Burlesque’s Tragic Demise
In January of 1974, I left my college dorm for the last time and headed for the big city of Rochester, New York to begin my new career. All it took for me to toss my graduation cap into the air and don a sequined G-String was the opportunity to dance my heart out every night and get paid for it. After having danced on Broadway in my mind since I turned five, that was a dream come true.
Nineteen years old and gullible as can be, my new life immediately set me up for dangerous romantic liaisons and parasitic friendships. The strippers from the first club I worked at nicknamed me, ‘Tits and Teeth’. Apparently, I had a great smile and other attributes. At the other strip clubs, they just called me the ‘college girl’, even though I was no longer.
Bad relationships, rotten friendships, injuries, financial hardships, and alienation from my family didn’t matter to me, as long as I got the chance to step on a hardwood stage every night and soar. Dancing, to me, was like flying without wings. It was magical. I was no longer invisible; the shy girl in the orchestra whom no one noticed. I took the combination of all the dance moves and positions I’d learned from ballet, modern jazz, and yoga and turned them into my own style. Now there is an actual term for my brand of dance, which is called Combo. How about that? I was an innovator.
The early 1970s was a turning point for exotic dancing. Stripping had gone from the days of slapstick burlesque, followed by go-go girls to sophisticated strippers with big-hair wigs, false eyelashes, and glittery gowns. I was fortunate to have one such stripper mentor me in the beginning. Her lack of dancing skills never stopped her. She could hold an entire room of men mesmerized, while she slowly removed her long, silk gloves and showed them the top of her thigh through the slit in her elegant gown. Bobbie guided me through the first awkward months of stripping and taught me some basic self-preservation tenets.
She warned me that some clubs would ask for too much and that it was fine to turn them down, as there were hundreds of other places to work.
“If they ask you to degrade yourself, leave.
“If they ask you to prostitute yourself, leave.
“If they ask you to allow customers to touch you, leave.
“If the audience gets out of hand and dangerous, and they don’t step in to protect the strippers, leave.”
For the next thirteen years in the business, I would stick to those rules and often walk out of clubs even when it was a foolish move for me financially. I didn’t push phony drinks. I would not succumb to the ‘easy money’ of prostitution. I refused blatant, explicit exposure of my baby-making equipment, even if the club required nudity, my legs were staying together, thank you very much.
It probably seems like they were foolish gestures because I was almost naked anyway. But, to me, these rules helped me keep my self-respect and kept me from going off the rails when my life got difficult, which it generally did.
I’d been dancing in the Ohio stripper circuit for two weeks when I was booked into the Paris Theater in Columbus. It was a big, old golden era theater that had fallen on hard times in the 1930s and had never fully recovered. Home to a few decades of Burlesque, it finally succumbed to X-rated films in the 60s. When that no longer satisfied the audience the theater brought in live strippers, which, I supposed was preferable to dead strippers, who would probably smell bad and require a lot of paperwork.
The management was genial and accepted my modest nudity in exchange for my dancing and generally good entertaining abilities. For my second appearance of the evening, I brought out my blues show with the sexy stocking routine. The first time I tried that routine I had glammed up my stockings with rhinestones, forgetting the backings on the stones were made from little metal clasps. The show had barely begun before my legs got stuck together, from knees to ankles, and I had to do a quick chair routine to peel the darned stockings off my legs. Lesson learned. No more bedazzled stockings.
There was nothing like doing my silk-stocking act to the sultry notes of Black Coffee. I’d lean back on the chair, extend my legs in front of me, then slip a toe delicately into the top of the stocking of the other leg and slide it slowly off, dropping it onto the floor into a puff of smoky silk, then repeat it with the other leg.
The floor routine to At Last by Etta James was a perfect fit for my slow floor routine with splits and smooth acrobatics. I could do my entire floor routine facing my private areas away from the audience, and no one complained because they were always hoping for a glimpse right up until the end. That was what strip tease was all about. It wasn’t about vulgar exposure. It was about the tease- the wait- the tension in the air.
Unfortunately, as the 70s faded away, so also did the holdovers of true strip tease. I had been working in Canada for five or six years and came back to the States in 1980 to find that girls were dancing completely nude in the bigger cities and allowing the audience to touch them. Table dancing had become a ‘thing’ and the girls had no problem dancing directly in front of a man completely naked without the protection of the stage.
