I’ll confess that Dancing at the Blue Iguana is a special film to me. Over ten years ago, I naively watched this film as research before I finally decided to join the ranks as a card carrying exotic dancer.
“Oh God,” I remember thinking after watching it. “Can I really do this?”
Dancing at the Blue Iguana, directed by Michael Radford, is a moody, winding drama that examines the lives of five strippers working at the San Fernando Valley’s Blue Iguana strip club. Jo (Jennifer Tilly), Jesse (Charlotte Ayanna), Jasmine (Sandra Oh), Stormy (Sheila Kelley), and Angel (Daryl Hannah) have dysfunctional, messy lives but ultimately they can depend on each other and are bound by the sisterhood formed in the Blue Iguana’s dressing room.
The film offers a series of snap shots into the girls’ personal lives. And boy howdy, their lives are a collective train wreck. Jo is the hot-headed drug addict that can barely make ends meet. She vehemently denies that she’s pregnant until her workmates force her to fess up. Later, she enthusiastically lactates on her customers. Jesse is the new girl who relishes in her sexual power but finds it damning when she seduces a struggling musician who reveals himself as an abuser. Stormy, the tortured one, rekindles a secret, incestuous relationship with her brother. Jasmine is the club’s requisite icy bitch. She doles out tough love and cynical witticisms to her workmates but surprises us when we learn that she is also a sensitive poet.
Angel made a convincing case for becoming a dancer. She is beautiful but lonely, well-meaning but ditzy—a classic dancer archetype. A shadowy hit man is hiding in the hotel across the street from the Iguana. Anonymously, he sends her mysterious gifts. When he finally reveals himself, he hands her an enormous stack of cash and disappears forever. This still hasn’t happened to me, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Iguana is a ridiculous movie. The actors improvised most of the dialogue, and even though they apparently did a lot of research for their respective roles, the movie isn’t without several predictable clichés. Dancer as a drug addict. Dancer in an abusive relationship. Dancer lives in a dank apartment even though she makes a grand a night. The club is always packed and yet never has more than 10 girls in rotation. The dancers talk in the dressing room and rarely sell privates. Missed opportunities, ladies!
Iguana fails to portray the awesome diversity of dancers. Where is the college student? The single mother? Where are the dancers of color? The dancers over age 40? Where is the dancer that weighs more than 110 lbs.? Where is the damn booty popping?
For some, dancing is a celestial experience. For others, it’s no different than selling coffee at Starbucks. Yet, universally, dancing can be exhaustive and isolating, forcing us to keep secrets. Iguana succeeds at capturing this situation. A scene between Jasmine and Nico (Kristin Bauer van Straten), the traveling feature dancer, has them commiserating together about the loneliness of their lives. Nico had been shooting up all night and fell asleep. Jasmine’s crying wakes her up. They share a smoke and Jasmine reads a poem to Nico. In another scene, Jesse drunkenly invites herself into Jo’s apartment after her boyfriend hits her. While these scenes can be cringe-inducing in their sugar-sweetness, the message reads loud and clear: stripping is the tie that binds them and those girls can always depend on each other. Even when they have nothing else in common, they share that dressing room, and therefore can share all other vulnerabilities. But unfortunately, the film implies that there won’t be any happy endings for these dancers.
Iguana never made it into the camp lexicon the way, say, Showgirls did. It’s bad, but not so bad that it’s good. It’s memorable, but not quotable. I enjoyed the movie more now as a veteran than I did as an amateur, now that I’m smart enough not to take it seriously. View it with a jaundiced eye and have a laugh at its expense. But whatever you do, don’t use it as an instruction manual.