It's my first visit to a strip club.
I'm here not as a patron, but to take lessons in exotic dancing from a former stripper-turned-tutor named Michelle. I had answered Michelle's ad in the New Haven Advocate the week before, and met her one night in a different parking lot at a local KFC to hand over a check for $150 in exchange for five sessions.
I'm stripping so I can support myself while writing my dissertation. But the discoveries I'm about to make, and the people I'm about to know, will in a year turn me into a seasoned veteran of American strip club culture, gaining not only a better sexy dancing skill set, but also a window into how corporate influences are changing that culture.
But right now, I'm nervously sitting in my car in the parking lot of Backstage Bill's watching men file in, unsure of what exactly awaits me. Michelle arrives and we walk inside. I will end up spending a lot of time at this particular venue — but this is the first and last time I use the front door.
Dancing "sexy" sounds a lot easier than it is
In the club's foyer, one of the bouncers waives the $10 entrance fee. We make our way through the main room, past the bar, and into another room used only for feature acts. I see a woman dancing on stage who appears to be around 35, swinging her ample hips to 1970s hard rock. She's wearing a thong and 6in platforms. Nothing else. Unsure of where to look, I settle on her eyes. She gives me a warm smile as I go by.
On the spare stage, Michelle happily flips on the smoke machine and lights, and cues up a sultry R&B CD that easily drowns out the thin wailing of Led Zeppelin from next door. I'm afraid she's going to ask me to take off my clothes, but she does something even scarier: she tells me to get up on the stage and "dance sexy."
I pull on a pair of what before leaving home appeared to be high heels, and do my best. But no matter what I do, she just repeats, in a voice that sounds somehow encouraging and disappointed, "No. Sexy. No, SEXY."
Strip clubs are becoming as homogenized as any box store or Starbucks
This exhortation — and my subsequent sorry confusion — started me down a path that would eventually become a book, The Naked Result: How Exotic Dance Became Big Business. For about a year, figuring out how to "dance sexy" meant I could make my rent. But it also taught me more about corporations and brands than any Michael Moore movie.
We think of the striptease as wild and subversive. But while performing at Backstage Bill's in New Haven and Diamonds in Hartford, I discovered the striptease can be just as corporate as that latte you might be drinking. Since the 1990s, corporate-chain strip clubs have steadily taken over more and more of the exotic dance industry: transforming something erotic, exciting, and diverse into another homogenized product.
"Since the 1990s, corporate-chain strip clubs have taken over the exotic dance industry, transforming something erotic, exciting, and diverse into just another homogenized product."
After several months at Backstage Bill's, one of my regulars suggested I try dancing at a "classier" club called Diamonds. So the following week I drove to Hartford and found the venue somewhere along a desolate service road adjacent to the highway. It was early in the evening, and the few customers in attendance wore button-down shirts, pressed slacks, and ties. The enormous circular bar stood at the center of the main room, its chrome rail reflecting the cool grays that comprise the club's color scheme.
Several dancers shared the stage, each moving gently as if being blown by a warm breeze. With few exceptions, they were 18- to 24-year-olds, white, very thin, and fit, with straight, shoulder-length blond or light brown hair. Their costumes looked like what I saw undergrads wearing while shivering outside dance clubs in New Haven: crop tops, strapless mini-dresses, and hot pants.
A large man in a suit directed me toward the manager's office, which was organized, clean, and conspicuously lacking posters of porn stars. The manager looked me up and down and then did something shocking: he asked for my ID. For their records. I'd stumbled into a new realm of corporate accountability.
Working at a corporate club took all the luster away
At Backstage Bill's, dancers could wear what we wanted. I had a particularly bad night on Thanksgiving dressed up in a pilgrim costume, but no one told me not to wear it. But at Diamonds, management dictated what we wore, how we talked to customers, and how we danced: no pelvic thrusts, no shimmies, and no bumping or grinding.
Stripteases are associated with sex. But unlike the raw sexuality of much of the movement at Backstage Bill's, the dancing at Diamonds catered to a capitalist fantasy of delightfully clean, uniformed women who could be purchased and consumed.
One of the most striking demands of working at Diamonds was the ritual of selling calendars on weekend shifts. Five times a night the DJ would play Mötley Crüe's "Girls, Girls, Girls," a signal for all the dancers to stop whatever they were doing and rush to the dressing room. There we were given copies of the club's calendar, which we were meant to hawk to the audience.
"As dancers we were as packaged, standardized, and managed as the shrink-wrapped calendars we pushed on our customers."
