Friday, July 25, 2008

The Shocking, True Story behind my Russian Supper Club Performing Career

Note: Our guest blogger today is the multi-talented Michelle Gagnon. Michelle is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her debut thriller The Tunnels was an IMBA bestseller. Her next book, Boneyard, depicts a cat and mouse game between dueling serial killers. In her spare time she wonders what happened to Miami Sound Machine.

I confess, this doesn’t really count as a hobby since I was paid to perform (not well paid, but money was involved). But the item on my resume that elicits the most attention is always the bit about how I was once a performer in a Russian Supper Club. This generally provokes questions running along the theme, “Were you naked?” (I wasn’t, I swear).

So let’s clear up any misconceptions. I got the job through a friend from one of my dance classes who knew 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 a bad experience recently 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 (six 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,” (this was the mid-nineties), 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 by men 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 that it was fairly ineffective.

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

Aliens have 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) learn all about American culture via a series of songs and dances. These included, paradoxically:
  1. a disco routine where we wore towering French powdered wigs, lacey bodices, and hoop skirts.

  2. a Michael Jackson number complete with Jerri-curl wigs and black spandex outfits, and

  3. a flapper-style tap routine featuring 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 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 doing it for the three months the gig lasted. Then one night, we were all abruptly terminated. Apparently the owner suddenly realized she could hire Russian dancers for a quarter of what she was paying us, and wouldn’t have to provide van service.

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’ll admit it, I still get a little teary whenever “Beat It” comes on the radio...

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Kathryn Lilley said...

Fabulous story, Michelle! I can never sit still when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" plays, and all I have to look back on by way of a dancing career is a few regrettable moments on a disco floor dressed as (aargh! the pain of the memory) a Madonna wanna-be!

Camille Minichino said...

Thanks for joining us, Michelle ... love your modern dance characterization!
Lucky for us you've turned your multitude of careers into fodder for great writing!

Jessica said...

Great story! Your book sounds good too, I put it on hold at the library just now.

Terri Thayer said...

Talk about tension. Your foray into the club sounded like it would end with you in a Russian brothel in St. Petersburg. It's nice to know instead you were responsible for educating so many.

I can't hear "Beat It" without hearing Weird Al singing "Eat It" so I think you might be a tad better off.

Michelle Gagnon said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone! And lol Terry, I was definitely afraid that might be a possibility.

Betty Hechtman said...

What in ineresting post. I loved the image of the "serious" dancing. I think I sat next to you at the MWA booth at the BEA.

elg said...

I've always wanted to hear this story Michelle. Although your stint at the Russian Supper Club wasn't anything dad and I could ever bring ourselves to talk about at dinner we frequently rolled our eyes and shuddered whenever you mentioned it to us on the phone. As the people responsible for your moral upbringing we're relieved that it was just clean fun. We can finally put that fear to, what happened with the bartending that creeped you out and turned you to dancing for Russian mobsters? It seems there's more to be, mom

sexy said...