Cocktails and Pole Art

It’s a brisk, cold night in Los Angeles, and though I should be on my couch basking in the glow of Sunday TV, I am instead racing atop my motorcycle east through the streets, deep into Hollywood. This is the part of Hollywood that most tourists never see, and for good reason. It’s possible they wouldn’t really know what to make of this side of town. I’m out this way because of an event that seems to be equal parts perplexing and intriguing, in a way that friends from other cities would certainly shake their heads while muttering, “Only in LA.” In this case, they may actually be right.

Tonight, for reasons that elude me, the highly sought after mixologist Matthew Biancaniello will be working his magic at Cheetahs, an old institution strip joint that is playing host to a Sunday night amateur pole dancing competition. This is LA and my overly active imagination has already created an alternate version of this evening where the place is packed with young, bored Beverly Hills housewives desperate to take their stripper pole lessons out for a test run for something akin to physical appreciation and affection, which is in short supply at home. I mean, they have to do something with those immaculate bodies, right? As I said, my imagination has a tendency to create elaborate and detailed scenarios, but who knows; maybe my dreams will come true.

If you don’t know Matthew Biancaniello, he singlehandedly built up an unrivaled, and often imitated, drink program at the popular Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Library Bar, before ending his tenure there for new, and increasingly greater opportunities. Since leaving the bar he’s been flown around the world by alcohol manufacturers, celebrity clients, and passionate fans desperate for one more chance at Matthew’s intoxicating creations. It’s limiting to refer to his work as mixology, because it’s so much more, and more accurate to use his phrase for it, eat your drink. Just accompany Biancaniello to one of LA’s Farmer’s Markets where he’s become somewhat of a minor celebrity, where he will lead you on an agricultural journey of flavor combinations that one wouldn’t inherently think would work in a rocks glass, but in the hands of this drink master it works. It always works.

Parking near the club I realize that Cheetahs sits in the Hollywood-Los Feliz-Silver Lake triangle, an area that in recent years has had an inspired resurgence, with its cool wine bars, high-end hamburgers, and hipster coffee shops. Even after fifteen years in LA, I am still like a wide-eyed child with the hidden, and not so hidden gems this city consistently offers. (Mental note: get out of the house more, and by all means, spend more time exploring Silver Lake.)

There is no curtain separating the entrance of Cheetahs from the street, as with most strip joints…or so I’ve been told. As it turns out, Cheetahs isn’t actually a strip club, but a bikini bar and adult entertainment venue. More specifically: No Nudity. The club, built in the 1920’s, has stood the test of time. Originally named the Irish Shamrock Club it was home to the burgeoning Hollywood scene, and then later became a frequent hangout for local gangsters. Today, it plays host to a number of specialty shows and events, and offers live music from bands like Action Bronson, and AWOL Nation, booked by Joaquin Phoenix look alike, and genuinely nice guy, Mike Abdelnour.

Just inside the oddly cool and kitsch club, sits a prominently displayed, and surprisingly stocked bar. The place is, dare I say, warm and welcoming. Biancaniello, a proud new father of twin boys, comes out from behind the bar with his ever-present smile and a hug. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to not just follow his career, but also become friends, however his enthusiasm is not just reserved for familiar faces. He is engaged, connecting with one person at a time across whichever bar he finds himself behind. Matthew wants to know what flavors you like, what alcohols you drink, what kind of night you’re looking to have, and most importantly, how adventurous is your palette? Are you a savory drinker, a sweet drinker, spicy, bitter, or a combination thereof? Once he hits on it, he sets to work, not just making a cocktail, but making a cocktail specifically for you. He is determined, at every turn, to get it right. His drinks are surprising, adventurous, deeply conceived, and far too easy to drink.

