—the only one in the city that’s not.
The original club started in Seattle by two partners who then brought their business to the Bay Area in 1976. Originally, The Lusty Lady was no more than a peep show featuring 16mm film, however in 1983 the owners decided to add a live show to the mix. After almost fifteen years under strict management, the dancers united and in 1997, the San Francisco Lusty Lady unionized. Shortly after that, in 2003 the women bought out the management and went co-op.
The world’s only unionized, co-op peep show was always the place I’d wanted to work; its politics spoke to my punk-rock ethos. The Lusty Lady isn’t a strip club—it’s a peep show—and the dancing is different thusly. Instead of an individual set for 15 minutes, eight times a night (de rigueur in most clubs), women at The Lusty Lady dance for 50 minutes on and have a ten-minute break each hour. With four-hour shifts for each dancer, this means one’s body is in continual movement for over three hours.
The second most striking aspect of the peep show is its in-the-round layout of mirrors. The design’s function affords customers in every booth a full-view of the stage. What it serves for the women is a chance to watch their bodies as they move. For so long I had always danced to the beat of the music that played, but once I could see my body’s movement in the mirrors and the sensuality exuded from this, I started actively trying to dance to the wave of the music. This intentional, slower dancing is what good strippers consider the tease, yet from a purely athletic point of view, it also means that for every kick, turn or exaggerated arch, one’s muscles actively engage for a longer period of time.
The Lusty Lady is known for its diversity of women, body shapes and sizes. However, each of the ladies working gains the kind of self-confidence that stripping affords. So often associated with patriarchy, sexual abuse, or substance issues, no one really evaluates the identity and awareness of exotic dancing. I found that at The Lusty Lady I was afforded the ability to define character, and then within my movement on stage (as costumes are not typically part of the show), I learned how my character could speak through dance.
Dancing within a ten-foot space, women must also learn to dance with each other. Instead of having the stage and all eyes on me, I had to learn how to play off the strengths and differences of the other women I was with. Being naked with women of wildly different backgrounds without the individual competition of fighting over lapdances and dollars, suddenly one realizes the power of the unspoken language of exotic dancing. If anyone’s presence takes up too much space (physically or theoretically), the heightened sexuality is lost. However, when all three women are in sync, the magnetic energy is palatable through even the thickest booth window.
As my exotic dancing career comes to a close, I actually have found a wonderful transition working for Jill McIntosh, owner of The Dailey Method, a unique workout combining ballet barre work, core conditioning and orthopedic exercises. Her technique is derived from famed former dancer Lotte Berk. Even though the women who teach at The Dailey Method have much more traditional dancing backgrounds, it is a testament to Jill’s vision that she could understand that this type of exercise encompasses all dancing. Slowly, there seems to be a breaking down of the negative stereotypes associated with exotic dancing. And, hey, maybe one day I’ll even get the Lululemon-clad ladies in the Marina to come get a show at The Lusty Lady.