Dancing Bare

The leather man sits in the shadows with a smug look on his face. He outlines his request, I outline my fee. He wants to take me to a hotel room. I tell him it's out of the question.

"What can you do to me here?" he asks in broken English.
I tell him, "You'd be surprised."
He says, "No."
I shrug and start to walk away. I'm already counting my money.

"Okay, wait," he says, grabbing my arm and pulling me back. "Where can we go?"

I take him to the darkest part of the room. He's skeptical, but I assure him I'll be discreet. He agrees, either because he believes me or because he simply doesn't want to ask what "discreet" means. "But it's $100 if it's here," he says.

I tell him $300.
He shakes his head. "No way, Jose."
We haggle some more over the price, then he slips two hundred-dollar bills into my garter.

"Don't take off your clothes," he whispers huskily.
He orders a gin and tonic, which I grab before he's touched it. I take a large swig from the straw, tilt his head back, and spit the drink in his face. With his head still tilted back, I squeeze the lime into his eyes. He begins to moan, but the sound is drowned out by the 2 Live Crew screaming, "Hey, pop that coochie, baby!"

I crouch down so I can't be seen and extract his cigarette from the ashtray. Following his instructions, I take his hand in mine and lay the business end of the burning cigarette in his palm.

His moans turn into cries of pain as he begs me to stop. But he doesn't pull his hand away. I notice his palm and wrist are covered with the scars of previous similar episodes, and I am momentarily sickened by the fact that I could bring myself to do this. But I also know that if I don't do it, he'll find someone who will. And I don't recall it being on the list of illegalities.

I squeeze the rest of the lime into the palm of his hand. He throws his head back, moaning with rapture. I move the burning cigarette up to his chest and look into his eyes. In the time I've worked here, I've never actually seen anyone in the throes of ecstasy. Until now. I smell burning hair as I press the lit cigarette to his chest. He screams, jumps back, and the coal of the cigarette falls into my thigh-high boots. I try to maintain some semblance of composure, but my stocking is burning, and his two songs are up. I calmly squeeze my boot to crush out the coal and make my exit.

It was the summer of 1991 when I read the classified ad: "$$$ DANCERS WANTED $$$ Amateur or Pro $1500 per wk only 3 shifts Will Train." I'd been dancing since I was three years old, had trained and worked in the most prestigious ballet schools and companies on the east coast. Beside the newspaper lay a stack of medical bills. My fiance was facing his third operation for a rare brain tumor. In the months following surgery there would be radiation therapy, blood tests, experimental injections, CAT scans, more tests. He would be unable to work. I had a chance to make a real difference financially.

I called the club and entered its amateur contest A my audition. Despite popular belief, there are rarely any amateurs in these contests. The contestants are strippers from other clubs who want to make a couple hundred dollars without working a whole night at their own clubs. They make the rounds on their nights off and take their chances. That night I was the sole amateur. It was one of the most frightening nights of my life: the night "Rikki" was born.

After my audition, anywhere from three to five nights a week, I was Rikki A in skintight black leather, thigh-high boots, black gloves, and a long dark wig. Some weeks it seemed like Rikki occupied my entire waking life. I'd work the club all night, sleep all day, work the club all the next night. I did it for almost a year, then gave it up when it became too draining. Now, when I look back on that time, some of the nights I remember stand out very sharply. These are my snapshots of a stripper's life.

When my friend Julie comes to pick me up for work, I'm exhausted, having spent the afternoon with my fiance in radiology at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Julie goes straight into the kitchen to fix herself a Thermos of rum and Coke. Being drunk is the only way she can face the job. She always makes more money than me when she's drunk. I drive. I wish I was the one who was drunk. She's nervous all the way to work. This job petrifies her. She could work a lot closer to home, but she's so afraid that someone she knows will catch her dancing that she makes a three-hour commute each night.

As usual, Julie complains that even though her boyfriend knows she doesn't like to be touched after work, every morning he chases her around their apartment and won't keep his hands off her. It's difficult for me to take her problems seriously after a day spent in hospital corridors, eyeing the vacant stares of strangers who are waiting to die. Julie feels free to complain, though, since I've never told her my fiance is sick. It's such an intimate thing. Between stripping and his illness, I'm torn by the abundance of violations. Keeping his illness a secret is the only measure of privacy I seem to have these days.

Every night in the dressing room before we go on the floor, you can see the toll this life takes on the girls. Everyone looks so plain, a little haggard. In contrast to the revealing outfits we wear in the club, our 'costumes' for the real world tend to be very unglamorous. We come in looking like boys: no make-up, hair stuffed into baseball caps, ragged jeans and old sweatshirts.

