I feel compelled to address an issue of appropriation that I am seeing and I’m going to use an instance of my own poor behavior to talk about it.
Last September I was in a burlesque show at the Rendezvous and after my act, which was lots of floor fuckery–what pole dancers would call exotic, another performer approached me.
Her: Your act was really good, so exotic. I don’t know how to ask this without being rude but are you—
Me: A stripper? No, not yet, but I identify as one. I’m a nude model and a pole dancer and I want to strip. One day soon.
Friends, what I did there, my response, was wrong. If I could go back in time and gently place a manicured hand over my stripper-curious mouth, I would. And here’s why:
If I’m being generous, getting any form of naked on stage is at best 5% of what I do as a stripper. Stage work is such a small part of the job. It’s important, but it’s almost like considering a window display to be the entirety of a large store. It ain’t.
Add to that the difference in performance environment between the burlesque or pole cabaret stage and the club stage and you will quickly realize that while certain elements of performance are similar, there are some huge differences that make comparison irresponsible. If I went into all of the ways in which performing in a burlesque /pole show and performing at the club are different, I would be writing you a fucking dissertation. I don’t have the space to do that here, so I’ll only talk about two key components. The main two differences are these: proximity and expectation.
As a cabaret performer you have the ability to set and maintain your proximity to your audience. Usually, unless you are specifically choosing to cross the prescenium and engage directly with your audience members, you don’t have to. And even then, you’ve most likely had a host outline in clear terms what is acceptable interactive behavior between audience members and performers. Neither of these circumstances are luxuries that are afforded at the club. You want stage tips? You gotta interact and assume that someone will try to cop a feel or do something disrespectful and stupid while placing a dollar in your thong. Yes, there are wonderful people who throw bills for pole tricks, but most dudes want you to come chat with them and place that dollar. The fourth wall doesn’t fucking exist in the club. At all. And we also don’t have someone politely announcing rules ahead of time. Strippers are the first line of defense for our own boundaries.
Audience expectation plays an even bigger part in the difference between club and cabaret performance. The audience at a cabaret does not typically assume that they might have the chance to sleep with one of the performers (unless your sweetie’s coming to your show tonight OR you have a really creepy groupie in your community, which is awful, I’m not saying it isn’t). The audience at a club assumes that they will be receiving some sort of sexual performance at close proximity with a dancer and they will try to get more. They expect that tonight might be the night they get lucky. Strippers spend a lot of time and energy maintaining this expectation without actually fulfilling it completely. Riddle me that dramatic tension.
These are fundamentally different performance and labor conditions that use similar ingredients and stage language. And as I said before, stage work is maybe 5% of what strippers do.
If you haven’t listened to a hundred–maybe a thousand–men talk about their divorces, if you haven’t provided deep emotional labor,
If you haven’t thought to yourself, it’s okay, just one and a half minutes left in this song, how can I modify to keep myself safe? During a lap dance with a grabby customer,
If you haven’t walked towards VIP thinking, how am I gonna entertain this guy for an hour?!?!,
If you haven’t spent the energy keeping yourself positive after two hours straight of rejection and no money,
If you haven’t felt the success of actually helping a customer out and making his world a little brighter (and therefore the potential for a positive impact on other women he interacts with after you),
If you aren’t teaching someone about consent while you are literally dry humping them,
If you aren’t supporting yourself or your family and putting food on your table with this money,
If you haven’t worked nine hours just to be back-rented and go home with $50 only to come back to work the next day with a smile on your face and a good attitude,
I say to you with all the kindness and love in my heart, you are not a stripper. You are a burlesque performer, a pole dancer, both of which are wonderful and sexy and valid in their own right.
As someone who has been there and made that mistake, I understand that it comes from a place of admiration, but what appropriating our job title truly does is fetishize us and diminish our work to a small, small piece of what we actually do. You wouldn’t call yourself a brain surgeon if you only knew how to provide proper first aid for someone with a concussion. Please, don’t co-opt our job for the sake of sounding super risqué and edgy.
And if you are stripper-curious, go try it. See if you like it. The only thing that could have made my inappropriate comments worse is if I claimed the title of stripper and then couldn’t actually do the job. How embarrassing would that be?
I am a member of all of these communities and it sucks to have people who say they care about strippers appropriate our livelihoods in this way. As someone who’s learned and who now knows better, please, only call yourself a stripper if you’ve earned those stripes.
All my love,
Note 6.5.18: After further conversation with folks about this letter, I have a clarification and an addition.
I absolutely recognize that stripping and burlesque have an enmeshed history and would never advocate that those things be denied. I do however think there is a way to recognized shared history without co-opting labor that one isn’t doing. Essentially, the answer to “Are you a stripper?” Might not be a yes or no answer. Since the history and the current relationship is complex, the answer to that question should reflect the complexity of the topic. Perhaps it’s a good opportunity for education and allyship as opposed to simple yes’s or no’s.
Also, I didn’t include this as a reason for writing this letter, because I thought it might be apparent and didn’t need saying, but the whole point of this ask is that saying you represent a group of people that you don’t actually belong to can cause a lot of harm. The potential for the spread of misinformation and misrepresentation, intended or unintended, is high. That’s why I make this ask. If I marketed myself as a member of a group that I am not actually part of and know almost nothing about from a practical, daily livelihood standpoint, that would be awful and dangerous. I am simply asking that others consider doing the same.