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Dancer in the Dark

Everything I Needed to Know in Life I Learned Dancing in a Cage

By Jayson Gallaway

A couple of years ago I wandered into a bondage-themed nightclub looking for some good music and walked out with a job as a dancer. My descent into the weird world of fetish would provide many solid, pith-helmeted anthropological conclusions regarding the human condition.

To wit:

  • Everybody looks better in the dark.

  • Being onstage makes you really attractive, even if you are really not.

  • Females are very, very different from males.

  • There are some seriously disturbed people walking around free in our society.

    Night #1

    IT WAS A DARK and stormy night. Literally. I had just moved to the Bay Area and was dead broke. I knew some people who worked the door at the Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco who told me the music they played on Wednesday nights was right up my proverbial alley and never mind that it was a bondage club--there were really cute girls with complex hair and tight, plastic clothing there. And I could get in for free. Free is good. And so off I went into a night that would change my life forever.

    My first impression of the club: lots of smoke, lasers and torches. A chain-link fence surrounds the dance floor on three sides. A glance to the right shows a girl removing her top and putting her arm around a statue of a crying angel. She poses this way while a guy with alarmingly greasy hair snaps her picture. She then nonchalantly replaces her top and the two head for the dance floor.

    A very petite girl sidles up to the bar next to me, alone, forcing herself to appear like she is having the time of her life, although she obviously is not. I feel sorry for her, sort of, so I try to strike up a conversation, asking her name. This quickly gets far more complicated than it really ought to be. She doesn't speak a hell of a lot of English. After much verbal wrangling and screaming at each other over what seems to be an ever-crescendoing level of noise, it is established to some degree of clarity that her name is Yvi and she is an exchange student from Hamburg, Germany. I try to bring the dialogue to a quick close, but she has fingered me as a nice guy and wants to talk more. Our intercourse is, needless to say, somewhat problematic.

    "So how long have you been in America?" I yell.

    "Vhat?"

    "How long have you been in America?"

    God only knows what she says in reply, but I nod at her encouragingly like I hear and comprehend. She starts talking about something and seems to like whatever it is she is talking about because she keeps nodding and smiling excitedly. The truth is I can't hear a goddamn word she is saying. But I nod every few seconds and laugh when she does. She seems to get a lot of enjoyment out of the conversation.

    Three potent cocktails having been dispatched, I head for the main room and circle the perimeter of the dance floor. It is very dark, both literally and sartorially. Everybody's hair seems to be bluish-black or some other color not occurring in nature. There are lots of fake breasts. Everybody is dressed in leather, lace or plastic. And no one can dance. I mean, not really. Some of them know a few steps, but none of them seem to have any real sense of rhythm.

    The dance floor is more or less surrounded by a catwalk where the "beautiful people"--the people who never pay the cover, the people the DJ calls every week to make sure they're going to show up, et cetera--dance. They are not so much dancing as writhing ecstatically. Four girls and one guy. Their respective dancing abilities (in my patently subjective opinion) range from OK to downright shitty. We're talking about them having not only no rhythm, which can be easily compensated for by looking really damn good, but also no style whatsoever.

    I quickly decide that it would be in everyone's best interest if I just jumped onstage and did my thing.

    I am up there a good four seconds before someone starts grabbing at my 14-hole Doc Martens. I look down to find a very attractive, heavily tattooed mulatto girl, wearing a tight, plastic nurse's outfit (which, by the way, yowza), looking rather unappreciative of my efforts. Her mouth is moving, but given the Wagnerian volume of the music, looking down at her is like watching a soft-core porno with the mute on.

    But she keeps tugging at my damn boot like it's her job (which, I was about to find out, it is). So I lean down to hear what she has to say, and she screams a line that (although I don't know it yet) I will find myself saying literally hundreds of times over the next two years: "You can't be up here--only dancers are allowed up here!"

    Just what in the hell did she think I was doing, I ask her in slightly less severe terms.

    "No," she shouts back, "it's for the club's dancers--the employees!"

