Jacob Albert explores what pole, lap, and exotic dances can say about modern life, sex and death.
The neighborhood surrounding Catwalk is not the most welcoming place. In December of this year, the block the famed New Haven strip club calls home saw three car crashes, two guns waved, a few attacks among neighbors (involving glass bottles), an escaped felon, two reports of sexual harassment, and three wallet thefts. At night, the absence of streetlamps means it’s hard to see people from more than five feet away, and approaching passersby assume the shrouded shapes of muggers or worse.
Catwalk lies adjacent to a big brick warehouse called Bender Showrooms, which showcases the finest in up-to-date plumbing, draining, heating, and faucet fixtures, for those who enjoy the bold look of Kohler products as much as the bold look of undulating nipples.
Catwalk’s doors are thick and heavy polished wood, like the doors of a cathedral. The bouncer who lets in your correspondent and his colleagues is a stoned giant with dreadlocks. The myth, although unconfirmed, is that he had never set foot inside a strip club before applying for his current position. He spends all night telling jokes with a lady at the bar. We hear only one:
Q: How did Burger King get his girl pregnant?
A: He forgot to wrap his whopper.
When we walk into the dance room, a man with a puffy face is leaning into a stripper’s butt. He sits back after a while to sip his Coca-Cola. His face is slack with serenity, his mouth ajar with the limp weight of peace. He watches the dancer as she moves to the opposite end of the stage to entertain another patron, pushing the young man’s head into her cleavage (which, mind you, is bona fide cleavage in spite of the absence of a bra) and looks into her swirling buttocks, glassy eyes twinkling. He sighs. His name is Herbert, and he licks his parched lips.
Herbert steals the show as far as patrons go. Most of the men and women sitting around the stage only stay for a dance or two and then retreat to the little couches near the walls, enjoying others enjoying the stripping. Too much of a good thing turns it sour. But Herbert takes it slow. He never leaves the stage, whereas one couple of 30-somethings comes in, sits for a dance, buys a lap dance, and promptly leaves.
The favorite move at Catwalk is the thigh jiggle. The dancers call it the renvois. The dancer lies on her back and sticks her legs in the air, jiggling voraciously. It is not a serious thing to do—this violent trembling of the thighs. But it’s successful: The challenge for patrons is to somehow slip a dollar bill into the dancer’s G-string, or between her legs, or in some obscure crack of flesh, while trying not to touch the rapidly slapping thighs because it would be impolite.
The DJ sounds like Donald Duck and patters like an auctioneer. A stripper named Starr tells me that the girls select their own music, and that the DJ is free to add to it or remix it as he pleases. So the DJ takes many liberties. He adds gunshot samples to most of the songs. The girls’ choices are sometimes esoteric. Katana enjoys Mary J. Blige. Starr likes the soundtrack from Hustle and Flow.
Despite its seediness, poor repute, and shady settings, Catwalk is a welcoming place. The welcome oozes from the ceiling. For starters, Catwalk doesn’t serve alcohol but welcomes your own: Patrons love to BYOB and bring coolers filled with beer.
A contingent of metal-heads streams in with two coolers. They know the strippers and the manager, a woman in bulging suit pants with her hair pulled back tightly in a bun, and they chat up the club. A fair few of the metal-heads have come with girlfriends and sit amorously on loveseats around the stage, watching the dancers go.
The spirit of the place is indulgence. The dancers are indulgent with each other, indulgent with their bodies, indulgent with the clientele. A single rococo chandelier hangs over the bottom of the stairs, a token symbol of lavishness not materially present (not in the VIP room, closed off by a picket fence; not in the broken chairs; not in the smell of bactericide clinging to the walls; not in the DJ booth; not in peeling wallpaper) but pervading the place in spirit nonetheless.
The strippers provide a public service. In that respect, they are like doctors, community organizers or human rights activists: They give a part of themselves for a social good that binds many together and reduces the bad of the world. Waiting their turn to take over the stage, the strippers lounge at the bar or in armchairs, BBMing or eating candy or very buttery popcorn. A few sing along to the featured music. They know the heavy weight of their responsibilities, but they bear it lightly and with mirth.
