Up The Pole Without a Paddle by Helen Patrice
“What’s the difference between what we do, and what strippers do?”
During the noughties, I taught belly dance in community centres across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. You couldn’t move without encountering me. Got fed up with me as your teacher at one community house and thought you’d try a different one a couple of suburbs away? Surprise, she was probably me, too.
Students asked why I wasn’t Egyptian, where my costume was, and if this would improve their sex lives, was this the gateway to the white slave trade(don’t you think I’d have a lot more money than I did?), and could their husbands come and watch(no), and then the stripper question.
“You mean, apart from keep our pelvises lined up with our shoulders like we have manners, and we keep our clothes on?” was my stock answer.
After hearing the question asked yet again during my eighth year as a teacher, I telephoned Goldfinger’s, one of the ‘gentleman’s clubs’ in the CBD of Melbourne, and asked: “Can I come in and interview a stripper? I’m a belly dance teacher, and my students want to know the difference.”
The receptionist upsold to me like the professional she was. Never mind interviewing a stripper, or coming to a show. A brand new season of Stripper School was starting next Tuesday. Bring a hand towel, booty shorts, a crop top, high heels, and prepare to have fun.
Well, all righty then. Why not? I was growing sick of professional development being yet another specialist workshop on Persian arms, or double veil.
The following Tuesday found me on the train, on my way to my first of four Stripper School classes. It couldn’t be that different, could it? I had the hip moves like Fifi Abdou, and thought I was strong from flipping chiffon veils around, balancing a sword on my head, and undulating with the best of them. I was forty and none of my body parts had quit on me. A basketball coach friend described me as an elite athlete(if elite athletes ate a lot of toast and Vegemite, and jacked up their energy levels with chocolate). I was ready.
I didn’t have booty shorts, so I took the khaki Kmart shorts I had. I cut the bottom off a tshirt that read read REALITY IS FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T HANDLE SCIENCE FICTION. THE REST OF US ARE GOING TO THE STARS. My high heels were my ballroom dancing shoes. I’d made an effort to shave my legs and under my arms. Yep, I was super ready.
A tiny voice inside me said: “What are you doing? You can’t do this. You’re too old, too fat, you’re kidding yourself.” I staunchly ignored the voice, and watched the suburbs go past outside the train.
King Street in the city featured a collection of notorious nightclubs, and a swathe of tall office buildings full of barristers. It was not familiar territory to me. I was not young and fabulous enough to stagger out of nightclubs at 4am looking for a kebab. I was once young, but any fabulosity was sacrificed on the altar of books, writing, and a Star Trek fan club.
The huge black steel double doors were locked. The buildings along this part of the street spoke of their past as factories. Heavy stone and brick, with enormous doors for carts to enter and leave. Goldfinger’s may have been part of the old butter factory.
Goldfinger’s, and its main rival, The Men’s Gallery, opened at midday every day to scoop up the men who might want a lunchtime strip show or lap dance, before going back to the office to sue a company.
I was at the big black doors at 10am. The street was nearly empty. A few people stood outside office buildings, smoking and gossiping. The occasional professionally dressed person strode past. And there was me, in jeans and my tshirt, carrying my dance bag backpack(a Teletubbies one my son had abandoned a few years before) that contained all my necessaries: ballroom shoes, spare coin scarf, a chiffon veil, hand towel, BandAids, spare sports socks, ballet flats with arch supports, a stick of deodorant paste, tissues, sewing kit. The Compleat Dancer.
A man walked past, sparing me a second glance. Could he believe his eyes? A short woman of considerable hourglass figure, long red hair, glasses, freckles, no make up, a bit of a belly, looks like a Celtic peasant, was waiting outside Goldfinger’s. She was probably the cleaning lady.
After knocking on the door four times, I noticed the doorbell high up on the wall. And I mean high. It was painted black like the door, against painted black brick, and above my head. Who came to this place? Giants?
I jumped, and mashed my finger against the bell. I couldn’t hear a thing. What if it didn’t ring? I jumped, and pressed it again. Up and down like a girl skipping in place, with my 14D boobs in their cheap sports bra jumping with me, and nearly giving me a black eye.
A door within the door opened and a blonde woman about my age stuck her head out.
“Keep your pants on,” she said. “Come on in. You’re the first here.”
Of course I was. I’m always the first. I am horribly early to everything, out of a fear of appearing rude by being late. I would have been at those King Street nightclubs at 6pm, because once I’d had dinner at five, what else was there to do but head off for my night out. And then spend five hours sitting around until anyone else arrived.
