Saturday, March 17, 2012

Performance Art and the Sex Industry

Edie LaMort recently assisted a Phd student with a Q&A session that explored the crossover between performance art and the sex industry. Edie thought it would make an interesting article for this blog and it raises a number of very important issues about the work, dancers motivations and perhaps most importantly the motivations and behaviour of those that wish to destroy the strip and lap dance club scene.

Is there a fine line between what we consider to be performance art and the sex industry or are they one in the same?

Anything can be art, it all depends on how it's done. (What is art? Discuss. That debate could go on for hours!) In terms of stripping it varies and I do consider it an art form. Some performances are better than others and there are a variety of styles. I perform on stage and a lot of that is about audience connection. I started stripping to have time and money to do other forms of performance such as dance and music. So for me it has always been art, simply because that is how I approach stage performance in general. I found stripping every week very useful in terms of the other performances as it is a way of learning stage craft. How to work with space and how to adapt to different venues and stages. It is a very improvised art form but that can be great.

A good example is when I had my rock band. I sing and play guitar and we had a gig at Dublin Castle in Camden, on a Saturday. I had done the Friday late the night before at Browns which is one hell of a shift! Great money but you have to deal with 300 pissed and arrogant city boys. When I got on the stage the next night in Camden a few indie boys in the crowd started to heckle me. (Have a go at the pretty girl who dares to play boys rock music type of thing.) The other girl in the band was getting upset but I had just dealt with a 300 strong rowdy crowd at Browns. I was like 'Mwahahahaha! I'm going to rip you to pieces!' It was great fun for me and the rest of the crowd loved it.

Anyway, pole dancing is definitely and art form and incredibly hard to do well. You need so much strength, flexibility and stamina. Sue (the owner of the White Horse pub in Shoreditch) will open up the pub early to let her dancers practice. It's a really good 'share the knowledge' session and where I've learnt most of my pole tricks. It's one of the things that makes the job interesting. I have recently been training and trying out new tricks and moves. It's also not just doing pole tricks it's putting it all together with style and grace that makes it flow. Feeling the music and engaging the audience - in fact all the elements of traditional theatre and drama are involved. Go on youtube and watch some of the finals for Miss Pole Dance UK or search Elena Gibson.

However it's not all gymnastics and leaping around! Some girls don't use the pole but have a charisma and a stage presence that captivates the audience. A couple of girls come to mind. They are so comfortable with themselves (despite not being the best looking girls around) and so into their own sexuality that they are magnetic on stage. All it is, is that they are radiating confidence and it is magnetic.

As Tango was developed in the brothels of Buenos Aires, so pole dance is an amazing art form, that has been developed over the past two decades in the western world. I am very proud to have been a part of this.

What elements do you consider to be solely used within one trade or the other?

All of the trades are about connecting with people but I suppose the dance side is a different skill. I remember a male sex worker doing a demonstration about how to put a condom on with his mouth! I was impressed and thought, 'that's a fantastic skill that should be learnt by everyone!' It would encourage safe sex so much! It was really erotic.

To what extent do the workers in the sex industry create performances and characters to carry out their work?

Dancing has fashions and trends like any other. Mine's old style pub stripping so it's very much an individual and improvised performance. If you are doing lots of private dances it's better to have a simple outfit - on off on off - maximize earning potential. If you are doing a stage show then it is more creative. I've seen some fantastic caricatures and outfits. Chiqui has a cheerleader outfit and routine but she has also sewn a little pocket into the knickers. She fills it with sweets so she can delve about in her crotch and pull out goodies for the audience.

I have an insane asylum outfit with I think is quite funny, burlesque stuff and the favourite - the bespectacled office worker. Men go crazy for this! They must all fantasize about fucking their PA! 

Is there a costume involved and what does this represent?

Ooh there's so much costume! We are all Divas and fashion junkies! I have corsets and bikinis and theme costumes and dresses and fetish stuff and I love it! I have hats, fascinators, gloves, false eyelashes etc.....

Some of the girls are really good at making or customising stuff (Chiqui and Faye) and will bring in cheap Primark sets but that have been Candy Kaned (hot fix crystals) or adorned with tassels and ribbons and sell them, around the changing rooms but also on ebay and folksy. I have a few things I have customised.

Do you have a script or regular phrases that you use within your work?

Quite a lot. It's a lot of interaction with different groups of people so it's about knowing people. Although sometimes you can't be bothered! I get asked, 'where are you from?' all the time. When I say I'm British I'm met with a chorus of 'NAAA!!!' so I hate that conversation now. It seems to be quite common; lots of the girls get this.

Do you feel exploited?

Not in the hysterical way that the media and prohibitionists think. I am well looked after at work by management and security. In fact much better than in a 'normal' office job. The only element of exploitation in the stripping business is financial; as in stage fees that are too high and some places putting too many girls on shift. I have always worked the traditional pubs where there will be a maximum of 12 girls on a Friday night shift and then 4 or 5 on a Monday. There is the jug and the stage fees are reasonable. This means you never leave without some money, even on a quiet shift.

Tax - for a few years running several of us asked if we could get receipts for the stage fees so we could put them through on our tax self-assessment. Hahaha! That was met with a very stern NO.

