Theatricality, seduction, and the reclamation of sexuality

Shiamak Unwalla

Seduction, mind-games, and acting in one picture. Photo: supplied
Seduction, mind-games, and acting in one picture. Photo: supplied

It’s a slow night. Monday evenings aren’t that eventful here anyway, but tonight it seems especially sluggish. The first few routines are bland; the performers just don’t have the kind of audience that they thrive on. The atmosphere is laidback, almost jaded.

But all that changes when Ginger* takes the stage.

The professional

She immediately stands out from her predecessors. There’s a spring in her step, a twinkle in her eyes. She knows her craft, and her skill is on full display. Her actions are slow, deliberate, lithe.

She makes eye contact. She smiles as if there’s a secret only she knows the answer to. She invites you in to share that beautiful, extraordinary secret.

And then, she uses — really uses — the pole.

The girls who danced before her treated it as a backrest. Ginger climbs up the pole in a graceful flash, legs entwined around it.

You’re struck by the sheer athleticism that goes into her performance.

It’s been 20 minutes, but it feels like a lot less. Whoever comes next has a tough act to follow.

“Most girls just walk around, but I like to pole dance, especially early in the evening because it makes me feel good,” says Ginger.

She’s been an erotic dancer for 12 years, some spent in Japan.

She also teaches pole dancing.

Her experience shines through in her performance.

Ginger’s backstory isn’t a happy one; she became an erotic dancer at the age of 18 after her then-boyfriend left with all her money.

Pushed into a corner, she decided that stripping would be a good way to get some money.

But she soon realised that she enjoyed the profession, much to the chagrin of her religious parents.

“My dad isn’t happy,” says the 31-year-old with an awkward smile.

She stops to admire a fellow dancer’s sparkly white and gold high heels, and is then invited to leave for a private dance.

A pole dancing studio. Photo:
A pole dancing studio. Photo:

The stage

It’s now 9:05pm, and the doors of Centrefold Lounge — one of the most popular strip clubs on Melbourne’s King Street — have been open for just more than an hour.

The club has three levels, five bars, and a number of private rooms. The second level witnesses most of the action. The floor has three disco balls which help liven up the dim lighting.

Despite this spectacle, your attention is immediately drawn towards a long stage in the centre of the room with two glimmering poles.

At any given moment there is at least one dancer performing, while others roam the floor chatting up patrons.

Allegra is one of the dancers wandering the floor. In a thick Swedish accent, she says she has been stripping for just four months. This is just a part-time job, she says, and no one back home knows what she’s doing for the extra income.

“I enjoy it, but I can’t tell anyone at home what I do. I would definitely be judged. Stripping is illegal in Sweden,” she says.

Allegra — which means joy in Italian — says that she likes approaching younger men, though some of her colleagues prefer older gentlemen.

“I’m chilled out, I like to chat and joke around. Some of the elder customers don’t like that,” she says.

But unfortunately for Allegra the clientele tonight is mostly middle-aged or older men, and she needs to earn her keep. She concludes our talk and approaches a pair of white-haired men with a friendly smile.

The performance

An argument could be made that a stripper is no different to an athlete in the sense that they have to train their bodies to be able perform. Erotic dancers use their bodies much like athletes do, with an added requirement to perform partly in the nude.

Then there is the fact that erotic dancing is as much theatricality as it is actual stripping. Ginger didn’t stand out because of her pole dancing alone; she also managed to sell the idea that she was genuinely interested in every member of the audience.

Phoenix, who is a trained actress, has been working as a stripper for five years.

“You’re either a performer or you aren’t. All you need is a good dose of sex appeal and self-confidence, the rest comes with experience,” she says.

An interesting dichotomy

Phoenix makes a fascinating point about stripping.

“You’d be surprised by the number of vehement feminists doing this job. We’re taking back our sexuality and owning it. We’re using what is ours as our own means to our own end,” she says.

She mentions twice that she has “a very strong personality”.

“Female sexuality has been owned by the patriarchy for way too long. A naked model is well accepted on Sports Illustrated (but) a naked stripper is not. It’s an interesting dynamic,” Phoenix says.

Ginger agrees that it’s unfair that society judges women for taking control of their own sexuality.

Not just stripping

Erotic dancers sometimes find themselves morphing into slightly less expensive (but considerably less dressed) therapists. (It costs $50 for a 10-minute private dance at Centrefold, which is significantly less than what it would cost to visit a therapist).

“The number of times I have sat there completely naked listening to some man rant on about his marital problems and how much he despises his teenaged kids, I wouldn’t even be able to count,” laments Phoenix.

But sometimes there’s more to it than just complaining.

“I had a heart-breaking encounter once with a man who just wanted to sit there and stare at my boobs and cry, while telling me about how his wife had died of breast cancer a couple of months prior, and he had to stay strong for his family so he could only allow himself to cry with strangers,” says Phoenix.

So what is stripping?

Phoenix suggests a definition worthy of making it to an academic journal: “Stripping is a mixture of sexy-seedy entertainment, seduction, mind-games, and acting, with a good dose of life-coaching and psychology thrown in!”

*Stage names of the dancers have been used to protect their identities.