It’s still early, and the club is relatively empty. I take a seat at the bar, where Biancaniello promptly sets down one of this evening’s four specialty drinks, not including the handful of custom margaritas, like nothing you’ve ever tasted. The first drink is a fresh squeezed pumpkin juice and hops infused vodka, called The Jolly Pumpkin. It is refreshing and complex, semi-sweet, but rich with a taste of autumn. Regular bartender and Cheetahs fixture, Nina, has joined me at the end of the bar; her interest piqued by Matthew’s drinks. I happily share the first of many cocktails with her, and it is worth it to witness her genuine amazement at the flavors Matthew has managed to cram into a class. I’m not sure exactly what pixie gang Nina has escaped from, but she’s tragically lovely, utterly charming, and knows full well how to polish off my drinks.

Biancaniello’s second drink is a rich and briny creation, bear with me here, a fresh seaweed infused Tequila with agave, scorpion salt and lime juice. This is a perfect example of something that on paper should not work, nor would even occur to the average person, nor bartender for that matter, but of course is surprisingly drinkable. It plays a whole different game in your mouth, this time creating an image of a chilly seaside cottage, kept warm by a cable knit sweater and a roaring fire in the fireplace. With a gulp, Nina’s palette seems to agree.

A little lightheaded and tingling from the drinks I’ve nearly forgotten the other reason for why I am here; something about scantly clad women stripped down to their delicates and gyrating around a shiny pole. I lift my attention from the bar, noticing the groups of attractive women trickling into the club. I study their faces, playing a game of “whose taking a turn on the pole tonight.” No, not my– you dirty bastards, but which of these women will be braving the stage. The room has really begun to fill up with beautiful girls, which isn’t that rare, this is Los Angeles after all. Initially it feels like a drink event, with the bar the focal point, but this doesn’t last. Slowly, indiscernibly, the energy shifts. The momentum turns as groups of girls gather in small cliques around the stage, away from the bar. It’s unclear if any or all of them are even aware of the specialty drinks, as rocker devotee and all-smiles cocktail waitress Lori delivers a steady stream of Red Bulls and vodka out into the club.

Waiting for the show to kick off, I take a look around. There’s not a lot to the club, a phallus shaped stage, swollen and rounded at one end, protrudes from a wall of mirrors, penetrating out into the club and lined with chairs. Standing there, snickering to myself like a second grader who has just said “penis” out loud in class, I am approached by the only girl in the place currently parading around in her underwear. She doesn’t break stride, nor avert her eyes, and comes right up, calling me by name. She extends her hand towards me, “I’m Amanda.” This indeed is Amanda, a woman with a thriving professional family business who is responsible for this evening’s event. This is her brainchild, and she could not be prouder. I, however am easily distracted, but have never felt more intimidated by a woman in her underwear before. Our conversation could just as easily be held in a conference room with her commanding and confident presence. She stands firmly in front of me atop two smooth and bare legs, not that I had noticed mind you I am a professional after all, and so I most assuredly alternate between respectful eye contact and some way off distant and utterly fascinating spot on the floor.

This evening was conceived on a fortuitous night. Earlier in the year Amanda was celebrating her birthday at Cheetahs with a group of girlfriends. The enthusiastic ladies at some point, most assuredly late into the night, took to the stage. Cheetahs’ surprisingly good natured and personable owner, Nick, approached Amanda and the two quickly agreed that a night of amateur pole dancing belonged on the schedule of this historic site. Amanda immediately knew she wanted Biancaniello to be a part of the evening because, as she puts it, “I know Matthew’s level of consciousness. He is an extraordinary talent. And he is an extraordinary human being. I mean, who else would you want to do your event? I’ve never tasted drinks like this man’s drinks.” Of course, I agree.

I mumble something about Amanda’s unwavering confidence, to which she confesses, “It’s been a long journey. Dancing is a form of therapy for me. It’s a hobby, a sport and an emotional outlet, that has freed me.” As it turns out, this confident women before me not so long ago struggled with an eating disorder and crippling insecurity, but has found a profound strength through pole dancing that has transformed her into the confident lady standing before me in her underwear, or as she refers to it, her “costume.”

