As the music came up, smoke filled the stage, and the curtain parted. I took one last breath and realized this was it: Everyone is waiting for me -- well, "Sofie," the performance name I donned for my role.
I'm not a professional stripper; I just played one in a movie -- "The Days God Slept," a short film about a seedy strip club and the dynamics between the men and women who inhabit it. Back in college, the very idea of this probably would've sent me into a rant about the various ways stripping demeans women. Now I was dancing in a club. And yes, a pole was involved.
It was the end of a long day of shooting, and I'd been nervously anticipating my big scene, a solo dance in which "Sofie," totally blitzed, experiences a moment of existential crisis in front of her patrons. The stage itself, lit in blue neon piping, was long and narrow, flanked by revelers and go-go dancers. In this windowless studio, deep in industrial Brooklyn, the set designers had re-created a strip club with eerie likeness.
Just like in a real strip club: time was money on set. The grips and PA's went about the business of making a film, doing their assigned tasks and getting us out of the set on time. Just like a real club, ours was populated by a team of professionals to whom the stillettoed strut of a go-go girl, a lascivious lap dance or a bare breast didn't elicit a second glance.
Why did I have the urge to take on this role? It's true that having a minor part in a film was on my bucket list. It's also true that despite majoring in sociology at a woman's college, I harbored secret stripper fantasies. But I had reservations.
On one hand, I knew there must be other women out there like me--women who count Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, and Hillary Clinton among their heroines, who earn a living off their intellectual prowess, who refuse to let a man determine their happiness -- and simultaneously fantasize about stripping. I didn't feel that my fantasy was problematic when I thought about it in terms of the power that comes with being looked at and adored. True, such adoration is illusory, and no more permanent than the makeshift stage I'm dancing on, but thinking about it from that perspective made me feel okay about it.
What freaked me out was the possibility that the dancer does NOT feel power -- that instead, she feels belittled, monetized, dehumanized. And that there is something in that position that seriously turns me on.
My impulse at first was to censor that arousal, and I understand why. It felt wrong, counter to everything I stand for. But a fantasy is just that -- a fantasy. It's an escape from reality, from our so-called "normal" way of thinking. Rational people can distinguish between fantasy and reality, and that distinction was crucial to me playing this role. In an era of near equality, the idea of being subjugated and objectified is for many women totally hot -- as the popularity of "50 Shades of Grey" has amply demonstrated. If I hadn't acted out this fantasy when the opportunity arose, I think I would have felt like I was limiting my own sexual freedom.
My first move, following the obligatory pole spin -- which, P.S, is exhilarating but also really hard on the body -- was a slow stage crawl. The cast put dollars in the waist of my hot pants, and those playing regulars who develop a "certain rapport" with club dancers whispered sleazy things in my ear that I pretended not to hear. I have to add that another reason I was having so much fun is that I felt completely safe. The director, producer (a woman), and director of photography are friends of mine, and never once did I feel in physical or psychic danger. I'd bonded with my scene partners all day during the shoot. I was especially close to the other dancers and the actors playing the woman and two men I ended up stripping for. After each take, one of the guys, Lenny, politely passed parts of my costume back stage so I could re-dress for the next take.
The camera, guided by a dolly-riding director of photography, extended toward me. Lenny told me not to look directly at the camera, but rather to "look through it." As I continued the choreography of my dance, all eyes on me, I kept telling myself to look through everyone else. My body remembered the moves of my number for me, and all I was thinking about was the gaze of others -- and the incredible, safely dangerous-feeling exuberance I felt from being gawked at.
Before my turn as "Sofie," I felt that being ogled would be demeaning. That's what I was always told. Yet as I lost more and more of my clothing to the cheers and leers of the crowd, I began to soak in an immense feeling of power. Granted, as a post-modern gal, my understanding of power is to see it not so much as a thing, but as a relation, one that is always in flux. But as I was dancing, scantily clad on a dimly lit stage, I doubted anyone was interested in how well I know my Foucault. The best thing about my stage experience was that there just wasn't time to think about how I should've done a couple extra Tracy Anderson workouts before the shoot, or if people watching would know that I have a fellowship at an Ivy League university. It was all about the moment. And in that moment, I experienced a freedom that in my daily life usually evades me.
The thing is, even though we all know strippers are just like the rest of us when not on stage, and that they spend half their earnings keeping up the hair, nails, spray tan, and waxing necessary to look they way they do, men still fall for their seductive smiles, smoky eyes, and glitter dusted bodies. I think there must be a part of us that wants to simply let that turn us on.
My experience stripping in a film reminded me that whatever you do sexually, you have to own it. Ultimately, you're the only one who has to live in your skin. We don't all have to strip to find those moments of freedom from ourselves like I did when I was on stage, but I recommend finding some way to bring your fantasy to life. After two days of shooting, I became a retired dancer, but "Sofie" is an experience I'll always have. And who knows, there may be an occasion -- or encounter -- when I feel like bringing her out again.
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