JO - Exotic dancers or strippers?
Exotic dancers or strippers?
Sunday, October 29, 2006
In the late 1960s when I first became aware of the phenomenon known as 'go-go' dancing, that is, pretty, shapely, mini-skirted or bikini-clad young women bumping and grinding on a raised stage in the smoke-filled, subdued lighting of a noisy night club, the word 'exotic', as used to describe them today, was not a concern to the male patrons.
In fact, the word 'exotic' conjured up a south sea island, copper-skinned girl ebbing and flowing her hips like trapped honey in motion via the silver screen of Hollywood. The 'exotic' girl in those movies was usually a servant working for a household comprising a young, married, white-skinned couple.
Somewhere in the script, jungle fever befalls the husband and his first taste of island heat leaves him in wild, untamed, glorious love with the 'exotic' servant. The screenplay must face up to the social realities of bigotry so there is no space for the man to love her, she to love him back and they both elope and live happily ever after in the sweet throes of bigamy. Such a conclusion would attack the sensibilities of the movie-goers and the film would bomb out at the box office.
So the exotic young lady must lose everything. To save the marriage, she must go, back to her village to face those who mocked her for spurning her own kind. She must then free him and give him back to 'her', then she must immerse herself in self-hate and the stares of the village man who wants to kill her because she rejected him for 'him'.
Towards the end, the husband and wife are back in the big city. The wife is happy. She can afford to, being 3,000 miles away from her husband's exotic temptation.The husband spends sleepless hours trying to relive what he doesn't have, never will have again. The ripping agony of it eats at his soul, and, to salvage his life and move on, he opts for his predictably boring, general-issue wife and tells himself he is happy.
Three thousand miles away, the dark-skinned exotic is pictured on a high cliff with her hair being teased and tossed by the unrelenting wind. Tears are flowing as she hugs a picture of Massa Bob, the pale-skinned man who would never again taste honey that sweet. Suddenly the rocks below seem inviting. She dances into the wind and the open space and floats down towards the rocks to end her pain. That was the 'exotic' I knew.
In the 1960s, there was no Internet, cell phones or cable TV. Information filtered up and down at snail's pace. Not so with go-go dancing. We borrowed the term 'go-go' from US clubs of the same name and the mini-skirted, above-ankle length-shoed young women who danced in them. At first go-go dancers did not strip naked, although there were a few sleazy clubs like Coolshade at Torrington Bridge which had unusually ugly young women stripping to the delights of half drunk old men and eager younger ones seeking a little bit of paradise on earth.
I spent the last year of my teen years observing these young ladies. At The Keg on Orange Street, dancing began at 11:00 am. If one chose to embellish the last 10 minutes of one's lunchtime with an eyeful of lust and just a tincture of liquid taste, the place to walk into at 12:50 pm was The Keg, not exactly the cheapest place in town at the time.
Coming out of the bright sunlight and into the darkness of The Keg would routinely bring about a sudden stop for first-time patrons. For the veteran, as I would fast become, it was simple. Push the door, enter, stand aside with eyes closed for about 15 seconds. Slowly open the eyes and focus on the lit stage.
In less than a minute, the eyes become accustomed to the dark and the new range of contrasts and then, there was 'Cynthie' (not her real name), the most beautiful dancer at the time.
For the few at the time who heard the term 'exotic dancer', what was formed in the mind was a beautiful, young woman in some night club in America trying to fool us into believing that she was something more than just a glorious stripper. As far as young men in Jamaica were concerned, the attractive young women working in popular clubs like The Keg on lower Orange Street, Rhapsody up Orange Street near to the fire station and those other clubs on 'the strip' on Red Hills Road such as Stable, El Rancho, Senasta, etc were all 'go-go' dancers.
With Cynthie it was different. Men saw her and wanted to run away from home and into her favours. She was young, sinfully beautiful and she made men forget their troubles by her cute smile and infectious laughter.
Sleaze clubs and dancers
During the 1960s and early 1970s, nightlife downtown Kingston was still exciting and viable. The terrorist gunman had not yet surfaced. Downtown, there were many restaurants, from the large, well-patronised Cathay on Orange Street, the posh Pauls 104 and VIP Lounge and eatery on Harbour Street to many other small greasy spoons in China town and along North Parade.