    You mean these--these--poseurs are getting paid? I couldn't believe it. Again, keeping in mind the cocktails, it should come as no small surprise that I, the normally shy guy who has never even asked a girl to dance, shout back with almost papal authority, "Why don't we call this an audition?" She looks annoyed but then looks me up and down, slightly less annoyed, and says, "All right, one song."

    Heh. I feel a sense of victory, however temporary. So, for the next three minutes I dance like a pyromaniac on fire. Evidently I pass the audition. "My name is Colette," she says afterward. "I manage the dancers. Meet me at the bar in an hour and we'll talk."

    So, in an hour, I find Colette and her lovely outfit holding court at the bar. She is, as one would expect, surrounded by admirers of both sexes, not only because she is attractive, but also because she is management. She has status in the club scene, and in the club scene, status is very important. She sees me and smiles. "I'm sorry about being so rude to you at first--I didn't know you wanted a job."

    Neither did I.

    "So here's the deal," she says. "I'll put you on the schedule. You'll be on every other week, $75 a night. Plus you'll get a bunch of drink tickets you can use yourself or give to friends or whatever. Oh yeah, and you get to put two people on the guest list every week."

    Hot Damn.

    Night #2

    GULP. It is with very mixed feelings that I drive to the club that second night. On the one hand, I feel pretty damned stoked. I am officially "cool." On the other hand, I now have contractual obligations to fulfill that include getting in front of a couple hundred people while dressed in tight, plastic clothes and savagely shaking my ass (among other things). While I know a lot of people do a lot more crazy things than that for a living, this was very new ground for me.

    Colette introduces me to the girls, all of whom are very nice. As she puts on her clothes, she tells us where we are going to be "stationed" that night. I am to be on the main stage. Gulp again. So, at 10:30pm, we all climb to our respective perches and begin to shake our booties. It is a very strange thing, indeed, to find yourself on a stage in a bondage club with no shirt on and a red spotlight shining down on you, and a whole bunch of jaded, cynical party-goers looking up as if to say, "OK--so now what?" and to know that if you don't shake your ass now, well, that bad things will happen.

    So the next song starts and I actuate my ass and I block out the couple hundred people in front of me and in about 45 seconds I am having the time of my life.

    Anthropological Observation: Bond-age flicks play on several monitors around the club. After a while I am relaxed enough to sort of watch them while I'm onstage. Amazing. There is no actual sex in these things. Just a whole bunch of people dressed like nightmares, wearing gas masks, spanking each other and binding each other's genitalia tightly until it turns all colors of the rainbow. But no sex.

    The time flies. At 1 in the morning, Colette comes by and tells me I did an incredible job and hands me an envelope full of money and asks me if I can come back the following week; she's going to fire the other guy.

    Sure, I say. And with that I head up to the sweaty, naked dressing room with three girls.

    After toweling off and putting on street clothes, I come down just in time to catch the infamous announcement the DJ makes every night at closing, which goes like this: "If you are not working here or sleeping with someone who works here, you must get out now." I am hanging out simply because I can, when I see a minor squabble occurring near the bar. It is Yvi. She is arguing with one of the bouncers and pointing with emphasis at me. He turns around and looks at me: "Is she sleeping with you?" I am the definition of nonplussed. "Sure," I say. Why not?

    THAT WAS the first night of many that I would disappoint the hell out of some girl who assumed that because I was onstage at a bondage club that I was (a) some sort of porn star, (b) the owner of some absurd array of sadistic torture devices and love toys, and/or (c) single and available.

    The boring truth is that I have never been in a porno. I'm not at all into bondage and find the people who are a little odd. Don't get me wrong--I enjoy being handcuffed by a loved one as much as anyone else--every once in a while. But whips and chains and leather masks with zippers where the mouth should be are a bit over the line for me. And I had a girlfriend during my tenure as a dancer, to whom I was very faithful.

