The roadside marquee caught my eye in the summer of 1979. With its black silhouette of tiny legs kicked up, it promised a break from responsibilities engulfing me. At 26, I’d recently ended a marriage launched just days after passing my driver’s license test at 16. Although by now I was a mother of two young sons, the boys had recently decided to live with their father for a while. Suddenly, a newfound sense of possibilities shimmered around the edges of my swamp of anger at an unfaithful husband yoked to a pervasive sorrow over an end to my happily-ever-after dream.
I’d always had dreams. Most had been linked to others’ images of me, coupled with a sense of duty. Desire, especially my own, seldom entered the conversation. “I want to be a teaching nun when I grow up,” I announced to my father at age ten as we sat at the dinner table.
“An eating nun. That’s what you should be. That’s what you do best,” Dad responded, chuckling, enjoying the joke.
In those days, my dream of becoming a nun centered on volumes of black serge cinched by a blood-red waistline cord, knowing that this uniform would hide my generous hips and wide bottom. Beauty was of no concern to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and I was good at devotion, thanks to a parochial school childhood where I could excel at the things that mattered to the sisters.
I never made it to the convent. I had gone on to prove to the world I was marriage material, then made a life as an educator, though not as a nun. Duty at home and at work came together when I became a teacher at 21. In schools, I could dress to accent my positives and disguise what were reputed to be my less alluring parts. Floor-length maxi-dresses with scooped neck bodices that clung to my chest, tucked under my bust, then billowed, Empire-style, to the floor in voluminous yards of fabric. Daily, I wore the same granny dress in a variety of floral fabrics to epitomize the quintessential schoolmarm. None of it mattered to the kids. But dedication to children, at home and school, was wearing thin, and the payoffs increasingly ambiguous.
Dancers Wanted. Gator Bite Opening Soon. As I drove slowly past the lettered sign, I marveled at my apparent good fortune. Here was an opportunity to earn money while dancing, something I loved only slightly less than teaching. After all, hadn’t my mother carted me to weekly classes in jazz and ballet as a child? And hadn’t teen friends and I been the first to show up and the last to leave at the weekly rec center dances in junior high? Hadn’t I spent hours sashaying through rooms as a young housewife, even as I cooked and cleaned, dancing to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”? And wasn’t I known as The Dancing Lady on forays to Sunday tea dances in the gay clubs I’d recently discovered? In those moments, moving to music, with hips gyrating and breasts jiggling, my body thrummed in self-indulgent pleasure.
Thirteen years since my adolescent days of dancing, I was restless. Too long preoccupied with steadfastness, I suddenly realized I’d seldom been to a straight bar, much less a so-called dancers’ bar. Now opportunity called, though I had no idea what dancers did in this nondescript setting, I was electrified at the prospect of earning money for what gave me such delight, and convinced that I could dance well enough for this uninspiring side-of-the road structure. Dancing would be the perfect summer job to take my mind off ubiquitous fidelity and doleful thoughts. Soon I would learn that dancing was the least of it.
The next day, I pulled into the sandy parking lot between A & J Farm & Feed and a squat cinderblock building. As I strode into the place, my eyes squinted in the shift from glaring Florida sun to near pitch darkness. To the left was a counter festooned with Christmas lights. A lone man with a crew cut leaned on the bar, his pastel-colored Guayabera barely hiding his broad belly. He had that assured look of someone in charge. Two young women wearing leotards and miniskirts clustered around him. I hesitated for a moment as I considered the glaring contrast between my floor-length dress and these girls.
“I saw your sign,” I said. “I like to dance and I’m looking for a job.”
Guayabera Guy shrugged his shoulders in an offhand way, looking me up and down while answering.
“I’m Chuck. Sure, I’ll give ya a shot. Gator Bite here is just getting set up for business, opening next weekend, and we’re hiring a bunch of girls. Panther and Tiffany here are also looking to work, but I can hire all of you. You’ll all be working the floor 8 pm to 2 am, five or more nights a week. Pay’s minimum wage: $3.35 an hour, but you can keep all your tips. We call ourselves a dancer bar, since nudity is still not legit in Tampa. So the girls do what they can with what we got.”
