I asked Lux ATL/Dr. Byron to contribute this guest post. Karen
Most folks know me as “Lux ATL,” the pole-dancing feminist activist. However, just a few years ago, the name I heard most often was “Dr. Byron,” and the closest I came to a stage was behind the podium in English 101.
As a child I had dreams of becoming an artist. However, in the business-worshipping 1980s of my youth, I was lead to believe that such a life was impossible, even irresponsible. I’ve been a writer for as long as I could write, and although I wanted to write novels–or more accurately, wanted to live a life that would someday justify an autobiography–I decided that devoutly following an academic path could create a route to socially-acceptable “success” that also allowed the pursuit of art as part of the profession. I’d teach literature courses and write novels, you see–a Toni Morrison kind of life. My office would be panelled in the finest of wood.
I believed this scenario to be the course of my future until I was four years deep into a PhD in American Literature. Exams finished, dissertation looming, infant at my breast, slowly and grimly the consequences of the upcoming job search became ever the more real to me: leaving Atlanta, a place that had become beloved to me, disrupting my husband’s professional success, which has been hard-won and only recently achieved, and abandoning my newly-developed passion for pole dance in exchange for a 5/5 teaching 101s to sleepy freshmen and a lifetime of glamourless grading. Turns out, there are very few wood-panelled offices left up for grabs these days.
Although pole dance had become a new passion due to a timely Groupon, I was no stranger to the art form. All of those years that I’d been gathering degrees, I’d also been twirling around poles in strip clubs, funding trips around the world and a house full of furniture. I’ve been stripping since my 18th birthday. Stripping is in my DNA. I took to pole dance like a fish to water, or more accurately like a seasoned stripper to chrome.
As my passion for pole dance took off, my reputation within the pole community followed, and I began to doubt my desire to continue in the academy (you can read about my journey of academic disillusionment on my old blog, as well as in this interview with the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s blog, Vitae). Although my scholarly work uncovering the voices of silenced women compelled me deeply, I began to see academic publication as an intellectual circle jerk in which we fail to reach those outside of our socio-economic circle of cultural privilege–a conversation in which we reaffirm our own genius among ourselves but never actually affect the world outside.
My disillusionment grew. I started searching for ways to pursue my professional life on my own terms. It was this search that lead me to The Professor Is In.
I came to The Professor Is In looking for a way to take control over my academic life. However, at TPII I found not only resources for controlling my professional trajectory–furthermore, I discovered an innovative post-academic business model that continues to inspire me today. “Here is a woman who left the academy and created a useful, practical, smart, and unprecedented business model,” I mused of TPII creator Karen Kelsky. I wanted to do that. I wanted to live life on my own terms, make my money meaningfully, and help folks (particularly women) in ways that were tangible and real. I hoped I could do this through pole dance.
I began working occasional nights at a strip club for the first time in years in order to save money for this potential professional pole dancing pursuit–wild dream that it was.
Around the same time, however, I accepted a “temporary position” as a Fellow at a prestigious local university. I begrudgingly applied for a couple more local positions–non-tenure-track, high-hour, low-wage, crazy commutes. Using the lessons I learned on the TPII website, I made it to the final round for one position–even got taken to dinner by the hiring committee. When I didn’t get the job, I sat in my closet in a pile of dirty clothes and wept, still programmed to think myself a failure without an academic appointment to legitimize my existence.
A week later, I arrived to class to teach my all-male, frat-brother-dominated classroom at Prestigious Local University to discover a ten-foot ejaculating dick drawn across the entirety of my whiteboard.
That was the day I announced to my students, “I quit this bitch.”
I didn’t bother reapplying for the “temporary position.” I didn’t bother continuing my research. I didn’t bother keeping up my CV. I dropped out of the academy entirely and dedicated myself to my dream of becoming a professional pole dancer.
Side note: “pole dancer” is not synonymous with “stripper.” Pole dance exists as an international subculture based very much online, with pole dance studios serving as local hubs all over the globe. In pole dance culture, certain talented dancers and online personalities can ascend to an internet fame that fuels an income made touring pole studios across the world, teaching and performing. This was the goal I set for myself. As you might imagine, the number of folks who truly make a living this way is small. I considered my plunge into this pursuit to be perhaps my final chance at living an artist’s life.
And so this lifelong stripper returned to her old stomping grounds to fund the pursuit of her dream. Although I never expected to re-enter the trap house as a doctor in my thirties, and the 6 am bedtimes were harder for me now that I had a family, working as a stripper full-time allowed me to make twice the money I’d been making in the academy in half the time, providing me with the time and income to invest in “Lux ATL.”
I knew that my dream was an unlikely one. Indeed, the life I imagined for myself–touring the world as a feminist artist, writer, and motivational speaker, inspiring women worldwide to interrogate the dominant narrative and live radically–that life did not exist before me. There are no models for me, for this life I have imagined.
And yet here I am, living it.
How did I get here? By deciding resolutely to abandon a life that was no longer feeding my soul. By not looking back. By believing in myself. By dancing and training for hours a day, building my brand on social media, generating a fan base tens of thousands deep, studying the leaders of the pole industry and other entrepreneurs to learn their formulas for success, and most pivotally, developing my signature feminist pole dance workshop, Stripcraft.
After one year of stripping full-time, my investment in myself began paying off in earnest, as studio owners across the U.S began contacting me to come teach Stripcraft at their studios. In 2015, I drove over 15,000 miles to teach hundreds of women at dozens of studios from California to Florida. In 2016, I am scheduled to tour not only nationally, but also internationally, as I spend a month teaching in the UK.
Here’s what the PhD didn’t do for me: secure gainful employment in my field of professional training.
Here’s what the PhD did do for me: cultivated dedication, self-reliance, critical thinking, social awareness, and the ability to craft a framework for the execution of big ideas. All of those years researching alone, planning projects, making outlines, writing articles–with no supervision, little support, and tons of expectations–conspired together to create a person who could identify a bad situation, evaluate her options, and bravely pursue a life more meaningful. Ironically, my PhD armed me with the wisdom and confidence to reject the academy entirely.
I no longer need unfulfilling academic labor to legitimize my life. I no longer need stripping to fund my existence. Through Stripcraft, I’m making more money than I’ve ever made, seeing the world, helping women love themselves, and coming to understand my own limitless and beautiful potential. Stripcraft has impacted more women’s lives than any of my most impassioned, successful academic work. I have not only found my career; I’ve found my calling.
And I’m just getting started.