September/October 2002
Secrets of Being a Good Top
Cléo Dubois

by Steve Lenius

Thursday, May 2, 2002
Bedlam Theater, Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis
(This is an expanded version of a column that appeared in Lavender Magazine, Issue 183, May 31-June 13, 2002.)

It is Thursday, May 2 at the Bedlam Theater on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, and there isnít an empty seat in the house. Thunderous applause greets educator and "domina" Cléo Dubois as she steps onstage to present the eveningís seminar: "Secrets of Being a Good Top (and a Good Bottom, or even a Good Brat)." She is dressed in a black leather corset worn over a short black leather dress. Her legs are encased in black fishnet stockings and shiny black spike-heeled boots. She wears black leather gloves punctuated with a diamond bracelet on her wrist. There are red highlights in her black hair.

Speaking with a charming French accent, she tells us about herself. This is her first seminar ever in the Midwest, although she has presented seminars on both coasts for many years and is the proprietress of her own "Academy of SM Arts." She has come to Minneapolis from her home in San Francisco for the screening of her first video, "The Pain Game," as part of the Flaming Film Festival. (The video has just won an award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.) Her second video, "Tie Me Up!" has just been released. "The Pain Game" is available at the back of the theater, but she wants to be clear that it is not about pornography and titillation; this video shows real play for the purposes of education, not simulated play for the purpose of fantasy. If it were porn, she says, it would have been a lot easier to get the movie made and distributed.

Dubois got into the San Francisco pre-AIDS gay male leather scene courtesy of a bisexual boyfriend who liked to frequent the Catacombs, the now-legendary fisting/sex club where every square inch of surface was permanently coated with Crisco. She took a liking to the action: "I was just like a kid in a candy store," she says. Duboisí mentors did more than teach her SM techniques-they showed her the psychic, mystic, ritualistic and spiritual dimensions of SM and other alternative sexualities which are now the raison díêtre of her seminars.

In 1983 she organized what was only the second mixed SM play party in San Franciscoís history. She says sheís not sure she likes the word "pansexual"-"Iím more about taking the labels off altogether." She has seen the qualities, values and attitudes that are common to everyone who is willing to explore alternative sexualities, no matter what their stated sexual orientation might be.

Enough talk. Dubois and a pre-arranged volunteer from the audience stage a spontaneous scene that is breathtaking-literally, because part of the scene involves breathplay using a hangmanís noose toy made of black velvet rope, and figuratively, because the energy connection between Dubois and the bottom is so vivid and intense.

This intense connection between a top and a bottom is what the eveningís seminar is all about. Itís worth noting that this workshop dealt with head space and energy more than technique. My personal feeling is that this is good, because I donít think head space and energy are discussed enough. Itís also worth noting that Dubois is a natural presenter, and she works well with people from the audience. She could easily have her own reality TV show.

Here are the notes I took while listening to her presentation:

  • The most important things in a scene are trust and staying present to the moment.
  • Ask yourself what you want. These are things that are negotiable (remember the old Rolling Stones song: "You Canít Always Get What You Want.")
  • Ask yourself what you need. These are things that are not negotiable, like limits and boundaries.
  • Know the difference between what you want and what you need.
  • What are your limits (and remember, they can change) in terms of physical, medical, psychological?
  • What are your skills? Your turn-ons? What works for you?
  • Now, start the scene by tuning in to your partner through centering and breathing.
  • Taking control-have a ritual pattern, including a safeword. Cléoís medical safeword is "medical."
  • Flowing with the control-have a plan, and then let go of it.
  • To find the rhythm of the scene: first, slow down. Then note how you feel and watch your body language and the body language of your bottom. Youíll know if, when and how much you can speed up again.
  • Make transitions within the scene by using blindfolds, humor, contrasts and by showing you care.
  • Stay connected with your bottom through touch, verbalization and eye contact. Use all of these to reinforce your play space and the magic youíre creating there.
  • Dubois has often seen this in public dungeons: "When you get disconnected, sometimes itís just you and the whip-the bottom doesnít even enter into the equation. Or with titclamps, itís just you and the breast, not the person attached to the breast. Get and stay connected to your partner!"
  • Allowing yourself to cause pain-watch the bottomís body language, announce your intentions, tell the bottom it will please you for them to take the pain.
  • When flogging, take a deep breath and send your energy out on the swing. Stand straight up. To measure where you should stand, take a look at where the end of the flogger lands.
  • Taking your partner to the limit-Go Slow! Stay connected, breathe together. This is even more important to do when you are expanding your partnerís limits.
  • Most players want to push their limits if the trust is there.
  • Be calm, avoid panic. Fear is okay but panic is definitely not okay and has no place in the dungeon.
  • A good top knows the importance of nurturing a bottom and showing appreciation after a scene. But tops, you need nurturing, too, especially when the play has been intense and/or when youíve pushed your own limits-psychic surprises may pop up when you least expect them. Get the nurturing you need, and take time to process the scene. Find whatever sources of support you need, but remember that your bottom probably is not an appropriate source for this.
  • If a scene isnít working-if you feel bored, angry, frustrated or manipulated-STOP! That is when bad stuff happens.
  • Remember-playing is a mutual gift.

In addition to this workshop on Thursday night and screening her video on Friday, Dubois rounded out her visit to Minneapolis by presenting a play piercing workshop on Saturday.

Dubois offers "personalized instruction and private coaching in the SM arts for adventurous couples and individuals." To find out more, or to order her videos, visit her website at