What is it about the word stripper? It’s an innocuous word with a sour aftertaste, one that has the power to incite threat and feelings of inadequacy in women everywhere. To the rest of the world, we are damaged, broken women who seemingly gave up on dreams to take the easy way out. We are women who are confined by a one-size-fits-all signifier: drug riddled, daddy-issues and an overall shit storm on heels. I have spent the better part of ten years of my life on those very heels and I can tell you that the strip club scene has produced some of the most interesting, influential and amazing friendships in my life.
I was 21 when I started dancing. I had learned about it from a neighbor girl downstairs who I’d see sneak away to see every night around ten. At that time, I had only been in my first apartment for a few months. I was just navigating the bittersweet symphony that is cultivating the independent woman, relishing in a life free of a curfew and the other restraints set upon me from a strict, Italian-Catholic upbringing.
I didn’t come from a poor and broken family. There were no daddy issues other than my dad being nosy at times, but that’s any parent I think. When I think back to what brought me onto the strip club stage, shaking in heels to the tunes of the Divinyl’s “I Touch Myself,” the answer is simple: money. Before dancing, I guarded the hostess stand at a restaurant for a lousy $7.25 an hour. I had student loans, rent, a car payment and other living expenses. My very first apartment was only $550 a month, but I wasn’t interested in just making enough to get by. I wanted more.
I wanted to create a solid cushion—my own nest egg—in which I would never have to ask anyone to loan me money. It wasn’t because I was a misanthrope or jaded from ill-fated relationships, I just wanted to be comfortable. One night I accompanied my neighbor to her club and observed as a customer, watching in disbelief as the girls rubbed up on complete strangers. I was horrified but also taken aback by the comedic relief of the situation. Here was this lonely man, sitting there and actually paying some girl for a few minutes of attention. It was like taking candy from a baby, just one with a receding hairline.
The following week, I practiced my best sashay and booty bounce before a full-length mirror while 50 Cent rapped in the background. Then finally one night, I stepped onstage looking like a cross between a shaky-legged foal and a drunken sorority girl and gave it my all. I tore my bra off under the neon strobes to hungry eyes with clenched dollar bills. I think on my first night I brought home somewhere around $250. I was ecstatic. That money meant more to me than its fiscal value; it meant freedom, control and power.
I left my native Ohio and went on to dance in Florida, where I ultimately graduated with a Bachelor’s in English from the University of North Florida. My twenties were a turbulent time, but not of the drugs and abusive boyfriends variety, but of the self-discovery variety. I had always been an overachiever and particularly hard on myself, and I knew that I wanted more for myself in the long run than dancing. I switched my major a few times before settling on a Bachelor’s in English. Writing had always been an inherent talent of mine and I felt like pursuing that was the right thing to do.
My dancing career would see me through the likes of South Carolina, New Orleans and even Vegas. I have danced all over the country. The traveling dancer is no different than someone on a business trip, and a smart dancer saves all of her receipts and travel expenses, equaling a big tax write off at the end of the year.
I would average around $7,000 or more a month working four nights a week. I was able to pay down student loans, live, and save some for a rainy day. My junior and senior years of college were the hardest. I had a full course load, interned at a north Florida magazine and danced on weekends until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. Come Monday, class began at 9:30 am. I struck up a first name basis with the college financial aid cashiers, as I was in there every semester paying for my courses in cash.
In short, I was a machine. The day I stepped across that stage, I smiled not only because I was living proof of tenacity and overall badassery, but also because I wasn’t walking off that stage into a behemoth mountain of student loan debt. A few of my fellow graduates to this day are buried in $75,000 or more in student loans and making $12.75 an hour at a hardware store. I very well could have taken this path, but I didn’t want to.
Society paints a picture of the proverbial woman who dances and also the proverbial man who frequents the booby bar. I too, was guilty of this before I stepped onto the stage. I can tell you that it’s no further from the truth. I have met some of the most interesting people from stripping. There were traveling businessmen, lonely men seeking companionship, bachelor parties, guys golf trips, celebrities and corporate executives. There were also men toting a specific fetish that the wife back at home may not fill. There were unhappily married men, and then there were men who would say they were happily married and they didn’t want a dance. Then there were married couples that would come in and get a couple’s dance, the following morning shuffling the kids off to soccer practice. There is no possible way to paint the people who go to strip clubs with one brush.
