Deep in the belly of a south Minneapolis studio loft, 13 twenty-something women stood, poised on a dimly lit dance floor. Some chuckled, some looked shy. As they began to sway their torsos and roll their hips, many of their eyes glazed over. Others licked their lips. The striptease had formally begun.
“All right, ladies, this is called the Rising Goddess,” instructor Morgan Barkus cooed as she rolled her back up into an alluring, come-hither pose.
Gone are the days when Himalayan yoga and soy lattes dominated the Saturday mornings of hip female urbanites. Strip dancing is the new fetishized, get-fit activity, and its infamy is as much a testament to the changing sexual topographies of the American girl as to the ever-transforming ways in which we wiggle. Everyone from college girls to moon-eyed housewives are getting fit on the art of the tease.
After a vigorous pole-dancing routine, bachelorette Jennifer Dalager, 29, sits atop a plush plum-colored loveseat as she catches her breath. A white, feathery crown with an attached veil perches atop her head, and she sports a shirt that says “Bride.”
“It’s good for everybody to do,” Dalager explained. “It’s a whole state of mind.”
Flex Appeal Studios, with its sensual exotic dance classes, is somewhat of an anomaly in the Twin Cities. Founded by Columbia graduate and lifelong dancer Maria Scherber, Flex Appeal is part venue for the seductive arts, part pleasure palace for up-and-coming aerobic ventures. “It’s more about women coming in, in a private space and allowing their bodies to move freely, sensually, unapologetically in ways that other dance studios didn’t offer,” Scherber said.
The studio prides itself on their passion for both exotic dance and aerobics – aside from teaching pole dancing and aerobic stripteasing classes, they teach belly dancing, pole ballet and kickboxing, often to packed classes.
Scherber is a bit of a Renaissance woman. In her life she has enjoyed success in the fine arts and has studied everything from jazz to belly dancing. About 10 years ago, she took a job as a topless dancer and showgirl for Paradise, one of the most posh clubs in Vegas – an experience that she describes as transforming.
“You get this enormous goddess energy when you’re dancing,” Scherber explained of her onstage spectacles in Sin City. “You almost sort of blossom.”
As she shimmied in Club Paradise, she found an outlet of expression and empowerment through her own body’s reclamation of sensual movement. She hopes for the same type of bodily transcendence for the women who visit Flex Appeal.
“It’s all about getting fit and learning how to do provocative and edgy styles of dance,” Scherber explained.
A common misconception is that the studio is a haven for strippers-in-training: It’s not. Women of all backgrounds attend, seeking a renewed sense of their own sex appeal. Scherber is very protective of the women who come in the studio – no men are allowed in the classes. Flex Appeal’s lair includes high-ceilinged studios with wall-length decorative fabrics, leopard and bold printed couches, cocktail relaxation lounges and flirty lighting hues. It’s very private, very positive and very enticing.
The studio is moving April 15 to accommodate more dance poles – they currently have seven, and at the new location they’ll have 11. Other new amenities include a kitchen and lush changing area.
If the spirit moves them, many women fancy peeling off some layers during the more exotic classes. But there’s never any nudity. There are, however, always stripper shoes – located in the bin o’ stilettos – if women really want to relish the act.
“The higher the better!” Scherber laughs.
There’s no question about it: The energy in the classes is amazing. Women love the fact that they get to explore the more risqué sides of themselves. And with the recent attention pop culture has afforded to acts such as the Pussycat Dolls and “Coyote Ugly,” it’s no wonder that females are practically salivating at a chance to swing about a stripper pole.
But the actual cultural positioning of stripper sensationalism is a tad more ambiguous – and problematic – than most Carmen Electra cronies would readily admit.
Ariel Levy, author of “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture,” argues that the new brand of sex-positive feminism, the most apparent form of feminism today, isn’t all that it’s pimped out to be.
Raunch culture – the pornification of American society in which women become willing participants in their own objectification – relies heavily on the “Girls Gone Wild” effect in order to craft Gonzo porn consumers-in-training as well as their post-adolescent bimbo counterparts. Jenna Jameson has replaced Madonna as the girl with the most slutty goodness, and pompous stints like the Suicide Girls and Pam’s Stripperella turn Warp Tour fan-girls into Bettie Paiges. Hip-hop music video mise-en-scene has made the scantily clad stripper a permanent prop. However, the stripper in American society isn’t quite as beloved.
Although it was a combination of Arabian belly dancers and Japanese geishas that made the striptease what it is today, the idolizing of the stripper – as seen in many pop songs like “The Life of a Stripper” – glamorized the notion of a poor girl climbing her way out of the working class cesspool of American urban life. Add the cultural archetype of a black, lascivious female – who already has been reduced to the crumbles of semiotic warfare – and you got yourself a culture obsessed with the art of the tease, with “Othering” and with the idea of woman as a living three-hole Betty.
The Skyway Lounge is a seedy strip club on Hennepin once rumored to employ a one-armed stripper. On a recent Thursday night, the joint is buzzing with its pre-amateur night excitement. Men bent over High Lifes and whiskey sours gather around the perimeter of high-top tables as the dancers take their turns on the stage, gliding and popping around the pole. In the television above the bar, Fox News plays on the screen. The whole place reeks of barebones raunch.
Jasmine, a 20-year-old exotic dancer from Wisconsin, has been working at the club for a little over two weeks. She’s just been learning how to properly jiggle her rear goods, something she admits that many guys expect to see. The act of looking, Jasmine agreed, is a constant element in the sexual exchange. Looking, in its essence, is harmless, but at the clubs you better have some cheddar to back up your gaze.
“Watching in these places isn’t free,” Jasmine wryly explains.
But back at Flex Appeal, a whole different world for women emerges – one that seems to evolve beyond the stale raunch of your average strip dive, where the men aren’t afforded the tyranny of their gaze, as in the strip clubs. It’s all about the ladies, and only afterwards might it become an opulent outlet for your male’s (or female’s) libido.
“Women are a living, moving piece of art, and someone is going to enjoy watching. But the dance itself – it’s for you. It’s about feeling sensual, sexy and free,” explained Barkus.
Flex Appeal wants women to ditch the notion of exotic dancing as a demeaning, objectifying commodity exchange. They’ve elevated it to the level of classy and jazzy, something that women can utilize as a tool to unleash their sexuality.
“There’s a whole social realm that women haven’t yet explored,” explained Barkus.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to a body in motion, one that loves the sensuality of her body’s curvature and writhing, and the more unsullied the women, the better.
“It’s about taking it, owning it and enjoying it, and doesn’t have to be bad or naughty, unless naughty is a good thing,” said Apryl Electra, a local multi-instrumentalist.
However, the art of the striptease will always have its demeaning and contradictory roots. It doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t claim the notion of the striptease for ourselves and have fun doing it. Women – strippers and nonstrippers alike – deserve to have their jollies on the pole. But if sex-positive stripper culture really is here to stay, then we have to have compassion for the oft-stigmatized women that work in the skin industry, day in and day out. We also must be cautious of who is being empowered and who is being oppressed through stripper culture. We can’t simultaneously have both – then we’d be festering into a society of true-blue chauvinist pigs.