The In-between: Conflicted Nostalgia
Last month I slipped into a pair of stripper shoes for the first time in almost fifteen years. I was about to take my first ever formal pole dancing class, which was being taught in a rather non-descript building near Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles. The friend I was with had started taking classes there several months ago, and since then, had been urging me to join her for a session whenever I was next in town.
From the moment I stepped into the building, I was overwhelmed by a strange sense of familiarity that was both inviting and unsettling. Walking up the narrow staircase into a dimly lit room, I was momentarily reminded of the first time I set foot inside a strip club, when I was searching for a job nearly twenty years ago. Much as I did back then, I felt the rhythmic pulse of sultry music reverberating through the walls, and was welcomed by the familiar glow of neon lights as I rounded the corner to enter the main room. Once there, I watched in silence as a tall young woman twirled herself around and around a silver pole, which harkened back to my early days on the job and how I had first learned to move my body like hers all those years ago.
In my inaugural edition of the In-between, I describe the two years I spent stripping as “the time of my life.” Although it was not all roses, I still often get nostalgic for those feelings of total freedom, confidence, and deep personal growth that I experienced back then. In part, my eagerness to attend the class with my friend that day was driven by the desire to feel close to that part of myself again. I hungered for the dull, warm ache of familiarity called nostalgia, which was the same reason that I also still enjoyed telling stories, listening to songs, and looking at pictures from that time in my life.
What struck me as strange about the feelings of familiarity that I experienced that afternoon in the dance studio then, was not that the class reminded me of my fun-filled days as a stripper, but rather, that it also reminded me of another, entirely separate set of experiences. Even before setting foot in the building I had gone online to register for the course, which I did using the same interface that I use to check the class schedule of my local yoga studio in San Jose. Once inside the dance studio, I was further reminded of my yoga classes, not only by the studio’s layout and design, but also by the other women who were enrolled in the class alongside me.
One woman, in particular, stood out to me. Like everyone in the class (besides me and my friend) she appeared to be White, and was probably somewhere in her thirties. Just as one does in a yoga class, she arrived early to stake out her preferred spot, and then began warming up with some basic stretches before briefly playing around with a few advanced moves she seemed to be working on. During her warm-up, she and another student engaged in a brief conversation about shoes, in which they discussed the pros and cons of a particular style and how it might help fill out their workout wardrobes. Notably, both women were wearing similar versions of what seemed to be deemed the “proper attire,” which included a stretchy pair of tight booty shorts, platform stripper shoes, and some kind of midriff-revealing top or sports bra.
What I found most jarring about this woman and her presence in the class was not simply that she reminded me of some Lululemon yogi, but that such a yogi would also appear to be so comfortable in the world of exotic dancing. Back in the early 2000s when I was working the pole for money, this form of dance was still very much regarded as something dark and sleazy, which was only performed by the lowest, dirtiest and most wretched group of women in society. Of course, it is also worth noting that even by then, social perceptions of stripping had improved significantly since the eighties and nineties; however, attitudes surrounding sex and sex work were still overwhelmingly negative. The fact that now seemingly “respectable women” were seeking out classes and paying top dollar to learn these same dance moves (from actual strippers, no less!) was mind-blowing.
On the one hand, I took this new development as a sign of society’s progression, revealing improved attitudes of body- and sex-positivity, which was something I had long been dreaming of. Today, when I disclose my stripper past to people, the most common reaction I get is “O, how cool!” rather than “Ew…really?” which is, I believe, not merely the result of how different my life appears now, but also, how much attitudes toward sex work itself have changed. Don’t get me wrong, there is still way too much stripper-bashing and slut-shaming that goes unchecked in contemporary society, but classes like these make me believe that things are going in the right direction.
However, on the other hand, this mainstreaming of sex worker culture and practices also seems to have sanitized them somewhat. Although the women in the class all seemed comfortable with the idea that our instructor took her clothes off for money, I wondered how many of them truly recognized these lessons as instructions on how to do the same. Because we were in workout clothes in the safety of the studio, did that somehow make it safer and more acceptable to participate? While I myself experienced these moves as part of a striptease performance, I wondered the extent to which my classmates viewed them in the same manner.
These questions were only the first of many to cross my mind as I, once again, sweated and spun (this time far less gracefully) for an hour around the pole. As I often do, I found myself in yet another in-between space there, caught in the midst between student and retired stripper, although the latter was something that only I and my friend knew about. At several points during the class I found myself wondering whether or not anyone else there might also perceive this truth, perhaps by the way I held my feet slightly bent at the ankles or my penchant for performing certain (apparently outdated) moves.
As I caught myself pondering this possibility I also realized that it was, in part, a desire, not only to be seen as a person with a certain knowledge of this world, but also to be (re)accepted by those currently within it as a member. The reality was, of course, that everyone there was oblivious, both of my former life as a stripper and of my current one as a Ph.D. recipient and Bi.org writer. Whether or not the instructor recognized me as a former stripper was, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. However, the fact that I was aware of the line separating these two worlds suggests that I, once again, found myself at home in the borderland between them.