t was a busy Friday night at Uptown’s Harlem Heat. Although it dropped a year before, Lil Kim’s Hard Core bumped from the large speakers that stacked the stage. At least six girls were in rotation, working the ceiling-high poles. They rocked glitzy platformed stilettos, pleather g-strings and feathered garter belts. Asses clapped and men sprayed money like mace into the air. Those sitting further back from the action begged for attention from women who bared skin. A lacey black bodysuit boxed in my grenade small breasts, spear slim waist, barrel thick thighs. At seventeen, I chose this modest outfit because I was insecure about my body. And disliked the way men prowled my flesh when a four-foot high stage didn’t separate us. I pulsed through the packed floor beneath scarlet strobe lights. Calloused fingers grabbed at mine as I headed to my destination. “Two screwdrivers,” I urged.
Lil’ Kim spat: I, Momma, Miss Ivana. Usually rock the Prada, sometimes Gabbana. Stick you for your cream and your riches. The bartender, a petite boricua in satin pun pun shorts and a skimpy tank, plopped the drinks on the bar top. Although I performed on a few stages before tonight, my belly bustled with nerves. A novice stripper, I was afraid that my performance would be lackluster and that I wouldn’t make the money I desperately needed. As I downed the watery vodka and orange juice mix, a low-eyed cat slunk next to me. “Yo, how much you charge, ma?” he asked. He reeked of booze and broke. Although sexual propositions came with the territory, they still made me nervous. “N-n-nothin you can afford,” I spluttered. I grabbed my second drink and headed towards the dressing room when a dancer I never saw before took the stage, captivating my attention.
She relaxed in a squat. The back of her leather thigh-high boots stacked on black stiletto heels. Her pelvis gyrated honey slow between thighs molasses thick. Bark brown weave draped down to the small of her back. A strappy leather bikini wired around her body. An ink butterfly perched above her breast — the one she stretched her whip-long tongue to lick. A thirsty cat standing in front of the stage took hold of her calf while lusting at the mound between her thighs. Without batting an eye or mustering a smile, she grabbed the back of his head, mashing his face against her pelvis while bucking her hips time and time again. Her body was merciless. Her face screwed up into a menace. Her mouth flexed into a bite. If you say so, then I’m the same chick that you wanna get wit. Lick up in my twat.
Before she could saunter away, the man’s hand shackled her ankle. He wanted more. She bent down, cleavage slipping past bra, put two fingers to his forehead and mushed the man’s head back with a cold stare. Loud praise flung over the music while dollar bills shot like missiles onto the stage. The man was embarrassed and looked ready to fight. She was unruffled. After raising into a full stand, she leapt high onto a nearby pole and clasped her legs around the metal for a swing, stilettos whipping like switchblades. She hit the floor in a split. Her splayed bottom half-tore at the cash that littered the stage. That’s when I saw her second tattoo. The one that moved like a flip book’s animation as she bounced. The one that rode the waves of her rippling ass cheek. The one that bore a single name. Buttah-Fly. Bettuh hit the spot. If not, don’t test the poom poom nani nani. Punani donni. Yeah!
Spectators exploded into cheers. Buttah-Fly ignored us all. She stroked her skin and swayed to the beat. Buttah-Fly was monarch over the masses. Moving, behaving and performing in ways only she desired. Stripping was a pleasure she gifted to herself. With each fabric slice she peeled from her skin, her will was in command. She embodied sex worker swag. And I wanted to sheathe myself in it.
I was next in rotation. It would be my third time taking the stage that night. The Harlem Heat dressing room wasn’t much bigger than a large walk-in closet. Girls strolled in and out, sheathed in camouflage shorts, see through bikini sets and mesh crop tops. I stood in front of the wall-length mirror, inspecting the red fishnet minidress that wrapped around my body. I turned around to look at my derriere, making sure butt cheeks flashed from beneath the dress’s hem. My feet were swollen numb. As I loosely wrapped the straps from the shiny red platforms around my ankles into a bow, hoping that my feet would soothe, Buttah-Fly walked into the dressing room, bikini top in hand, breasts bouncing with each step. She grabbed a baby wipe from the counter and wiped her twat. “Lace up your shoes,” she said.
“Huh?” I nervously responded. Buttah-Fly’s swag making my stomach curl into fists.
“Lace up your shoes,” she gestured towards the red platforms. Before I made a move, she was on her knees in front of me, untying the bow I’d created and wrapping both sets of patent leather laces around my legs up to my knees. “Yea, that’s it,” she said. “Now turn around,” she ordered. I did. She lifted my dress and undid the bow I tied in my bikini top. She then wrapped it around my torso, putting my belly in fire red crosshairs. “Before you looked good enough to fuck. Now you look bad enough to get paid for it,” she said punctuating her statement with a swat across my ass cheeks.
“Thanks,” I chuckled, unable to get the dryness out of my mouth.
“You good, ma,” was all she said before plopping down on a stool to take off her shoes and pull down her g-string.
