Here’s the Prelude from Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-first Century: The Temple of the Sacred Lap Dance, or Ecstasy Is Where You Find It
August in New York is legendary for its soupy heat. Steam swirls up out of the subway gratings into the still, humid air and holds in an uneasy embrace everyone who can’t escape to the swank beaches of Long Island and the Jersey Shore.
New York’s financial district is even more claustrophobic in the August heat than most places in the city. The narrow streets and toweringly tall buildings prevent even the tiniest breath of cool air from finding you. In 1992, long before anyone could imagine that this neighborhood would ever be called Ground Zero, young financial whizzes not yet successful enough to spend these dog days in cooler climes dashed from air-conditioned tower to air-conditioned tower in their suits and ties. The mere sight of these tightly buttoned beings in the heat of the downtown streets made me gasp for air. The financial district was not a part of town I frequented, but I was going where the money was: I’d packed my best black lace bra and most expensive garter belt and G-string. The extra-long black stockings that completed my outfit were not expensive. Lap dancing is a sure way to go through several pair in a single shift.
I’d only done lap dancing once before, but I’d learned fast. One, wear stockings; they hold the cash more securely than garters. That way you can give all your attention to the customer on whose lap you are gyrating, which in turn leads to a longer dance and more tips. Plus, stockings make your legs look longer and more alluring. Two, pick a persona that works for you and stick with it. In this club, I am “Alexandra,” a high-class, uptown–call girl type. A cool, sophisticated-looking blonde is unique in this dark, seedy place. We all base our personas on sexual stereotypes. The Latina women I work with favor the Charo, coochie-coochie look. The black women favor Uptown Saturday Night. The few white women who work at the Harmony favor a sporty, well-toned, athletic look. Alexandra is an oddity here, and that’s always a plus in this business. Her what-if-Grace-Kelly-were-a-hooker quality appeals to a sizable clientele in this part of town.
I am working at the Harmony Burlesque because I need money—fast. My girlfriend is in Australia looking after her sick mum and has invited me to join her for a couple of weeks. She has even sent me a ticket. But I am so short of cash at the moment I can’t even come up with spending money. Besides, I liked working here the last time. The owner of the place, Dominique, is a woman I admire greatly. She is tough and smart. You have to agree to a long list of rules to work here (beginning, quite sensibly, with no drugs and no hooking, as both are against the law in New York), but in exchange there is a lot of creative freedom. And you can come and go pretty much as you please.
I am genuinely surprised at how much I enjoy working here. Perhaps it’s the sense of balance it gives me. The kind of sex work I usually do is of the nurturing and healing variety—very yin. This place is about as down and dirty, in your face—yang—as it gets. Plus, I simply love being Alexandra. She’s the archetypal opposite of Amara, my sensitive, new age goddess persona. I also love the exercise. If I could have this much fun at a gym, I’d join one. I also enjoy hanging out in the back room with the other women, imagining that this is actually a modern temple of the sacred prostitute. I even like a lot of the clients. The ones I don’t like are either bearable or ignorable, and there are always enough women working here that you can easily disappear when you want to avoid someone who’s just too creepy.
So I’m looking forward to today. The entrance to the Harmony is discreet. Only a small sign above the door identifies it as a place of pleasure. I walk through the door and then through the same turnstile the paying customers must pass through. I wait for the cold blast of air-conditioning. Instead, the air is only slightly cooler than the air outside.
“What’s up?” I ask the burly doorman.
“Da air conditionah,” he replies in fluent Brooklynese, “is deceased.”
The heat gets to me. It’s very hard to maintain Grace Kelly–perfect makeup and hair in 100 degree heat and 90 percent humidity. Especially while you’re dancing on someone’s lap and he’s even sweatier than you are. Thank goddess it’s dark in here. After about four hours, I abandon any hope of maintaining the look. I retire to the back room and wipe away all my makeup except what little is left of my mascara. I put on some fresh lipstick and pull back my damp hair into what I hope might pass in the darkness for a chic chignon. I wipe the sweat off my body with a damp paper towel and head back to the floor.
I see the Cowboy even before he actually passes through the turnstile at the entrance to the club. He stands out like a cool Montana breeze against all the sweat-soaked business shirts and briefcases. The Cowboy is cute. He looks authentic. He’s wearing faded jeans; scuffed, pointy Western boots; a pale, lightweight plaid shirt; and, of course, a well-worn cowboy hat. He reminds me of an older, more weathered version of Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. I am intrigued. I move in. He spots me only a few moments after I see him.
“Hi,” I say.
“Would you like a dance?”
We find a chair. He sits. I sit on his lap. Well, not sit, actually. Half my weight is on my feet. If you actually sit on a client’s lap, you can’t move as well. (Then there’s my ego—I wouldn’t want him to think I’m that heavy.)
