Yemi sat in the back room and stretched out her calves. There was a dull pain in the arch of her right foot, but she doubted she could get a day off because of a minor injury like that. As she stretched, she flexed out her foot, taking the time to examine her toes. Honestly, she knew it was a waste to keep spending money on nail polish, as her feet seemed to get wrecked no matter what, but a small part of her hoped that decorating her toenails with a vibrant colour would encourage them to stay beautiful. So far it hadn’t worked. Shaking herself out of her daydream, she adjusted her tights and stepped out into the main room.
Unlike the back room, the main room was almost dazzling with the kaleidoscope of colours bouncing off the walls, into the mirrors and back again. The steady, low booming of the surrounding speakers reverberated off the floor and through her spine, it felt. There was an oppressive heat that permeated the room, weighty with the smell of too-sweet perfume, too-heavy cologne, and sweat. She spotted the club manager seated at the bar and walked over to him, narrowly avoiding the other girls working on the floor.
“Marc!” She called out, slightly yelling to make her voice heard above the music.
“Baby! We’ve been looking for you! Your man was starting to look a little anxious,” Marc responded, kissing her on each cheek, his stubble scratching her face and making her flinch back slightly. She hated when he did that, and had told him just as much, but Marc had grown up in Montreal and had this misplaced belief that the habit came across as charming and foreign, rather than affected and pretentious.
“In the back,” he said, jerking his head towards one of the private rooms, separated from the main floor by heavy draped velvet curtains, and the presence of two rather large guards.
“Thanks, I’ll see you when I’m done,” Yemi said, as she began walking over to one of the curtained rooms.
As she pushed back the curtain, her eyes once again adjusted to the dimness of the room, the low, ambient lighting meant to create the illusion of intimacy between the girls and their patrons, who often wanted to feel a connection. Usually, Yemi hated private dances, as some of the men felt like the fact that they paid more money gave them greater leeway with how they treated the girls. For some girls, these kinds of clients provided the opportunity for extra-curricular activity, but Yemi drew the line there and frequently made it known. Back when she was just starting out at the club, she had had a few problems with clients getting overly touchy, but these days her clients were more regular and knew her rules. Some of them liked the fact they couldn’t touch her, which she couldn’t exactly complain about. Today, her client was a newer customer known as “Mr. Smith,” who always came in with a well-tailored suit, which, combined with the fact that he always ordered a private room, made her think that he was well-off. Yemi didn’t mind dancing for Mr. Smith because he was one of the men that never tried to touch her. Rather, he would sit perfectly still and watch her with such concentration that it sometimes took her back to the days of her more formal auditions, when the Mesdames would inspect every line of her form with the focus of hawks. Tonight was the third time he had asked for her, and he was yet to do anything that allowed her to categorize him in her mental roster.
She approached the pole on the mini stage in front of the couch Mr. Smith sat on and began to dance. She moved slowly at first, testing out her foot to see if the slight pain of earlier would affect her movements. Seeing that it was bearable, Yemi soon began her pole work. As she moved, she flashed back to a conversation she’s had with her mother two weeks before. There had been a feature on pole dance workouts on a daytime show, and seeing an opening, she had asked her mother her opinion on the idea.
“Hmm,” her mother had huffed, kissing her teeth and tightening the scarf on her head, “What’s the difference between this one and the ones that are doing ashaewo work? This country sha, I don’t understand the way they do their own.” Yemi had tried to explain that pole workouts and stripping were two different worlds, but her mother would not be moved.
“Dance, ke? Abeg, Yemi, leave that one. If this one is also dancing, then what would you call your own? Don’t be comparing all these low-level girls to people like you.” And with that, her mother had ended the conversation, after reaffirming the superiority of her child to the other akata children, who, in her mother’s mind, enjoyed living in waywardness and were destined for hell.
As Yemi lifted herself on the pole and tilted, she wondered what her mother would say if she could see her now. Knowing her mother as she did, Yemi guessed that her mother’s first reaction would be to ensure that nobody else knew about her side-job, as her mother had always concerned herself with avoiding scandal. Yemi always suspected this was due to her mother’s life, which had itself been particularly scandalous. As a young girl growing up in Nigeria, her mother Yinka had caught the eye of an expat working in an American oil company. In the middle of her third year of university, she had fallen pregnant and was forced to drop out; the shock and shame caused her father to suffer from a stroke a few months later. The American had claimed he would do the honorable thing and marry her, but all relief soon turned to despair once they discovered that he already had a family in America and had no intention of starting another. To avoid the buzzing whispers of neighbours and friends, her family had worked to hush up the matter and had a cousin living in America help her obtain a green card, at which point she left Nigeria and vowed never to return.
While in Nigeria, Yinka had lived a relatively middle-class life, and the old prestige of her family name had guaranteed that she was better off that the average Nigerian. In America, Yinka was another single immigrant mother, a moniker that chaffed at her pride and caused her to push all her unrealized dreams onto her daughter. She named her daughter Oluwayemisi, in hopes of retaining some lingering sense of superiority amongst the African Americans, whom she concluded were a lost, pitiful people, without culture or history. She signed up her daughter for all sorts of lessons, intended to set her apart from other children. Seeing that her daughter had some talent for dance, Yinka was almost militant in her demand for perfection, working two jobs to pay for lessons and ensuring that her daughter had little free time to do anything other than practice for the next eighteen or so years of her life.
