Professor Shannon Rose Riley and Elaine in Conversation about Good-Night-Out-Girls, Cowgirls & Strippers

Early November will find me (Elaine) visiting Dallas, Texas for this year’s annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). I’ve joined a working group dedicated to ‘Tasting Dallas’ (organised by Josh Abrams, University of Roehampton) where the invitation is to ‘locate’ a research project in the city. Every group member has a partner to share pre-visit thoughts and ideas, and I’m delighted to have been paired with interdisciplinary artist and scholar, Professor Shannon Rose Riley from San José State University. In a former life, Shannon was a dancer in some of the ‘up-scale’ clubs of Dallas, a city that’s been called the ‘Naked Empire’, the ‘Capital City of Sex’. But her past is taboo, she explained to me, in terms of her later career in academia. What she has planned for Dallas is, as she puts it, ‘to use my work in performance as research to explore my return, after 25 years, to the “Naked Empire” – a site that opens up a particularly fruitful collision between the city and its seedier histories, my personal past, and my recently-post-tenured present’. For my own part, I am planning a research visit to the National Cowgirl Museum in Dallas, aiming to build on the A good Night Out for the Girls book-project with Gerry – looking to considerations of a women-friendly museum rather than theatre space, cowgirls rather than good-night-out girls.

Professor Riley and I have not met before and our pairing to-date has been managed online. What follows is a transcript of our transatlantic email conversations:

Elaine: I wondered if we could open up our conversation by beginning with your reflections on ‘postness’ – particularly the ‘post-50’ idea you put forward in your proposal to the ‘Tasting Dallas’ group. As one post-50 woman to another, I was particularly struck by the question of whether or not you will be allowed as a ‘post-50-something’ to dance again in the clubs in Dallas. This put me in mind of the ‘good-night- out-for-the-girls’ shows I’ve been researching where age concerns are very much a concern of their target audience – women of a ‘certain age’. These popular (in both senses) shows speak volumes about age coupled with gender discrimination, along with class, ethnicity and sexuality. But in your case, Shannon, you are also facing the discrimination of the academic profession, too. And I wondered if you’d like to elaborate on that a little – not least because I feel you do have a very valid point about how performance studies might embrace strip clubs as a field of study, but the profession refuses to countenance the idea of an ex-stripper as a tenured lecturer.

Shannon: You are quite right, Elaine–very few dancers continue to dance past the age of 30 or 35. I stopped when I was 28. However, sometimes even the “upscale topless bar” would permit a woman from the audience–often a dancer’s mother–to dance on a tabletop or on one of the smaller stages, albeit mostly clothed (perhaps down to her bra and jeans). Often there would be great enthusiasm on the part of clubgoers precisely because she was not a professional dancer and often because she was a bit older. However, main stage expectations are quite different. And despite the fact that I am in good physical shape and considered attractive, there are several issues related to this that will allow me to connect to the problems and possibilities of performance as research, but also to the ways that knowing is experientially realized and mediated through what you call affective technologies. One, I would only really be comfortable seeking permission to dance at a club managed by people that knew me when I danced in the 1980s–I would not feel confident enough because of my age to just walk into any club and ask to dance. Only my previous insider status (as practitioner) may make it possible and only in one or two clubs in the area. Two, I recently found out from one of my customer–cum-informants that Dallas now requires all female dancers (not males) to get a background check and apply for a license that costs around $75 before she can dance. This can be done same day, supposedly and I will do it the same day of the research as part of the project–but I’ve already wondered if there is an “age limit” set by the municipality. There is a minimum age requirement and preventing under-age dancing was the alleged purpose for the law. Additionally, there are my emotions–my affective response–which consists of everything from the excitement of a girl returning home to a high school reunion knowing she looks damned good to the panic of realizing my skin is lots loser than it used to be, no matter how tight the muscles underneath. The reflection on post-ness–age, tenure, the return to Dallas, etc.–and in the context of performance as research permits me to open up such matters for critical inquiry. For example, I partly seek to challenge scripts about women of “a certain age”–as well as the ways that women internalize them and perhaps sometimes project them onto others. Dancing–much as it would be nice to reclaim that particular stage (physically and developmentally)–is not ultimately necessary to the project. The pursuit of dancing and the club pilgrimage as research are the primary foci and I will be documenting my attempts to get the license, dance, etc.; documentation of the process is key. The pursuit will likely reveal all kinds of issues related to ageism and also to gender and power (the license! I am still in shock that only female dancers need to get this license in Dallas).