It's always too crowded A 30 girls almost on top of one another, scrambling to get ready under the harsh glare of bare bulbs in a long, narrow locker room that includes the bathroom and the manager's office. The bathroom has half-stalls, like a stable. When you're going, all the male bar-backs and managers can see you. It gives you the feeling that once you enter the club there's just nowhere to hide. We're told it's to keep us from openly doing drugs, and it works pretty well. Still, it's hard for many of the girls to get through the night without being high. A few like to work on the designer hallucinogen Ecstasy. Most drink, trying to get as drunk as possible before going out on the floor, in part because we've had incidents of customers spiking our drinks.

While we're getting dressed, everyone complains about the money. Many of the girls A especially the ones who remember the days when they were making $300 to $500 every night A are looking to get out of the business, because the economy has really gouged their earnings and they can no longer justify what they do by how much they make. But it's obvious that few will actually escape. And these days, only the real hustlers thrive.

One of the girls who still makes money is a streetwise bottle-blonde who has been stripping forever. She's always examining her silicone-enhanced figure in the mirror, trying to decide whether she should have her breasts enlarged by a few more cc's. For many strippers, plastic surgery is just another shopping item required for the job: pumps, G-string, implants. They know these items are a requisite for their income, and larger breasts are a commodity purchased solely for the purpose of increasing that income. They show them off any time a colleague makes an inquiry about them, as casually as if they were modeling a dress. Any modesty they might otherwise feel when touching or showing them in public is absent A the breasts, literally, aren't really their own.

The stories you hear in the dressing room can be chilling: A stripper who went out after work for a beer with a customer she trusted was later found murdered on some train tracks, her breasts mutilated and her face disfigured. Another girl was kidnapped from the parking lot of a club in Lantana when she stopped to talk with a guy she knew as he sat in his car. After abducting her, he raped her, tortured her, and held her hostage for seventeen days, taking Polaroids throughout the ordeal. She escaped by talking him into going out to the store. When police arrived to arrest the guy, they discovered the photographs of 21 other strippers he'd kidnapped and tortured.

These stories tend to remind you that you are a high-profile entertainer, performing naked before a psychologically questionable crowd. You never know who's watching, or what might be going on in their heads. It's difficult for me to hear these stories without thinking about my own customers and wondering who among them might be capable of such acts.

The dressing room walls are plastered with Xeroxed drawings of a rapist who's been operating pretty close to the club. After he started working this area, we all had to have our photographs taken A for our own safety, the managers said; in case one of us is kidnapped or murdered, they can show a current photo ID to the police. Also for our protection, the managers conduct safety meetings every few months. We have an off-duty police officer stationed at the front door to walk us to and from our cars, and bouncers located in key locations around the club in case a situation gets out of hand. Beyond taking these safety measures, the owners are usually very protective of their girls, and managers like to perpetuate a familial feeling among the staff. They understand the inherent difficulties of the job, and they make every attempt to "cushion the blow." But all you have to do is listen to a couple of these stories or stare at a rapist's face on the wall while you're getting dressed to know that even the best precautions can't protect everyone.

After I put on my black leather costume, the last thing I do before leaving the dressing room is to brush out my wig and fit it on my head. I began wearing a wig because I didn't want any of my customers to be able to recognize me outside of the club. But I realized that having long hair helped me make a lot more money, and the wig soon became an integral component of me the stripper. Of Rikki. On the few occasions I've worked without it, I didn't make much money. At first I thought my real hair wasn't sexy enough. But the truth is, it doesn't really matter, I could never do this job as myself. With my wig on I am Rikki, and Rikki is a character all her own.

When I began dancing, I was naive. I didn't know the ropes. I thought I'd show up, dance naked, take home a bundle of cash. It was a huge blow to my ego to realize I would have been better off bagging groceries at Publix. I was working an eight-hour shift five nights a week, and bringing home an average of $40 a night. I didn't know how to make money; I didn't know how the system worked. I didn't even know there was a system. Then I started studying the girls who were making money. It was an education I'll never forget.

It works like this. As a stripper you are an independent agent, you don't worry about 'punching in' or paying taxes. There's no salary, either; all your money comes from tips. You get tipped for your on-stage strip, which is a two-song set of music you pick and perform to several times a night. You also get a minimum of five dollars a song to "tabletop" for customers A dance just for them, on a small wooden box you bring to their table. And you can also get paid just to sit and talk with a customer.