I turned back to the mirror to spruce up my makeup when someone rocking a fresh fade walked into the room, headed in Buttah-Fly’s direction. The figure was wide-bodied, stocky. An oversized Aviator leather sagged from their shoulders. A thick Cuban link swung from around their neck. Buttah-Fly swiveled around on the stool to face them. The person pressed between her legs. Buttah-Fly’s acrylic nails rubbed the back of their head as they kissed, slow and seductive. They grabbed Buttah-Fly’s waist. Buttah-Fly melted into their arms.
When the kiss was done, words I could not hear were exchanged. Buttah-Fly rose up and sauntered towards her locker. Her lover took a seat and turned in my direction. I saw the mound on their chest, their soft cheeks and their heavily-lashed eyes. I realized that the person who made Buttah-Fly smile with no malice or mush was a woman. Before, I wanted to make love to Buttah-Fly; now, I wanted to be her. She gave a look, feel and realness to how I wanted to present my femininity; the way her body melded into that woman gave me something tangible, something more than my imagined queerness. Buttah-Fly was a woman who could make men do whatever she wanted. She was also a woman who shunned men from her true desire. Nigguhs think they gonna get some ass. No money money, no licky licky. Fuck the dicky dicky and the quickie.
On a late summer evening, my friend Sha and I headed towards the Jersey City skyline. My stiletto straps wrapped around my ankles up to my knees. The heels kept getting caught between the Old New York cobblestones that threatened to topple me over. “Nik!” Sha paused with a laugh. “I don’t understand why you wearin’ these heels jus’ to hit the fuh’kin Pier!”
“Stop hatin’,” I quipped as my strappy stiletto sandals click-clacked against the stones.
We landed at Christopher Street and West Side Highway. Sha and I crossed three lanes of road and approached the median strip separating north- from south-bound traffic when I spotted a pair of women heading in our direction. I elbowed Sha’s ribs.
One of the women was Dutch Master cigar brown. She rocked a black fitted Yankee cocked and slanted above her brow. Crisp cornrows laid beneath. Her denim shorts dipped below her knees. White ankle socks cushioned her feet against spanking new Uptowns. A snowflake white tee and a gold Jesus piece covered her chest. Shorty was bad. But she had an onyx dark femme at her side. The femme in her floral dress, flat sandals, Goddess braids wrapped around her head into a crown, and dainty gold bracelets lining her arm hadn’t seen one day inside a strip club. Her demeanor and the pedestrian clothes said it all. The femme was a civilian — a name we called women not in the game.
But Dutch, though. She and I locked eyes. Hers were almond shaped and red-tinged. Mine slanted and capped by jet black mascara. I sized her up. She did the same. My femininity was jeans so tight they looked painted on. Acrylic nails, razor long. A sliced-up tee to show my cleavage shake. The firm flat belly perched on wide hips and a fat ass. Doorknockers big as fists dangled from my ears. My weave was legs-long and my bangs Buttah-Fly blunt.
Dutch didn’t look away. And neither did I. Her eyes tightened into a squint. My mouth pursed into a challenge. Sha talked about something or another as I scoped shorty out. Right when Dutch’s arm was just to the left of my own, I called out, “Yo, you ain’t gon stop?” Dutch looked at me, then at the femme, then back at me, assessing what to do next. I kept walking. Hips switching and head on the swivel following her next move. Dutch stopped at the midway Sha and I just passed. She turned in my direction and said, “Yea. What’s good?” Sha walked off and I stood at the edge of the Pier, hand on hip, watching Dutch head back my way. When she got close, I smiled slow. “Hel-lo. How you doin?” my lips languidly spoke. “I’m Niki. And you?” I emerged from the chrysalis. I had gotten my wings. I had Buttah-Fly’d swag. Pretending not to watch, the femme stood on the midway strip. Alone. Ooh wee I see, your girl ain't a Freak Like Me, or Adina. Huh?
I stripped for the first time when I was sixteen-years-old. Having been raised by a single mother who worked double shifts to make ends meet, I decided to become a sex worker in order to pay my own way. To alleviate her financial stress. I thought it would be a way to earn lots of quick cash. On some nights, it was. Most nights, though, I made just enough to get the hair I sweated out redone and to buy another performance outfit or two. Pro-sex work feminists argue that sex work offers liberation to women. In an unexpected way, I found that to be true. Although stripping didn’t prove to be as lucrative as I envisioned, it gave me something I hadn’t anticipated — the imagination to use sex worker style and swag when presenting my queer femininity to the world. Sex work affirmed my identity as a concomitantly sexy and aggressive femme.
Back when I danced at Harlem Heat, Lil’ Kim had just become a household name. Her debut was iconic. On the album’s inner cover, Kim mimicked the pose that us strippers so often held when performing — a squat with spread legs, eyes fixed into firm glares, mouths pursed and ready to pop off. I think Lil’ Kim knew then what I would come to learn later. Sex worker swag was more than just performance for men. More than tight shorts, lacey bras, and feathered boas. More than high heels, long weaves, and airbrushed acrylic nails. Sex worker swag was attitude. Self-pleasure. Confidence that sliced like razors. The clothing and attitude created the armor. It’s the armor I still carry twenty years later. I got no time for fake nigguhs…