    Anthropological Observation: A heterosexual male dancer does not get as many offers for anything resembling "normal" sex as one might think. Here's what I mean. The female dancers that I worked with almost always had to have a bouncer nearby, because inevitably some jackass who'd had a few too many would come up and proposition carnal acts or attempt to grope, etc. Not so in reverse. Where guys will approach a female dancer and just lay (as it were) everything right out there in the open, girls just stare. Not once did a girl come up and proposition me. They would stare. I would see a girl maybe 40 feet away, leaned up against a rail, staring directly at me for hours. But they would never approach. Occasionally, those under the influence would approach and smile chemically, but if I so much as looked or smiled back at them, they would giggle and run off. Over the years, I was approached by a few men who wanted things as varied as my participation in a gay bachelor party to watching me have sex with their wives, which wives, by the way, if they were there as well, stayed a good distance away and waved eager acknowledgment when their husbands pointed them out.

    None of these offers were accepted.

    So on nights when a girl would sort of latch on to me basically because there was no one else to latch on to, and find herself with no place to go and no way to get there even if there was someplace to go, I would, in a very Christlike gesture of compassion, take in a stray or two. Or three. Yvi was such a case. She stayed at my apartment for three days until her flight back to Hamburg. She was a very nice girl and I think very pleasantly surprised to find I was a very nice, normal guy with a graduate degree who just had an unusual job. Others were not quite so understanding.

    Jayson Gallaway
    Do a Little Dance: Author Jayson Gallaway, far right, on a typical night at the Trocadero Transfer.

    Night #7

    I KNOW THAT saying you go to a bondage club because of the good music is tantamount to claiming your subscription to Hustler is for the insightful articles. But it was true in my case. Yet I was finding myself getting unwittingly more and more immersed in the bondage scene.

    The Bay Area is home to a thriving and surprisingly large bondage/fet-ish/S&M community. On any night of the week, Joe Masochist can find two or three well-organized events to attend. And as sort of ambassadors of pain, the dancers I was working with and I would go to some of these events to hand out flyers and flirt with people to try to drum up new business for the club. As I said before, I was not into bondage to begin with, and after visiting that culture for a while, I was into it even less.

    Real bondage clubs (not like the club where I was dancing, which was a centrally located, very public nightclub with a bondage theme) are very spooky places. Imagine "The Gimp" scene in Pulp Fiction mixed with Jame Gumb's basement in Silence of the Lambs and you're on the right track. Every bondage club I went to was, it seemed, a dark, cavernous place. Cold, emotionless techno music pounds from unseen sources in every room. In addition to the absence of real light, there is also the transgender factor to deal with. Most of the men you see are men, but many of the women you see are men as well. And there are some creatures that simply defy categorization: stunning supermodel types who are 7 feet tall in their heels, with voices a good octave deeper than mine; unearthly "she-he's" to whom not even the term "hermaphroditic" applies. There are also people you just know have lengthy criminal records, with crappy blue-and-black prison tattoos, who have obviously ceased taking their professionally dispensed medication some time ago and now here they are, dressed up horrifically and looking for love or the next best thing.

    The first of these gatherings I attended with an attractive dancer who calls herself Zoe. In the cab on the way there I studied the flyer for the event. It made me want to go home and pull the covers up over my head: "Hide-bound hell! Bitches gag, choke and beg for forgiveness from our masters. See you on the second floor, dungeon brats! Whip- snapping Doms ride, cro, and humiliate undeserving wimps! Their puny whimpering only inspires a vicious contempt and yet more severe punishment! Maggots submit! Cross-dressers, submissive men, ass beatings, leather-lovin', dominant women and amputees."

    Amputees? I actually said that out loud in the cab. Zoe just laughed. "Yeah, they're a real trip."

    Terrif.

    We are both dressed completely in leather and plastic, with her motif being a schoolgirl from hell, complete with thigh-high patent-leather boots that climb up into a plaid skirt, a see-through top and a dog collar with a leash that I used to lead her around.

    From the outside, this place looks like just another warehouse in a suburban industrial district, except for two menacing, leather-clad men standing outside the door, the dim light from the inside providing scarcely more illumination than the streetlights. We step inside the makeshift "foyer" that has many supposedly inducing signs and promises of things to come (as it were). The most prominent reads, "No Pain, No Pleasure," which leads at least one person (that being me) to wonder then just what the hell we are coming here for.

