Amplified Feels: Why I Flash My Dick Onstage

Exploring the meaning of nakedness in performance art and in life.

(Courtesy of Brontez Purnell)

I was recently looking over archived footage of all the dance pieces I have done, and a silent epiphany struck me: I flash my dick onstage a lot.

I think I can explain how it happened. San Francisco is now swarming with tech bunnies with bright futures, but I came here 14 years ago for very different reasons. I was perhaps among the last generation of folks who moved to the Bay strictly for the purpose of being a total artist scumbag. I arrived with a pair of Daisy Dukes, glasses held together with duct tape, and 60 bucks in my pocket. I was ready to party, by God, and party I did!

It was 2002 (if I remember correctly), and I was dancing naked at this art show in West Oakland, when, all of a sudden, the lead singer for Veronica Lipgloss and the Evil Eyes (who happened to be on acid) saw me dancing. As she later explained, the acid was making her (naturally) trip balls, and then she saw this little ebony Cupid (me) grooving so hard in the autumn air that steam was rising off my body.

“Would you like to go-go dance in my band?” she asked.

“Oh, fuck yeah,” I thought to myself.

Before I knew it, I was going up the West Coast on tour with her band. Ah, what a furious crew it was.

We had just passed the Oregon state line when there was a fallen tree in the road, and traffic was backed up considerably. Not to be bored (ever), me and the whole crew flew out of the van (all in our underwear), sat a boombox on the highway, and had an impromptu underwear dance party, with a row of cars behind us cheering us on. As a recently escaped Alabama boy, I looked at this joyful carnage and thought, “This is the way I want to feel the rest of my fucking life. Blessed be.”

I got back from the tour, immediately enrolled in the dance program at Laney College, and went harder than Ron Jeremy in my attempt to become a Bay Area underground dance god.

Experience is the best teacher, though one can ring up quite a big bill along the way. On some days (though only when sober), I lament the fact that it took me 12 years and $58,000 to get a dance degree, but to be honest, I was so busy having fun that I hardly noticed.

Besides, unlike more responsible individuals, I don’t give a damn about my reputation and even less about college loan debt. As another performance artist once told me, you shouldn’t sweat the loan shit: “It’s the only thing you can get on credit that they can’t repossess.”

Events in my childhood also factored into my obsession with flashing onstage.

As a little boy, it seemed like the movie Flashdance would play on Fox 54 in Huntsville, Ala., every other week. I know most little boys from Alabama want to be G.I. Joe, but not this one! I wanted to be Alex from Flashdance. I would have my dear deer-hunting father sit in the living room of my grandmother’s house as I acted out scenes from the movie for him. And my superbutch dad would just look at me.

The other root was the Janet Jackson “Pleasure Principle” video, released in 1986. I wanted to be Janet Jackson. My mother would plop me in front of the television to watch BET on Saturday mornings with a big-ass bowl of cereal, and then she would go back to bed.

I would marvel at Janet’s flawless, devil-may-care choreography as she moved through an abandoned L.A. warehouse. I had taken an important cue from Alex and Janet: I wanted to be a dancer that lived in a warehouse. Little did I know that one day, the dream would become real.

After the Veronica Lipgloss tour, I danced my way into the Bay Area queer electroband Gravy Train!!!! (Yes, the exclamation points are part of the name.) I had met the other gay dude in the band as a teen in Alabama (he lived in Arizona), and we traded mixtapes and zines (by snail mail, mind you).

Before I knew it, I was flashing my modest cock to boutique audiences all over North America and Europe. It felt like triumph. By the tender age of 21, I had had my tighty-whities ripped off of me in mosh pits, and I had even gotten fingered a couple of times while crowdsurfing. I stop just short of calling this experience “sexy.”

Even though I was spending a considerable amount of time nude, nothing about it felt like sex, you know? To me, it was more in the realm of childlike joy, and I was definitely having more fun than I could shake my stick at.

But then, of course, there were some haters. Heaven help any boy or man who chooses to be naked in public without the aid of a six-pack and a 12-inch dick. People (as I learned the hard way) can be rather unforgiving about what they think the male form should look like. Back in those days (the Myspace era), I often had photos of me posted on the internet with my wiener out, and haters came out of the woodwork to tear my so-called freedom to shreds.

Ego-destroying? Sure. Did it stop me? Fuck no.

Fun is always an aphrodisiac, so despite the attacks on my body, it pushed me forward. I was no Chippendale dancer, but I had a cute face, a fat ass, and a can-do attitude about the situation, and I rode that shit to the bank.

While taking a college class titled “Sex, Race, and Body Politics in Dance,” I learned some useful shit about what I was already doing in my dance pieces, like how nudity in performance does not always mean sex. More often than not, I learned, it denotes simplicity and protest.

I suddenly felt like all those years I spent in Gravy Train!!!! was my protest against squareness and a world that was trying to tell me that I was anything less than beautiful just the way I was.

In the years that have followed, I have hung up my tighty-whities and moved my movement practice into the field of “high art.”

I was getting too old (I felt) to go dance around naked in bars in Middle America.

My next endeavor is a new piece called “Invisible Trial.” It’s based on the Sylvia Plath short story “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,” and that’s all I’m willing to share about it.

I urge people to come see it. You’ll probably see my dick.

Brontez Purnell has been publishing, performing, and curating in the Bay Area for more than 10 years. He is the author of  Johnny Would You Love Me … (If My Dick Were Bigger)? (Rudos and Rubes, 2015). Follow him on Twitter at @youngerlovers and on Instagram at @brontezpurnell.

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