What a tragedy. Dancers in a club in Florida actually paid the management ten dollars a night for the privilege of table dancing in a strip club that I’d been booked into as a feature. That blew my mind. Dancers were paying the club? They were making a fortune by being up close and personal with the customers, so I guess it was a good trade. I was horrified seeing that. It was just sad.
Meanwhile, I was still doing my shows safely onstage. The other dancers thought I was crazy to give up all those tips. I thought the other dancers were crazy to let men touch them for cheap all night long. If they were going to let men touch them intimately, they might as well take the guys to a hotel and make a couple of hundred bucks for the night. It was like prostitution in a public library, for God’s sake.
The next town I worked in was Orlando, at a huge strip club with two stages. They had their own chorus girls who did a choreographed performance with their star house stripper on the side stage and when that stage emptied out, the chorus girls table danced during the time between the featured stripper shows.
The stage I had was amazing. It was twenty feet long by ten feet wide and covered with a smooth tile. It was a very good dancing surface. I remember that stage like it was yesterday. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning- but I remember every stage I ever danced on.
I pulled out my Russian show at the club in Orlando. The costume was a white satin gown with a beaded bodice and a breakaway zipper down one side. Over that, I wore a floor-length, five-yard red satin cape with a short white feather jacket and brought my seven-yard white chiffon twirling cape for after everything else came off.
The music for that show was tremendously popular with the audience. The show opened with Those Were the Days, by Mary Hopkins, which had a touch of Eastern European flare. Twirling about the stage in that red satin cape was breathtaking. I loved everything about that show.
The next song was Rasputin, by Boney M, which in later years became a flash mob favorite- who would have thought? Then, I split the Renaissance song, Mother Russia, between the white chiffon cape twirling dance and a floor routine. Doing the floor routine at the beginning and the end of the dramatic song and dancing with the white cape during the bridge in the center of the song. It was a tremendous success.
While I was working at that strip club in Orlando, we had a special visit from a local TV show. It was one of those PBS-type channels produced by a millionaire inventor from Ocala. This man was incredible. He had invented the modern video camera, replacing big, bulky cameras which recorded on ten-inch reels. He was also into exercise efficiency; his other invention that took off was his Nautilus exercise equipment.
I always wondered what happened to that footage of our shows that evening. Now that I'm seventy years old it would be nice to see myself dancing at twenty-five.
The millionaire invited a group of dancers, me included, to his studio for a live interview, which I preferred to the dead kind. He sent a limousine to pick us up later that week for the interview. We got a tour of his compound, where he kept exotic animals he’d collected during his many safaris, including a pit full of crocodiles.
We also met his young and jealous wife, who did not like me at all, making me wonder how many other women had been invited to the compound and ended up in the crocodile pit. She had been starring in his exercise videos teaching people how to use his equipment. When he mentioned my flexibility and acrobatic abilities, she looked like she would have very much liked to introduce me to her favorite crocs.
All during the tour and after the interview all of us dancers participated in, this fellow kept asking me if I wanted to try some of his equipment, asking me if I had a boyfriend and if I planned on being ‘just’ a stripper for the rest of my life or if I had other plans.
“Um. No thanks.” I’m afraid of crocodiles and your wife.
“No. I like dancing. But thank you” I don’t think your wife wants to share your equipment. Ew. Yeah. No.
I couldn’t wait to get out of that place. It would have creeped me out without the homicidal wife. The millionaire returned to the club several more times that week, and I avoided him by staying in the dressing room between my shows. Let me clear things up. I was not especially pretty or voluptuous. I was, however, very acrobatic and had a far different dance style than most of the strippers I worked with. He had probably envisioned me hanging upside down from one of his exercise contraptions doing a Chinese split while he filmed. Shades of Blue?
Having left that place without becoming croc chow, my next booking was in Tampa, where I ran into a fellow I had escaped from in Montreal a few months prior. I was a thousand or so miles away from Montreal, and Michel turned up at the strip club where I was working. He saw my stage name on the club’s marquee and thought that was a sign from God. No, my dear. God doesn’t print strip club signs. Nothing like a persistent stage door Johnny.
Well, that’s it. Great music, perfect stages, fun shows and costumes, lots of traveling, adventures, and totally horrendous relationships. That was the life of a stripper in the 70s and 80s. Toss in a few random scary times, injuries with no workers comp, no permanent address for years at a time, and you have my story as I witnessed the tragic demise of true Burlesque artistry.