The Russian Supper Club Experience


I'm frequently asked to elaborate on my brief stint as a Russian supper club perfrmer, the item on my resume that elicits the most attention. Most of the questions run along the theme, "Were you naked?" (I wasn't, I swear).

So let's clear up any misconceptions. It was the early nineties. I was living in Manhattan, pursuing a career as a professional modern dancer—which meant that I worked a wide variety of random jobs to support myself (including bartending, dogwalking, etc). I got the supper club job through a friend from one of my dance classes who kne that I was between gigs (which is a nice way of saying I was out of work at the time). I usually filled those interims with bartending jobs, but had recently had a bad experience and wasn't eager to continue slinging drinks. Rent was coming due, and my bank account hovered around zero. My friend approached me after class one day and said, "I know how you can make decent money for a half— hour show three nights a week."

Sounds sketchy, right? But my friend assured me that there was no nudity involved, in fact the costumes were elaborate to the point of being ridiculous. I tentatively agreed to come to rehearsal that afternoon. If all went well, I'd be onstage the following night. I walked in and met the seven other performers (five dancers, two singers). Over the space of two hours they taught me six dance numbers. I found it curious that everything was set to early—eighties tunes like "Beat It" and "Turn the Beat Around," but figured it could be worse.

I was still reluctant, but agreed to try it out for the weekend. I left the club address with my boyfriend just in case I arrived home with one less kidney (or didn't turn up at all), and headed to Times Square. A van shuttled us from there to Brighton Beach, where a huge neon sign announced "Club Versailles" on a building that looked like a storage warehouse plastered with fake Doric columns. We went in the back way. I followed my friend down a narrow staircase that opened into the kitchen. The room was filled with cooks in ragged tank tops, most with a cigarette dangling out of their mouths (and dropping ash into the food, at which point I made a mental note not to eat the free dinner). They all leered as we passed, following the snaking corridor to a tiny room at the end of the hall where we were meant to change. A rickety screen in front was supposed to shield us from prying eyes, but let's just say it was fairly ineffective.

As for the show itself, let me give you the backstory (yes, there was a running plot):

Aliens had landed in Brooklyn (this was illustrated by the descent of a miniature spaceship from the ceiling, accompanied by clouds of fake smoke. I was actually fairly impressed by the recent immigrants metaphor). The singers (aka the aliens) learned all about American culture via a series of songs and dances. These included, paradoxically:

—a disco routine where we wore towering French powdered wigs and hoop skirts,

—a Michael Jackson number complete with Jerri—curl wigs and black spandex outfits, and

—a flapper number where we danced the Charleston.

Confused? I was. The modern day equivalent would be teaching people about American History by showing them YouTube clips.

The dining room was packed with families seated at long tables (I was told that most of these were local mobsters). Vodka flowed freely, and kids ran around the room despite the late hour. We closed the show every night by grabbing people from the crowd, dragging them onstage, and forcing them to perform the Macarena with us. I'm not kidding.

And here's the funny thing: in retrospect, it was the most fun I ever had dancing. Up until then I'd worked with a series of very serious modern dance companies doing "important" pieces. So I'd be rolling around the stage in a black leotard simulating the situation in Rwanda, or wallowing in pieces called "Disconnected" that were supposed to illustrate the dehumanizing effect of machinery on modern existence (mind you, this was pre—internet). And the Club Versailles job was just pure fun, the dance equivalent of a summer blockbuster film. I had a blast the entire three months the gig lasted. Then one night, we were all abruptly laid off. Apparently the owner suddenly realized that she could hire Russian dancers for a fraction of what she paid us, and wouldn't have to provide van service from Manhattan.

So I bid the mobsters a forlorn dasvidania and returned to the bar scene. A few months later, in the face in worsening knee injuries, I hung up my dance shoes and moved west in search of a new life. So in the end, Club Versailles closed out my dance career. I still get a little teary whenever "Beat It" comes on the radio.