I am quite excited by our pairing and a sort of imagined continuum between good night out girls, cowgirls, and strippers. I am particularly intrigued that you will be reading the National Cowgirl Museum as a space of popular-feminist possibility. It makes me very curious to see how you will situate the rhetorical and visual strategies used by the Museum. For example, will it focus on the “guts and glamor” story? If so, what does that story cover? Will it narrate the ways that lower class women were able to find another way to survive by positioning themselves as a cowgirl–often in order to avoid working in prostitution? Given the connection of the figure of the cowboy to US expansionism, I wonder what you will find at the Museum, especially in the context of a politically conservative state. To what degree can we take at face value the ways the cowgirl is depicted at the NCM? How does the NCM use affective technologies to produce a “woman-friendly” space and toward what political and class-oriented ends? How might it also clean up cowgirl history and perhaps sanitize it for a certain class? for a certain political purpose? Lots of other questions: When was the Museum founded? Does the NCM only “preserve and celebrate”? How does it also occlude, frame out, erase?

Finally, the male dance clubs in Dallas are an extremely popular and lucrative industry–it seems that the notion of a good night out for the girls would have a very different valence in the Dallas (“Naked Empire”) context.

Elaine: Picking up on your point about and interest in scripts that have the capacity to challenge the representation of women of a ‘certain age’, I wanted to explain that this turned out to be one of the key drivers in the Good Night Out For the Girls study, to the point of arguing ‘age liberation’ as an urgent, contemporary feminist issue. It is all too easy, as you say, for women to ‘internalise’ dominant ideologies of femininity (of the young & beautiful kind) and ‘perhaps sometimes project them onto others’, hence shows in some way resistant to the degenerative paradigm of age afford opportunities to regenerate views of women of older ages. And I can see how your proposed practice-as-research process in the Dallas clubs, as outlined here, could similarly prove a valuable intervention into issues of age & gender discrimination.

And then, as to the question of difference, it is true to say that a rather different or alternative ‘naked empire’ emerges in the good-night-out-for-the-girls project, from considerations of male strippers and women’s audiences to female strippers in the context of new burlesque shows with attendant (heated) tensions between attachments to feminisms and to femininities. It did occur to me that in terms of a project for ‘tasting Dallas’ I might have tried to find a new burlesque or strip act in the city targeting women’s pleasure (in contrast to the male dance clubs) – but lack of local knowledge and insufficient web information brought me back to the National Cowgirl Museum, that I’d felt immediately drawn to on Josh’s helpful list.

So segueing from good-night-out-girls to cowgirls, what are my aims with this field trip? What I hope is that this might open up a new research ‘chapter’ for me. The ‘good-night-out for-the-girls’ project kept firmly to the theatre and performance sphere; venturing out into women’s museum spaces would be a new departure. I had begun to think a little about this earlier in the year when I was just a few days too early on a work trip to the city of Stockholm for the opening of the new Abba museum which is clearly being used to brand the city (bill-boards at the international airport leave travellers in no doubt about this!). So the ‘guts and glamour’ of US cowgirls (rather than the Euro-glamour of Abba!) will be my first venture into a different cultural medium.

Shannon, you have offered me some excellent prompts/questions in your reflections to help frame the visit (thank you so much for these). While I suspect you may be right about the ‘sanitizing’ ideological thrust of archiving cowgirl histories, following the approach I used with the good-night-out shows, I am going with a view to be open to the experiential, affective (and potentially, perhaps, feminist) possibilities of this as a women’s space. I may try some creative response exercises during the visit and figure out a way, perhaps, to share these with the group during our feedback, seminar meeting.

For a snapshot of the museum and its history, there’s a short clip that is useful on YouTube:

Shannon, given your age-related concerns, you may particularly enjoy this YouTube clip that I came across of American cowgirl Connie Reeves, uploaded in 2008 and featuring Reaves aged 101 and still riding:

P.S. (post-scripts):
Shannon: A few very quick comments:

1. Age is only one part of what I’m dealing with in the project and yet it seems to be the thing that gets taken up the most when I share ideas on the work. I find that quite interesting and look forward to seeing how the performed research shapes that aspect and/or fleshes it out.
2. I watched the second video you sent–thank you! It seems to me that issues of race and sexuality may also be key to thinking about the workings of the NCM… I noticed that all the cowgirls depicted in the video appear to be white. I also was intrigued with the main woman in the clip and the way she disclaimed the title in her first speaking line. What an exciting project you have here!

Elaine: You are right about the age slant – my direction in a way with the conversation opener – I couldn’t resist the ‘post-50’ idea – it figures largely in my daily/professional life where I find I become far and far less visible – and I have to see age & gender as factors in that… so when a chance to share comes along – I can’t resist!

Shannon: I very much agree, Elaine. That is where much of the power and energy of my project is: not only or even primarily in the perceived or real stigma against stripping in regards to professional perceptions in academia, but also and especially in regards to ageism, power, and gender scripts and all that they entail. Why do women become invisible right as they may begin to step into their fullest power, one might ask. The age slant is indeed a very rich critical site—and a crucial one at that, otherwise critical feminisms run the risk of remaining very superficial and limited by ageist rhetorics and imaginaries. I really do hope we get to have a bit of a good night out, ourselves… performance as research, of course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s