If you’ve never set foot in the likes of Club Paradise, Scarlett’s, New York Dolls, Secrets, Peepers or the boldly named Booby Trap (yes, it does exist), your image of a strip club might be borrowed from a film like the, uh, “memorable” 1995 Showgirls or Atom Egoyan’s subtler Exotica: a sort of luxurious jungle-ish habitat where decently dressed men sip drinks and quietly, admire the smooth-skinned dancers, who strut confidently, stretching long limbs up, down and out and will, in a secluded corner, share certain soft parts of their anatomy for an agreed-upon sum of money. This isn’t totally off; these pristine oases in “adult” entertainment do exist. But it’s a vision that ignores the darker, dingier and more common environs of strip clubs across America, where floors are sticky and crowds make crude demands.
And as for the dancers inside… One might picture big, busty, gum-chewing blondes who just love getting naked, or petite, pierced punk rockers with an attitude. Or fit feminist art students taking off their clothes simply because they can. Whatever your picture is–of the club and the dancer–it exists, somewhere, in reality. Still, both Lily Burana’s Strip City and Elisabeth Eaves’s Bare show that in the adult entertainment industry, you’re just as likely to find a chubby single mother working in a peep show, or a gay student earning a psych degree stripping onstage, as you are that toned, tanned, centerfold-type who truly loves to dance nude for money.
Both Burana and Eaves are ex-dancers who quit and later returned for sport–to do some soul-searching, some coming to terms and, clearly, some note-taking for their books. Burana started dancing out of desperation as a teenager in New York City, and she made her living on stages in the East (Peepland in NYC) and West (the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater and the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, well memorialized in the documentary Live Nude Girls Unite!) for many years before launching a successful career in journalism. Strip City is both a memoir of Burana’s days in those venues and the chronicle of her farewell trip through a sampling of America’s clubs; when she gets engaged, she also decides to send out her stripper past with a bang by dancing her way across the country. Similarly, Eaves left the Seattle branch of the Lusty Lady to attend graduate school and then work as a reporter. She returns to dancing to try to understand what motivated her, and what motivates others, to be, as she calls them, “naked girls.”
For both women, re-entering the dancer life out of curiosity rather than necessity requires setting up some fast rules. Burana doesn’t want to perform totally nude on her tour (though she winds up bending this maxim to dance in Anchorage, Alaska, at a club called the Great Alaskan Bush Company), and she doesn’t want to do dances that involve contact with customers (she breaks this one in Las Vegas in order to break even). And while Eaves had danced exclusively at a peep show–where a customer pays to open a window onto a room full of naked women rather than tipping dancers, in person, one at a time–she returns determined to “push myself into things I hadn’t tried before–which meant clubs with stages and private dances…. The peep-show windows were a physical shield that kept me from having to wield a psychological shield that I thought must be necessary in clubs.” She gives lap dancing a try, but only twice; when she realizes during her second dance that with the zip of a fly, she could be having sex (and could charge for it), she vows not to do it again.
She also forgoes the promise of real cash. In both books, it’s clear that if a dancer isn’t willing to provide “hands-on treatment,” she’s not likely to make much money (unless she’s in one of the rare clubs that prohibits, and enforces the prohibition on, touch). In a club where lap or “private” dances are available, a dancer who prefers simply to do her turns on the stage might walk away in debt, as clubs increasingly charge a “stage fee” for performing, and dancers have to tip out everyone from the deejay to the bartender to the manager at the end of the night. At a glitzy club, a performer might end up paying $200 for the privilege to work. Burana does a turn at Cheetah’s–immortalized in the aforementioned Showgirls–and, because of her “no contact” rule, can’t make a dime. When she complains to “two sweaty men in suits” about this, one of them tells her, “Well, you need to grab these guys by the crotch to get their attention.”