Visions of crop-topped girls from sixties TV sprang to mind. I’d envied those women, fringe flipping to the beat. I paused, remembering the scathing P.E. critique after my hula hoop routine a few years earlier.
“Too much hip movement,” Mrs. Fessenden had grumbled as she scrawled a red ‘F’ across the evaluation.
Finally, I can put that hip action to good use, I thought with a smirk as I imagined moving to throbbing bass beats.
“Gee, that’s terrific! When do I start?” I beamed.
Chuck whipped a scrap of paper and a pencil from his pocket and sketched out a weekly schedule. As we walked out the door, Panther, whose pale, pudgy face and stringy blonde hair contradicted her dancer name, pulled me aside.
“Hey, you seem kind of new and I’ve been doing this for a while. If you’re interested, I can meet you here tomorrow night around eight to show you the ropes. If we drive down the road a piece, we hit the main strip and can check out some joints,” she suggested.
Suddenly, I realized how little I knew about the details of what I’d signed on for. As I grasped for go-go dancer images, I realized these memories wouldn’t be enough to get me through my first night at Gator Bite. Although I’d managed to fake my way through other roles I knew nothing about, including devoted wife and responsible mother, Panther’s offer seemed too good to pass up.
“Sure, what should I wear?” I asked.
“Well, definitely something a little sexier than what you have on now,” Panther mumbled sheepishly.
Although I didn’t own any miniskirts, I pulled out the draped magenta dress with plunging neckline I wore for my tea dance afternoons and set out to meet my dancing mentor.
We knew we’d arrived when we saw flashing lights above signs with simple, clear messages: Adult; Girls, Girls, Girls; Exotic Dancers.
“Let’s start here at The Playground, and then walk over to BabyDolls. I’ve worked at both of those places,” she proposed, with a proud grin.
We trailed through one club, then another, each strikingly similar. Each time it was as though we were walking into a cave illuminated only by the twinkling lights edging both the bar and stage, and the fluorescent glow of the corner jukebox. As we walked into The Playground, Panther smiled broadly and greeted a bored-looking woman in a long white chiffon peignoir. Six men wearing t-shirts and jeans as they nursed their beers sat around a raised wooden platform. The smell of sweat mingled with Brut hung in the air.
Panther began her lesson.
“Watch Misty as she makes the rounds asking for jukebox quarters. Sometimes a guy’ll ask for a particular song, but she pretty much ignores that and plays what she plans to dance to.”
Songs spun through my mind as I imagined my debut next week. Blondie’s “Call Me” might work. The lyrics would be good, but I wasn’t sure it had the beat I was looking for. How about Foreigner’s “Urgent”? ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down”? I wasn’t sure that any of these fit with the mood of these establishments, but I was there to dance.
Panther’s voice pulled me back.
“A dancer needs three quarters for her three dances. She’ll feed the jukebox then glide up and down until the song ends. One, two, three times. We dress with the layered look, and as each song winds down, we take something off. That builds the suspense and makes ‘em feel they got a show. These little places don’t have poles or nothing, so we’re really just slinking up and down the stage hoping to catch a guy’s eye for whatever tips we can get.”
My mind shifted to thoughts of my outfit for next week’s big debut: an ensemble with pieces that I could smoothly whisk off as I danced. With only seven days until I started, I’d need to think of something fast. Fortunately, I came from a line of seamstresses, had a mother who could sew anything and would do whatever I asked her to do, whether or not she approved.
Waking early the next day, I whizzed down to my favorite fabric store, heading straight for the back where metallic brocades, slinky jerseys and sequined spandex leaned against walls in tight, tall rolls. My eyes grew wide as I imagined myself shimmering down the stage.
A few hours later I waltzed into my mother’s apartment barking directions.
“Mom, here’s what I want. I need a mid-calf skirt of black jersey with side seams split all the way up to the waist,” I explained.
“I bought this turquoise sequin trim to sew along the split, waistline, and neckline of this low-cut Danskin I’ll be wearing,” I said, pulling notions from a bag.
“And last, but not least, I need you to make this crop-top black wrap thing that ties in the front. Don’t you just love this sheer black nylon with metallic gold threads?” I added, pulling fabric from another smaller bag as I rattled on.
