A dancer, choreographer and former stripper explores sex work in new dance piece | Dance | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A dancer, choreographer and former stripper explores sex work in new dance piece

“It really changed who I am as a performer and my comfort with the stage.”

Moriah Ella Mason choreographed and performs in her solo show Sex Werque
Moriah Ella Mason choreographed and performs in her solo show Sex Werque

In recent years, positive strides have been made in our culture’s attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identification. But negative views of those who work in the sex industry persist. Women (and, to a lesser degree, men) who use their bodies in legal commerce, such as strippers, are often scorned. They are accused of doing moral and social wrong, and at the same time seen as victims of exploitation. 

In her new autobiographical one-woman dance-theater show Sex Werque, dancer/choreographer Moriah Ella Mason, a former stripper in Pittsburgh, explores attitudes and misconceptions about the industry, and feelings that both she and fellow strippers have about the profession. The show runs July 27-30, with four performances at off the WALL Performing Arts Center, in Carnegie.

With the 90-minute Sex Werque (which contains adult content and partial nudity), Mason says she wanted to emphasize that working in the sex industry is more complicated than the binary responses she usually gets: either “that’s so cool and empowering” or expressions of pity and worry. “Both of those responses are true dynamics of the industry,” she says, “but neither tells the complete story.”

A Trafford native, Mason began her dance training at age 10, inspired by seeing her older brother in a local production of High School Musical. She studied dance and choreography at Sarah Lawrence College and danced professionally in Tucson, Ariz., before returning to Pittsburgh where she has performed with the Pillow Project, STAYCEE PEARL dance project, and Maree ReMalia/merrygogo. Last year, she was seen at Carnegie Stage in Mark Thompson’s Kimono. She has presented her own work locally as well as in New York. When she’s not dancing, Mason works as a massage therapist, filmmaker and visual artist.

She says she got into stripping partially out of curiosity about the excitement and danger associated with it. “I tend to push myself toward anything that feels scary,” she says. Her biggest motivator, however, was economics. She was struggling to pay her bills and to fund her art. 

Of the many responses from people who knew she was a stripper, some of the more complicated came from feminist friends. Some cheered what she was doing, and some jeered, Mason says.

Former stripper Jessica Berson, author of The Naked Result: How Exotic Dance Became Big Business, wrote of this feminist quandary: “Many more traditional feminists […] demonize exotic dance, sex work, and many kinds of sexual experience as oppressive and objectifying; on the other hand, many sex radical feminists celebrate these same activities as empowering and transgressive. Both groups are right, and both groups are wrong — the binary is false.”

Mason likewise has conflicted feelings about being a stripper. As Berson writes, in The Naked Result: “I found the experience both empowering and disempowering. Sometimes every man I encountered seemed thoughtful and respectful. … Sometimes every man I encountered seemed misogynistic. … A strident for or against stance doesn’t account for the nuances.”

Mason quit stripping close to a year ago because it had more downs than ups for her. She has no plans to return to it, but says, “It was a really transformative experience. It really changed who I am as a performer and my comfort with the stage.” 

Sex Werque is set to a pre-recorded original soundscape by JF Winkles, of local band It It. Structurally, the show “is an interwoven mix of text, monologue, video and dance,” says Mason. Liz Barentine’s video for the piece will include interviews with other strippers talking about their experiences in the industry. Mason’s modern-dance choreography will also integrate some of stripping’s own unique movement language and that of pole dancing — a stripping genre that has found mainstream acceptance as a clothed workout regime — as well as elements of stripping’s less controversial stage cousin, burlesque. 

As to why Mason chose to feature this aspect of her life in a dance work, she says: “I care about the lives of the people [I met] in the industry and the stigma associated with it. I want audiences to see a more realistic view of life as a stripper.”