Our remaining time in Missoula flew by. We spent five days with one dancer, capturing her life both on film and on paper. Hers is a story we won’t easily forget. Additionally, we spoke with three other women—two are currently dancing, one quit after just a few months. Each of their tales is different, but there’s a similar theme in all of them—the mere hope that by talking to us and sharing their ups and downs, they might be accepted as real people. But there was another common thread in each story as well—the desire for the world to consider what they do to be a form of art.
For one dancer, the job is not just about the money. “I love performing,” she says. “I do contortion work. I do pole work. I want to entertain people.”
Another says, “It’s better to look at my profession as an art, because that’s what it is.”
I think this is difficult for a lot of people to understand. They don’t consider these women to be exotic dancers so much as they consider them to be strippers. But the title “exotic dancer” is much more defining, and we were able to see this first hand when we visited a few of the clubs ourselves. There were moments when I felt like I was watching a Cirque de Soleil show. These were performances that required not only a level of physical strength and endurance that many people don’t (and won’t ever) have, but also the mental ability to block out everything but the music in order to prevent themselves from losing their concentration and falling to the ground. They might not be suspended hundreds of feet into the air, but a fall while hanging upside down and spinning around a pole gripped by the muscles of their inner thighs would nevertheless cause a head or neck injury of some kind. At the conclusion of one dancer’s performance, she was breathing and sweating as though she’d just run a half marathon. Her routine was not just incredible in the sense of what she could do with her body, but it was breathtaking. She was as fit as a triathlete, but she moved with the grace of a ballerina.
And she wasn’t the only one. Each woman we watched approached the stage differently, but elegantly. They each had their own way of performing—some stronger on the pole, others stronger on the floor. But in every routine there was a sense of pride, something many people will never feel while at work.