“You see how this’ll work when I’m dancing?” I continued, miming my way through the sequence as I imagined my playlist emanating from the jukebox.
“I’ll strut out for the first song in the three simple pieces, leotard, wrap and skirt. (Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” hummed in my head as I talked.) When the first bars of the second song come on, I’ll be twirling the skirt to a pounding rock and roll song (“Walk This Way” would be perfect for this, I think.) I’ll slowly untie the wrap, shrug it off my shoulders, dangle it in one hand, still spinning my skirt with the other. When that last song launches, something a little sultry (“Slow Ride,” take it easy), I’ll reach for the skirt zipper, inch that sucker down, wiggle the skirt off my hips then kick it out of the way. I’ll end by pirouetting along the runway wearing only the leotard for my big finale. Can you have this all ready by Friday?” I asked as I came to a halt.
A terse nod coupled with the disapproving scowl on my mother’s face told me she didn’t think much of my summer job, or the apparel plan that went with it. But she was familiar with my impulsive enthusiasm and, in her unquestioning acquiescence, became my co-conspirator. I knew she would have it ready.
Saturday night, I crowded into a tiny dressing room with four other dancers as the shift began, my three-piece costume tucked in a backpack. Quick introductions went around as some women vied for mirror space while others wiggled into tiny fringed thongs, spandex tubes, and feathered boas. I stepped out into the club hugging the back wall while variations in the performance routine played out a few feet away and watched in eager fascination.
As “Cruisin’” came on, Tiffany mounted the stage and rocked her hips languidly from side to side with a dreamy look on her face. She skated down the runway, stopping at each of the t-shirt-clad customers as if granting each the favor of her presence. Her moves were seductive and hot, but I was disappointed that she barely kept time to the music.
An exchange of nods between Tiffany and the rough-faced guy sitting at the far end made me think he was a regular and she was his favorite. She stood inches from his face as he slowly tucked bills into the line where her thighs disappeared into her bodice. Each time she’d start to move on he’d call her back silently with a wave of a dollar until his hands were empty. Fascinating to watch for its skillful manipulation, it wasn’t me. With my big bones and propensity for swift-footed motion, I would be moving fast, not undulating close to the floor.
I was on next. As quarters clinked into the jukebox, lights flashing, my heart raced in anticipation of the opening notes of my first song, “Old Time Rock and Roll.” While Bob Seger belted out the unparalleled joy of rock, I surged forward, up the stairs, out, onto the floor, unselfconsciously propelled by the beat. My music-of-choice drove my body in hard, foot-stomping steps down the runway. As the seventies moved into the eighties, this remained a time when plump, round women in revealing clothes were an uncommon sight. Glancing past the railing I saw amused stares sprinkled with surprised curiosity. But the only response I cared about was the response of my body to the music.
“Hey, slow down. How do you expect me to give you money when you move so fast?” a patron’s voice would call out to me time and again as I high-stepped across the floor. With the luxury that came from knowing I could eke out enough to pay summer bills and had another job to return to, I knew my livelihood didn’t depend on meeting other people’s expectations. Chuck would let me dance no matter what. I felt powerfully strong and confident as a quarter dropped and Duran Duran sang “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
“I give you a lot of credit, a girl your size going out there,” Stormy giggled back in the dressing room one night. Momentarily taken aback by her comment, I reminded myself that I was there to dance. To dance as a temporary escape from my life, past and present. To dance for the pure delight of it.
For two months that summer, like Alice in Wonderland, I stepped out of one life and into another. When I stepped back to my school teacher world in fall, I was changed forever. Fitted pants and multi-color blouses replaced granny dresses. A summer of indulging my own sensuality—in costumes, music and dancing—provided a window into possibilities I’d never considered. With the new realization that there was something for everyone, someone for anyone, I escaped from worries that glimpses of abundance—of body, of spirit, of joy—would bring judgement, or worse. That summer I learned no new dance moves. Instead, I learned the power of pleasure, the subjectivity of beauty—and that I was a beauty.
Photo Credit: Free-photos from Pixabay