Houses of 'ill repute' were liberally sprinkled all along Hanover Street and, from my first observation of them in 1969 I found it difficult to believe that the male of the human species could so easily lie with women who were very obviously short on pleasant facial looks. And pay for the 'pleasure' of doing so.Most of the local men who patronised these dives, or dark holes as I saw them, were themselves very short on social graces, patience and good looks, so in a perverse way Mr Ugly Man could find the 'tick a bush' for his hoe. In time, Mr Ugly Man would soon be short on cash.
The main entertainment downtown was oftentimes just being there amid the hustle and bustle of human activity. In my early 20s, it was easy for me to reminisce on the times when my mother, father, sisters and brothers would head for downtown on Christmas morning. No Christmas was complete without that yearly pilgrimage. Today, it seems an almost impossible task that Daddy (86 years old in July) and Mama (died one year ago) could take eight children (on JOS buses) out at any one time. They did it though, year after year until we outgrew Santa Claus.
For men downtown, after hours was where all action existed. As it came to young men that Coolshade night club at Torrington Bridge was bordering on forbidden territory, all roads led to it on a Friday evening after ritual stops at Keg and Rhapsody.
Go-go dancers at those clubs were never nude in the beginning, and many of them were quite skilled at 'creative' dancing. At some later stage, Keg had an ante room behind the main stage and up a flight of stairs. One paid extra for the already expensive drinks for the pleasure of viewing these 'special' dancers to whom nudity was seemingly becoming easier as the applause, guffaws and tips kept rolling along. It became a status symbol to climb the stairs.
It was always a 'special' treat if the unclad dancer on stage was a 'browning'. As it is now, Jamaican black-skinned men in the 1960s and 1970s had 'a thing' for light-skinned women. The establishment downtown catered for this 'secret' erotic urge.For those who preferred raw sleaze, Coolshade existed. As I said before, that club made no pretence that a display of artistry was its main objective. At one stage I actually saw pretty 'exotic' dancers trying to make like they were ballet dancers. A sound 'boo' from the tough section of the patrons would put an abrupt end to that experiment.
There were risqué songs at the time (unfit for airplay) from Max Romeo, Clancy Eccles, Prince Buster, and later an entire album from a group which called itself, appropriately, Lloydie and the Lowbites. These songs were crudely sexual, and as they blared from the speakers and a go-go stepped up to the stage, we knew what to expect.
As liberal and worldly as I thought I was and skirting on the edge of riotous living as most young men do at some point in their 'dangerous' years, once these awful-looking girls began to 'dance' it got me most upset. Quite apart from the fact that certain gadgets were being used by these girls, the reality is, the crudity which they performed on stage had no resemblance to go-go dancing. The seeds were already planted for a later tomorrow.
Most of the habits formed briefly by young men of those times and in those locations were, in ways, representative of how our young minds viewed young women. We were quite certain about what a pretty girl did not have to do to get a man to chase her, woo her, sing songs to her, write poetry and just generally make a damn fool of himself.
It may have been unfair, but in our foolish minds we knew for certain what a girl short on good looks had to do to get a male of the human species to pay her a second visit. In macho Jamaica, 'a nuh nutten'. We saw the whole approach as a balance between the law of bullish demand for beautiful women and the endless supply of those who were not so strong on good looks.
Although there were other night clubs which began to employ girls who would go the extra mile on stage, in time the crude nudity became boring. Enter the type of dancer who wanted to classify herself as 'exotic'. This dancer could balance a glass of water on her forehead as she went though her slow contortions. Not a drop of water was ever spilled. But as the exotic stuff dragged on, the cries for the risqué moves rang out again.
In the mid 1970s, the terrorist gunman surfaced in the name of PNP and JLP politics. By the end of the decade of the 1970s, downtown Kingston as we had known it in the days leading up to the 1960s was dead. The heart of Kingston the city stopped its beating and by 1980, burnt-out buildings and little two-stool bars were all that were left. In the name of politics and the fight for power, the capital city was killed.