Since you earn your pay dollar by dollar, you have to be making money every minute in order for your night to be worth it. Some nights it's easy. Most nights it's not. You are constantly manhandled, pushed up against walls and pawed for cheap feels by middle-age, pot-bellied nobodies with tequila breath, who drool endearments in your ear, like, "I want to tickle your taco bell, baby. I want to run for your border with my tongue." You have to smile and remove their hands without making trouble.

These men always want to know about you, or, at least, the "you" you've created. They want to touch you, they want to sleep with you, they want to get inside your head. You're at their mercy because they're putting food on your table, so you use any means you can to make your money. Basically, you lie. The trick is to act as if you're available to each man you dance for or talk to, while always keeping him at a distance. To do this, most strippers rewrite their history every night, lying about their lives, deleting boyfriends, husbands, children. It can really turn you inside out. But the lies you create are the only real barrier you have between you and the customers. They help you maintain your psychological edge A and therefore, your control.

Each man who comes to the club seems to have two beliefs: First, that he can pass unnoticed in this place that allows the illusion of anonymity. Second, that it's possible for him to have a relationship with a stripper, whether he's looking for a one-night stand or a girlfriend.

Neither could be farther from the truth.
As soon as any man walks through the door, he is immediately assessed by the girls solely for his potential to make them money. If he has money, or is someone known to throw a lot of money around, this information is quietly passed throughout the club by word of mouth. In a strip club, everyone knows your business. A customer is neither anonymous nor a potential romantic suitor to anyone. Not that a stripper doesn't occasionally date one of her customers. But the odds of her dating a customer for reasons other than money are only slightly higher than those of being struck by lightning twice. Yet because no man wants to believe that his only value to a stripper is monetary, he is easily led to believe otherwise. The average man who frequents a strip club is simply lonely: average job, average life. He believes this atmosphere is his escape, that he can walk through those doors and be anyone he wants to be. A guy like this is a loser, paying for a fantasy. The stripper's job is to make him feel like a king.

You maneuver the relationship to your advantage by making the guy, your mark, feel he's "in," while you're getting at his money and then keeping that money coming back week after week. Some customers do come every night, paying their regular girl for her companionship. Many will have you sit with them without stripping. They just want someone to talk to, someone who'll listen to the mundane, day-to-day details of their life. They need somebody they feel cares for them, and they're willing to pay for the "friendship" they think they're developing with you.

Because of the money involved, strippers are very territorial. When a customer has been to the club more than once, and has sat with the same girl, he's a marked man A the unspoken rule says he's her territory, her "regular." Other strippers will sit with the mark only if invited, either by the stripper or the mark. If the mark spends a lot of money in the club, other girls will try to get themselves noticed in an attempt to be invited to sit with him. But among strippers, the club is polite society: showing respect for another's territory is simply common courtesy.

One of the girls I work with refers to us as "naked psychiatrists," because we spend so much of our time listening to problems and helping to solve them. Short of large breasts, I think a solid working knowledge of psychology is a stripper's best asset for generating income. You have to keep your customers interested, or they'll find someone else. It often takes real cunning to keep them coming back, and I've become pretty good at quickly assessing their desires. To older men I sometimes claim to be sixteen, working with a fake ID that says I'm nineteen. I beg them not to reveal my secret. They love it.

Yet no matter how good you are, eventually you lose your regulars A who are an absolute necessity for making real money A when it becomes clear to them you aren't going to date or sleep with them.

Unfortunately, one of my regulars is a student, a type of customer I've learned to not waste my time with, because they rarely have much money to spend. But I didn't adopt this guy; he adopted me. He's from some foreign country with fifteen letters, all of which are consonants. He can't really afford to tip me, so when he comes to the club I spend most of the evening avoiding him. His major is something like bioelectromolecularcomputernomics. He started coming to the club, he told me, to "let off some steam." Now he returns every week because he's convinced he's in love with me A or rather, with Rikki. On those occasions when I've made the mistake of sitting and chatting with him for a moment, the same thing occurs. At first he's polite and offers to buy me a drink. Then, without warning, he lunges at me, crying and screaming, "Oh, Rikki! What do I have to do to make you mine? I love you, Rikki, I'll give up everything for you! I can't get you out of my head! We must be together! I'll quit school!"

After prying his fingers off my face, I straighten my wig and reply, "Let's try to be strong." Then I make my exit ASAP. It never fails: always the same actions and same dialogue, word for word. One night it ended with him chasing me around the bar (he's quite a sprinter), thrusting a jewelry box in my face, screaming, "Rikki, these are for you! Beautiful earrings! I've been saving this money since I was six!"