How do you see your work?

Fun, entertainment and to a certain extent social work! A regular customer said to me a few weeks ago, 'I hope you don't mind me coming in and talking to you. It's just, I have no one else I can talk to.' Some of them have no one. We all have friends, family etc but some of these guys are so lonely I sometimes wonder if we are the only thing keeping them from the noose.

Would you consider yourself to be an artist/ performer/ sex worker/ other?

I consider myself a performer with an element of social worker! Lots of dancers go on to be therapists. A friend of mine graduated last year and announced 'I'm now a therapist!' Everyone replied, 'You've been a therapist for the last 10 years already!'

I am also a member of Equity as they also recognise us as performers and support us. 

What skills are involved in your work and is there a regular routine that you must follow to ensure that you are fit and able to carry it out?

Keeping a general level of fitness and flexibility. Grooming, doing your roots, shaving. When you do pole it's important to keep healthy. If you are looking a mess or like you have drug problems you will be fired or sent home. The managers have to be careful that their dancers are not perceived as junkies.

When you go on stage you wipe down the pole with glass cleaner or vodka. This is because if you try to do tricks on a greasy pole it's dangerous. You go into a hangback and then find yourself slipping you need to come out of it quickly. It's also a good idea to use chalk in the way that gymnasts do. It's one of the things you have in your work bag along with, a spare tampon and superglue - to glue those crappy stripper shoes together - etc.... 

Do you enjoy your work?

Overall yes. Of course you get boring shifts and sometimes you get idiots in the crowd. But it's wonderful to have a job where you can choose your hours, earn decent money, have flexibility and creativity. Isn't that the kind of thing everyone wants?

Do you feel that your work is a form of abuse?

Not at all. Work is work and if you want to be technical or Marxist about it we are all exploited to a certain extent. We exchange our time and labour for money in order to survive. Everyone strives to find a job that won't make them hate their life and give them enough cash. We are all caught up in this. I feel like I am lucky to have the stripping option.

The people I find the scariest and the most abusive are the fanatical fright groups like Object and UK Feminista. I have never felt scared by the punters but these groups frighten me. They whip up hatred towards us and the customers and I worry that someone will end up getting attacked. One of the girls I work with has received threatening texts and emails from Object. It may not be endorsed by the top tier but that is the inevitable consequence of demonising a minority group or subculture. Her family also received threatening texts. They are described by some as hate groups and that is really how it feels. 

What are the biggest problems that you face in your work?

The stigma and the misunderstanding of the wider world. I've often wished I could put stripping on my CV but there's no way people would understand what skills that entails or what it means. Dealing with people, managing your time, organising your schedule and tax, rehearsing your routines, styling costume and sourcing music.

But in reality there is no way I could tell 99% of 'straight world' people. They would think 'prostitute' and 'junkie' rather than 'people skills, sales technique, managing of crowds, probably quite good at public speaking due to having been in front of a crowd for so long'. When I have done 'normal' jobs I have to keep this part of me hidden and be the quiet one. It's very uncomfortable and annoying! I also feel that the 'normal' job is missing out on what I have to offer.

Who do you believe to be the persons that categorises your work and why?

Most people don't really think about it. It's very much a subculture and not on most people's list of priorities. Sometimes if I tell people I'm a pole dancer they go 'wow!' and give me a high five and ask for lessons. Others say, 'oh that must be terrible for you'. 

If you are an extroverted personality you will understand the appeal of pole dancing and go 'Whoop!'. If you are fearful or introverted you will not be able to understand it and blame strippers for societies ills.  

What are the intentions of your work?

Earning full time wages for part time hours is a big plus! That was the draw anyway, to have time and money for other artistic projects. A lot of people did that, especially a few years ago.

Finding the job that suits your personality type is hard. If you are introverted you may want to be an accountant etc. If you have an extroverted personality you will want to do something that involves connection with other people. Essentially I am a creative, physical and ideas based person so stripping fulfills a lot of that. Not all but more than most other jobs.

Does your work make a statement about women?

I have honestly met the most amazing, strong and witty women doing this job and consider myself lucky to be able to do it. There is a massive disconnect between the way it is perceived and the way that it really is. In my opinion my work makes a positive statement about women due to the fact that it is stage performance. To get up on stage and command an audience, it is necessary to be confident and to have an ego. No one can get on stage without this, whether you are an actor, singer, presenter or dancer.

I think it's great that women have a space where they are allowed to be sexually expressive and this is a very important step forward. For centuries women were denied any sexual expression at all and exhibiting it was dangerous. It could lead to incarceration or worse. One of the most important aspects in the liberation of women, over the past few decades, has been the fact that we are now allowed to be sexual. This in turn has opened the doors for men to have a more diverse sexuality and of course for LGBT people to gain freedoms. It is now accepted that all kinds of people have sexual needs and that basic right to form an intimate bond with someone else. This is what baffles me about the prohibitionist 'feminist' movement. They want to wind back the decades and re-establish sexual repression. That means strippers and sex workers will bank! But overall I don't think it's a good idea for society. Also I have been a stripper for 15 years and have seen a positive change in the way people deal with it. To me these new 'feminists' are like old style Witch Finders. Stoke that bonfire! 

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