New Kingston and Red Hills Road entertainment
By then, of course, there was New Kingston. That particular locality was seen at its inception as a rich man's stomping ground after some fine restaurants such as House of Chen and Restaurant Korea were set up. Although medium-priced eateries such as the one which used to be in Spanish Court were in place, those with raunchy entertainment on their minds and compressed budgets headed to 'the Strip' on Red Hills Road.
In the 1970s and well into the 1980s, Red Hills Road - from Elizabeth Avenue to Purity Bakery - was the life of affordable entertainment in the Kingston Metropolitan Area. The Strip had more than its fair share of nightclubs, but they all seemed to be doing well. And, of course, on a Friday or Saturday night the clubs were filled with businessmen, politicians, senior policemen, 'dons' and those who wanted to be close to the action on The Strip.
The go-go clubs then made attempts to retrace their steps to employing more graceful dancers on their many stages, but the demand was for more of the raunchy stuff. At one stage at a go-go club, entertainment was pushed to the limit when 'sick' male patrons and some dancers decided that copulating on stage could somehow mesh with what the times dictated was raunchy entertainment.
Fast fading beauty
One night in the mid-1980s, me and two friends paid a visit to the club. It was months before the 'interactive' stage erotica began. There was a girl on stage going through the motions as if dancing was the last thing on her mind. There was something familiar about her, but I could not quite place her.
In any event, the boredom on her face and the excess and terribly uneven weight distribution did not quite fit into the 'go-go' dancer profile. Then I remembered that that club was seen as a halfway house for 'exotic' dancers who were on the verge of becoming extinct. Once the girls lost their shape and found it difficult to move on the stage due to the excess fat, there were some clubs which would hire them at cut-rate prices. However, the drawback was, they had to do what the operators wanted.
As the girl on stage finished her boring routine, I watched her as she lumbered down the steps and approached me. Unknown to me at the time were the real problems many of the dancers were facing as they entered the late 30s and too many nights of Appleton and Coke and late night fried chicken had transformed their once beautiful bodies into something which would be better employed in an occupation off the stage.
"Hi Mark," she said. One of my friends turned to me and whispered, "Boy, is how dem mek she still dancing? Is whey yu know her from?"
I was staring at her while on the verge of forming a name in my mouth. "Mark, yu nuh have fi mek it look so bad. Mi know sey mi nuh look like when mi did down a Keg," she said.Immediately I said her name. "Cynthie?" She tried to smile but it didn't quite come off. Then she told me that she had had three children, about the same number of abortions and because she had lost her physical beauty, the pay was poor and she had to be hustling. 'Hustling' in that sense meant selling her sexual favours, something not uncommon to go-go dancers.
After pretending that she was the same sparkling comet that she was in the 1960s, she saved me from my own embarrassment by saying, "Mark stop it, mi fat an mi ugly". I enquired about her children, her health, the possibility of her leaving the business, but by then she was trapped.
She could only move the most despicable patrons and she hated them to even touch her. But she had to bear it, as she knew no other 'profession', and even when she hustled, sometimes there would be fights and she would end up the worst for it with maybe broken teeth, a swollen eye and bruises all over her upper body.
Beatings, fights common among 'exotics'
She reminded me of another girl I knew when I was involved in a night club being operated by a female relative of mine in the mid-1970s. She was a go-go who had a policeman as boyfriend. Most nights as she prepared to leave there were at least two men waiting on her (at four am) excluding her boyfriend. Almost every night as she arrived for work, my relative had to apply make-up to hide the beating she had suffered the night before.
Still she became inured to the beatings and the foundation on her face as life dished out to her an unfair hand. The last time I saw her was in the late 1980s. I hid from her.
It has been decided by our rulers that the country will no longer import 'exotic' dancers. The Russians will no longer be coming, one way or the other, while the other copper-skinned exotics from Central America will have to smuggle themselves in.
Life is not all it appears to be among go-go dancers. It is a hazardous profession, but as long as the girls are young, beautiful and easy to talk with, the shouts will ring out and the tips will mount up.
The problem, though, is too many of these girls drink way too much alcohol and after a while even the decent ones who figured that they could dance for two years then find another more 'normal' job eventually get sucked into the spiral of loving the tips and the empty compliments from empty men. The years then add up until the beauty fades. By then it's too late.