    We enter and have to sign the Contract/Waiver. Everyone has to sign it. It is perhaps the most unusual document I've ever put my name to. By signing it, Zoe and I agree to:

  • Not engage in unsafe sex with each other or anyone else we meet during the night. (The club had placed baskets of condoms, lubrications, gloves, Saran Wrap, alcohol--the sterilizing kind, not the drinking kind--and water pretty much everywhere around the premises.)

  • Not touch anyone who does not want to be touched, and generally respect everyone's space and boundaries.

  • Not exchange sex for money, drugs or anything else.

    And into the club we go.

    In one room people have signed up either themselves or the person(s) they have brought to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, with proceeds going to AIDS research.

    The next chamber is a workout room complete with free weights and various Nazi-looking Nautilus contraptions. This spot is very popular with the more "normal" section of the evening's demographic. There are a few strippers in regular clothes, looking like they just got off work, with their jock/bouncer boyfriends in there, giving lap dances to their jock/bouncer boyfriends on the weight machines. All rated PG-13.

    Then we come to a very strange place indeed. Another cavernous room, this one full of teepees. Yeah, teepees, as in the kind Indians live in. But the inhabitants of these teepees have nothing in common with the Indians of the Old West, save for the fact that they are not wearing a hell of a lot. The teepees (there are about 20 of them) are lit from the inside. On some of them the flaps are closed, the occupants wanting at least a modicum of privacy.

    Finally, we come upon a teepee whose flap is open, revealing a very adipose man who actually does have a Native American cast to him, naked as the truth and posing languidly as if expecting someone to come in and have some sort of porno powwow with him. Maybe smoke his peace pipe.

    AS ZOE AND I PROCEED further into the darkness, it becomes evident that this place is set up rather like Dante's Inferno, each level we descend more dark and spooky than the last. After we've successfully navigated the Carnal Frontier, we proceed further, down a flight of stairs, into what could pass easily as De Sade's Day Care Center. I grip Zoe's leash tightly as we wander carefully through the darkness. She runs into a photographer from a local adult newspaper and poses for several pictures.

    Psychological Observation: I consider myself to be fairly hale, psychologically. I don't have nightmares after watching scary movies, I never felt any unnatural attraction to my mother and I have never done cruel things to small animals. In other words, I don't spook easily. However, check this out: There was only one amputee I saw that night, and I have a dark suspicion that he was corralled at the last minute by the organizers to fulfill the promises stated on their promotional flyers. Let me tell you, in my few decades on this planet, I have seen NOTHING more genuinely disturbing than watching a man, obviously homeless, sitting on a floor in a dungeon, leaned up against a wall, eating popcorn out of his prosthetic leg which is propped up next to him while "people" of both sexes occasionally ask if he will "nub" them.

    As is typical with such events, only about three of the hundred or so people I see naked should be naked. And one of them is Zoe. All in all, though there are definitely some interesting sights to behold, it is not a whole hell of a lot of fun. Emerging from the depths of the dungeon and stepping back onto the civilized streets, I find myself feeling as if I've been rolling around in the sewer. And I'm looking at people suspiciously. And I will never be able to eat popcorn again.

    Night #15

    AS IS THE CASE with every nightclub, the one where I danced was kept afloat by its "regulars," patrons who would attend each and every week, regardless. It could be Christmas Eve--these people would be there. In fact, I can guarantee you that several people who had been regulars long before I even moved to the Bay Area can still be found there this week. Guaranteed.

    One such regular (it seems funny to use that term to describe some of the most irregular people I had ever met) was known as Boot Boy. I first met Boot Boy by kicking him in the ribs. No joke. One night, as I was walking to the bar during a break to get a bottle of water, one of my heavily booted feet came into hard contact with a substantial mass of protoplasm on the floor. Now, before I tell you what he was doing, let me just tell you a little bit about the floors of nightclubs. They are not clean. They have been trod upon, danced on, sweated on, puked on, bled on, snot-rocketed on, et cetera, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. They are miasmic. There are grates on the drains of showers in state prisons that are cleaner than the floors of a nightclub.