Julie and I often talk about how much we hate the job, how dirty we feel, how we avoid our old friends because we have nothing in common with them any more. Neither of us likes to go out any more A I even dread going to the supermarket A because we don't like being around people. It makes us feel too vulnerable. The resentment and mistrust we harbor toward the customers, whose violations we accept because we need them to make money, is easily transferred to any man we meet outside the club. After a while, you become accustomed to believing that anyone who looks at you or strikes up a conversation with you simply wants to violate you.

When I come out of the dressing room onto the floor, the noise A typically ear-splitting disco music A hits me in the face. The club is dark, illuminated only by red lights reflected off mirrored balls on the ceiling. The hue of the lighting is intentional, to bathe the strippers in a fresh, rosy glow. It camouflages flaws and gives an even look to the strippers' skin, much of which is plastered in thick coats of body make-up. Every wall is covered with mirrors, making the room look larger than it is, and full of nude girls. Men are sitting at the bar, at tables, crowding the aisles, all with that same hungry look on their faces. Naked girls are on stage and tabletopping in every part of the room, touching themselves, writhing, trying to look seductive, as though the dance excites them. When they turn their backs to their customers, you can see the boredom on their faces. But when they turn back, they are, again, in heat. We've all mastered the art of turning the seduction on and off; we've all got that switch.

As I scan the crowd, I notice Howard, one of my regulars, sitting in a booth, wrapped around a new girl. I fix a smile on my face and move to reclaim my territory. I walk past Howard's table, ignoring him, and make my way to the bar as though I'm looking for someone else to dance for. A minute later he's behind me, trying to look cute. "I'm mad at you," he whispers in my ear.

I turn to him as though seeing him for the first time. "So?"
"I miss you, Rikki," he pouts. "Why haven't you called me?"
Howard is the president of a large company, which he signed over to me on a bet one night after too many beers. He prides himself on the fact that he neither has, nor needs, any friends. He hates his job, his life, and his ex-wife A this last being the reason he frequents the club, combing the talent pool for a marital replacement that will exact sufficient revenge. He has asked me, and several of my colleagues before me, to be the mother of his children.

Howard only dates strippers. He looks for financially and emotionally needy girls he can take out of the club and make "productive" members of society. His fantasy is to tame the whore. He has drawn up several marriage contracts for me (all including various grids and graphs), assuring me that if I accept his offer he'll waive the need for me to sign a prenuptial agreement. Before taking a business trip earlier this year, he changed his will, leaving everything to me in case something happened to him. It's not surprising that some young girls get hooked on the perks of this job.

I sit at Howard's table, leaning forward coquettishly, feigning interest in his monologue of self-pity, because I know I won't have to dance while he keeps getting cash advances on his credit card for me. Howard's game, like most corporate types, is that he likes to be put in his place. He spends his days giving orders, hiring and firing, and in order to tip the balance he needs to be treated with a firm hand. He likes to be verbally disciplined. So I cut into his monologue every so often to let him know what a self-centered pain in the ass he is, and he pays me handsomely. It's a symbiotic relationship: I get what I want, he gets what he wants. And for him, it's cheaper than therapy.

Throughout the night, each girl takes her turns on stage, stripping to the music of her choice. It's an excellent advertising opportunity for tabletopping, but by now I'm sick of my song selections, and a little sick of my routine A it's hard not to be when it's the same old thing night after night. With one of my sexy faces on, I look out at the customers eagerly pressed up against the stage. I'm dancing naked in a room full of strangers. I'm bored, but I know my face won't betray me.

After your set is finished, you work at soliciting tips from the customers sitting nearby. If the audience liked your dance, you're inevitably asked to tabletop by at least one customer. Then, once you're on a box, everyone is interested in you. It's an "if someone is willing to pay for it, it must be sexy" mentality, so very often the first tabletop after your set leads to others. But the stage can also be a waste of time, taking you off the floor and away from a paying regular to dance for a crowd that may or may not tip. The stage is toughest at the beginning of a month, when everyone has bills to pay and there are too many strippers working and not enough customers tipping.

While on stage, I always take the opportunity to scope out future marks. I make eye contact with the least-attractive men. It's a pretty safe bet they don't get much attention on the outside, and that they would be willing to pay for the attention of a young, pretty stripper who seems to enjoy their company. A lot of strippers tend to overlook this. I avoid attractive men, especially the "pretty boys" some of the strippers choose to sit with. These men are used to getting attention on the outside; why should they pay for it?

