Vanessa as Bella Sapphire, burlesque baby.
Last weekend I was standing outside Louis’s apartment complex wearing a short skirt, hollering and laughing into the phone, pacing on the grass in my boots, holding a bunch of red tulips under my arm when a student I taught at Emerson drove out from the parking lot. I was on the phone, he was on his way somewhere, and so all we exchanged were quick, surprised hello’s. He emailed me. I responded. Then we ran into each other at the gym, and I hopped off the treadmill to chat with him about a few great films we’d seen, some ideas for exploring LA on a budget, and the problem of becoming an artist in a recession economy.
Emerson has a satellite program in LA, and they house their students in the apartment complex where Louis has lived since September. I knew it was possible that I’d see a former student there, but it hadn’t happened yet.
On its own, this coincidence is not extreme. However, it got me thinking about something Dr. Stephanie Hammer at UCR discusses in her classes, which is the issue of scholarship being a disembodied activity. She routinely has her students get up from their seats. She gives them projects that ask them to use sensory awareness far more than other creative writing teachers I’ve experienced. She dresses in colorful, well-fitting, comfortable clothes, and moves around—walking, gesturing, throwing her head back to laugh—while she talks. She’s concerned that once you divorce the body from the work of reading and writing, you become less creative. I think she’s right, and I also think she’s addressing an important myth that’s perpetuated by the metaphor of the ivory tower: that scholars don’t need to roll around and get dirty. And if they do, they’re immediately less serious intellectually.
Running into a former student in (a) a short skirt that I wouldn’t have worn to teach in three years ago and (b) spandex pants and a sports bra, without makeup and sweating, brought into sudden awareness my old sense of conservatism about my role as a teacher. I had one semester in 2006 where I experimented with wearing “cuter” outfits—remember this was in Boston, so by my LA standards they were still pretty boring—and it seemed to make little difference in the sense that I still got the same number of comments in my evaluations about being pretty as when I wore leather flats and bulky sweaters the semester before. At the time, I thought that students who commented on my looks were distracted by them, and that meant it was my job to downplay or deemphasize my body and my face. In the same wrong-headed anxiety about students thinking I was sexy, and therefore not taking me seriously, I rarely talked in the classroom about my other career as a dancer—even though it was and is easy to find me on the internet as a Dame in the Toldeo Show, as a burlesquer with the Babes in Boinkland, an entertainer with the Siagel DJ company, as a hula girl for Waitiki, etc.
It wasn’t until my last semester before moving back to California that I really kicked through those vestiges of Christian guilt and intellectual insecurity that kept me from being joyfully embodied in the classroom. And even then, I had about 65% of the vitality and energy I have now, due to all kinds of factors like the Boston winters, diet, stress, lack of community, and so on.
It was a long-borne exhaustion that caused my body to hibernate in the classroom to begin with. Remember that I grew up a Christian, and although I was always feisty when it came to the denial of the body inherent to that system, I was surrounded by it. When I was 17, I nearly got kicked out of Christian summer camp because I challenged the rules about bikinis. I was told that my wearing a bikini was actually a mean, selfish thing to do, as it made life harder for my Christian brothers, who were busying themselves with resisting “temptation.” I thought the counselors were full of crap, of course, and I argued for my right to bare the six inches of belly skin so carefully chosen to be considered titillating by our culture, but still, I felt I’d landed on an alien planet. Years later, I experienced clashes with school administrators who were concerned that my work as a go-go dancer, were parents to find out, was an “inappropriate” representation of their school. I’ve had people in the publishing industry tell me I shouldn’t talk about or write about sex or the body as much if I want to be published “seriously.” I became a classroom instructor as a graduate student, already worried about this issue of being taken seriously as a thinker, and feeling simultaneously defiant, certain that I personally and my chosen field of inquiry deserved some elusive combination of respect AND excitement. Among other, more helpful and pertinent evaluations, I had a student in my first semester who wrote that he hated my class but got up at 8am because it was worth it to look at me. This discouraged me, even as it fed sugar to my ego.
I was convinced that there was no way I could be considered attractive, could move around and feel my body, could dress feminine, and still be seen as a scholar. I was certain that a woman who appears joyfully, sensually embodied is nearly always fighting to be heard above the unconscious din her looks/sexiness create. I separated my life into halves: life of the mind, life of the body—and although it pained me and seemed tragic, I couldn’t figure a way to integrate them. I invented compensatory behaviors that attached self-conscious irony to my sexuality in order to make it more palatable to insecure intellectuals on the one hand, and I rarely talked about my writing or my reading with the dancers I knew, on the other. Still, I was fighting. I posed nude for the cover of Boink: The Book, my body covered by a podium as I faced a classroom of nude students—what a hilarious expression of my conundrum that job was! I read Oscar Wilde and knew I was making a consistent mistake. (Picture is me invoking his spirit at his grave in Paris.) I got sick of it. I got lonely. I came back to California, knowing that this disintegration was a major factor in what made me so exhausted in Boston, but still unconvinced that I could fix it, because it seemed like an expression of such a large-scale societal problem.
And then Stephanie talked about the issue directly in the classroom, and I felt like a dunce. Of course I’ll be writing about sex, dance, the body. Of course I’ll wear some heels next time I teach. Of course these things can go hand in hand with a tightly articulated critical evaluation of a difficult text. None of them are separate—both fishnets and great ideas get me hot. An Artist-Scholar can make her own rules. The societal problem can only be helped by my constant presence in the body simultaneously with the intellectual work. It was a long time coming, but what a freedom. I’m not afraid of being a fringe writer, based on the stories I think need to be told—it’s not acceptable for artists or scholars to think about being popular when they are pursuing the creation of a project. And so, the era of my concern about appearing inappropriately seductive, simply by being embodied in a context that contraindicates it, which is actually a concern about being dismissed by intellectuals and students, has finally ended.