However, society makes no qualms in painting the women in those seven-inch heels with one brush. I’ve seen the judgmental side of society first hand. I have lost friends when I told them what I do. But not everyone you lose is a loss. Is someone defined by what they do? It seems much of society is clouded by the notion that a person surely ascribes to whatever outlet they work in. They forget, that some people can compartmentalize it, seeing it as what they do but not who they are.
Many of the girls I met were educated, but not making a decent income. How about the paralegal from Los Angeles who would drive to Vegas every weekend for a few thousand extra dollars? Or the former fifth-grade teacher with a Master’s who was sick and tired of being overworked by the school district and all for less than $40,000 a year? The real estate investor who saved up $100,000 and bought a property off of Las Vegas Boulevard. The girl from Florida who saved the money and used it to open a fitness studio. The girl who paid her way through grad school and is now an adjunct professor. Aside from these, yes there were single moms. And what’s worse, to not feed and clothe your kid or do what you need to?
Undoubtedly you need to possess a tough skin in stripping. At its core, it is sales—sales in lingerie and thigh highs. And any sales job comes with rejection. You learn to become impassive and let the bullshit roll off your back. The women in the club came as friend or foe. Depending on the club, they would have to have a male escort. Sometimes they would sit with their man, guarding him like a territorial dog. I’ll never forget the time where a guy pulled $200 out of the ATM for dances with me, only to be snuffed out by the angry wife who seized the money, angrily putting it in her purse and telling me, “He’s done! He’s not getting any dances.” I looked at the guy and said, “I’m sorry your balls are in your wife’s purse.” Ladies, if you’re insecure the strip club is the last place you need to be.
On the other hand, sometimes we’d have women who were outright fascinated with what we did. When you’re up there on stage, in front of hundred of patrons like in Vegas, and a woman comes up and tips you a $20 and says she wishes she had the outgoing guts to get up there and not give a damn like you, yeah that’s something amazing.
Other times you were the brunt of people’s snap judgments. Some thought I was joking about being in college or that I would never graduate because, don’t you know, all strippers are in school? Men would joke after a dance and say, “Well, I just paid for someone’s nursing school education!” But aside from these foolish comments, there was also good clientele who didn’t want you to dance, they wanted your companionship. Like the guy who gave me $900 one night during a golf tournament in South Carolina for just for having a few glasses of wine and talking about the existential ennui of life. Or the guy in Vegas who asked what my goal was for the night and I told him $600, and how I was halfway there. He handed me $300 and said he liked my company, bought me a glass of wine and I hung out for the rest of the evening.
I took away many things from stripping besides the great money. I took away a keen sense of people and the human psyche, and how the carnal underbelly of society will always keep these places in business. I took away the uncanny power of the pussy—or however you want to put it—and the rush of power that comes with holding men in your hand like fine tuned putty. Stripping is the ultimate battle of the sexes. Every lap dance, every wink of the eye, every curl of crimson lips, a stripper somewhere is executing finite sales tactics coupled with a model’s looks. It’s a game of charm, manipulation and control.
We live in a society that denotes stripping as inherently degrading, but for me, it’s anything but. It is empowering. It is liberating. It is lucrative. To some, it may be defined as they easy way out, but I smile when I can look back on the last ten years of my life and say that my workspace was far from conventional and monotonous. In fact it was a damn party most nights. My workspace was not characterized by the drab walls of an office space but instead with garter belts, gyrating hips and neon lights, thumping music and women who partook in the art that is connecting with a stranger in matter of minutes over a myriad of topics.
Stripping gave me the power to save a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time, finance my college education, max out retirement accounts and even paid for a few gallivants to Europe. If you are smart with the money, it will take you places. The next time you step into a strip club or happen to meet a dancer, ask them what brings them there. You might be pleasantly surprised.
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