We were lined up and paraded swiftly across the stage as if in a beauty pageant, and then forced to swarm into the audience trying to sell a package deal of a calendar and lap dance for $25. If a customer took the deal, we had to turn $15 over to the manager for the calendar… thus being paid half the usual rate for the dance.
This ritual points toward everything that is wrong with the conflation of corporate and corporeal culture: as dancers we were as packaged, standardized, and managed as the shrink-wrapped calendars we pushed on our customers.
There's a big difference between a club and a brand
The crucial difference between Backstage Bill's and Diamonds — what explains the differences in the populations of dancers and customers, in the décor, in the working conditions — is that Backstage Bill's is a strip club, but Diamonds is a brand. What is for sale at a strip club isn't a physical commodity — even one as fantastic as a woman's body — but a chance to explore the power of fantasy.
Naomi Klein offers a working definition of "brand" in her influential book No Logo: "Think of the brand as the core meaning of the modern corporation, and of the advertisement as one vehicle used to convey that meaning to the world." Diamonds isn't merely its New England outposts; it is also calendars, merchandise, and a reputation as "the Scores of Hartford." Diamonds is confined to New England; but other corporate chain clubs like Rick's Cabaret and Spearmint Rhino are global brands that extend into Europe, Asia, and South America.
In corporate clubs, brand managers usurp power from dancers and customers to control every element of the brand's identity — costume, choreography, and speech — in order to continually increase profits.
The "Spearmint Rhino" effect
"Rolling up" small independent clubs into one multinational corporation, Spearmint Rhino established a model for other gentlemen's clubs. Its plush but cozy furniture, animal-printed wallpaper, evening gowns, flat-screen televisions showing sporting events, and scripted conversations between dancers and customers are reiterated in clubs from Las Vegas and London to Moscow.
Modes of behavior for dancers and customers are standardized through surveillance, interior design, and regulation — much like Starbucks playing music that's dictated by upper-level management and which largely consists of songs available for purchase on the company's own label.
Spearmint Rhino's basic dancer contract (45 pages long in the United States, 80 pages in the United Kingdom) specifies choreography, costume, hairstyles, age ranges, and customer interactions in immense detail. It also includes rules against inviting spouses to the club or allowing customers to dance; and a clause that the dancer will "continue to keep herself fit and ensure that she has all the necessary skills to perform dancer services."
At Diamonds and other corporate strip clubs, dancers and customers perform a highly calculated brand that shapes erotic desire in much the same way that Starbucks inculcated a global taste for frothy espresso drinks. Every time I donned a hot pink dress from the mall, made out with another dancer for a customer, or eschewed floor work for yet another strut around the pole, I lived and moved Diamonds' upper-middle-class, middlebrow, white, "lite" brand of sexuality.
The allure of stripping is lost in its standardization
The thing that draws many dancers to the world of striptease — the space to create your own ideas about dancing sexy — gets crushed in chain clubs, where dancers are instructed to hustle customers for every penny and to embody a specific, uniformed vision of "sexy." And dancers who have worked in independent and corporate clubs know the difference.
Janine Marshall, a London-based former stripper and proprietor of the first pole-dancing school in the United Kingdom, told me she was there "before Spearmint came in and fucked everything up."
Another seasoned performer who wished not to be named had this to say: "In a chain club, you're there to entertain a person by constructing a fantasy of being there and being adoring, hanging on every word that they say, and being their mom or girlfriend or bitch or whatever. And dancing is almost secondary to all that. In the small clubs, it's all about dancing. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?"
Many feminists believe that stripping degrades women. But the reality is more complicated than that. Dancing at Backstage Bill's allowed me to move in new ways, and to embody new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas about myself as a subject and object of desire.
But I noticed an uncanny similarity between other service jobs and stripping at Diamonds. In both, you are subject to management directives. Your mandated costumes are called uniforms. Improvisation is surrendered to routines. And conversations are scripted.
A striptease can degrade and empower dancers, suppress and express subversive desires — erotic or otherwise. But as exotic dance moves into the mainstream, its transgressive potential is being erased by the imperatives of the brand. The corporate takeover of striptease is rapidly repackaging the most mysterious of human emotions into easily branded experiences no more personal or powerful than those to be found in any other mega-chain.
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Jessica Berson is a Certified Movement Analyst who teaches dance studies at Yale University, and previously taught dance and drama at Harvard, Wesleyan, and University of Exeter. Her writing focuses on how embodied performance engages debates about sexuality, consumerism, and community. Check her out at www.jessicaberson.com.