    That having been said, I looked down with some surprise to find a person, apparently male, in a sort of vertical fetal position, that of extreme supplication. He was apparently too engrossed in his present activity to give much of a damn about the unintentional kick to the ribs I had just given him. The engrossing activity was that of licking, passionately and thoroughly (we're talking about even the soles) the shoes of a very pulchritudinous goth chick. Now, I would imagine this sickness to at least be taken by its recipient as a form of extreme flattery. This girl hardly acknowledged Boot Boy's presence. In hindsight, maybe she didn't know he was down there. But she had to, because he had a killer grip on her boot and was really licking the hell out of this thing. My tolerance for weirdness already geographically higher than most people from working in this club for so long, I didn't pay that much attention to it. I got my water and stepped carefully over him as I headed back for the stage.

    Turns out that Boot Boy was a very regular irregular and everybody knew him. He was a decent-looking guy, normal in a Jeffrey Dahmer sort of way, who would go around to all the girls in the club and ask them politely if he could lick their footwear, in much the same manner as other, more traditional males ask if they might buy a woman a drink. A lot of women told him to go jump, but many allowed him, some rather tolerantly, others downright enthusiastically. By all accounts, the guy was totally harmless and sincerely just wanted to lick women's footwear. His lingual salutes were never followed by sleazy segues, either subtle or blatant, for sex. He just wanted to lick chicks' shoes. One night I was walking Zoe to her car and she brought Boot Boy along with us. Zoe essentially lived out of her car, crashing wherever, and so had most of her worldly belongings in her trunk. Among the myriad of oddities in her trunk were several pairs of worn-out stripper heels and patent leather boots. Speaking from experience, the shoes of a dancer are not something to be hungered for in any way, on any level, in any sense. But Boot Boy was willing to shell out $60 for four pairs of Zoe's old boots, which God only knows what the hell he did with them once he got them into the privacy of his sanctum, but I'd rather not even like to speculate right now.

    Jayson Gallaway

    Night #23

    NEW YEAR'S EVE. Hot damn. They say that whatever you are doing when the clock hits midnight on New Year's is what you will be doing for the rest of the year, more or less. The previous year, I was alone and drunk, and that was the way the year flowed, for the most part. So it was with ferocious excitement that I looked forward to being onstage, half-naked and being ogled by a bunch of cute, drunk women when the midnight moment arrived.

    And so it went. I got to the club fairly early that night to avoid traffic and parking problems. I walked into the dressing room and found an extremely attractive woman putting on makeup. I didn't know it at the time, but it was Lydia Lunch. Much better looking than I had imagined. She smiled at me and we had a moment, but that was it.

    So we hit the stage at exactly midnight. There was supposed to be some sort of balloon drop, but it didn't come off at the precise moment and a bunch of bouncers armed with sticks and broom handles beat the contraption like a piñata until it broke and the balloons rained down.

    At about 2 in the morning, a girl appears at the foot of my stage, staring directly up at me, her face almost parallel to the ground. She looks reasonably attractive at that angle, in that light (see Anthropological Observation below), which is good, because she makes it rather obvious that she really doesn't want to be anywhere in the world but right there. God only knows what she's on, but it seems to be giving her the uncanny ability to stare at me for like 15 minutes without blinking. Soon she is stroking my calf, which is not only impairing my ability to dance and putting her in danger of being kicked in the head, but is giving me a strong case of the creeps. I hand her about 53 drink tickets and send her toward the bar. I will regret doing so before the sun rises on this dark day.

    Anthropological Observation: It is no accident that all nightclubs are very, very dark and that the patrons of such clubs are encouraged to drink heavily. People, on the whole, look better in the dark and through eyes that are under the influence. The occasional flash of laser or strobe gives hints of another's appearance, but really notable physical faults, blemishes or absences are easily hidden in such an environment. It is, conversely, no accident that the quickest way to clear a club out at the end of the night is to turn on all the house lights, revealing the true appearance of the person with whom one was just considering copulating in all their fluorescent horror.

    OK, 4 in the morning, January 1. There's the DJ: "If you do not work here or sleep with someone who does, you need to leave now." On come the lights. As people clear out quickly, I see a bouncer helping the girl to whom I gave the drink tickets down the stairs. She is in what used to be called "a bad way."

    "This one belong to you?" he asks.

