A giant Japanese fan complements the Oriental-themed backdrop, but the crowd's attention is focused on the stage's three gleaming brass poles, which rise to meet the twelve-foot ceiling the finest poles in the metro east. Michelle jumps onto the front pole and hoists herself halfway up. Her back muscles ripple as she flips herself upside-down, pulls her top off and then dismounts, spread-eagle.
The music segues into the Cherry Poppin' Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot," and she hops back on. Her arms behind her back, she spins, flips upside-down again and proceeds to blindfold herself with a sash, once attached to her bikini bottom. She does the splits on the ceiling and, still upside down, removes her bottom and brings the heel of her black stiletto down into her mouth.
Michelle Lindsey, that rare stripper who uses her real name, is among four Hustler Club beauties competing for the title of Pole Princess Champion. The winner will walk away with a $500 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to Cincinnati to compete for the national Pole Princess title.
Michelle has won the local championships twice and in 2004 took third place at nationals. Previous accolades, though, will not guarantee victory tonight. Her fate lies instead with a handful of so-called celebrity judges, all regular-Joes without any particular expertise. They include a member of the United States Navy, a truck driver, an unemployed gentleman and a fellow who describes himself as a "filmmaker."
Next up after Michelle is Heather, who makes an impressive entrance from a black coffin but loses points when she's unable to unhook her own top. Marilyn, a jailbait-looking blonde, is better; she dances to Janet Jackson's "Black Cat," with painted-on whiskers and a tail attached to her G-string.
Naudia is a lithe brunette who looks all of 80 pounds as she slithers onto the stage, now set in an "Arabian Nights" theme. The highlight of her audacious act is performed off the pole. She twists, completely naked, into an erotic pretzel, her legs splayed behind her ears. She follows this up with a series of push-ups, her business on full display.
Perhaps the judges were enchanted by Naudia's, um, enchantments, or maybe they just didn't know what to make of Michelle. Whatever the case, Naudia is the winner.
"She's a good pole dancer," offers a diplomatic Michelle afterwards. "These things, you never know how they're going to go. The judges aren't professional, so there's a large amount of subjectivity that goes into who wins."
Sporting a Bettie Page-meets-Suicide Girl-meets-Muscle & Fitness look and an all-natural body, 30-year-old Michelle doesn't fit the mold of a conventional stripper. Then again, neither does her dance partner, Katherine Sullivan, who joins her on the stage for an impromptu exhibition. As the two naked, sweaty women stack themselves horizontally on the same pole, the largely male crowd drools. Their lust turns to fear, however, as the women's sharp stilettos come within millimeters of each other's heads.
Sullivan, who is 24 and dances under the name Katrina, worked these same poles for four years before quitting the club in April. Since then, she and Michelle have formed an artsy duo called Gravity Plays Favorites. And they ride the pole with their clothes on.
Their act, which they call an "aerial burlesque dance," has been featured at local lesbian bars, the City Museum downtown and clubs around the nation. Along with erotic-trapeze specialist Mariel Reynolds, Lindsey and Sullivan have joined the ranks of neo-burlesquers like the Los Angeles-based Pussycat Dolls in reviving a centuries-old art form.
Where burlesque was once the realm of seedy men's clubs, Gravity Plays Favorites' fans are just as likely to be women as men.
"People want to see a real show," Michelle says of the group's following. "They want to see a real dance and a real striptease, and they love it. More women come up to us after the shows than men. They love seeing the sexiness without the raunchiness."
Amy Cyrus, who owns Belleville's Ground Floor a bar and coffee shop where Gravity Plays Favorites performs says the duo represents the latest trend in burlesque entertainment.
"Everybody's attracted to the physical acrobatic feat of it," she says. "You never get to see someone suspended from a pole eight feet off the ground. And they're both beautiful women. It's an interesting mix because it's burlesque, and it's very erotic and sexual, yet they are nobody's play toys. They just both have incredible personal energy that comes through."
As a young girl growing up in East St. Louis, Michelle Lindsey learned all she needed to know about stripping from Flashdance lead Jennifer Beals.
"She's stripping until she can be a professional dancer," Michelle recalls of the film's main character. "She works during the day as a welder which is hot and at night she works in a nice strip club where they actually get to choreograph. There's a naughty one across the street, but she would never work there."
Katrina's inspiration came from a topless groupie in Pink Floyd's feature film The Wall. "I remember thinking that she wasn't so hot," she declares. "I thought, 'I have a thing for nudity, so why don't I try that?'"
