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Katrina's inspiration came from a topless groupie in Pink Floyd's feature film The Wall. "I remember thinking that she wasn't so hot," she declares. "I thought, 'I have a thing for nudity, so why don't I try that?'"
She took off her clothes onstage for the first time five years ago at an amateur contest at the Penthouse Club, then known as Diamond Cabaret.
"I went after class, completely sober, all alone, and asked for Rob Zombie music," Katrina remembers. At the time she was a nineteen-year-old student at Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois. "Instead they played 'Arms Wide Open' by Creed, which is the worst song by the worst band."
Katrina had spent the previous week practicing her stripping routine at her family farm in Brighton, Illinois. The Diamond left her nonplussed, so the following week she competed in the amateur night at Hustler Club, then called Deja Vu Showgirls Club. They played her requested music "Young Lust" from The Wall, and she fell in love with the place.
"You don't have to screw anybody to get in the manager's favor," she says of Larry Flynt's area outpost. "It's more expensive to work there, but there's so much more freedom. The girls aren't required to wear a specific type of dress or have a specific nail length. For the most part, Diamond Cabaret girls are tiny with enormous breasts, and that's not how I'm built."
Michelle, a twelve-year veteran of the industry, applied for a Platinum Paradise Showclub cocktail waitress job at midnight on her eighteenth birthday but says that Hustler is where she found her true calling. "I don't feel like I really got started until I started doing the poles," she says.
Logistics threw Katrina and Michelle together four years ago.
"We started out dancing together on the big stage," recalls Michelle. "She would stay on her pole and me on mine, and we would come together to undress each other. Later, they built a smaller stage, and, having less room, we were forced to be on the pole at the same time, or else hurt each other."
This was before Carmen Electra's Aerobic Stripteaseseries arrived on Midwestern housewives' shelves, and pole dancing was generally considered the realm of the sleazy. Michelle and Katrina wanted to infuse an element of art.
"We could anticipate each other's movements, and it evolved into something more beautiful," says Michelle.
Earlier this year, they took their salacious show outside the club, with their big break coming after an August gig at the Schlafly Tap Room's Schlaffenfest. A Camel cigarettes representative was in the audience and invited the pair onto the company's Sin City tour, a Las Vegas-themed music and variety show featuring sword-swallowing, fire-eating and high-profile bands like Modest Mouse.
They accepted, and wound up riding the pole before thousands, from Albuquerque and Grand Rapids to Richmond and Charlotte. They were joined on their bill by Grindergirl of Late Night with David Letterman fame and porn star Ron Jeremy.
"He was a little sketchy," Michelle says of the sex-film icon known as the Hedgehog. "He goes beyond flirting. I know he fucked at least three girls in the bathroom, just in the course of the first night."
Their audience had never seen anything like Michelle and Katrina before maybe because there is no one else like them. Strippers ride poles around the world, of course, and a common circus act known as Chinese Pole also features performers defying gravity on a vertical mast. But no one interviewed for this story had heard of another artistic pole-dancing duo.
Katrina came up with their name from a lyric by the Boston band Dresden Dolls, a burlesque-flavored rock duo whose recordings often provide the soundtrack to Gravity Plays Favorites' live shows. The shows themselves are composed mostly of moves Michelle and Katrina invented, moves propelled equally by strength, grace and spontaneity.
"We've tried to train after-hours, but without the lights and the music and the adrenaline and the crowd cheering, it's so hard," Katrina says. "You get more bruises, you're not as graceful, and you don't get into the rhythm. We also don't choreograph, because you have to leave room for improvisation." Katrina adds that the job has its share of occupational hazards. In fact, her partner once put her into the hospital after gashing her forehead with a stiletto.
Both women are accomplished dancers with athletic physiques. Michelle does yoga every day, Katrina nearly as often. Katrina is also a black-belt former karate champion, and takes modern dance and belly dancing classes at University City's Center of Creative Arts (COCA).
The women give off very different vibes once they step outside the club. Katrina is single and has a flirty, feminine aura, favoring skirts and heels. In her free time, she takes care of orphaned cats, and she lives with three of her own in a Central West End apartment.
Michelle's vibe is dyke-chic. A frequent patron at MoKaBe's coffeeshop in the South Grand neighborhood, she sports countless tattoos and piercings. (She once pierced Katrina's nipples for her.) She has an associate's degree in psychology from Southwestern Illinois College and has lived her entire life in St. Clair County but won't disclose her city of residence for fear of stalkers.
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