    Her eyes sort of open and she straightens slightly with recognition: "You take me home."

    The phalanx of cabs that had been waiting with anticipation outside the club has been quickly depleted. She is alone, barely vertical and quite obviously without the ability to get home. The bouncer sort of lays her at my feet.

    Shit.

    Somehow I get her in my car and ask her where she lives. She leans the seat back.

    "The Mission," she says. "Drive to 19th Street."

    About halfway there she pulls up what I suppose is technically a skirt, revealing a surprisingly tasteful and minimalist choice in G-strings. Red, heavy on lace while not really being heavy on anything. And just like that it is pulled to the side and she begins moaning and doing R-rated things. Then X-rated things. I almost wreck the car three times in one block.

    "Pull over," she starts moaning. "Pull over now." For a second I think maybe she's going to be sick, but what she does next makes it clear that she's feeling just fine. And then it happens. She passes out. Cold. Dead weight. Great. It is 4:30am on New Year's Day; I am a white boy with dreadlocks in a really bad neighborhood with a dangerously naked girl whose name I never knew unconscious and horizontal in my car and not even a slightly believable explanation to give the police if they were to stop me and ask questions. More attempts to rouse her. More failure. I have to take her to my house.

    Into the bedroom she goes, removing her clothes (except for her boots) with surprising ease (she leaves the boots on), and falls onto the bed.

    "Come here," she moans sloppily.

    "Nope," I say. "You're on the couch."

    She is suddenly very, very sober.

    "What? What are you? Some kind of fag?"

    "Nope. Gotta girlfriend. Who, by the way, would probably kick both our asses just knowing you slept on the couch."

    After a whole lot of bad static, I'm the one sleeping on the couch, exacting my vengeance in the morning when I wake her up at 8am and put her hungover ass in a cab.

    Quitting Time

    On an autumn night in 1998, when the Trocadero was being rented to a hip-hop radio station, an altercation ended with one guy shooting another guy in the chest. The city instantly revoked the Trocadero's after-hours permit, effectively closing it.

    The bondage club moved to a different venue, Colette quit and I became the manager, a position I held for about a year. Being manager entailed corralling strippers, and cajoling them to be at a certain place at a certain time. A gross generalization here, but strippers tend, on the whole, to be not the most reliable people. Unless it's some prepaid bachelor party, your chances are, at best, 50-50 that a stripper will show up (if at all) on time to anything, including her own wedding.

    Wrangling strippers is not a fun thing to do. One girl showed up after, like, four consecutive absences, acting like no transgression had occurred. She (and many others) slipped into this weird cutsie/flirty mode that most dancers or really somehow attractive women (and men, I suppose) slip into which allows them to think that sticking their chests out and blinking excessively will redeem them from all wrongdoing. No dice. And just so you know, strippers don't take rejection well at all.

    Another aspect that killed off the fun factor was my role as manager evolving into press liaison. Whenever it came time to do a feature on the hottest clubs of the Bay Area, or Weirdest Tourist Attractions or whatever, the local press would send a photographer and reporter out to talk to us. Since the guys that actually ran the club kept a Masonic air of distance and secrecy around them (I didn't even meet them until I had worked there for a year), the reporters usually approached the dancers, who would point them to me. Got my picture in a few papers, but the comments were pretty minimal. What was I going to say? That I found most of the people here, at best, harmless and not even a fraction as interesting as the reporter was hoping, and, at worst, pathetic bootlickers that probably devoted a good portion of their nonclub time to role-playing games with other people who were old enough to know better? No. Even my dancing was becoming uninspired. What used to be my version of couch time and catharsis was, alas, becoming just another job. And that was no good for either the club or me.

    And so one day I quit. There were a variety of reasons and no real reason whatsoever for my departure. It wasn't even a good, honest quitting; I just didn't show up the next week or any other week. I was just finished.

    The club is still open and I hear a variety of reviews about it, ranging from "It's pretty cool" to "It's sucked ever since you left. You should come back." I consider it sometimes, especially when I find myself at home on Wednesday nights like this one, alone, watching public access TV and thinking the cat box really needs to be cleaned.

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  • From the November 30-December 6, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

    Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

    For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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