She took off her clothes onstage for the first time five years ago at an amateur contest at the Penthouse Club, then known as Diamond Cabaret.
"I went after class, completely sober, all alone, and asked for Rob Zombie music," Katrina remembers. At the time she was a nineteen-year-old student at Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois. "Instead they played 'Arms Wide Open' by Creed, which is the worst song by the worst band."
Katrina had spent the previous week practicing her stripping routine at her family farm in Brighton, Illinois. The Diamond left her nonplussed, so the following week she competed in the amateur night at Hustler Club, then called Deja Vu Showgirls Club. They played her requested music "Young Lust" from The Wall, and she fell in love with the place.
"You don't have to screw anybody to get in the manager's favor," she says of Larry Flynt's area outpost. "It's more expensive to work there, but there's so much more freedom. The girls aren't required to wear a specific type of dress or have a specific nail length. For the most part, Diamond Cabaret girls are tiny with enormous breasts, and that's not how I'm built."
Michelle, a twelve-year veteran of the industry, applied for a Platinum Paradise Showclub cocktail waitress job at midnight on her eighteenth birthday but says that Hustler is where she found her true calling. "I don't feel like I really got started until I started doing the poles," she says.
Logistics threw Katrina and Michelle together four years ago.
"We started out dancing together on the big stage," recalls Michelle. "She would stay on her pole and me on mine, and we would come together to undress each other. Later, they built a smaller stage, and, having less room, we were forced to be on the pole at the same time, or else hurt each other."
This was before Carmen Electra's Aerobic Striptease series arrived on Midwestern housewives' shelves, and pole dancing was generally considered the realm of the sleazy. Michelle and Katrina wanted to infuse an element of art.
"We could anticipate each other's movements, and it evolved into something more beautiful," says Michelle.
Earlier this year, they took their salacious show outside the club, with their big break coming after an August gig at the Schlafly Tap Room's Schlaffenfest. A Camel cigarettes representative was in the audience and invited the pair onto the company's Sin City tour, a Las Vegas-themed music and variety show featuring sword-swallowing, fire-eating and high-profile bands like Modest Mouse.
They accepted, and wound up riding the pole before thousands, from Albuquerque and Grand Rapids to Richmond and Charlotte. They were joined on their bill by Grindergirl of Late Night with David Letterman fame and porn star Ron Jeremy.
"He was a little sketchy," Michelle says of the sex-film icon known as the Hedgehog. "He goes beyond flirting. I know he fucked at least three girls in the bathroom, just in the course of the first night."
Their audience had never seen anything like Michelle and Katrina before maybe because there is no one else like them. Strippers ride poles around the world, of course, and a common circus act known as Chinese Pole also features performers defying gravity on a vertical mast. But no one interviewed for this story had heard of another artistic pole-dancing duo.
Katrina came up with their name from a lyric by the Boston band Dresden Dolls, a burlesque-flavored rock duo whose recordings often provide the soundtrack to Gravity Plays Favorites' live shows. The shows themselves are composed mostly of moves Michelle and Katrina invented, moves propelled equally by strength, grace and spontaneity.
"We've tried to train after-hours, but without the lights and the music and the adrenaline and the crowd cheering, it's so hard," Katrina says. "You get more bruises, you're not as graceful, and you don't get into the rhythm. We also don't choreograph, because you have to leave room for improvisation." Katrina adds that the job has its share of occupational hazards. In fact, her partner once put her into the hospital after gashing her forehead with a stiletto.
Both women are accomplished dancers with athletic physiques. Michelle does yoga every day, Katrina nearly as often. Katrina is also a black-belt former karate champion, and takes modern dance and belly dancing classes at University City's Center of Creative Arts (COCA).
The women give off very different vibes once they step outside the club. Katrina is single and has a flirty, feminine aura, favoring skirts and heels. In her free time, she takes care of orphaned cats, and she lives with three of her own in a Central West End apartment.
Michelle's vibe is dyke-chic. A frequent patron at MoKaBe's coffeeshop in the South Grand neighborhood, she sports countless tattoos and piercings. (She once pierced Katrina's nipples for her.) She has an associate's degree in psychology from Southwestern Illinois College and has lived her entire life in St. Clair County but won't disclose her city of residence for fear of stalkers.
The women are very close. "We have the same views on a lot of things," Katrina says. "Dancing with someone for four years is intimate you are naked."
But, for anyone wondering, Katrina stresses that she's straight and has never hooked up with her dance partner.
Michelle is married but declines to discuss her sexuality.
