I'm sitting in the VIP room at Cheeks on a Monday night, waxing philosophical about sex appeal with a pixie-faced girl whose stage name is Pepper.
Using breathless, eloquent descriptions that reflect a college degree in poetry and the zeal of an exotic dancer who started working only two weeks ago, Pepper is demonstrating how she turns herself on.
Very slowly—slow is key—she strokes her breasts, her thighs, the back of her neck, while purposefully watching her fluid movements in the mirrors that line the perimeter of Santa Fe's only strip club.
"Stand up," she demands, "and let me check you out." Pepper swiftly lifts my shirt and, after berating me for sucking in, starts examining the firmness of my stomach ("Girl, you've got great abs!") and palming my left tit ("Sweet!") when Elmo Montoya, the club owner, opens the door.
"It looks like you want to get on stage," Elmo says to me. I double over, laughing with a mixture of fear and disbelief, using Pepper's naked shoulder for stability.
Since moving from Boston to the outdoorsy (albeit middle-aged) playground of Santa Fe a year ago, I've increasingly felt unwanted, frustrated and, recently, downright asexual.
A friend who worked as an exotic dancer once said that pole dancing gave her immense body confidence. Learning to pole dance would utilize my former training as a pole-vaulter and gymnast, but I wondered: Could it really invigorate my lackluster carnality?
Before leaving Boston, I broke up with a boyfriend who, for all his flaws, feverously enjoyed my body. I miss the heady sensation of being physically desired but, broadly, I just miss feeling sexy.
When I told an old friend that, at 24, I'd lost my swagger, she was dubious. "I know we're all faking our confidence to some degree," she said, "but you've always struck me as a pretty sexy person. Sexiness is your thing."
Exuding sexuality isn't dependent upon the act of sex itself, but a lack thereof certainly contributes to my funk. Nowadays, the only male attention I get comes from my 31-year old roommate, Ryan, bitching about the dearth of hot, single women around here.
So I decided to sign up for a women-only pole dance class at Au Boudoir, an upscale romance boutique that displays bedroom accoutrements like gallery pieces.
I then made the mistake of informing Ryan about my research.
"What's your angle, that becoming a stripper will make you more attractive to guys?" he asked.
"Actually," I said, "I'm trying to feel hot without needing a guy to tell me so."
Ultimately, Ryan was helpful in that he, of course, knows the owner of Cheeks.
Several hours and a glass of whiskey later, I nervously entered my first strip club with Ryan in tow. He'd arranged for me to meet Elmo, an affable businessman whose business happens to be women dancing on a stage in as little clothing as the law allows. Elmo shook my hand, looked me up and down, and asked when I wanted to start working. He was joking, kind of.
After convincing Elmo I wasn't writing an exposé on what he called "harmless visual stimuli," he introduced me to Pepper. You could tell she was new, according to a seasoned dancer, because she was wearing hot pants, not a g-string.
Pepper and I got right down to the meat of it. I had pressing questions, such as, how the hell do you acquire the balls to do this stuff?
"It's not about the crowd," she said. "On stage, I stare at myself in the mirrors. I scan the room and the men think I'm looking at them. But I'm looking at myself. The girls, we seduce ourselves."
OK. What are the tricks of seduction?
"The slower you move, the sexier you appear. Pose. Use your eyes; bite your lip. Accentuate your best parts; touch them. I glide; I don't grind. Every girl has her own style, her own tricks. Men like splits. They applaud!"
I'm flexible. I can do splits. Then I cringed at what my bare ass might look like in a split. I asked Pepper if it's more important to have a peerless physique or to know how to use what you've got.
"You don't need rock solid abs and huge titties, but you must love your body."
Next, I met Tara (also a stage name), a rail-thin college student who volunteers at an animal shelter and recently installed a stripper pole in her home. After three months at Cheeks, she'd decided that superior pole skills were necessary for financial success.
"Skinny girls can't make their ass clap," she lamented.
Tara and Pepper offered to give me a pole dance lesson. I changed out of my jeans and into an out-of-body mental state. I pulled on a pair of spandex shorts off which I'd hastily cut the legs before leaving the house, anticipating that something like this might happen. Working a pole requires flesh-to-metal friction.
After confirming that Ryan was more bored than freaked out, I mounted the stage, fastened on a borrowed pair of 8-inch stilettos, hooked an ankle around the pole, gripped it with my hands, kicked the other leg out behind me, and spun with dizzying momentum. Mimicking Tara, I jumped my hips up above my head and straddled my legs, letting gravity lower my back onto the platform. I pivoted, gyrated, snaked and occasionally remembered to smile.
The adrenaline was pumping, but I didn't feel erotic. There were too many unflattering mirror angles. My DIY shorts kept riding up and my new hooker-heeled height of 6-foot-2-inches proved disorienting.
Simulating the movements of sex in front of strangers made the performance seem boilerplate. Getting on all fours to arch my back, part my mouth and rapidly jiggle my butt shouldn't be a mundane maneuver. Instead of augmenting my sexuality, it disconnected me from it.
As the week progressed, a hollow feeling replaced my high. I faced a disturbing reality: I haven't been on a date in more than a year. All my girlfriends are getting hitched. My dear roommate refused to give me a free guest pass to Ojo Caliente unless I found a man to accompany me in the hot springs. Then he suggested that I was writing off potential suitors by subconsciously comparing them to my ex.
By the time I arrived at Au Boudoir for pole dance class, I was swimming in self-pity.
Adorable instructor Carmela Cristina Ventura quickly melted my attitude. Her love of the craft was infectious. The girl's got verve, and it was impossible to stay cynical in her presence.
"Do whatever makes you feel playful," she said. So I did.
With frequent encouragement and praise, Carmela broke down the elements of seductive walking, climbing, and spinning—all set to music ranging from Damien Rice to Cat Power.
It's not easy. I tried shimmying up the 12-foot poles but only succeeded in bruising my shins. Mentally, letting go and really getting into it demands more than embracing your body. It requires repetition.
No wonder Pepper and Tara looked so confident. Through practice, they'd learned to command the recognition of their allure from an audience and, more crucially, from themselves.
During a yogic savasana at the end of pole class, Carmela said, "Remember that no one can hold you as well as you can hold yourself."
I wanted to believe her and, after a week of facing myself in floor-to-ceiling mirrors, I'd become more attuned to my body. But showing skin and caressing a pole didn't make me feel as sexy as I did while hiking up and skiing down Ski Santa Fe the following morning.
The sun was rising and my quads were tight from the exertion. Gliding through fresh snow in the early light induced a giddy euphoria.
True, there's nothing like mind-blowing sex with an adoring partner to make you feel wanted. But there's nothing like carving virgin powder to make you feel uninhibited.
1008 Pen Road
Hour-long pole dance classes are held at 6:15 pm on Thursdays and at 3:15 pm on Sundays, depending on demand. Calling ahead is mandatory. Private lessons are also available. Wear fitted short shorts and the highest heels you own. If, like me, you only own Chaco sandals and cowboy boots, Au Boudoir carries an extensive selection of sky-high stilettos, lingerie, racy artwork, sex toys and other titillating goodies.