She's Ready for Take Off

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Toni Bentley's obsessions are apparent on the walls of her Hollywood house.

In the eggshell-colored dining room, surrounding a polished mahogany table, hang three large posters. An Art Deco Josephine Baker is framed next to a stripper from the famed Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. And the opposite wall is dominated by a ballerina, Maria Tallchief, striking a pose from "Swan Lake."

The Tallchief image is easy to explain: Bentley, who's in her early 40s, took her first dance lesson when she was 4, and spent 10 years with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet. The Baker image, she says, reflects the power of nudity.

As for the stripper, Bentley became fascinated with striptease when she saw her first show at the Crazy Horse--and made a connection between stripping and ballet.

"I experienced an astonishing moment of self-recognition," she writes in her new book. "This glamorous, slim, athletic woman was a Balanchine dancer without her leotard--and I was she."

The worlds come together in, "Sisters of Salome" (Yale University Press, 2002), her history of modern striptease told in four profiles.

"The striptease at the Crazy Horse gave new meaning to my years spent in tights, tutus and tiaras," Bentley writes. "Partial, simulated, decorated, and disguised nudity is part of the appeal of a ballerina. Ballet wear is theatrical underwear--silk, satin, velvet and chiffon their common coverings.

"Stilettos are toe shoes with a stabilizing training heel; both elongate the female leg to its erotic pinnacle. What are boned tutu bodices but skintight corsets and push-up bras? What are pink tights but warm naked legs?"

When a hip injury forced her retirement from the ballet company in 1986, Bentley's overriding fantasy, she said, was to transcend symbolism and become the stripper--which she did on the stage of a New York club called the Blue Angel.

Her own striptease connects her to the four "Sisters of Salome": Maud Allan, a Canadian dancer; Mata Hari, the Dutch spy; Ida Rubenstein, a Russian diva; and Colette, the French author. Bentley's book describes women who subverted notions about sexuality and power, she said. The four all used their sexuality to get what they wanted.

"These women subverted the existing rules to search out a new identity," Bentley writes in the introduction to "Sisters." "They recognized, without moral constraint or fear, that the body is basic, and men through the ages have shown a negotiable weakness for it, even when they've shown little for other forms of appeal."

Striptease is a male fantasy, she writes, but "more significant and less comfortably acknowledged, especially by women, is that the prospect of revealing one's nude body to a roomful of riveted voyeurs is a common female scenario ....It is undoubtedly a male fantasy to look--but it is also a female fantasy to show ....Stripping is both defiant and seductive, an autoerotic metaphor for female arousal where foreplay is central, not peripheral, and the art of the tease is the path to pleasure." Bentley, an Australian who grew up in the U.S., says she was possessed by the stage when she joined Balanchine's school.

Walking through the doors at the Lincoln Center, she said, "my life changed forever."

Not only was Balanchine a "genius," a "Sufi teacher," who inspired those around him, he was also the person who introduced her to the Crazy Horse.

"We were dancing in Paris, and Balanchine would bring these beautiful girls in short skirts backstage," she said. "We were completely hypnotized. 'Who are these girls?' " As it turned out, they were strippers from the Crazy Horse.

Bentley was intrigued and, deciding to investigate, spent an entire per diem, today's equivalent of about $100, on a ticket to the show.

When the women came on stage, "I had an epiphany: 'Oh, my god, they look like me and my girlfriends,' " she said. "They looked so incredible, powerful and desirable--I wanted to be that."

In 1992, Bentley wrote a story about the Crazy Horse strippers for Allure magazine, "but that didn't satisfy me. I still wanted to get up there."

The club's owner, Alain Bernardin, refused her request to dance at the club. But her obsession remained, and it intensified after she left the ballet company.

"I probably wanted to get back on stage," she said.

Her injury had been devastating, but having already received attention from her first book, "Winter Season, A Dancer's Journal" (Random, 1989), the timing was good, she said.

"I had another career I could go to, which is almost unheard of for a professional ballet dancer," she said. "God gave me the dance experience so I could write about it."

For Bentley, who has spent the last decade in Los Angeles, the desire to look, and to be looked at, found expression in her dual career as a dancer and a writer: "Wanting to be in the spotlight and away from it," she said. "The great desire to be seen and the great terror of being seen." Fear helped get her on stage at the Blue Angel.

"Breaking my own taboos, it was a great statement of freedom," she said. "Not just to be naked ... but changing my identity." Having perceived of herself as "a good girl," she wanted to rebel, she said.

"It was scary, but good scary," she said. "How are they going to react? It's a classic test of your female sexual power. Are they going to like what they see? And it was exciting to be able to see somebody, and their reaction."

Unlike the crowd at Lincoln Center, the club audience was close. "Those sitting by the stage are within touching distance," she said. "Needless to say, it's more intimate."

What she hadn't anticipated was the pleasure stripping gave her.

"I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it," she said, adding that she still keeps the money earned that night, $89, in her bedside drawer next to her black Bible.

"My striptease is very symbolic to me." And since it was the genesis of her new book, it seemed appropriate to include it, as "a very personal introduction," she said.

"Will people talk about it? I suppose. But it's not just about my stripping and my nudity. It's about a bigger thing"--feminism and sexual power.

"Feminism over the years [has claimed] women wanted to be like men. But we're totally different," Bentley said. "One should celebrate women's sexuality. Like verbal power. To celebrate it, to use it, to embrace it, is to say, 'I've got it, and it's a good thing.' That's a good feminist thing ....We should take more responsibility for our sexual powers, and use these powers more."

After all, Bentley said, "what women want from being liberated is power."

She bristles at the notion of the stripper as a victim. If it's a choice, it's empowering, she said. And that destabilizes the notion that the woman on stage is an object.

"It's what we all want to be, the subject looking at the object." In this case, she said, the object is the audience. "Who's the subject? Who's the object?" she said. "Those [questions] interest me."

She's unafraid to be both.

"I'm a sexy chick ... who's published by Yale University Press," she said. "Deal with it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°