"I like to keep that mysterious," she says. "I don't want the lesbians to think I'm straight, and I don't want the straight boys to think I'm totally lesbian. I am a fantasy up there, and I would like to remain a fantasy. My actual personal life is no one's business. They can think what they want to, and they can go home hoping that there's a chance."
The lesbians are screaming and drunk on Jell-O shots. Liquor pours are deep and cheap, and nearly everyone's partaking. While a few gay men and straight couples are here at the Spot nightclub's black-box theater, the vast majority are women who want to see women.
The joint begins to resemble a construction site as petite-yet-busty Mariel Reynolds begins her sultry rendition of "Let Me Entertain You." Fitted into a black-and-red, cabaret-style leotard complete with garters, she does a brief, jazzy dance before pulling a collapsible cane from her cleavage and removing her shoes and skirt.
Mariel climbs atop her trapeze, balancing on her stomach and falling forward before catching herself by her knees. Then, wrapping herself in the ropes, she dramatically pulls herself to a stand.
Next up is Katrina. She strips to a black bikini before performing "The Bat," a trick in which she holds the pole between her neck and shoulder, before flipping upside-down and spreading her legs into a V. Michelle follows with a solo set before the girls join forces for a nerd-rock double bill, set to Richard Cheese's cover of "Material Girl" and They Might Be Giants' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."
"The lesbians are very appreciative," Michelle observes afterward. "It's different from strip clubs. I love them because they're into it and they yell and they see the eroticism in it, but I never feel disrespected or objectified."
Tonight's show was to be the first in a twice-a-month residency for Gravity Plays Favorites and Mariel. The Spot closed shortly thereafter, owing to lack of business. The girls will long remember the former Manchester Avenue haunt, however it's where they debuted, as part of Venus Envy's April art show. Michelle and Katrina met Mariel there a few months later, when she was in a drag performance of the television show Designing Women, starring as the lone "real" female actress.
The Spot's closure aside, Michelle, Katrina and Mariel have enjoyed success plying their trades. Besides her guest spots with Gravity Plays Favorites, Mariel plays with another local burlesque troupe called Alley Cats, who perform Saturday nights at Washington Avenue club Rue 13. The Alley Cats combine humor and striptease in shows like "Moulin Rue," which features songs from the film Moulin Rouge.
Gravity Plays Favorites and Alley Cats are part of a national burlesque resurgence. At the forefront is the Pussycat Dolls revue. Founded in 1995, it has drawn celebrity guest performers including Charlize Theron, Gwen Stefani and Dita Von Teese. Teese, in fact, is the reigning queen of burlesque, not to mention Marilyn Manson's wife. She performed in St. Louis last year as part of Playboy's 50th Anniversary Club Tour.
Also drawing big crowds across the nation is the Suicide Girls Tour, which began nearly three years ago and hit Sauget club Pop's last October. Billed as a "modern punk rock-burlesque show," it is perhaps best known for its performers' liberal use of chocolate syrup.
"[Our tour] reflects humor in the situations that are going on today in the same way that classic cabaret and burlesque were indicative of their time," says Suicide Girls co-founder Missy Suicide, adding that half of tour attendees have been women. "Burlesque and cabaret is a woman expressing how she feels sexy about herself. It's an opportunity to have fun and perform, and to be silly and sexy all at the same time. The more graphic stuff never really appealed to a woman."
Mariel grew up in the traveling Carson & Barnes Circus, joining her extended family on the road at the ripe old age of six weeks. Dad was the band leader, Uncle Dan played the tuba, Grandpa played the trombone, Grammy taught school to the troupe's youngsters, and Mom rode the elephants. They traveled around the continent in travel trailers and RVs.
"It's a great family life," says her dad, Bill Reynolds. "I didn't leave my daughter at 8 a.m. and come back at 8 p.m. every day."
In the mid-1980s, the family left Carson & Barnes and founded the Famous Reynolds Family Circus, playing small-town gyms and theaters across the Midwest. At six, Mariel started on the web and trapeze acts, and she also worked with the family's miniature donkeys, camel and mustang animals the family still has.
The family stopped touring extensively when Mariel started school at Saint Louis University. Her parents have settled in Mount Vernon, Illinois, where Bill works as a middle-school music teacher and his wife, Jeanne, operates a frozen-custard stand when the weather permits.
But the Reynolds Family Circus still returns from time to time, recently emerging for a show at the Salem Community Activity Center, twenty miles north of Mount Vernon. It features jugglers, plate spinners, Bill as the ringmaster and Jeanne behind the snack counter, pink-cotton candy clinging to her auburn hair.