During my set, I also make extensive eye contact with the men sitting at the four corners of the stage, to ensure that they will tip me. The rest works according to the Herd Theory of Male Behavior, which dictates that a kind of social domino effect will get the guys sitting in between to follow the example of those on the corners. It never fails: If you can get some to tip, they all tip. This herd mentality explains much of the behavior exhibited in the club.

It's late, and the customers gathered around the bar are starting to resemble the cast of America's Most Wanted. They're all drunk, and many are desperately making their last attempts at getting a girl to go home with them. They're tighter with their money, freer with their hands. I usually stay on the floor all the way until closing, when they turn the lights up and kick everyone out. This is when I make my last rounds, looking for a mark among the few customers left at the bar.

I see this young guy sitting at the end of the bar. He pulls out his money to give me a modest tip, but I see he has a hundred-dollar bill with my name on it. I tell him he has a nice smile, thank him for the tip, and start to walk away, knowing he'll call me back.

He asks me to sit with him. I say I'd love to, but that I have to finish collecting tips for my dance on stage. He asks how much I'll make. I count the heads. There are twelve customers left, which means I'll make about five dollars. "Forty-five dollars," I lie. He offers to pay off my rounds. I take him to the back of the club, and he orders a beer. I dance for him a few times, and I invite one of my girlfriends over to dance for him. His English is very poor, so the conversation is slow. When the DJ announces the last song of the night, I ask him to pay me what he owes. He says he'll give me $50, but he pulls out the hundred-dollar bill and tucks it into my garter. I figure he just doesn't understand the language. The lights come up. I thank him and head to the dressing room.

In the dressing room, I pull the hundred out of my garter and see that he's given me only half the bill. I run back out to the club, but he isn't there, so I get a bouncer to go out with me to the parking lot. The sun is coming up and the lot looks empty. We turn to go back in just as the guy's coming out. I show him the torn bill and tell him he owes me money. Suddenly, his English is better. "I said I'd give you $50," he explains. "Half of $100 is $50. Tomorrow when I come, you'll get the other half."

I'm furious, but I also can't help admiring his scam. The bouncer tells him that he has to give me the other half of the bill. He smiles sheepishly and hands it to me. I go inside and tape the two halves together.

The end of the night is the worst part. Sitting on the dressing room floor, counting a pile of singles while the DJ and bartenders stand around waiting to be tipped out. We're all tired and dying to get home and into bed. I pull off my wig, which hasn't been brushed in a couple of hours, roll it in a ball, and throw it in my bag. My mascara is down to my chin. In a few minutes, I'll be out in the sunlight, fighting the traffic of caffeinated drivers rushing to get to work.

The off-duty police officer at the door escorts Julie and me to the car. As I put my dance bag in the trunk, I hear someone calling, "Rikki!" I look over my shoulder and there's the guy who ripped the hundred-dollar bill in half. He's been waiting for me. My guess is he wants his money back. I can't believe he recognized me without my wig. I jump in the car, telling Julie to hurry. He gets in his car. I tell the cop to stall him for as long as he can. The cop throws his body across the guy's hood, blocking his way. But when we pull out of the parking lot, he's still following us. I tell Julie to step on it, and somehow we manage to lose him in the early morning traffic.

I get home about 7:45, just as some of my neighbors are going to work. It's obvious I've been out all night. I wonder what they must think. Julie waves a sleepy goodbye out the window. She still has more than an hour's drive ahead of her. In fourteen hours we'll be back to the grind.

I creep into the house quietly, but my fiance is awake. He asks how my night went and pulls me into his arms. I know it's selfish, but I'm a little grateful for his insomnia. We spend a few quiet moments entwined. Beyond the windowpane it starts to rain. I think about the other strippers and their lives. What do they go home to? What keeps them centered?

Despite how long I did it, I never stopped being unnerved that night after night I had to sit with strange men as though I were their date, pleasing them within the legal limits of public service. I'm in love with someone, I have an ordinary and respectful existence outside of the charade. But sometime during the process of learning the hustler's trade, I talked myself into accepting the service I performed: It benefits the customers, I told myself; they get what they want, and the lies I tell them have become lucrative for me. I made that $1500 a week, just like the ad said.

When you get good at being a stripper, it's like a drug. You want to see if you can make more money off more lies. Toward the end, though, I began to dream that I was Rikki, and that frightened me. Even if the motive for stripping was as clear as the need for immediate cash A lie and death A I couldn't help but wonder how that world, once entered, would continue to have its effect.


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