On a Saturday night last fall, Hannah Mogul-Adlin ’13 apprehensively stepped onto a platform in Toad’s Lilly’s Pad. Clad in a sequined tank top and leggings, she danced self-consciously, scanning the room to see who might be watching her. But few eyes even glanced at her. The ones that did only lingered for a moment.
Moving more confidently, she fell in sync with the music, incorporating moves from her training in hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean and Bhangra dance styles. She earned $25 for each hour of booty popping, and the next day, she was hired as a regular dancer.
Mogul-Adlin, the first Yale student to be hired, confessed that getting the job was pretty easy.
“They don’t actually have standards for who they hire,” she said.
It all began when her friend’s dance group, Rhythmic Blue, received an email advertising the gig. I could do that, she thought, so she dialed the phone number in the email.
Mogul-Adlin recalled that the male voice on the other end sounded dazed, as if he had just woken up, even though it was around noon. He muttered something about texting him a picture. She sent him a photo, almost as an experiment to see what would happen.
“You look good,” he replied. “Hopefully you can dance.”
Since then, four other Yale females have joined the dance crew, taking two- or four-hour shifts once or twice a month. These art, anthropology and philosophy majors perform alongside other girls from state schools and Toad’s lead dancer.
From the dance floor, the swinging go-go dancers don’t look like they have an ideal job: Amidst the pungent odor of sweat and stale beer, they shake their hips for hours at the intoxicated crowd of button-down boys and greasepaint girls.
But for most of the dancers, there’s no other place they’d rather spend a Saturday night.
“I’m proud of it,” Mogul-Adlin said.
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Though their work may be exhausting, almost all the Yale Toad’s dancers come back for more.
When Mogul-Adlin couldn’t dance one night, her suitemate Bree Thompson ’13 subbed in for her when no other dancer was available. Thompson has since stayed on the job.
“I’m not going to lie. I tell everyone this: It’s the ideal Toad’s experience,” Thompson said. “You are just dancing.”
Thompson explained that she enjoys sashaying across the stage without men thrusting their hips into her behind. Here, she can ditch the freshman-year circle of dance-floor protection.
“You have your own space,” she said.
For Thompson, dancing at Toad’s is like going to Yale parties, but better — no stressing about what to wear, whether to go home with someone or how much to drink. Other dancers enjoy their views of the social drama that unfolds below their platforms: the stumblers, the men chasing a pretty girl in high heels, the bloody fights and the Halloween hookups between SpongeBob SquarePants and a vampire.
Toad’s latest hire, Meghan Uno ’13, also credits a chance entrance into the Toad’s dancer world. One night out, a friend introduced her to Toad’s manager, who invited her to dance. Uno has performed three times since then.
“In the moment when you step on the stage, you’re alone, and you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing here?’” Uno described. “But then you start synchronizing your body with the music, and that all goes away.”
Jaime (who requested that her last name be omitted) identified a similar feeling of transformation. Rounding out the Yale roster, she initially took the job this fall to try something different.
Curious to find new opportunities, Jaime believed dancing at Toad’s would be a natural progression. The manager told her to come dance for an hour, but when no one told her to stop, she danced the whole night.
Jaime said it was the most exhausting thing she has ever done, but she was able to stretch her boundaries as to how comfortable she is in certain situations. Like Uno, she recalled a sense of empowerment.
“When I put on my orange bodysuit, it’s sort of like an alter ego,” Jaime said. “I pretended this is my superhero outfit. It’s me by day and this weirdo on Saturday night.”
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As the novelty wears off, and their performances become jobs, these Yalies must face the reality of the reactions they receive as dancers.
“On nights when it’s bad, it’s just not fun,” Jaime recalled.
On a Saturday in November, Jaime took the platform for the Quinnipiac University alumni night. As she danced, a group of guys tauntingly threw dollar bills onto the stage — but Jaime said she felt highly uncomfortable with the implications.
She wasn’t dancing to earn tips with a sleazy striptease. She was dancing for the new experience.
Jaime slid the bills off the platform with her foot, but the guys kept throwing money at her. Upset, she crumpled the bills and threw them across the room. Finally, she took the money, put it into one man’s drink and threw it at him. The guys chucked ice cubes at her for the rest of the night.
“I know you’re not supposed to do that,” she said. “If you’re a good dancer, you have to be patient. You have to be accepting of your situation and know that these people are drunk.”
Jaime hasn’t danced since.
But dancers who tolerate the debauchery — the “good dancers,” as Jaime described — don’t do so easily.
“I try to be nice,” Uno said, describing her resolve to not fight back. “You have to put on this front that is always positive and happy. The people who come up to me are just drunk and being friendly.”
Thompson admitted that watching the reactions of the Toad’s-goers forced her to think beyond herself. At first, she thought dirty looks from the crowd were judgments about her dancing, but she has since realized that it probably was a part of their conversation with others. Or maybe, the grimace was from one-too-many tequila shots.
Either way, Thompson knew she had to just let it slide.
“[Dancing at Toad’s] is an exercise in not taking yourself too seriously,” she said.
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But it’s more than just the club-goers’ reactions. The dancers also are aware that as go-go dancers, they face a certain level of scrutiny and judgment.
Uno admits that the job is objectifying, but she doesn’t see that as a problem.
The sex appeal the gig requires has given her confidence: the Meghan who dances in burlesque corsets and fishnet stockings is just as much part of her as the Meghan who photographs in the studio.
“The job is about social confidence,” Uno explained. “It’s about not caring that people make certain assumptions about you, and not being apologetic for your personality.”
Similarly, Mogul-Adlin said that she’s learned more about “sex-positive feminism” from go-go dancing at Toad’s than from any class at Yale.
She described coming to understand her own queer identity and she plans to work as an advocate for the rights and health of those outside the gender or sexuality mainstream. In fact, she even wrote a paper for an anthropology class about social dynamics at Toad’s, storing a recorder and notebook in her boots while dancing.
Uno also noted that the Toad’s job has reaffirmed a sex-positive ideology that she believes shouldn’t be looked down upon.
“I’m sexually liberated and in full possession of that,” Uno said.
For Mogul-Adlin, the empowerment extends to her perspective on Yale’s high-pressure culture and her perception of herself.
“I really hate the culture at Yale of resume-building and ambition over substance,” Mogul-Adlin said. “I understand that for many jobs it is necessary to present a ‘clean’ image, and that any kind of deviance from what is arbitrarily deemed ‘professional’ is seem as a lack of seriousness or intellectualism.”
She added that it was unfortunate that students are too caught up in their reputations to pursue anything deemed unacceptable by professional standards.
“I think it’s so interesting that we’re so privileged as Yale students. Most of us are really free to be whatever we want to be, and yet so many of us chain ourselves to a life of ladder-climbing and dollar-chasing instead of just doing what we love,” Mogul-Adlin said.
Though her and the other dancers’ moves may be the backdrop to an orgiastic imbibing, their performance holds a message. The Yale ladies at Toad’s reject the money-making desk job they detest, the social stigma, the sexual conservatism, the worry of a “reputation,” the constant “go, go, go” of campus life to quite simply, well, go-go dance.
And when Mogul-Adlin heads back to her suite and changes out of her bedazzled bra, she does so certain that following her passions will empower her.
“I dance at Toad’s not because I don’t care about my future, but because I want my future to be on my own terms.”