The inside was gloomy, mood lit. Mirrors everywhere, which meant I walked into one almost immediately, and panicked that the woman had disappeared into the darkness.
“Over here!” she called.
She was seated in an area lined with low velvet sofas. They could have been black or dark red. I couldn’t tell. This was to be our schoolroom.
“I’ve just got to finish some admin,” the woman said. “I’m Jen.”
I presumed she was the receptionist I’d spoken to. She sat in a lit booth, and filled in forms, and data’d stuff into the computer. The club was empty, silent, except for her hesitant pecking at the keys. I would have brought out a book, but it was too dim to read. So I sat, as vulnerable as being in a dentist’s waiting room.
The doorbell sounded again. It was loud, and I was embarrassed that I’d rung it four times. Four more students arrived in a crowd. Two sets of friends who’d dared each other on, and were keen to learn, and either please a man at home, or entice a man. They were all in their early twenties.
“Just for laughs,” each one said. “But I can’t wait to show Mike/Steven/my boring sister.”
“I might want to take it up,” said one girl with long blonde hair and body.
“Just for laughs,” I said. “But I teach belly dance, and my students want to know what the difference is.”
“We get naked,” said Jen, appearing amongst us. “And speaking of that, I don’t want to be seeing any of you naked. If you want to practice taking your clothes off, you wear two sets of underwear.”
I thought of putting one slightly padded tshirt bra over my sports bra, and the shelf it’d create. I decided to keep my boobs to myself. I changed into my baggy shorts, while the younger women got into short shorts that could have passed for underpants. They had matching bras and crop tops. They all swept their hair up into high ponytails. They all wore make up, and the heels they produced from about their persons were high indeed. They put my two inch ballroom shoes to shame. And not one of them wobbled when they walked.
“I’m Jen,” said Jen. “I’m one of the strippers here.” No mincing words. No ‘exotic dancer’, or ‘entertainment officer’. Stripper. “I was doing admin for a bit, but it’s easier to just take my clothes off for money.” She was in mighty shape for forty. I envied her, until she outlined her gym workouts, her rehearsal time, her spray tans, facials, the electrolysis, the manicures and pedicures, the hair appointments, the make up, and the time spent trawling costume shops and thrift stores for costumes and props. Not to mention taking sewing courses so she could create her own outfits. I thought of me handing my belly dance costumes to a seamstress for tailoring, and making repairs using dental floss. I once sewed a bra hook back on with the household’s floss(cotton breaks too easily), and being the only mint-scented belly dancer in Melbourne.
Being a stripper sounded too hard to me. I’d go on shimmying.
First, we learned to strut around in high heels, accentuating hips. Shoulders thrust back, boobs front and centre. Glide, jiggle, slide around the room. I huffed my way around, giving sensuous looks through my spectacles to empty couches. Fifteen minutes of that, and we moved on to learning a lap dance. We practiced on each other. Pretend to rub yourself on this part of the recipient’s body, now the leg, now behind them to brush the back of their hair with your boobs, and entwine your arms around them without actually touching. No touchy. No touchy ever. Here, spend ten minutes learning how to evade groping. Oh honey, I’m a belly dancer. I already know.
Somewhere in the building, a cleaner was at work. I heard his industrial vacuum cleaner. He came closer and closer. He gave us passing glances. He’d seen it all before. He mostly kept his head down, and I didn’t envy him trying to vacuum out of black carpet whatever was down there.
“We have to replace the carpet every year,” Jen said cheerfully. “Because of spilled drinks, and stuff.”
The second week, we learned how to creep across the floor on all fours towards the client, how to roll around, and how crouch between their legs to put our faces near their crotch to simulate oral sex. Floorwork. I thought of my friend’s Labrador dog rolling around on the floor for belly rubs, then placing his warm head on my leg in adoration. Just couldn’t get him out of my head as I crept around on the black ick carpet that smelled of Jack Daniels.
The second half of the class was pole work. I was confident. All that veil, and snake arms. I had shoulder muscles. That were worth nothing. I was a weakling. I couldn’t get up that pole to save my own life. While the other girls(we were one woman down from last week) climbed up and slid down, I made sad little leaps at the shiny pole that smelled of window polish. Finally, Jen came over, got her shoulder under my butt, and hoiked me up the pole as though hefting a one hundred weight of butter. I laboured up the pole and clung on with hands, upper arms, thighs, and ankles. Even so, I slid slowly down the pole, my ginger hair hanging down my back.
