There is something about having a blank page staring at you that threatens you not to tarnish it’s purity with lies and a distorted version of what the truth is. Before I allowed myself to document my story, I was only partially honest with my close friends about what motivated me to become a dancer, and why I think I will always appreciate the option to stay dancing.
I am a stripper.
I still giggle and shake my head slightly when I refer to myself like this. It amuses me because, though my friends and I always joked about how I ‘have it in me to become one’, I never thought about it long enough to consider it a reality. Never conceptualised it to the point where I would one day look myself in the mirror and say “I am a stripper”.
I use the word “dancer” usually, but that is only because that is the long lasting impression this experience has given me. Also, honestly it is the favourite part of my job.
Essentially I am a dancer.
I just happen to wear revealing formal dresses over barely-there lingerie, hoping to eventually take them off for an audience. I dance only in heels, flick the extensions in my hair and smile with my impeccably made up face, all with the intention to entice and tease, the intention to have you dreaming of me long after we’ve met.
And I do this for the money and the love of it. Call me an adult performer or entertainer, an exotic dancer, a pole dancer a cabaret performer, or even a sex worker to an extent. Good old fashioned “stripper” also works and I really don’t mind what term you use.
For me, I Hephzibah, am a dancer.
Long before I even knew that strippers existed in South Africa and not only in New York, the capital of sin as my Sunday School teacher liked to call it, I loved the name Hephzibah. I found it in my Bible in the book of Isaiah 62:4 and directly translated it means “My delight is in her”. I’ve always felt an unconditional love and in-measurable favour from God. I loved the name enough for me to have wanted to add this name to my ID. When I mentioned this name to the HOLAA! team helping me publish my story, I was a bit reluctant to use it because I know not many people will understand or even appreciate it. However, I realised that although I use this ‘holy’ name as my stage name in a strip club, I genuinely believe that my clients, men and women alike, “delight in me” and, even more so, that unconditional love and immeasurable favour is still at work in my life, dancer or not.
I know my Bible and God so well because I grew up in a very conservative, Christian home with my parents and family being active in the church and community. So was I, and I loved and still appreciate most of the values and perceptions this environment equipped me with, and that until this day still help me exist in this world.
To my parents dismay, as well as everyone who saw me grow up ‘sweet and innocent potential pastor’s wife’, the same intrigue and curiosity that steered me to cultivate my spirituality is the very same intrigue and curiosity with which I observed humans. From a young age my existentialist crisis (that I still haven’t overcome) motivated me to want to observe, explore and appreciate every tiny aspect of this ‘life thing’ and this ‘human thing’. It is what I primarily attribute my open-mindedness to, despite the rigid and dictatorial environment I grew up in. I was that thirteen year old, curious virgin that was sent by my mother to the psychologist because she would find ‘erotic’ writing in between bible references in the journal she got me, where I took notes during sermons.
I didn’t understand how, but I enjoyed struggling between the guilt and excitement of allowing my mind to linger in that holy space.
Somehow, I grew up to believe all parts of my humanness could co-exist together and never isolated one to build on the other. In my family and small town, this earned me the label ‘rebel’ , or ‘liberal’ according to the nicer people. I think I was striving to become a well-balanced human being who wanted to understand all aspects of themselves and of others.
It was through art, performance art more specifically, that I was able to escape and expose myself to more than just what my little safe and secure world offered. I had been performing at church and in concerts since I was as young as five and all my primary school teachers enrolled me to Arts Festivals to recite written work and perform poetry and monologues written by phenomenal writers. In my teens I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to study Drama and this was where, as open minded as I thought I was, I was able to break down more of the mental barriers I didn’t even realise I had. I got to hear and tell the stories of all these weird and wonderful humans that I may never get to meet myself: Murderers, drug addicts, convicts, unfaithful spouses and incestuous siblings.
