Life Lessons
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Barely Qualified: Notes From a First-Time Exotic Dance Judge


(Photo: Elena Gatti/

I never saw the Diamond G-String with my own eyes, and I’m not sure if it truly exists.

As prizes go, among prizes for getting naked at least, this alleged jeweled garment has the draw and cachet of a netherworld tiara.

Given every year by a club in Philadelphia — the kind where “gentlemen” appear in quotes alongside “dancers” — this win crowns one girl above the rest.

Forget, for a second, any glass-beaded lingerie. Holding the title alone, she can up her earnings, command more. Bank on prime-time slots on stage, better placement in the floor rounds.

Choose her as a winner, and you can change that stripper’s year. (An intervention that appeals to many of the kind of people who don’t actually frequent strip clubs.)

I say all this only before you ask — so, what kind of connoisseur gets to award this prize?

Who gets to determine what’s hot and coveted by strip-club goers for a whole 12 months?

Well, one year, I did.

* * *

“What would you like, hun? Everything’s available.”

It was 2004, and in the aircraft-hangar sized club space on the north edge of Center City, I had agreed to help preside over the Diamond G-String competition, representing the newspaper I worked for and earning only bragging rights. City journalists, like me, are asked to judge events like this surprisingly often, and rarely said no. To my left, under black-lights, a local gossip columnist and a television weather host in full camera-ready slap were finding out how little they had in common.

[pullquote]The shimmery, dusky boa lay on the catwalk as she turned and dropped her arms for her pastie-reveal.[/pullquote]

This waitress, speaking over me, could have been a competitor herself. I ordered a gin something, and as the waitress returned with open-bar speed, put the drink away fast.

What was I doing here? Unlike Gossip and Weather, I wasn’t going to connect with my readers among the club regulars. I spent most daylight hours writing and editing articles about art. That weird performance installation at a minimalist gallery. Or why this song from this tiny album could make your heart just race.

I looked dispassionately at beautiful stuff all day. Maybe this all left me highly qualified. I would be able to appraise, and be unmoved.

* *

“You’re taking notes.” Gossip was surprised.

Two feet from us, a tall, toned black woman let something feathery fall down her naked back. The shimmery, dusky boa lay on the catwalk as she turned and dropped her arms for her pastie-reveal.

“Trying to remember what I like about them,” I said. The laughter as Gossip keeled forward was lost under a blaring Motown soundtrack.

Scrappily handwriting, I had scratched Feathers a 7.

And, on some level, how dare I? I hadn’t won anything since high school when, collecting a minor sports cup, I appeared onstage as I was — an indie-scruffy reader of music mags. The kind of athlete who made it to crew practice every Saturday largely thanks to pace-keeping Tricky albums.

From one awkward girl to another, I felt some flash of recognition. Feathers may have skipped much eye contact and counted beats, but at least she’d commanded grace and looked comfortable. Best so far.

Within a moment, she and her strewn garments were swept away. I stood, looking for where she had vanished. Against the crush of bros, with their monotonous logo-wear and abrasive-entitlement indoor voices, I wanted to encourage her. To say, “We appreciate you. You are, believe me, excellent.”

But nearing the stage door, I stopped, dwarfed by the bouncer. You get ejected for pestering the talent. Whether you’re a skeevy guy or a squeaky arts reporter trying to befriend an aspiring dancer.

Noise from the center of the room drew me back. A young woman, sternly sitting in a sedan chair, was being carried onstage. A peach fringed outfit and island garlands wrapped around her wildly inflated tan body.

“It’s a Hawaiian princess!” Suddenly, Weather was clapping in her seat.

Each side of Princess’ chair was lifted by a male model. Each of Princess’ breasts was the size of the models’ heads.

Dismounting, she used her four minutes to bend and flex. Draping herself over a slave or two, she let them lift her high while she lay prone in their hands. At the finale, she flipped herself upside-down on the pole. Against her tan, scars popped white under her built-up breasts.

I couldn’t look at her without feeling choked. Her body, molded by choice or maybe by a manager, made it hard for her to move.

“No way anyone beats that.” With the crowd raucously cheering behind her, Weather was standing and applauding.

[pullquote]When she landed, she arched her back, picked up a fat candle and let the wax hit her bare across her ribs.[/pullquote]

Angrily scribbling and upgrading Feather’s score to a 9, I wanted to scrub off my hand-stamp and leave. No way I would preside over rewarding a display that was so stately but gory — and weird. Weirder than an art installation — and here, without mimes or sharks in formaldehyde, the weirdness went weirdly unacknowledged.

I wasn’t allowed to flee, I realized. One more performer was left.

Could I even stand it? I slouched lower in my seat.

Lights dropped — as dark in the club as they’d go. Firelight pricked suddenly from candles, and then a lithe shadow.

A girl had thrown herself out onto the stage in a series of backflips, perilously close to the edge of the jetway. Chords of the Chili Peppers loudened.

As low pink lights met the candlelight, her features blurred.

Dark hair and lips that wore shopping-mall cherry gloss.

Small leather boots, a velvet black bikini. Her violin-shaped frame wasn’t scarred, or implanted. Her body moved, entirely alive.

I looked over at Gossip, who didn’t notice my nod. He was suddenly watching intently, not gazing. Weather placed her jacket on the floor. Suddenly, the evening was far from wrapped up.

I wrote in the dark, “Rebel.” She had set out to break every strip-club convention. Where Princess’ make-up had slid, Rebel wore only eyeliner.

She climbed like an athlete, to the pole’s very top where the crowd strained to see her in the space above the rigged lights.

Roaring from the floor as she spun fast toward the ground. And when she landed, she arched her back, picked up a fat candle and let the wax hit her bare across her ribs.

None of us said anything. Howls from the crowd as she left, as if she had left with their wallets. When I pulled my gaze from the smoke drifting offstage, I looked over, ready to persuade, even enforce, some high scores.

All 10s. Was there anything even to talk about?

“Well, that was aspirational,” I joked aside to Gossip. Word of a scuffle backstage had forced most patrons to head into the parking lot.

I’m not sure Rebel ever came back to the club to perform, because I’m not even sure she was a professional dancer. I do know that for her I dropped those quote-marks. And that subsequent G-String winners have made great use of molten candle wax in their acts. Not all tastefully, but all winners must suffer imitation.

Filed under: Life Lessons


Juliet Fletcher

Juliet Fletcher is a writer and former political reporter now based in New York. For seven years she covered state politics in New Jersey, previously covered arts and culture in Philadelphia and served as a U.S. news contributor for The Glasgow Herald in Scotland. A longstanding advisor on non-fiction writing at the Winter Getaway residential workshop in Galloway, Juliet recently read excerpts of her works of fiction as part of the 2014 Hands-On Literary Festival in New Orleans. Talk to her on Twitter, where she is disguised as @JulietFletcher.

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