Love is the word, the shape of the night. I must rethink my preconceived notions, my unfounded biases. I am in a strip club for the first time, and it is a welcome place. A fine and private place.
Onstage, a young dancer named Katana, naked except for her white vinyl boots, slides all over the dance pole. Her hands slide all over herself, her legs slide through the air, her limbs stretch out above patrons’ heads. Patrons are happy, and Katana is happy. The violent thrusting and techno throbbing of the ecstatic end-of-world orgy in Matrix Revolutions is absent here.
Everything is slow. Katana is slow and generous. She moves slowly—partly because she is so close to Herbert that with a single brusque movement she would risk punching him in the face with her vagina but also because the dance is slow, because her pleasure is slow, because there is no rush.
The dancers watch each other, giggling and emulating, like kids at a birthday party teaching each other the swings. One girl offstage strokes her breasts a certain way as she bends over, showing the dancer how to do it. The trick is to pinch the nipples with the index and thumb, after most of the hand has passed over.
For the sake of this article, your correspondent sits close to the stage for 10 minutes. Misty, wearing argyle socks, immediately approaches me. Herbert doesn’t mind. Extended eye contact becomes very difficult because the instant Misty starts stroking her nipples, I can only think of the ice cubes in my Coca-Cola. I look at Misty’s nipples. Down at my ice cubes. Misty’s ice cubes. Down at my nipples. My Coca-Cola spills onto my pants, by way of Misty’s toes (which she uses to stroke my shirt). Misty smiles and flutters her eyelids. They are turquoise. She leans in and asks me if I want a lap dance. I tell her maybe later.
For three or four dollars, Misty will generously show you what every part of her body looks like. Misty has two tattoos, one above her buttocks and the other above her crotch, a scar on her abdomen, and some very nice argyle socks.
After Misty is done with Her dance, Katana takes the stage again and I retreat to the corner of the room, to exchange notes with my colleagues. A row of buddies—Katana’s regulars—quickly take a seat in front of her. Herbert in his red windbreaker watches from the back of the room. Katana flexes and releases her buttocks rapidly for her boys. It looks like balls dancing down a stairwell, like waves approaching a wispy shore.
Katana is the only stripper who really knows how to use the pole. The pole is an extension of herself. On the pole, Katana is a more agile version of herself. She hangs upside down, jiggling her thighs frantically. At one point, she holds onto the pole by the sheer force of her crotch.
Pole dancing is an art all to itself that is left, for the most part, unexplored at Catwalk. On campus, pole dancing is a whole other affair.
Becky Poplawski, TD ’13, began studying the art of pole dancing one year ago in her hometown of St. Louis at Michelle Mynx’s Academy of Pole. She loves pole dancing so much that she had her pole shipped to New Haven, where she set it up in her common room. On the wall, in between a poster of an Escher drawing and a picture of the French countryside, there’s a poster of Mynx, head upside down, gripping a pole with fishnet-clad thighs.
Becky approached pole dancing as a fun way to exercise, not as a lurid form of sexual entertainment. Becky has big, wholesome plans for pole dancing. She’s gotten her suitemates involved and gives them lessons several times a week, and she hopes to start a pole dancing club at Yale.
Becky loves the acrobatic aspect of pole dancing.
“It’s so hard,” Becky said. “It’s so intense.” And it is. Try swirling the entirety of your body weight around a pole while holding yourself up with one hand, à la Mary Poppins. “I don’t think strippers are destroying the art because it is a fun side of it, but it makes it hard for people to take pole dancing seriously.”
Although part of the fun, of course, is the performance aspect of it, Becky loves pole dancing because it’s good exercise. Becky has always worked out a lot, done a lot of running, thrown diskettes in high school and the like, and she likes pole dancing because she likes being fit. But then again, “It’s not just a sport,” she said. The same way stripping is not just being naked but about the beauty of the dance, about the vitality and energy of the body. When she’s on the pole, Becky likes to listen to Snow Patrol.