My drama teacher quickly picked up on the straight A, perfect prefect, goody-two-shoes I was, and for the rest of my high school career, challenged me by giving me characters to play that I may never have empathised with in my ordinary life. I remember I found an article from a local magazine about a sex worker who was reflecting on her experiences in her line of work. I picked this to be the basis of my character but doing research of this nature as an under-age performer was very difficult. I compensated for this by talking to my peers, family and friends about their views and opinions. I found, to my surprise, the more back lash I heard about my character and ‘these women’ (based in notions I probably agreed with at some point too) the more defensive I became of my character. This was because I was suddenly empathising with something else of hers that I admired: not denying her humanness and her appreciation for the smallest things in life. Even more so, as a growing young girl, I envied her for her ability to unapologetically own her sexuality and body, and being celebrated enough to make a living out of it.
I started poking holes my friends’ views, as well as my own, to the extent that the only rebuttal left to them was a sarcastic ‘so would you become a sex worker?’ I would answer no, and immediately felt like I betrayed and sold my character out, someone whom I felt I had formed some kind of friendship with while trying to tell her story.
Yes, I no longer saw myself to be any different to another woman who chooses to use her body the way she pleases. Yes, I had developed a reverence and empathy for sex workers through my character’s story. But I didn’t know and couldn’t say for sure, if I was brave and confident enough to give of myself like that, no matter how much I loved performing, no matter how empowered I thought I was. Funny though, in as much as they denounced any kind of sex work, all my close friends thought that I would be a damn good stripper.
The years went by, and I broke even further away from what I imagine my conservative family hoped I would become. At twenty one, I was an entertainer as well as an art activist doing anything I could to at least help relay the stories of marginalised people in society. These were people I was raised to rather preach to and pray for, who I instead found so much of myself in. I was also a self-proclaimed nudist, a queer kinkster, a human rights advocate and I unashamedly stood up for women who dared to own their bodies despite the constant war against them. Despite the expectations society imposed. For months after I started dancing, I wondered what inconsistency in my own mind changed the narrative and made me hesitate when it was me who wanted to live out that liberation and freedom of choice.
It wasn’t until the end of my second year in University that I had to apply my own principles in my own life.
I was fortunate enough to get a bursary to study commerce at one of the top universities in my country from one of our parastatals. But at the end of my second year, the bursary discontinued due to financial restraints in the company. For the first time since I started varsity, I didn’t have a holiday job to keep me busy and out of trouble, and I needed to make sure I would at least be able to continue studying the following year. I had also just come out of a relationship where I felt I had sacrificed a considerably large part of my sexuality. Adding to that I just started counselling after I survived an assault by a group of men who dragged me into a railway track and touched me intimately while bystanders watched. It took my friend, another woman, daring to walk through the railway track to come find me, and exposing herself to the same assault, before anyone helped.
I told my friends that I became a dancer to raise as much money in the shortest time possible so I could travel and study what I really like after doing commerce. I told them I wanted to do a job that was more in touch with my creative side instead of the numbers.
This was true.
But what I didn’t tell them was, after all that had transpired with me losing the scholarship, my breakup and my assault, I felt a desperate need to regain control over my life again and feel some kind of power over what becomes of me. When I sat there looking at my online application to an elite, upmarket gentleman’s club that I had visited with my girls on my 21st birthday that year, I admitted that I wanted and needed something that would make me feel like I owned my life, my body and sexuality again.
Something that would be a plaster over my wound and restore some kind of confidence until the counselling did what it needed to.
Something that made me feel like I still had some control.
If I have to be honest, when I killed my joint and took that last gulp of my Pinotage and pressed that “send” button, I was probably feeling the need for external validation more than I ever have in my life.
Little did I know this life changing experience I was opening myself up to would help rebuild so much more than just my confidence, and introduce me to a whole other part of the woman I am.
I have some of the most amazing friends who really do love and support me unconditionally, but I decided not to consult with no friend or sister as I prepared for two interviews on a Friday afternoon. The first was for a waitressing position at a fine dining restaurant, something I loved and was also really good at. Needless to say, I didn’t take that job, because after that, I went to go meet Ron*…
* Photos by HOLAA!
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