Updated: Nov 22, 2019
"Next up, Erika and Kenzie!" On cue, Erika and I brush past the curtain and walk nervously across the stage to our places. I try to take up as little space as possible, gluing my eyes to the karaoke screen and willing the opening lyrics to appear already. I attempt to disappear behind Erika, but at the same time I'm smiling confidently and standing straighter in spite of myself, since we're in front of an audience. The crowd is full of couples, friend groups and club regulars, laughing and cajoling each other. I grip my microphone tighter than strictly necessary, anchoring myself to the familiar feel of an SM-58 in my palm. "See how they did it folks, enter through the curtain when your name is called and not before!" The emcee announces. He's been repeating the same refrain every few songs, every Sunday night, since whenever this now hugely popular event started, years ago. "Get those dollars to the stage, if you're at the rack you should be tipping after every song, because the ladies are working for tips alone! And remember, do not touch the dancers." So far, I'm figure I'm successfully feigning excitement to sing karaoke in front of a bunch of strangers and some new friends I met three days ago. In my estimation, our newly formed friendships hang in the balance of this performance. Would I seem like a fun person? Would they want to keep in touch? Then, the stripper enters stage right. Just so you know, I don't go to strip clubs. I've been miss goody-two shoes since ever since I can remember. As a kid I collected awards, trophies and plaques of achievement even more greedily than I collected keychains, Pokemon cards and dolphin figurines (like my life depended on them). As a freshman in college, I studied and practiced flute constantly, all the while scoffing at my friends who were drinking and smoking pot, since that was a serious distraction from our studies! That is, until my wind quintet mates all enthusiastically decided we were going to the party at the Horn House (where the french horn players lived), and I didn't want to be left out, so I revised my opinions on drinking and smoking. When it came to strip clubs, in my twenties I figured those were for lonely people or bachelor parties, so I stayed away from them pointedly, until my new friends in Portland this weekend enthusiastically decided to go to Devil's Point Strip Club, on the last day before we dispersed to our respective hometowns. And I did not want to be left out. FOMO: I've got it. Back to the strip club, where I am about to sing karaoke while a stripper dances onstage with us. I could think of at least fifteen ways of embarrassing myself in front of my new friends: treat the stripper as a sexual object, look too anxious, look at the stripper with too much lust, forget to interact with my friend Erika, look at the stripper with too little lust, freak out if she gets too close, look at the stripper with anything other than the perfectly balanced combination of non-sexual attraction and admiration of skillful athleticism, etc. So, I retreat into my literary-style inner narration: "Ivy the exotic dancer is pretty, with striking golden hair that falls to the middle of her back, accentuating her compact, lithe figure and causing her smooth pale skin to glow with imagined moonlight" (yes, moonlit skin is a thing). That's not a lustful thing to think, is it? It's actually kind of romantic. Fully appropriate. Although I'm still majorly concerned that Ivy might think I'm just lusting after her golden hair and moonlight skin. Or is that what I'm supposed to be doing? What is this event about anyway? Strippers dance while normal people sing, every weekend! I gather that the fun for the audience is that we are expected to be unable to focus on singing. Most of Ivy's skin is currently on display, even though she has two songs in which to do her full acrobatic striptease. I suppress my urge to step closer and say hello, as the rules clearly state that singers are to stay planted in upstage left - and I am ALL ABOUT the rules. As I squirm awkwardly back into our designated singing area, the emcee announces our song: Dancing Queen. Ivy catches my eye as she breaks into a delighted grin at our song choice. Yes! A non-objectifying song, I didn't even think about that when we chose it. Unlike an earlier singer who did ACDC’s “Big Balls.” The opening lyrics flash on the screen to our left, and Erika and I settle into the tune in comfortable unison, sometimes octaves. We sway and groove in place with the beat, bumping our hips together, sometimes (but not often) in synchronization. Every time my eyes begin to trail along Ivy's graceful, toned body, my inner literary voice goes on a feminist rant, full of contradictions. I reach for a lyric barely in my belting range to drown it out, and belt it for all I'm worth: "Feel the beat of the tambourine, oh yeah!" It's easier to get into the moment when Ivy's flipping and spinning, she must be a gymnast, not to mention an acrobat, and maybe some other kind of performer with the way she's working the crowd. She catches my eyes a few times and smiles. I try to watch without actually looking at her boobs, but it's pretty difficult, so I train my eyes on the lyrics. Then comes the moment where the stripper gets up close and personal with the singers, and the audience gets to enjoy the awkwardness that ensues. Except my interpretation of this is, Oh good, choreography! Ivy puts an arm on either side of us and her back to the audience. Erika and I each put one arm up in the air and belt our lyrics like supervillains being grasped at by their beautiful minions. Now we're in the groove. Forget being straight-laced, I am singing at a strip club and I am cool and I am impressing my new friends and I am most definitely not missing out on this experience! Ivy sidles up next to me, faces me and lays her outstretched arm over my shoulder. More choreography, great! This could not get better. I mirror the gesture, facing her and draping my right arm over her left shoulder. We're both laughing and smiling. She giggles and kisses me on the cheek, then twirls away for a closing pose. The crowd applauds. Before I know it, Erika, Ivy and I are centerstage in a group hug. As I head back out to the audience, I find myself face-to-chest with a goliath of a man in a black suit and sunglasses and a deep baritone: "Miss, you're coming with me," he intones. "You've violated the no touching the dancers rule. You're out." He lifts Erika and I by the back of our shirts and carries us, one in each hand, unceremoniously out the back door, where he tosses us into a puddle in the pouring Portland rain to scrounge around for the scraps of our dignity.
Just kidding. Nobody cared that we touched the dancer, and my new friends decided to keep me. The choreography must have been tasteful enough to both impress them and placate the bouncer.
Or maybe my new friends didn't care about any of that, and my inner struggle about how to act appropriately in a totally new environment with a new group of people was just a natural process that lots of people go through when navigating unfamiliar situations. Maybe it's okay not to know what's appropriate, and to just do what seems natural and be open to learning a new perspective, and possibly being thrown out on the street.
Singing at Devil's Point was the first step in dismantling a lifetime of shameful stories about nakedness and sex that I've built up in my outlook on life. I've also hugged the most beautiful naked stranger I am ever likely to hug. I'm not so liberated that I'm likely to go look for a room in clothing-optional coop, but my perspective on stripteases and burlesque is a little wider now. Little did I know that two months later, I'd be hanging out casually in a hippie hot spring with twenty-five other nude women in Ashland, Oregon, getting out of my comfort zone once again in the name of learning and FOMO.