Amanda sets me straight, tonight is not actually a competition, as I was misguided to believe, but is in fact just a night of amateur pole dancing, and an opportunity for local pole dancers to share their passion and art. As it turns out, there really aren’t many venues to perform in, besides, of course strip clubs. But that’s not what this is. The women participating, and who take classes at the numerous pole dancing studios around the city are in fact doctors, lawyers, nurses, moms, business owners, and even federal government employees. So it looks like I wasn’t too far off, but I certainly don’t have the nerve to inquire as to how many of tonight’s performers are bored Beverly Hills housewives.

Finally, an hour and forty minutes after the doors opened, Amanda kicks off the entertainment, introducing the first dancer. Josiah Grant is a special guest, and a super star in the world of pole dancing as the North American Pole Dancing Champion, and the only man gracing the stage this evening. The speakers thumb to life, cued by in-house DJ and escaped woods nymph, Asa. For a brief moment I ponder on how surprisingly good the sound system is, but am quickly taken in by Josiah’s strength and grace. He appears to fly up and around the pole, glide across the floor, and easily twirl inverted in a display that is equal parts graceful athleticism, danger, and art. His physical abilities border on super human. The room is transfixed. No person should actually be able to do what this man does. If you don’t believe me, feel free to YouTube any of his videos, which are quickly climbing into the hundreds of thousands of views. That right there, was well worth the $10 price of admission. When Josiah is done the place erupts in appreciation.

With that bit of insanity out of the way, the first amateur is brought to the stage. Rebekah, a fair-skinned, statuesque, brunette, easily caught my attention an hour earlier while ordering drinks at the bar. In that moment, for reasons unknown to me, I quickly dismissed the idea of there being any chance of this girl taking her clothes off for me or anyone else here this evening. Too pretty? Too put together? Too…something. I figured she was here with a group of girls to support one of their friends, but lucky us, she’s the first one to hit the stage.

Now, at this point I don’t really know what distinguishes a “professional” pole dancer from an “amateur,” but what Rebekah is doing seems pretty damned proficient to me. She owns the stage, controls her body, and sways the crowd to her whim. Her presence is beautiful and fluid, whether practiced or inherent, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps the idea is to be effortless and desirable, and at this she succeeds. As she works her way through a two song set, the club lights glisten off a piercing hiding just beneath her sheer top, like a secret revealed if you happen to be sitting in just the right seat, which I guess I am.

The next performer takes the stage, and the evening slowly blurs into a series of girls dancing, rolling, crawling and pole spinning, doing their thing in a more understandable version of “amateur” pole dancing. Some are more memorable than others, like Elizabeth who appears to be oozing liquid sex. Her slow and sensual approach touches closest to the erotic. In one intense moment she drops full force to her knees and freezes before her body slowly animates back to life. It is, for lack a better word, remarkable.
Then there’s Lauren, the petite firecracker, who lacking any training save for an obvious background in gymnastics, bubbles over with excitement to just be on stage. You can’t help but smile and laugh, she is infectious. Without a single pole class, tonight seems to have swayed her, and the art form has won over a brand new devotee. Lauren wasn’t even planning on getting on stage tonight.
Waiting in the wings, pacing nervously, I meet Lilly Blue, a tall blond Brit with a magnificent head of curly blond hair. She seems to be threading the line between running as fast as her long legs will carry her right out the front door, or climbing reluctantly up onto the stage. She confesses with an uncomfortable laugh, “I’m really nervous.” She’s been pole dancing with some of the other girls for a little while now, and this is her first time ever performing, if she is able to make it to the stage that is. When her name is finally called, she has draped a scarf over her head, effectively hiding from the audience. Somewhere within the first few beats of the song Lilly’s fear dissipates. She is infected by the spotlight, the adoration, the power, the freedom of being on stage. Her friends cheer her on, and though still somewhat a novice, Lilly takes full advantage of the long stage, strutting up and down, grasping the pole between her legs and spinning carefree.