Pole dancing is really for everyone. A lot of women in Becky’s pole-dancing class back home in St. Louis wear big housewife-y dresses that come off easily once they’re on the pole. Some wear nipple tassels. Some members of the class are soccer moms trying to get fit.
Your correspondent had been atTRACTED TO the idea of visiting Catwalk partly out of love for the idea of pole dancing but also from hearing an anecdote of mythic proportions concerning a stripper known for pouring the contents of an eight-ounce water bottle into her privates and then squirting it back out at the patrons from atop the stage. The squirter was absent, but your correspondent got to see some fine pole dancing.
Starr has been dancing at Catwalk for four months. A former bartender in Hartford, Conn., she likes dancing because it gives her a way to party every night. She likes watching the other girls dance, and she likes stripping for girls, because “they’re more fun.” She loves using the pole, although she said it’s really hard. “The pole gives girls a way to seem like more than just regular girls. There’s something really special about the pole. It gives us power.”
In the mid-1880S there transpired a small academic feud. It did not cause huge ripples in the fields of science or history but it is interesting nevertheless in light of your correspondent’s recent visit to Catwalk. At the heart of the debate is the concept of Deathfuck: the morbid nature of sex, and the sexual nature of death. The debate, between the esteemed evolutionary biologist August Weismann and his lesser-known zoologist colleague, Alexander Goette, was over the role sexual reproduction played in natural death.
Weismann divided living matter into mortal and immortal parts. The soma—the body—was destined to natural death by senescence. The germ cells, however—or sex cells—were considered by Weismann to be immortal, because they developed into a new individual ad infinitum,until the very end of the survival of the species.
Goette, on the other hand, held that “natural death” applied to multi-cellular soma as well as to germ cells. There is reproduction, but directly because of it, there is also death. In other words, a biological organism that does not sexually reproduce would also live forever. And Goette’s theory—that sex causes death—is not completely cracked.
Take the Lomatia tasmanica, a shrub with very small pink flowers. All of the Lomatia plants today are genetically identical. Because it has three sets of chromosomes and is therefore sterile, reproduction occurs only vegetatively, without seeds or fruit involved: When a branch falls to the ground, it sits in the soil, and as the branch begins to grow new roots it establishes a new plant that is genetically identical to the parent. Each plant’s life span is approximately 300 years, and collectively the Lomatia has been cloning itself for 44,000 years: that is, since the appearance of the first man in Australia.
Weismann and Goette’s debate was over biological instincts, over those which lead living substance to death and those which perpetually attempt the renewal of life. The two are hard to separate.
If death, as Schopenhauer noted, “is the true result and to that extent the purpose of life,” yet by the same mouth, “sex is the embodiment of the will to live”—then does life consist of and stand for death, sex, both, or neither? The Catwalk experience is about life and giving, about generosity and kindness, but also about death and decay and flaccid, sagging flesh. The two are hard to separate, sex from death, death from giving, the pure artistry of the butt jiggle from the dirty dollar bills wedged into stripper’s posteriors.
Confusion and contradictions surrounding strip clubs are natural. The opinions run the gamut, from sadism to unabashed democratic love to anthropological interest:
“Usually if it’s convenient, I like to take strippers back to wherever the nearest locale is, whether that be an aerostream trailer, a port-a-potty, or my condominium and shave their nether regions—especially if they’re ginger, because that’s a pretty hard to find, and I like to see the rainbow colors of all their pubic hairs mingle in the pretzel jar,” says Johnny*, a Yale junior who wishes to remain anonymous.
As a female Yalie and Catwalk regular put it, “I come to Catwalk to see enacted the subjective and shifting perceptions of sexual degradation. What motivates these women to subject themselves to what others might consider to be degrading and filthy behavior, while these girls take stripping lightly, with great zest, sometimes even with empowered enthusiasm?”
Frankly, I don’t know yet what to think of Catwalk, or pole dancing, other than to embrace both in their contradictory multitudes. I will be back, no doubt, at least until I can confirm as true the myth of the great super-soaker dancer.
Cover design by Jinjin Sun.