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Politics and the bikini top

Third in a series of articles about the reactions of everyday people to the 2000 presidential election. The series was reported and written before Sept. 11.

"Oh, sure, we all hate dancing sometimes," Shana Barry confesses backstage. "There's times we all want to walk away. Run."

From the old men with big hands, stuffing $1 bills in your bikini straps. From the young men who splash on too much Polo, whispering they know what girls want. From the violet strobe lights flashing in your face, the dry ice stinging your eyes, that hard metal pole bruising your thighs. From panting Prince songs and the smell of bad bourbon. From the fat men, skinny men, nice men, lonely men, from the lesbians and tourists and retirees and everyone, everyone, who asks you every night, 12 times a night, "How much, Baby? How much will it cost me to take you home?"

"We're not for sale. None of us. They just don't get that," Barry says at Mermaids exotic dance club on St. Pete Beach. "We don't even show our boobs here. It's just bikinis, like you see at the beach . . ."

"It's all an act," Renee Ceballo cuts in, leaning over to borrow Barry's scarlet lip gloss. "Just a job. And great money. I've taken home $800 in one night."

"We're just like politicians, really," says Barry, plugging in her curling iron. "Those guys out there aren't getting anything from us, except maybe some eye candy. We're not going home with them. We're not even going to go out with them. Sometimes I wonder why they come. . . . It must make them feel good just to be around pretty girls, to talk to us and buy us drinks, to think maybe they could take us home or something.

"But we manipulate them just as much as politicians manhandle the public. My body language lies even when I'm not saying anything. We lead people on, make them believe they're going to get what they want, make them willing to pay for it. Deep down inside, they have to know they'll never get it. It's all a big game. An illusion."

Barry came to dance straight from her day job at the dentist's office, Colgate-smile gleaming, no make-up, looking all cheerleader fresh in her flowery sundress and flat sandals. She's 18, a natural blond with almond brown eyes. Sitting on a stool in front of a wall of mirrors, wielding an eyelash curler in her right hand, a hair brush in her left.

From the dressing room backstage, she can hear a hip-hop tune pumping. Siren is out there, doing handsprings, no doubt. Two girls to go, then Barry is on.

She curls her dark eyelashes, then her long, sun-streaked hair. Plucks her eyebrows, paints on silver shadow, blue liner, black mascara. Powder over her freckles, shimmery blush below her cheekbones. Red lipstick, liner, gloss. Sapphire sparkles on her shoulders, neck and cleavage.

She slides a silver hoop through her belly button. A glow-in-the-dark pearl through her tongue. "Can't wear this at the dentist's office," she laughs, clicking the pearl against her teeth. "They don't even know I dance."

When she was 13, Barry got a judge to sign a work order for her so she could earn her own way working retail. Her mother was a crackhead, she says. "She'd leave me alone in the apartment for two weeks with nothing but a loaf of Wonder Bread. I did much better taking care of myself."

Men have always admired Barry. She has always loved to dance. She wanted to be an exotic dancer for three years, but had to wait until she turned 18.

"I make more money here in one night than all week at the dentist's office," she says, slipping off her T-shirt and fastening on an aquamarine bikini top. "I'd never do topless, or anything like that. But I've got to save money to pay for college."

Barry, whose stage name is Monet, wants to be a paralegal. She didn't vote last year because she thinks it's useless. "Our votes don't count," she says. "Besides, I didn't know anything about Gore. And I'm scared of Bush. He seems like he's out to bomb people. And I know he's against abortion."

Ceballo didn't vote either. "If you're a felon, you can't vote," she says, spritzing her curly black hair. "Besides, I was in jail during the election. I beat up another dancer at a party, got charged with battery.

"We all watched the election in jail. Not at first. That was boring. But the more messed up it got, the better we liked it. We all had a lot of fun, making fun of those guys while we were in jail."

Like many of the other dancers, Ceballo is a mother. Her 3-year-old daughter, Ciera, "thinks Mommy dances "by the blue light at K-Market.' " Ceballo is 21. Her brother watches Ciera while she works. Wallet-size photos of the dancers' children are taped to the mirror, above their makeup bags.

At Mermaids, Ceballo calls herself Porsche. She wears a coral bikini and green eyeliner. She really wants to stop dancing, get another job. But she's not sure what to do.

"I watch Rescue 911 and ER a lot. Maybe I'd like to do something like that, like on one of those shows," she says. "Not like be a doctor or nurse or anything. I don't like blood. But maybe I could be like that girl at the front desk. She seems like she likes her job. What do you call her?"

"The receptionist," Barry says, tying on a filmy sarong. She looks 25 now, sultry and worldly. The transformation is complete.

She steps into clear, 6-inch spike heels and struts on stage.

Let the illusion begin.