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Sketching Topless Dancers

by Gerald Burns

Illustrations by Gerald Burns

originally published in Dallas Arts Revue #12 in 1983

I am writing this on flesh-colored paper — well, coral — and why not. The subject is either sketching or women or working women, or how pleasure may be analyzed. He who sketches in cool light (blinds, adjustable skylights) may miss the fun of it (I might say) battle, as a flower taken from may miss the fun of  (I might say ) battle, as a flower taken from the field and painted is. The sketching may matter less than the dancers. The dream is Stevenson's, not of Barbizon, but lurching through dank Edinburgh, in one's hand a valise.

Strip-tease has died away and has to do with clothing. The topless dancer (go-go an old-fashioned term all its life) wears running shorts. Really, one of the best drawings I ever did was of a rangy one I think of as an Olympic Maid Marian — running shorts, socks and a tractor cap. The relation, with her, was always head and shoulders to fists, the limbs a punctuation as posts enter grass. To live in a time when outdoor sport attire is preferred for erotic dancing is informative as an unexpected pleasure informs.

The problem with topless dancers (barring the mermaid or vertical symmetry problem of the breast) is that they dance by accident, because they must do something. It reminds one in a way of how unspecialized dance is. Further, the one bar I patronize has a great many dancers, who serve beer from trays when not actually dancing. It is a glamourous kind of waiting on table, when for a dollar with a flurry of ash trays and pitchers shelved on chairs or the floor, one's table gets danced on. The woman is then at a height, and there is the charm of drawing customers who are looking up.

They are mostly young laborers looking for a good time, and while in general they are fond of well formed women they do applaud good dancing, and I find poor dancers almost impossible to draw. How they move matters (I'm tempted to say you, as if writing to the dancers, as, enjoying their art, I draw them.) It is a performing art involving audience more intimately than spectacle. Yet that there are limits matters; there are things she does not do (rough carnival devices), and clothing she will not remove. There may be dreams of seduction but I think it is more the dream of the flirtatious waitress. She takes some clothing off (usually between numbers ) as a kind of off stage wink.

They (you) work pretty hard, it seems to me, and while I've seen one distraught at having lost money and another wild at some stolen from her, there is a solidarity and willingness to work I like to see, having it myself. Gretchen, gold all over for the Halloween bash, lost a hundred and I gave her 20, and still remember how it feels to be kissed by a gold woman. These little things are tokens in a segment or section where one is not quite mark or john.

nav bar at top

There is toughness. Lana loathes my drawings, and I was told broke a customer's jaw with her high kick, which is notable. The thrust of her head forward with the jaw on the end of it like a forty-five is caricaturizable, which is why I have the drawings. I do give them away. Since this is a whim event, they are drawn on any paper, scraps Jim Haining sends, cut-down sketch pads. I started on beer mats.

Lana's mannerism is to wait, take two or three last puffs on the cigarette (a "gasper" would fit; her gestures are twenties gestures), finish her drink, then stalk, as it were, to the stage where there is a cakewalk strut to the music and that high kick. Gretchen, infinitely tall, plays to the mirror first and decides or condescends to face us, the face sleepy or withdrawn, and she looks wonderful in trousers.

Applause in general goes to the energetic, though there was one I liked for her minimal effort, as if in a contest for the shallowest cameo but more good-natured than that, whose dancing was a pleasure because she did so little. These (you) are dancers; they do dance. What you do if at all familiar with her work is see which customers she'll play to, or which are static posture she repeats. It feels professional waiting to catch (often) one thigh, and a good drawing will have five or six interruptions. This is drawing a model, and filing in from one's general knowledge of anatomy isn't as interesting.

As an afterthought, or fill-in: the pauses are when one drinks beer. One pays the piper or the house. My bar doesn't mind my drawing, but would as soon I drank pitchers or cans. I tip vigorously when I can and give away drawings, as a point of honor including my best. My father taught me if you can't paint it over again better don't keep it. He is a reviser and retoucher. In bars you learn to keep a sketch abrupt. So much woman, so little time. There are oddities; about 20% of women are prettier (or better dancers) with more clothes on, so you work harder her first number, or wait a pitches worth for her to come on again. Again I find it peculiar (since some of my best paintings are of houses) that if I don't find the dancer personality attractive I can't sketch her. There is a tactile grasp of a dancer moving, the eye like an arm around the waist, that doesn't kick in so there's only lines. The body moving ("caught in motion: is a cliche; drawn as carriage is more like it) needs affection. Hurrah for the lower impulses, but there is a generosity in what they do, that helps make even the briskest of them drawable. In fact the dark ones who dance quite slowly are difficult in spite of slow poses, perhaps from the rate of fluidity, and the one I rendered with a reticulated python was a touchingly emaciate blond — a Godsend, as it were, for the relation of ribs to tummy. Big snakes by the way look octagonal, like soft pencils.

I think it matters for the drawing that the dancer is really there. Samuel Butler regrets he ever started drawing from a model. I started late. But the imagination composes, reality disposes. There she is, and about 30% of the sketches end up crumpled in my hip pocket, for the men's room waste bin.

I remember a youg gent vocal about going to court next day on a rape charge (he swore was false), just talking in the gent's, our place to get away from the noise and the pool tables, green from those top lights. The relation to vice is I hope not a trouble. I hope for an amateurism all around.

The whole arrangement after all is a kind of minimal satisfaction or token thrill. In that respect it is like a carnival, maximum but fleeting wonder for a quarter, back-lot daily rarity. But the women do like to dance. A longhaired one who doesn't make much (one inserts a folded bill at the thigh's elastic, pulled slightly out for the purpose) thinks it's finding her mirrored image too funny.

Vanity is simpler than one thinks until one gives drawings away (Is that me? Do I look like that? Most dancers don't mind being drawn; a few strike poses which are funny to me because, like the dancer, I catch myself drawing. The best browse through them after and I want them to like the good ones. A pleasure in drawing this way: as one drinks more beer the line gets looser. Toward the end of a second pitcher it approaches grass-style calligraphy, almost something sometimes but usually just a pity. I like best twenty minutes or a half-hour in, with a new dancer one hasn't seen before and hasn't decided to sketch, just up, because it isn't a moment from the music tending to hurtle.

Sketches can fail from not having enough time as much as starting a shoulder wrong — these are hard line, mostly, and massed lines like those wheat breakfast thingies aren't allowed. The body in space has a kind of center of balance (I often start with the hair part, and if that's right get the head canted on the neck) and a general aim, though some front-on torsos end as lyrical backs. They play to the mirror, or squat to prattle with customers (or accept the dollar bill), worse in a way than animals. I fed horses seven months and never drew them looking at them. It's as if the dancers have to forget themselves a little, or be generous by accident, to get a good drawing. The lady with the tractor hat is drawable though sunk in routine. But generally, the better they are dancing the better the drawings are, perhaps because they are dancing for everybody.


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Story © 1983 by Gerald Burns
Illustration Copyright Gerald Burns.

Originally published in Dallas Arts Revue #12

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