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Confessions of an ex-go-go dancerBY: Merilyn Jackson 05.05.2012
As the sweat pours down my fishnet stockings, these guys think they’re gonna take me home and score, while I’m wondering if I can throw in a load of laundry before I heat up the leftover lasagna.
Sex object, or just another housewife?
Remember “Crimson and Clover,” “Sooki-Sooki” and “Chewy-Chewy”? Every Saturday afternoon for a month I’d pop slugs into the Sportsman’s jukebox and dance to those and a few other favorites, like “Proud Mary.” Sometimes a customer made a request, like “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone. I’d oblige. I was getting paid $75 to dance 40 minutes of every hour. In 1969, that was good money for five hours’ work.
I needed the money, but the bar clientele seemed to think I danced only for my pleasure and theirs. As I sat out my breaks, they’d ask me to leave with them. I always laughed and said no.
You see, I had to rush home to feed my kids and rest up for the week ahead at my regular day job. My nine-to-five, five-day-a-week job as assistant to the personnel director at Graduate Hospital netted me only $10 more for the week than my Saturday job.
As the sweat pours down my fishnet stockings, these guys think they’re gonna take me home and score while I’m wondering if I can throw in a load of laundry before I heat up the leftover lasagna.
My gig at the Sportsman wasn’t too bad, not when I compared it to my first night out. I got into go-go dancing through my friend Linda at the hospital. I needed extra cash to get down to Alabama for my brother’s wedding, so Linda took me to her agent (she was secretly moonlighting from her job as secretary to the hospital administrator). He sent me out to a biker bar in Frankford, one of Philadelphia’s rougher neighborhoods.
Fishnets and stilettos
I couldn’t afford to buy costumes, but the agent said I’d need two each night. The first one I wore at the Wellington (can’t help thinking of Frank and Bing, singing “Swellegant, elegant bar” in High Society, can you?) was an old, long-sleeved black leotard I had slit to below my navel. I edged the slit with sequins, cinched my waist with a gold belt and slipped into a pair of fishnets and stiletto heels.
The “stage” was a long runway behind the bar. I stepped out to “Ahh, Chewy, Chewy, Chewy Chewy, how I want ya ta do it to me.”
Too nervous to swallow, I hadn’t even thought to warm up. So, stiff and unable to find the groove in the song’s rhythm, I tried to shimmy into it with my eyes closed.
After a few bars, I began to find my footing. That’s when I noticed the hush. I got up the nerve to look out beyond the spotlights at a sea of brawn and booze, tattooed men in pony tails and handkerchiefs banded around their foreheads, women in black-leather vests and hot pants, and smoke so thick I didn’t even see the first beer bottle hurtling through it.
When it crashed a few feet to my left the bartender flew after it and yelled at me to just keep dancing. Somehow, amid the hooting, booing and catcalls, I did.
‘Back to the convent’
“Go back to the convent where ya came from!” was the only coherent sentence I remember from the ruckus as another couple of bottles landed on either side of me. I danced in a trance.
Something told me they weren’t actually aiming the bottles at me; that they were just trying to see if they could scare me off. Well, I had set out to make $20 as one of three girls dancing that night, and I wasn’t leaving without it.
As the bouncers restored as much order as this bar had ever seen, I finished the dance, and the next and the next, until my 20 minutes were up. By the time I left the stage, a few men whistled and applauded.
The owner reserved one booth in the back for the “girls.” I collapsed into it, shaken to my bones. One of the other girls went on stage to cheers and stomping, while the other tried to persuade me to stay on.
“They was just funnin’ wit’ you, darlin’,” she said, “but you showed ‘em you couldn’t be scared off.
“You got some good moves,” she added. “Let loose out there. They’ll leave ya alone.”
Motivated more by financial need than her sagacity, I stayed on. And over the next weeks, in many bars, I learned the ropes. Yes, most of the bars had a big, thick rope for the dancers to slither up, thump and hump.
Soon I was making $40 a night. If I danced Friday and Saturday night, I almost equaled my weekly salary at my day job. But I could only maintain that kind of schedule if I took a sick day during the week, and I’d about used up what I felt was safe.
About then my agent sent me to the Sportsman’s. In the dressing room I met the two other girls I’d be dancing with that day. They were exchanging pills and offered me some. I guess the way I said no thanks pissed them off.
“S’matter?” the towering blonde with bad skin asked, “You too good for this shit, or too good for us?”
I smiled and said, “Both.”
The short one was built like a fireplug. She jumped my back as I turned to pull my costume out and had me face down on the floor while the blonde yanked my neck up by knotting a big clump of my hair. They both started shoving pills into my mouth.
Undoing the bra top
We must have been making enough noise, because the owner burst in and pulled them off me. He got the picture. But I wanted him to get them the hell out of there.
“Look,” I said, “you’ve got one chance to make this right. Dump these two right now. I’ll dance 40 minutes an hour for 75 bucks. Your customers will be very happy, and you’ll save 30.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, “you tellin’ me what to do? I’m gonna dump ‘em on your say so?”
“No, I’m telling you what I’m going to do. You ever hear of Captain Chris Decree?”
“Yeah, Chief of Vice.”
“That’s right. And my husband”— I didn’t say ex— “is a detective on his squad. Either you dump them and pay me to dance all day, or I drop a dime on you and them.”
Joe, the owner, and I got along real well after that. His Saturday afternoon regulars liked me, even though I teased the hell out of them by undoing my bra top from the back (I had graduated to two pieces by then, but nothing you could even call a bikini), and then turning around and shaking it off. But it never would come off all the way because I glued it on with surgical glue. It got to be a big joke, though some guys never gave up hope.
Joe became very protective of me. Like the day a new guy came in soaking from the rain and sat at the bar in front of me. He kept his raincoat on, but as I shimmied up I noticed something on his lap that could’ve used a raincoat too.
“Joe,” I yelled, pointing over at the man, “he’s flashing me.”
Joe dived across the bar and had the guy by the throat before he could hide the evidence. “You’re outta here, pal.”
My brother’s wedding was three weeks away. I had more than enough money for my trip. I decided then and there that I’d quit next week so I could spend the weekend before the wedding with my kids.
I offer this memoir in response to a March 28 article in the Daily News, headlined, “Dirty Dancing: Strippers bring trouble— drugs, violence, cops say.” The article quoted Mary Anne Layden, director of the sexual-trauma and psychotherapy program at Penn, to the effect that all strippers are current or potential prostitutes.
Had she tried it out, as I did, Dr. Layden might have modified her view, to wit: They’re all current or potential housewives, trying to supplement their incomes in an economy that still offers fewer work options for women than for men.♦
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