“You look like honey dripping,” Jen said kindly.
“Never mind that, get my camera out of my bag and take a photo!” I yelled. She fossicked in the darkness for my backpack and found my camera. Two photos later, one of them blurred. Somewhere, I may still have the photo of me up the pole, red of face, my fringe damp on my forehead, a rictus smile, a deep pink flush on my chest, and absolutely no muscle tone. My belly fat squished into the pole like dough. I doubted anyone would be tucking twenty dollar bills into the pocket of my shorts. Then again, there’s a kink for everyone.
The third week was costume week. I was helpless with laughter. Because I was the only one in the group who had a degree, that somehow made me the nurse. From Goldfinger’s ‘in the attic’ costume box, Jen handed me a PVC white minidress that was made for a lass a little smaller than my own self. It had a large silver zip up the front. I got a white cap with a red cross on it, and a toy stethoscope. She instructed me to do such things as ‘pretend to listen to his penis’ heartbeat and shake your head sadly’.
The dress was sausage-casing tight.
“Play with the zip,” Jen called.
I wrestled the zip up, I wrestled it down, like I was fighting a giant eel. I made grunting noises and uttered the occasional ‘come orn, you fuckwit!’ I sucked in my belly, but there was all that womanly I’ve-had-babies softness still there. I didn’t want it caught in the zipper. The stethoscope hung around my neck like a shoelace. Occasionally, of its own accord, the plastic Y of it curled up and the red circle on the end hit me in the face. I took to holding it between my teeth as I flounced around my ‘client’. She couldn’t stop laughing, and neither could I.
This was the most fun I’d had in years.
At the end of class, Jen smiled and said: “Next week is an exam. You’ll be putting all the components together into a performance. You can email me your music choices during the week. Your dance must be at least four minutes long. And yes, Helen, you have to do pole.”
After a quick try out, the nurse costume was the only one that came close to fitting me. So, I had a week to come up with music and a routine that was ‘nursey’.
My neighbours were used to seeing me create belly dance choreographies in my lounge room. We had large windows, no front fence, and clear view for the four lads across the road to enjoy. They’d seen me rehearse, do yoga, and clean the house. They’d watched the whole family bust out to the Spice Girls on Friday nights. Thanks to a landlord who wouldn’t put up new opaque drapes, our life was a display window. But they hadn’t seen me put a large toy bear on a chair and lap dance it to Robert Palmer’s ‘Bad Case of Loving You’, the only medical song I could think of besides ‘Doctor Ironbeard’(twilly willy wick boom boom). Those lads gathered at their own front windows to gaze in astonishment at the ‘old lady’ across the road. I must have been quite the sight.
Graduation Day came. I struggled into the nurse outfit, gave a few discouragement bends to the Y of the stethoscope, and with Jen as my recipient, seated on a chair on the pole stage, I commenced prowling up to her(strutting in high heels). I got down on my knees and flipped my hair into her lap, then did a few undulations on the floor(floorwork). I gave her a lap dance, breaking off to prance around the pole and pose. I wasn’t going to try scaling the heights of that fool of a thing. I wrenched at the zipper of my dress, and pretended to listen to her crotch and boobs. I glided around her, close but not touching. “No pill’s gonna cure my ill.”
“You could stop grinning like a crazy person,” Jen said as I wound myself around her.
“Sorry,” I said, “but it’s bloody funny.”
The song came to an end. I didn’t know what to do, so I stepped back, raised my arms as far as the dress would let me, and said: “Ta dah!” When Jen gave me my graduation certificate, it was noted that I’d failed Pole Work. I hung it in the toilet at home. And I could tell my students what the differences were. They wanted to learn lap dancing.
Thus, a few months later, I was teaching basic lap dancing at a Women’s Day at a gym, where now it was my turn to say: “I don’t want to see any of you naked!’
I have grandchildren now. One day they will ask me what sort of jobs I held down when Mummy and their uncle were young. And, with a fierce look from my daughter, I will have to pick my way carefully through my history. Or let rip and tell all. I’m in a ‘tell all, tell the whole truth’ frame of mind.
Helen Patrice is an Australian writer living in Melbourne. She has had numerous literary and speculative poems and short stories published, and is currently working in memoir and poetry. She lives with her husband, adult offspring, four cats, and one small yappy dog in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, where she watches mist and smoke over the Dandenong Ranges, and eats far too much chocolate.