Mariel, who lives in St. Louis' Shaw neighborhood, has driven up for the event as well, as has the family mustang, Gabby.
"How old are you, Gabby?" Bill asks the brown-and-white horse. Gabby paws the floor seven times. "That's right!" says Bill, to applause.
"He's more like twenty," Mariel whispers.
Her own acts go more according to plan. Introduced as "Mademoiselle Mariel from Paris," her trapeze performance is as sexy as her Spot act. The 300 townsfolk on hand, about half of them kids, eat it up. Later, wearing a gold leotard like most of her costumes, she designed it herself she performs the Spanish Web, with Dad spinning the rope from below.
Afterward, a young woman clad in a high-school letterman's jacket approaches the concession table and asks Mariel about her training. Looking on, Mariel's mother beams.
"It's hard to find your niche as a performer, and I'm proud of her for persevering," Jeanne says. "Especially in the Midwest, the opportunity isn't always there to combine singing and dancing as a full-time job."
Mariel manages to support herself through her burlesque troupes, not to mention gigs performing trapeze and Spanish Web for private events and corporate gigs. She also teaches a circus class at COCA, and last year took six months of acrobat and trapeze classes at a circus school in Lyon, France.
"That's where I got my gaudy taste for the glitz and sequins, to not be afraid to go out in a corset," Mariel says. "I've been wearing makeup since the first grade, and applying it myself since second."
Like burlesque, the circus has always valued a pretty face. The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil credited with fashioning the genre of "new circus" even has a Las Vegas show, Zumanity, which focuses on the sensual.
The histories of the circus and burlesque are intertwined. Legendary circus promoter P.T. Barnum was early on the bandwagon when he brought a famous British burlesque troupe to New York in the 1860s. In those days, burlesque was not singularly associated with striptease, but also with bawdy humor and satire, such as in Shakespearean parodies like Much Ado About a Merchant of Venice. Perhaps the genre's greatest achievement was jettisoning buttoned-up Victorian standards in favor of an age when it was OK to show a little ankle.
That circus and burlesque are regaining popularity isn't surprising, says Jessica Hentoff, who runs a circus for kids at the City Museum.
"I think the resurgence is because they're real, as opposed to virtual," Hentoff says. "You can do anything with special effects or on a computer, but if you see someone hanging by their toes, they're really hanging by their toes."
Michelle continues her daily grind at the Hustler Club, though she doesn't see it as a grind. "How many dancers are there who go to colleges that specialize in dance and don't have a regular gig like I do?" she posits. "Then, when they do get a gig in the ballet or something, it doesn't pay all that great. I've had a regular gig for ten years now, dancing professionally. That's how I see it. I love that it's so free and organic. I don't have to rehearse every single step 20 million times a night; I can just let the music take me."
Katrina, meanwhile, is still living off the money she earned stripping. She quit in April because she was partying too much on the job, fueling what she calls her own "predisposition towards substances." She adds that some of Gravity Plays Favorites' best moves have been discovered after a few Jäger Bombs.
All the booze in the world couldn't help her sell lap dances.
"I'm not a good salesman," she says. "Being a really good hustler is like a secret. You start a conversation with someone, and it's very hard to change gears: 'You want a dance?' You have to be able to see money, or else have 'drunk recognition.' I've seen guys fall out of a chair and immediately three girls are on him."
Both women plan to keep riding the poles until their physiques fade. Michelle says she would someday like to get involved with the Suicide Girls organization, while Katrina has dreams of eventually starting her own ballet school.
For the moment, however, they're focused on parlaying Gravity Plays Favorites into a full-time paying gig.
"We want to be featured in strip clubs all over the country, taking the place of porn stars," says Michelle. "Honestly, the porn stars, all they have is that they're porn stars. Most have been strippers at some time in their lives, so they dance like strippers. They usually don't have a performance it's not artistic.
"A lot of feminists consider burlesque and striptease-dancing to be degrading to women because we're objectified, but I don't see it that way," she continues. "I love being a woman, and I feel I'm celebrating the beauty of women. I can't control how others see me, I can only control how I see myself, and I love celebrating my womanhood, my sexuality and my art."
Katrina sees herself as a role model.
"If you say you're a pole dancer, people think you're just some stripper who gets on her back and splays her legs," she declares. "They probably just expect two girls to hold onto a pole and make out. But when we get up there and don't do that when we show that we really are using our bodies to do interesting things it helps people break their stereotypes a little bit."