I start the dance the way I start every dance. I take a deep breath and I gaze into his eyes, specifically his left eye. I learned this technique in Tantra. A person’s non-dominant eye (the left eye if the person is right-handed, the right eye if they are left-handed) is considered the gateway to the soul. You don’t have to worry about accidentally glimpsing their soul without their permission or allowing them unintentional access to yours. That gateway stays pretty firmly shut unless you really want to open it up. Besides, most people can’t take too much eye gazing. It’s just too intimate. I use it for a couple of reasons. First, it gives me a point of focus. (As a dancer and performer, you always do better work when you have a focus.) Second, eye gazing, even if it isn’t returned or doesn’t last more than a couple of moments, keeps me compassionate. When I look into someone’s eye, I see them as so much more than a tip machine. I see their vulnerability, their hunger, their humanness. It makes the dance more of a healing experience, for me at least.
The Cowboy seems experienced at this lap dance ritual and at the same time a bit shy. He isn’t hesitant, but he lacks the bravado I’m accustomed to from the Wall Street regulars. I smile. He smiles back. My eyes find his eyes. The Cowboy catches my gaze and holds it. Tight. The stripper on the stage behind me is working to a rhythm and blues tune I particularly like, and my hips pick up the beat like a wave. My breath goes along for the ride. The Cowboy’s gaze stays right with mine.
The song is almost over and we’re still eye-gazing. This is great! This almost never happens. Please, please, let this continue for another song, I plead silently. As the song ends and the next begins, I realize that the dance will indeed go on. But where’s the money? Damn. He should have offered something by now. Shit, now I’m going to have to bring it up. As I’m about to speak, I feel the unmistakable touch of currency sliding between stocking top and thigh. I have no idea where that bill came from. I never saw him get it out. Thank goddess. Let’s rock and roll. And that’s just what the next song is, a hard-driving Springsteen tune. The wave that we have become together transforms into a tsunami. His breath matches mine as intensely as his gaze. It feels like we’re held in a transparent, egg-shaped capsule that contains all our accumulated energy and feeds it back to us. My eyes are glued to his, his to mine.
Then the hallucinations start. The features of his face begin to change. Like a scene in a science fiction movie, he appears to morph into another person—and then another. I can tell from the look in his eyes that he’s having similar hallucinations about me. I have had this happen to me numerous times in Tantric rituals, but I’m surprised that he doesn’t find it more frightening—I did, the first time it happened to me. But he likes it. Now he’s rocking back and forth with me so intensely that I think the chair will break. I have long since stopped worrying about holding back my weight. We’re entwined as one sweaty, wet, multi-armed dragon, and that dragon can fly. We’re in the club, but beyond it. We hear sounds and see stars from other dimensions. Every atom in our beings vibrates with bliss. We are part of all that we can perceive and simultaneously at the center of it all. We know everything about each other and we have known each other forever in that moment. And that moment just keeps rolling.
This simply can’t be happening—not here, not in this place—but it is. I’m having an authentic Tantric, full-body orgasmic, fly-me-to-the-moon-and-see-the-goddess, erotic experience on a stranger’s lap in a low-rent lap dancing parlor. The second this thought flashes across my mind, I let it go. Experience has taught me that the only thing guaranteed to end a magic carpet ride like this is a critical mind. I take a big breath and look more deeply into his eyes. Our tether to the earth is cash. At the end of each song, somehow, a folded bill finds its way into my stocking top. It doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm. It doesn’t fuel it. It’s simply part of the ritual.
Eventually we land. Perhaps he was running low on cash. Perhaps I was running low on energy. Most likely, the twenty minutes of highly aerobic activity simply burned the erotic energy out of both of us in the triple-digit heat. We sit through one more song, with me still perched on his knees, facing him. Silently. Gently rocking. Smiling. Our eyes speak our complete and utter awe at what just happened. The music still blares around us. We do not speak. He tries to pay me one more time; I push the bill back into his hand. I stand up. So does he. I want to hug him, but it just doesn’t feel right. I reach out and place my right hand on his heart and give a little squeeze. He puts his left hand over mine and squeezes back. I bow my head ever so slightly and step away. He walks slowly to the exit, steps through the turnstile, and moseys off into urban Tantric history.
I was not often in the city in August. I was usually in the woods somewhere, either facilitating or participating in a workshop. I loved my long, warm workshop days. They were filled with the kind of fun and wonder you can only appreciate after too many adult years spent longing for the simple joys of summer camp. So, my workshops were actually summer camp for adults—adults who just happened to be captivated with sex, spirituality, and healing, that is. We held workshops on every imaginable new age subject: Tantra, Taoism, Shamanism, erotic massage, breathwork, rebirthing, herbalism, Reiki, chanting, dancing, channeling, clairvoyance, clairsentience, and clariaudience. We may have been new age, but we weren’t wimps. We were workshop warriors. There was nothing we wouldn’t look at, breathe through, chant out, process, or massage. We looked at our shame, our grief, our boundaries, our wounds, and our joy. We forgave, we accepted, we hugged, we orgasmed, we loved.
