The first time Judith Stein stripped in front of a crowd, she was a student at University of Oregon in need of a little extra cash.
It was the early 1970s and she was a long way from the Ontario farming town where she’d grown up. She saw a help wanted ad for topless go-go dancers, noted the words “no experience necessary,” and days later she was on the stage, her clothes on the floor — and she felt great.
“I was like a duck to water. I loved the stage,” Stein recalled, standing the dining room of her Nelson home, a cigarillo in hand.
Between conversation, the 64-year-old ducks into the kitchen to puff on her flavoured smoke.
“Old habits are hard to break,” she said, referring to her small cigar, though she could have just as easily been talking about her career.
What started as a way to make money between classes, quickly became her whole life. She went from being a go-go dancer to working in the club’s executive showroom, where she met glamorous strippers who told her she could take her show on the road, travelling city to city and earning $500 per week. She leaped at the opportunity.
“All I wanted was to travel and see the world, and this was a way I could do it,” Stein said.
Back then you didn’t need fake breasts and a spray on tan to work the stage. Stein wasn’t busty and she wasn’t sweet. She knew sexy wasn’t going to be her thing.
“I went with funny instead,” she smirked. “Simply put, I’d take my clothes off and people would laugh.”
She got gigs in burlesque shows. Between the comedians and contortionists, Stein came out in costumes designed to come off.
“I’d be up there in nothing but my heels and my eyelashes,” she said. “It never bothered me. I liked all the attention.”
Over the course of 17 years, she toured the United States and Canada, and also had the occasional show at military bases overseas.
Near the end of her stripping career, she had a stop in Nelson. She danced at the Lord Nelson Hotel (now the New Grand), back when it was owned by Gus Adams.
She was instantly drawn to the city.
“I thought, what a neat place. It looked like a theme park for aging hippies, which is what I was,” Stein said.
She was in her 40s when she finally hung up her heels and moved to Nelson. She started a home business, sewing Victorian-style flannel nightgowns that she sold at craft fairs under the brand Kootenay Kate.
Later she got a job as a home support worker for elderly people. A couple of her male clients remembered seeing her dance.
“They’d say, ‘now I can die a happy man,'” she laughed.
Stein never denied her previous way of life. She loved to talk about her more adventurous days.
When burlesque started making a comeback in past decade, Stein found a new audience to her stories.
“All the neo-burlesque dancers love to hear what it used to be like,” she said.
One day in 2010 Stein was talking with the ladies from Victoria’s Cheesecake Burlesque Revenue. They were coming to the Capitol Theatre and asked her to dance with them, something she hadn’t done in more than 20 years.
“It took me about two seconds to say yes,” Stein said.
After the show at the Capitol, she danced at the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival, and then at the Burlesque Renion Showcase in Las Vegas. And she’s been dancing a few times per year ever since.
She also started offering local dance lessons through her company, The Art of Burlesque.
“A lot of dancers these days get into burlesque for the sense of empowerment,” Stein said. “It makes you feel confident and beautiful, no matter your shape or size, and no matter you age.”
Now that she’s back at it, Stein has no intention to quit dancing again. She knows a few women who are still dancing in their 80s.
“As long as I can walk in my heels and there’s people who want to watch me, I’ll keep doing it,” she said.
Old habits are hard to break.