Maya Angelou was a strip-tease dancer?!

Sweet, pious, beautifully spoken, Mother Teresa-meets-Martin Luther King Jr, “Touched by an Angel” poet Maya Angelou?!

Indeed, Maya Angelou spent a brief four month stint as a strip-tease dancer at the Bonne Nuit Dance Club in San Francisco when her marriage had ended and she was looking for work to support herself and her son. I stumbled upon this little nugget while reading what is said to be considered Maya Angelou’s most deeply personal memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, in which she describes her relationship with her mother and how it shaped the woman she became. While she calls it strip-tease dancing, and although she was scantily clad, Maya never actually took her clothes off on stage for money. In her memoir, Maya mentions how she didn’t want to be known as a strip-tease dancer. She had studied dance most of her life, at that point, and was liberated by it. When she was dancing she felt as if her body “had a reason to be.” But the “prospect of three hundred dollars per week was tantalizing.” She calls her mother and explains her dilemma. To my surprise, and possibly to Maya’s, her mother encourages her to apply for the position. Together, they create a revealing but theatrical costume and Maya hires a drummer to play for her while she dances. Maya quickly becomes the most popular and most sought after dancer in the club with patrons even “turn[ing] their backs to the strip dancers.” She gains regular visitors who come to the club to watch her dance and her performances are even written about by several popular San Francisco columnists who praise her dance skills and  business acumen. A group of her regulars become her future employers, hiring her to star as a calypso singer at their club, the Purple Onion. She goes from making $300 a week to making $750 a week. Her mother tells her, “Now you will see some of the world and you will show the world what you are working with.” This opens up other opportunities to sing as a way to support herself which opens up opportunities to travel and see the world.

I’ve had a specific vision of Miss Angelou, a name she kept because she “liked the sound of it” (from the very marriage whose end drove her to become a strip-tease dancer), for most of my life. I’ve come to realize that my vision of Miss Angelou was skewed yet she is now no less angelic in my eyes. On the contrary, learning more about who she was, where she came from and what she experienced in her life and adding that to what I had known of her in her later years just fills me with even more respect and adoration for the woman. She never apologizes for being human. She shuns this idea of perfection that we all hopelessly cling too and speaks only of love, understanding and acceptance. She does not define herself by her experiences but rather allows relationships to mold her. She embraces the imperfections in herself and, by doing so, gives us hope that we can do the same for ourselves. My vision of Maya Angelou never even came close to capturing what a badass she truly was.

There’s a valuable lesson in Maya’s provocative yet short-lived strip-tease dancing career. I believe Maya’s mother,  Vivian Baxter, said it best; “You are going far in this world, baby, because you dare to risk everything.”

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