We lived intensely. We were grateful to be living at all.
Years of AIDS had taken their toll on all of us. We were gay, lesbian, queer, heterosexual, bisexual, Two-Spirit. (We weren’t yet transgendered—that wouldn’t come along for another five or ten years.) We were sex workers, artists, teachers, massage therapists, nurses, writers, accountants, marketing directors, corporate vice presidents, astronomers, and herpetologists. Some of us had been sexually abused; some of us hadn’t. Many of us were recovering or practicing Catholics. Most of us should have been dead by now. Some of us would be soon. What we shared was a longing to reclaim our spiritual and sexual selves from the Judeo-Christian scrap heap we had landed on when “sex equals death” became the new the urban motto. Most of us had lost dozens, if not hundreds, of friends and coworkers to the AIDS epidemic. And they were still dying.
I had come to this New Age out of sheer desperation. The AIDS crisis had stripped away everything I thought I could take for granted in life: my friends, my sexual freedom, my sense of safety in the world. I needed help. I needed a space to grieve and to regain my strength. Most of all, I needed a new deity. I’d pretty much lived without one since I’d run screaming from Catholicism when I was fifteen. I needed a deity who was on my side; who loved and approved of the world my friends and I lived in. I needed a deity who was queer and weird and paradoxical and kind and funny and very, very sexual. Just like me.
This desire for deity was new for me. I’d always been interested in mysticism and sex, but I kept pretty quiet about both. When I told my mother I was no longer going to pretend to be a Catholic, she was horrified. She told me I couldn’t just resign. “You’ve been baptized!” Through her tears of anguish she warned, “You’ll go to hell!” Somewhere down deep I carried that message. If I was too mystical and too sexual, that big, angry, vengeful god I’d escaped from would spot me and there would be hell to pay. Literally. So I downplayed both my sexuality and my spirituality for nearly twenty years. But the AIDS crisis forced me to confront both. In metaphysics, we say that no matter how bad things get, there is always something to be grateful for. I’m grateful to the AIDS crisis for Tantra.
In the course of my workshop summers, I became a Tantrika. (All that means is someone who practices Tantra.) To be precise, I didn’t actually become a Tantrika, I simply realized I had always been one. I didn’t need to convert to Tantra and I didn’t need to find a church to do it in. All I needed were open eyes, deep breaths, and a sense of adventure. I didn’t need a new anthropomorphized deity at all; I simply needed a sex-positive spiritual practice. I became a Tantrika because it was both logical and practical. (I may be a Pisces, but I have Virgo rising.) Tantra took me up out of the grief and the pain and the helplessness to someplace powerful and ecstatic. Tantra made me clear and strong in the face of chaos. Tantra made me wet. Tantra cut through the crap. When I shared Tantra with others, it did the same for them. And now, after my ecstatic moment with the Cowboy, it seemed Tantra worked even in lap dancing parlors.
Although I learned Tantra in lovely, peaceful, wooded retreats, I don’t live in one. I have a penchant for big, boisterous, loud, overwhelming cities. I love my periodic retreats to the beach or the woods, but I can’t seem to stay away from the big city. Sadly, it’s very hard to do a three-day, under-the-stars, open-air Tantric ritual with a hot tub in New York City. It just doesn’t happen. So whenever I tried to create a ritual like that in New York, I would inevitably feel frustrated and stupid. There had to be a way to practice Tantra authentically, effectively, and ecstatically in environments of concrete and steel.
Before I could figure out how to practice Tantra in urban (and suburban) environs, I first had to ask, “What is the essence of Tantra?” I knew it wasn’t just about being in nature. Being in the midst of quiet woods or by a roaring ocean was healing and nurturing, but it wasn’t nature alone that produced the passion, creativity, and ecstatic peacefulness I had found in my workshops. Nature provided me the opportunity to slow down, breathe more deeply, drop my emotional armor, and simply be more conscious of the beauty in each moment of the day.
Consciousness. That was it! The difference between my ordinary urban life and my wooded Tantric retreats was consciousness. If I could be completely conscious and present in each moment, it wouldn’t matter whether I practiced Tantra in Bali or on the Bowery. Not only would location not matter, neither would strict adherence to “traditional” Tantric practices. Anything I performed with complete consciousness would be completely alive, authentic, and transformative. It was this theory that launched my search for a new kind of Tantric practice. In the pages to come, I’m going to share with you what I found: a flexible, conscious, urban Tantric practice that you can use, enjoy, exploit, adapt, expand, fold, spindle, or mutilate, as long as it works for you and brings you joy.