The small office park off of Highway 114 is about the last place you’d expect to find a stripper school. The other tenants are places like Southlake Family Dental Care and Southlake Music Academy. A driver in a gold SUV parks in a space in front of me. A wholesome young family of four gets out of the truck. I slide down in my seat, embarrassed, like the first time I went shopping at New Fine Arts.
The class is called the Art of Exotic Dancing for Everyday Women, and it’s being held in the Rhythm & Moves fitness studio. There are 10 women (men aren’t allowed) besides the instructor, an effervescent thirtysomething whose pink bra straps peek out from her tank top. We range in age from early 20s to mid-40s. Wearing sweat suits and yoga pants, none of us looks particularly sexy. We certainly don’t look like strippers. We go around the room and share why we’ve come. One woman says she wants to learn some new moves for when she goes clubbing. Another says she wants to learn some new moves for when she comes home from clubbing. I say, “I saw it on Oprah!”
Endorsements by celebrities are one reason that “strippercise” has taken off in recent months. The Art of Exotic Dancing, founded in 1998, now offers classes in nearly 30 cities in nine states, with cities in four more states on the way. In addition to Southlake, our area has classes in North Dallas and Uptown. Ladies in Fort Worth, McKinney, and Highland Park will have classes of their own in June. Nationwide, the most requests come from Dallas, company co-creator Leah Stauffer says.
Stauffer, who lives in Philadelphia, speculates that the abundance of strip clubs in Dallas has something to do with that. Throw in the city’s preoccupation with plastic surgery, and you get a skewed perception of what’s attractive. Plus, there’s the whole Bible Belt mentality, which causes women to suppress their sexuality, creating a need for an outlet where women can safely open up and explore who they are.
But at the beginning of the three-hour class, I am seeking an outlet to stick my tongue to.
I think I was a teenager when the stripper fantasies began. One summer, I witnessed a girl win an exotic-dance contest at a bar in Panama City, Florida. I don’t know which I envied more: the way she tossed her waist-length hair or the $500 prize the judges awarded her that afternoon. Soon after, I heard that the girls at the Cheetah Lounge in Atlanta made $600 a night. Tripping around with my, ahem, head held high sounded like an easy way for a lazy girl to make a living.
Later, I became fascinated with my stripper neighbors. I was fresh out of college and unemployed. Every afternoon, we’d lie by the pool—my neighbors, my green-eyed monster, and me. The jealousy sprang from the way they filled out their bikinis and from the bags of cash that I imagined they brought home every night. I figured every stripper was gorgeous and rich.
Then I paid my maiden visit to an actual gentlemen’s club. My boyfriend had asked me to go, and I said okay. I wanted to seem like an easygoing chick; besides, I’d always wondered what goes down in a strip joint. Once inside, I wanted to pull my chair to within an inch of the stage and stare.
Instead, I tried to appear aloof, sitting tall at a table in the corner of the smoky bar, stealing furtive glances at a tattooed dancer who drug herself across the floor. She was pretty but plump, with twin chins and a dimpled butt. She didn’t look anything like my old neighbors. At first I thought, “That girl has no business being up there. Somebody ought to throw her a blanket and tell her to get down.” But as I saw more of her co-workers, I came to realize that not every stripper looks like she ought to be a stripper.
The longer I watched them, the more I understood that something bigger than platform shoes set those girls apart from me. Though utterly average-looking (in some cases, not even), they behaved as though they were beautiful. The nerve! I couldn’t even imagine. I hated them because I hated myself—and because they apparently didn’t hate themselves.
Thick hips and “cankles.” Self-loathing. This is what I am thinking about as I drive to Southlake to spend the better part of my Saturday at stripper school. The company literature promises that I will “feel confident and sensual in [my] own skin” and “discover the beauty that already resides within [me] and gain the confidence to express it.”
Yes, except for the mirrors. One thing about dance studios is that there are mirrors everywhere, so if you’re even a titch insecure, you’re done for. I stare at my reflection and think about saggy bottoms, cottage-cheese thighs, and stretch marks like road maps. I am 10 pounds heavier than the same time last year, and my face looks like a MoonPie that only my mother could love. (These are her stubby legs, by the way.)
I think about leaving, but I don’t. I remember my mission: to find the courage to like myself.
But the stripper walk is difficult to master. The eye-contact exercises are intimidating. The come-hither arm movements are awkward. Sliding down the wall isn’t so bad, though rolling on the floor seems downright silly. I don’t feel alluring. I feel like a beast. I don’t feel confident. I feel like crap, and I want to cry. But I suck it up and draw small, slow circles in the air with my pelvis.
And somewhere between the first slow step and the 100th hip roll, I forget all about my pork belly.
It happens slowly. It’s not as though one minute I am uptight and the next I am undulating freely. I just keep going through the motions, rolling my hips, arching my back, stroking my stomach. I feel more like dirty socks than dirty sex, but I keep on because sometimes you just have to go beyond your comfort zone. Sometimes pain equals personal growth.
The instructor says, “Don’t think.” So I let my mind go blank. She says, “There is no wrong way.” So I quit watching myself in the mirror. She says, “Just let go.” So I dance.
And I dance.
And I dance.
And when the music stops, I am floating somewhere over Southlake. And I don’t hate myself one bit. I am not ashamed of my body or of what I’ve been doing; I’m just sorry there aren’t more people who can see me. I am exhilarated. I feel brave and empowered.
I am not alone in my transformation. One woman, a 39-year-old mother whose husband thinks she’s at a scrapbooking class, is so moved that she cries. She says she will probably never show her husband what she learned. “I did this for me,” she tells the class. We nod our heads in support and agreement.
I learned a lot more that day than how to take off my shirt seductively. For one, exotic dancing is hard: you sweat, your thighs burn, the shoes hurt your feet—and that’s if you don’t fall and break your neck. It gave me a new respect for the job that strippers do. But more than that, I found out that when you act sexy and self-confident—even if it seems unnatural at first—you are sexy and self-confident.
I don’t envy strippers anymore. And I don’t want to be one. They might still make more money than I do, but being me will work just fine, thank you.
Allison Hatfield is a freelance writer and Dallas expat living in New York.