By Allison J Carr
A woman sat down next to us on the adjacent table shifting up near to us to accommodate the large group of male friends she was with. We chatted with her throughout the evening. She had been a stripper briefly: the proverbial college-student stripper. She was at ease with the set up and she enabled her male friends to get dances by calling the dancers over. Contemporary intelligent pop songs played, like Ill Manors by Plan B, then a remix of Hometown by Adele. Our ex-stripper friend explained the dancers pick their own songs, or at least, suggest what they would like. The dancers’ names are announced and they enter the stage or there is a delay and an empty stage momentarily. There are different approaches to the stage, some walk on, grip the pole, and twirl around it leaning outwards, with gauche, internal, sexy expression, self-absorbed. A few dancers come onto the stage with a small towel and wipe down the pole—my friend explains the towel has alcohol on it, so as to remove the sweat off the pole and enable greater grip. A dancer doing this announces her impending attack of the pole. These are the exciting dancers. They run to the pole, jump, inch up it, invert their bodies, and push out into impossible positions, flexing their muscles. When a dancer dramatically drops from the top to the bottom of the pole—still perfectly in control—there are audible gasps across the room.
Watching the dancing onstage is the only part of the evening in which I am myself. I forced myself into the setup. I watch the dancing, the energetic, performative dancing engrossed, excited. This is a subversive pleasure. I am reading the performance against the grain. Pushing my gaze into a situation not designed for me. My favourite dancer is called ‘Aurora’. She dances athletically on the stage and pole. She has charisma, she has dominion over her body, over her performance. She owns the moment. Rock it, Aurora!
My researcher friend and I chat to our new female friend and the dancers who tentatively approach us, they tell us, if a dancer wants to come to work, she must pay: £20 for a day shift, £85 for a night shift. I remember Lily Burana’s book ‘Strip City’, in which she is part of a team of dancers who successfully sue a club for their fees to work there. I wish and hope these dancers will unionise and force the clubs to not charge them to work. Most of the girls are English. A couple of Italians chat to us. One is chef by day. Then there is a Romanian. The women who sit with us speak freely, about their attitudes to the work, the conditions and dress codes: long dresses are encouraged but the dancers prefer short dresses. Some wear long dresses, but safety pin them up at the front to reveal their legs. One told me the rules we were given when we entered are not specific to us as women, everyone gets the same rules. Hen nights come here, also lesbian couples. Apparently the club has a relaxed attitude and this is appealing for dancers. One dancer was sitting on the knee of a man in the group we are next to, she turned around and chatted to me. She saw my necklace, she liked it and touched it, she touched me. In the club the dancers are the ones who are allowed to touch. They choose when and how they touch. We, the punters do not have any touching rights.
A self-selection happens—the dancers who are interested in chatting about their work, speaking with women, switching off from the hustle for a while, come and sit with us. I liked them. There may have been women who I would not be interested in us, who are not open, warm, receptive to other women, but they do not approach us—so I cannot report on them.
I turned my attention back to the stage for a moment as a performer worked on a suspended hoop. She wore black heart-shaped pasties; normally a signifier of burlesque dance, a type of performance in which striptease is performed on stage, with humour. This is a strange sign, a quotation perhaps, from the history of stripping.
A dancer came over to us and sat next to me. She said she had been watching us. Warmly she introduced herself, Leanne. She touched me lightly and tells me to have a private dance with her. She was a little older than me. She had a warm and nurturing manner. She held my hand and took me to sort of alcoved sofa, where private lap-dances were taking place. Before she began, she asked me if I had ever had a lap-dance before: I had not. She says, ‘I’m sorry honey, I’m gonna have to ask you sit with your legs apart’, as she moves my legs into place. I was in a black pencil dress with my legs apart, I felt so odd. She pressed her cheek to mine. I did not expect the skin contact, she was so soft, the light touch carried a frisson, and the touch leaves a tingle on my skin. I shut my eyes, feeling the sensations instead. I feel her breasts brush across my face. When she finished she asked me if I would like her to carry on. I do, but I say no. She takes me back to my seat. My friend is not around. She said she will come back to dance with her and she did. Leanne decided she would introduce us to lap-dancing tonight. She made that decision. She scouted us out, she said she passed us a number of times—checking us out, feeling our vibe.
Later I was chatting to one of the men from the group next to us. Aurora approached us and sat down next to the man, to tempt him to have a dance. I say, ‘if he doesn’t want one, I’ll have one.’ She smiled at me, and said ‘come on then’. She held my hand and led me to a different alcove. She asked about me, why I was there, I told her about my showgirl research, that I am more used to burlesque. She said ‘my look’ was very burlesque. I felt her touch, its not as intense, I kept my eyes open. I felt her long hair touch my skin. She smiled at me, met my eye. Hers was a visual lap-based performance. She told me she was 30 years old and says the older dancers are better as they know their bodies and are comfortable in them. Afterwards she told me that her day job is as a ballet and contemporary dancer. That is why she is such a charismatic performer! She wants to teach dance on the internet, to set up her own business. I thought about how much I would love to interview her and I gave her my card. She said at the time, she would love to help me. She put my card into her tiny handbag that the dancers carry for money they receive. She has never emailed me though. I was after all, only a punter, and dancers must not communicate with punters.