As Yemi flipped upside down on the pole, she pushed aside thought of her mother and took the time to examine Mr. Smith’s face. She usually studied clients when she was upside down, as the distorted image made the less attractive patrons look more bearable. Mr. Smith was different from her typical customers. While the club was a lot classier than most, there was a type of clientele more frequent than others. The majority of the girls had backgrounds in dance, and so there tended to be more pole work than twerking. The club also didn’t allow the girls go fully nude: bras could be taken off, but the bottoms stayed. Granted, this kept away most of the rappers and producers in the industry that enjoyed blowing stacks on the thicker girls who did get “ass-naked,” but it was less intimidating for girls like her who were new to stripping. It was clear that Mr. Smith wasn’t a rapper. While he had a shape-up that made it clear that he knew the value of a good barber, his Windsor knot, and shiny leather shoes made it evident he was not the kind of man that was accustomed to stuffing ones in thongs. Or if he was, he hid it well. His face was young-ish, but the lines on his forehead suggested he worked a high-stress job. A lawyer, or banker, maybe. It wasn’t unheard of, for those types to come to the club now and then to unwind and get away from the stress of their daily jobs. But few of them sat perfectly still and inspected her the way he did, and it unnerved her.
“Odette!” There was a single tap on the wall outside the room, signaling a message. Yemi hopped down and turned to Mr. Smith with a slight smile.
“I’ll be just one second, sir,” she said, popping her head out of the curtain and making sure to arch her back and give Mr. Smith a view while he waited.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Cancellation for later. So, we’re going to have you and Monique work the group coming in for eleven. That okay?” Marc asked. She contemplated briefly but realized she had nothing to lose. She liked Monique, for the most part, and it wasn’t like she couldn’t use the money.
“Yeah, that’s fine, I’ll go talk to Mo after,” she replied. Popping her head back behind the curtain, she turned back to Mr. Smith with an apologetic smile. To her surprise, he looked as if he wanted to say something.
“So, Odette, as in Swan Lake?” He asked, cocking his head slightly. That was surprising. Her performing name was somewhat unusual (the other girls called it bougie), and one of the things that embarrassed her. When she first joined the club she had just gotten rejected for the part at an audition, and it had provided a moment of satisfaction to use the name for her new, arguably less prestigious dancing job.
“Yeah, as in Swan Lake,” Yemi said with a smile, walking over to his lap. Initiating conversation was a good sign. It meant he was starting to warm up to her and might be willing to tip more. She began to dance again.
“You’re a ballerina, right?” he asked, causing her to briefly pause before she resumed her dancing.
“What makes you say that? My name?” she asked.
“No. Well, yes, partially, But also just your body. You have the form of a ballet dancer, the lines and posture and everything. So, that and the name just made me think it was the case,” he replied, eyes steady on her neck. She wasn’t quite sure what to say. Most men were too caught up in their fantasies to even pay attention to what she was doing, yet he had watched her enough to notice her good posture?
“Well, you’re right, in a way” she responded, twirling to face her back to him, “I used to be up until a little while ago.” Technically she still was. As installed in her body by her mother, she had continued to practice almost daily. She also went to auditions from time to time, but those were far and few between. She had started to slowly lose motivation after consistently losing out to girls who were skinnier and blonder than her, but did not seem to have more talent. While she was only half black, that appeared to be enough to put her out of contention in the minds of many producers in the city.
“Oh yeah?” Mr. Smith responded, dragging her out of her thoughts. “My daughter, she’s thirteen, and she does ballet too. She has a lot of, um,” he paused to think, “Recitals? Yeah, recitals. So I usually go to those, which is how I knew about Swan Lake,” he explained. So, he had a daughter. A thirteen-year-old girl, meaning that he might be slightly older that she thought he was. She wondered if he had a wife. She usually tried to avoid thinking about the personal lives of her clients, but it had been a while since a customer stood out this much.
She spun again and wrapped her arms around his neck as she danced. His eyes were scanning her face, and she became slightly self-conscious. Idiot, she chided herself silently. Yemi would never admit it, but now and then she imagined herself having a Pretty Woman moment with a client. He would be rich, and handsome, with a cheating or ailing wife and in need of someone to mend his broken heart. He would find her at the club and whisk her to a life of luxury. Mr. Smith met most of those marks, and she could not help herself a moment of brief fantasy. For most girls that dream ended once they had sex with a client and woke up to find their number blocked, and that the apartment they thought was a permanent residence was a guesthouse. Perhaps it was the Nigerian side of her, but Yemi was not one to frequently suffer from such delusions. The jaded hardness of her mother had coated her vision in a skepticism that filtered everything around her. And yet, for a brief second, she imagined falling in love with this middle-aged lawyer, who would pluck her and her mother out of obscurity, and buy her a ballet studio where she could dance forever like a princess in a fairy tale.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the wall, three times, in rapid succession. The dance was over, as was the dream. Lifting her leg off Mr. Smith’s thigh, Yemi straightened her bra and turned to look at him. His eyes were fixed on his phone, with a slight frown on his face, and Yemi realized that the dream had ended for him too. Walking over, she gave him a smile and whispered in his ear to come back soon. As she pushed aside the thick curtain and walked into the back room to meet Monique and prepare for the latter group, she once again became aware of the dull pain in her foot. As she stretched, she imagined Snow White’s stepmother, cursed to dance in red-hot shoes until she dropped dead. Smiling to herself, she arranged her tights and walked over to the dark red curtain.