When I catch up with Rebekah, who is still scantly clad and just as enthusiastic in the audience as she was on stage, she confesses, “I’m a pole dance geek. A lot of us have poles in our homes, and we have pole parties. Girls all get together at someone’s house, we have wine and cheese and dance.” Rebekah turns out to be the most proficient of all the girls this evening. She found pole dancing and it quickly became a passion. This girl, who not so long ago was controlling the emotional tempo of the room, who has a pole mounted in her home, is also a business owner of her own medical marijuana clinic! Yes, you heard that right. Not only is she beautiful, not only does she love pole dancing, not only does she seem so cool and at ease in her underwear, but she sells pot for a living. One would imagine that if Weird Science were remade today, they might come up with a creature remarkably similar to her. While I’m still lost in this revelation, Rebekah excuses herself, rejoining her friends sitting along the rail.

I wander back over to the bar for my next drink, a candy cap mushroom bourbon with muddled fresh curry leaves and passion fruit, flavors that Biancaniello frequently works with, which hit a nice refreshing balance of savory and fruity. Sipping, and sharing my drink with Nina, I look back over the crowd. Amanda is rushing about, making sure everything is going smoothly.

Amanda wants pole dancing to find the respect and appreciation it deserves. She is not alone, as many in the global community do as well. Whether you know this or not, there are national and international pole dancing competitions held around the world every year, with amazing YouTube videos to prove it. Legitimacy, taking the perception of pole dancing out of the strip club and into the main stream is slow, but it is happening, turning up in shows like Cirque du Soleil and America’s Got Talent. Perhaps one way to hurry it along would be to take the dollar bills out of the equation. As far as I know, it’s the only dance form where people shove money into a performer’s underwear as they are performing, which doesn’t actually happen during competitions. However, I have to admit that one of my favorite moments of the evening was when one young dancer scooped up the pile of money at her feet and threw the entire haul up into the air, making it rain.

It’s finally Amanda’s turn to take the stage. Her presence up there is all confident ambition. The beat drops and she goes to work. Amanda’s strut reminds me of Beyoncé’s on stage swagger, that Sasha Fierce alter ego she talks of. She is certainly one of the best amateurs of the evening, and yet even with her confidence, there’s something practical and matter-of-fact about the way she attacks each trick, like it’s something to accomplish. You can tell just by watching her that it is only a matter of time before she is more adept with the bigger and more challenging tricks. And with time will come the artistry, the type of artistry that Josiah lead the night off with.

With a flourish, Amanda is done. She gathers up a pile of bills from the stage floor before all the girls are invited back up one last time for a group free for all. Lauren, the little ball of infectious energy stands halfway down the stage, drawing each passing girl into a playful grind and slap as they go by. Rebekah twirls and body rolls around the main pole. It is crowded up there, and each move seems like a sexy accident about to happen. Thankfully, the women go unscathed.

Amanda steps back and takes it all in. She doesn’t purport to be the spokeswoman for pole dancing. She knows she is fairly new to it, has a lot more to learn, and eagerly looks forward to the journey; aspiring to one day compete and be, what one would guess is a professional pole dancer. This night, a success, has created a safe and celebratory environment for women who share a similar passion to come together and expose something more intimate and important than their bare flesh. Standing on stage, on any stage, takes courage whether you are in your underwear or not. These women have taken ownership of who they are, have found an appreciation for their bodies that most people may never experience, and have willingly come out this evening to share this new found security and confidence with a room of friendly, and some mildly intoxicated faces. That alone, should be applauded.

As the night winds down, Matthew serves me up one last drink at the bar, an aged sake, that when served ice cold, is like no other. Sure, there’s not a chance I’ll finish it without my drinking buddy Nina to help me out. The club begins to empty, and there, still twirling in the stage lights is the once reluctant Lilly Blue. For a moment it looked like she would never make it up there, and now, as long as the music plays, she just may never come down.

Cheetahs Exterior sign shot