Elevate the Exotic!

A call for reform in strip-club performance

Complain all you want that Tucson lacks many things that would make it culturally complete: a full-time professional ballet company, a black-light marionette troupe, a really first-rate traditional Chinese restaurant. Forget that. What we really need to boost our cultural quotient and spur economic development is to improve the quality of our exotic dancers.

They used to be called strippers, but very little stripping seems to be going on anymore. There's no tease. A scantily clad woman moves around on stage for the duration of a song spun by a DJ; just before her second song, the "reveal" starts; she whips off her top and moves around the stage for another three minutes.

You can't even call it "exotic dancing." Stroking yourself and thrusting your hips isn't exactly exotic, let alone particularly erotic anymore in our weird, oversexed Puritan society. And anyway, it's more like writhing than dancing.

Our nude artistes can do better than this.

Not that I am a connoisseur of this sort of activity; I am a critic, which gives me a license to be a know-it-all after exactly one experience in what used to be called a strip club.

Always interested in new aesthetic experiences, I enlisted my far-more-experienced friend William to be my Virgil during my descent into the outer circle of heck known as exotic dancing. Around Tucson, William assured me, we'd encounter no Dante-esque infernos; the clubs here tend to be clean, well-run and not at all seedy, aside from the spectacle of nearly-nekkid ladies grinding themselves against their patrons' laps.

My first inkling that these respectable establishments were nevertheless held in low regard came when I suggested that William, who toils for a tax-funded institution of learning, ditch the office early and drive to the club in a school car that he could park near the street. Inexplicably, William declined. We drove over together in my car after work.

The establishment we entered--the specifics don't matter, because William said it was typical of what you find in Tucson--seemed nicely appointed, well maintained and politely staffed. The waitress seemed a little miffed that we merely ordered two rounds of diet Coke, but she maintained a professional demeanor. At our late-afternoon hour, the patrons were well behaved, and whatever bouncers may have been present kept a low profile.

So the place had potential. Few of the dancers, though, seemed to realize their potential in Tucson's ongoing cultural development.

In their favor and the club's, it must first be said that they displayed a good variety of realistic body types, from lean to plush, and with only a couple of pairs of exceptions, they looked like fully natural human beings who happen to enjoy low body fat. Dorothy Parker once said that Katherine Hepburn ran the gamut of emotions from A to B. In a different respect, this club's dancers ran the gamut from A to DD.

Their range as artistes, however, was more limited.

"That's not quite Martha Graham technique," William sniffed as one performer wrapped her breasts around the brass fireman's pole that has been de rigeur in such establishments at least since the Flashdance era. Never mind Martha Graham; this wasn't even Dalcroze technique. At best, some of the floor work resembled the Lamaze method.

One performer after another did what amounted to warm-up stretches at the pole and slunk around the stage touching herself in ways her mother would have scolded her for 20 years ago. Most of them maintained pleasant expressions and tried to hold eye contact with the audience, but they didn't seem excited by their own work, and one act was mostly indistinguishable from the next. One dancer did specialize in rapid glute-flexing, a trademark move she transferred almost as successfully to her breasts, but for the most part, it was the same old simulated-sex thrusts with invisible partners.

One performer showed a bit more potential. She looked just enough like a young Natalie Wood that I conjured images of the nascent Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy. She's a pretty girl, mamma. And unlike her compatriots, who trotted around in the briefest of bikini bottoms, she kept her lower half swathed in tight, black leather pants. To the beat of Snoop Dogg, she shimmied up the pole with real energy, then slowly descended upside-down.

Imagine the possibility of an exchange with the members of OTO Dance. Our Gypsy could be trained in their aerial dance work and bring a whole new dimension to local exotic dance, while Anne Bunker's troupe could develop entirely new ways to appeal to the modern-dance audience.

This seems unlikely, though. Exotic dancing has settled into a dull routine. It started out decades ago as the fully respectable and quite difficult art of belly dancing, then split off into burlesque hoochie-coochie, settled for a long while into striptease of varying degrees of sophistication, and over the past 20 years descended to desultory bump-and-grind.

Part of the problem is the popularity since the 1980s of the more personalized practice of table dancing, which--where not prohibited by law--devolved to the 1-on-1 action of lap dancing, vigorous frottage with a seated patron who must keep his hands off the merchandise.

(Our Gypsy, by the way, looked to be a fairly sophisticated lap dancer, gracing the virtual rutting with moments of romance.)

So now the stage work serves merely to show off the general assets of each performer, who might as well be hauled out on a meat hook. Her real work then takes place with the individual patrons, who pay extra for lap dances. Aside from the problems of moving around gracefully in the skyscraper platform shoes all the dancers at this particular club are required to wear, it isn't in a performer's best interest to get too sweaty and tired on stage when her greater responsibilities await her on the floor. Thus, uninvolved stage shows.

As always, culture suffers under bourgeois commodification. Stripping used to be the work of bohemian professionals; true, it could get pretty raunchy, but when Lester Young's trombone theme started up, there was always the potential for artistry in feathers and pasties. Today, exotic dancing is something that single moms and college students do to help pay the rent, and they do it with no training and little regard for a higher calling.

Enough of these mechanical pelvic maneuvers to tired mass-market hits by AC/DC and Madonna! As my friend William pointed out, "These women are just doing things that soul singers like Bobby Brown and Usher have been doing on stage for years."

We need strippers for a new, more sophisticated era, performers who can establish a character and tell a story in three minutes, as did Mia Kirshner peeling off her Catholic schoolgirl outfit to the strains of Leonard Cohen in Atom Egoyan's cinematic masterpiece, Exotica. We need women who can wring Weltschmerz from a G-string, and create epics from nothing but skin and light. We need a new course of study at the UA dance division, the culmination of years of childhood after-school stripping programs.

Stripping must be legitimized and intellectualized for a new millennium.

Until then, when an exotic dancer at the club we visited bends over and holds a wad of dollar bills to her anus, we may imagine that she's making a bitter sociopolitical comment on the filth of capitalism or the reification of women and the commercialization of their bodies, but it's more likely she's just signaling that for the right price, she'll let you butt-fuck her in the parking lot.

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