By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
Dance, like all art, has the power to create alternate realities, to transport audiences to a world conceived at the intersection of the performer’s intentions and the viewer’s desires. This power is not dependent on the amount of skin shown, the allure of the movements, or the sophistication of the venue.
In Portland, there is no shortage of ways to use that power to create sexy fantasies on stage — from stripping and pole dancing to burlesque and modern dance. But despite the similarities among these styles, each type of performance is colored by a distinct public perception, power dynamic, and politics. Add queer identity to the mix and these types of body (if not sex) work take on additional layers of complexity.
To explore the diverse experiences of queer dancers and strippers, PQ Monthly talked to a few performers from different backgrounds: a stripper, a go-go dancer, and a performance artist who isn’t afraid to get naked.
Stevie (not her real name), 36, is a femme lesbian who has worked as a stripper on and off for the past 15 years, primarily at mainstream strip clubs that cater to straight men.
“I first worked as a cocktail waitress at Flashdancers, a NYC strip club, when I was 15. I was fired when they found out I was underage. I didn’t start dancing naked until about age 20 or 21, in Chicago. There, I worked at a peep show because the idea of being behind glass made me less nervous,” Stevie says.
These days, she works at a woman-owned establishment where the crowd includes straight women and queer and trans folks. Still, she’s selective about who she discloses her own identity to; careful not to disrupt the hetero male fantasy that ultimately pays the bills.
“[T]he main part of my job isn’t dancing, it’s providing a momentary fantasy — and that involves appearing ‘available.’ Guys are always fishing to see if I have a ‘boyfriend’ or whatever, because part of the fantasy is that I’m their girlfriend for that night, or that five-minute lap dance,” Stevie says. “I wouldn’t talk about my relationship the same way I wouldn’t talk about politics, or depression, or something that would just totally kill the vibe. It’s all about keeping it light and sexy and fun. And then, leaving it behind.”
She maintains a pretty strict division between the two worlds in which she works. Despite Portland’s sex-positive reputation, stripping still carries a stigma that has both social and economic consequences.
“I’m out to friends and family but not at my day job or school. I am very picky about who I talk to about stripping, because I’ve found from experience that you never know who has hangups about it, and those hangups will be taken out on you in unfortunate ways, like getting fired from another job,” Stevie says.
Though she enjoys aspects of the work — the camaraderie with other strippers, the constant flattery, a built-in way to stay fit — she says the biggest perk is being able to make a lot of money in a short amount of time, which allows her to spend most of her time on things she cares about.
“Sometimes it’s like having a trust fund,” Stevie says. “I like getting out of my head, too. I’m an introvert and a nerd and I spend a lot of time alone, reading and writing. I need this job because it gets me moving around and socializing. Stripping has taught me to come out of my shell, how to get the party started, how to be diplomatic and friendly and easygoing with anyone. How to charm a difficult person. Handy tools.”
Leila Hofstein, 28, is a queer (“disco butch”) go-go dancer who frequently performs at Blow Pony and other queer dance nights.
“I feel really strongly about only dancing in queer spaces,” Hofstein says. “I feel celebrated rather than fetishized by the people I’m dancing for. It’s more like being a cheerleader for the whole crowd rather than just a sexual object.”
While she may not be building the same fantasy of sexual availability that Stevie is, Hofstein is likewise using her body to create an ambiance and an experience for the crowd.
“What I enjoy most about dancing is the opportunity to connect with my community and facilitate fun,” Hofstein says. “I try to find the most miserable person in the room and make them smile by being a complete ass. Queer dance parties for me aren’t about who you’re with or what you’re wearing. It’s about having a safe space to be a fool, be a little raunchy without fear of violence, shedding the chains of the double-life a lot of second class citizens are forced to live and just fucking be yourself.”
That commitment to authenticity extends to her openness about her dancing gigs. Hofstein fights the stigma against sexual performance art by standing proud behind what she does, insisting that there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“I’m very out about go-go dancing and I’m very out about being out when I dance,” she says. “My 14-year-old sister and both of my parents are on Facebook and have access to all of my photos. Transparency is really important to me because of our culture of shame and oppression around sex and sexuality. Just because I express myself dancing scantily clad does not mean I’m constantly wasted, irresponsible, or an otherwise unsavory human being.”
Hofstein, who has taught children’s art and enrichment activities for the last decade and works as a tattoo artist by day, hopes to normalize sexuality so that younger generations “can have an easier time being all facets of themselves without fear.”
But dancing is even more personal than that for Hofstein. It represents a triumph over pain and physical limitations. After two years of unmedicated diabetes brought her close to death, Hofstein spent months on bed rest and more than a year with a cane. Despite persistent nerve pain in her legs, Hofstein returned to dancing to regain her sanity.
“I’m in constant pain and likely will be for the rest of my life, but if I didn’t dance; the rest of my life wouldn’t be worth it to me,” she says. “It’s what saved me and kept me from giving up when it felt like I’d never get ahold of my disease or have normalcy again.”
Kaj-anne Pepper, 28, is a dancer, choreographer, and performance artist whose creative work often involves varying degrees of undress.
“I’ve done sexy dancing as a go-go dancer at Blow Pony and I’ve danced there often in drag. Those shows were particularly fun, nasty, and frivolous,” Pepper says. “[Queer strip night] Hedonistic Decadence [was] technically my first ‘stripping’ job. But, in my work as a dancer and choreographer I’m often stripping my clothes off and rolling around.”
The illusions he creates in his work are not always easy to understand or digest, his nudity not necessarily intended to arouse. So the reactions he gets are varied and dependent on the makeup of the crowd.
“My style of drag isn’t necessarily always going to be ‘pretty’ or ‘passing’ and I have found drunk straight guys to be very threatening when they are attracted to the queens, the clowns, and the freaks and not knowing how to deal with that except with anger or unwelcome advances,” Pepper says. That said, “If Mary’s Club wants to hire a drag queen stripper and can provide security, LET’S GO!”
Sometimes, presenting people with a fantasy they didn’t know they had can be powerful.
“I also think performing ‘queer’ to a group of heterosexual folks can be really transgressive and empowering too,” Pepper says. “But it’s a fine line between being the star versus being the sideshow attraction.”
Being a main stage attraction, however, is another matter. Especially when the audience brings their manners — and their tip dollars.
“PDX is sometimes too cool and too broke to wanna tip their queens and dancing ladies,” he says. Still, he would gladly give another performance at the next queer strip night. “If given the chance, at the next Hedonistic Decadence I’m getting filthy.”