Dance Like Everyone is Watching


New Orleans is known for many things: its excellent food, its many parades, especially during Mardi Gras, the Second Lines throughout the year, the great music, the art. Local cuisine, festivals, culture, nightlife, entertainment—all of these bring tourists to the city. But there’s a segment of the entertainment industry that a lot of people don’t want to talk about, and it is the part of the service industry that attracts a great deal of tourism and business conferences: the strip clubs. It’s the same for many cities, but for such a small city, New Orleans has a large number of them, and not just on Bourbon Street.

Raids on local clubs in January and February of this year caused a wave of shock and dismay throughout the service industry in New Orleans. And while state and city law enforcement seemed to fumble the ball on the reasons and ultimate outcome of the raids in terms of the public good, the people whose livelihood was at stake were left to wonder about the future of their jobs.

New Orleans is an expensive city to live in. Many of the bartenders and servers you’ll meet bounce between professional dancing, serving, and bartending, and among these occupations, no one provides more disrespected and underappreciated services than strippers.

Stereotypes abound. Accusations of illegal acts, drug use, low self-esteem and being dumb are some of the assumptions leveled at strippers. Rarely, it seems, does anyone, respectfully, ask the people themselves about their lives and professions.

These are the stories of some of the women who took time out of their very busy lives to talk to me and I want you to get to know them a little bit. Maybe we’ll both learn something.

I spoke to a woman whose stage name was Babs, like the bunny on Tiny Toon Adventures. She’s petite, very funny, sweet, and yes, she’s incredibly attractive. I’ve known her for years, and her love for her daughter is incredible. She was a dancer for quite a while. I asked her why she chose this particular profession. She says, “I used dancing to put myself through multiple schooling while being able to be with my daughter.” I don’t know what others have said about her, but for some reason, she emphasizes, “I AM a good mom.” I never doubted her.

I ask her what she thinks of the city’s campaign against the clubs. Babs comes straight to the point. “I know the owner of some of those clubs, and I see the point against him. The rest of the clubs are mostly honest people trying to make an honest living.”

I speak to a woman named Poison. She strikes me as independent and outspoken. Unlike Babs, she’s still working in the club. When I ask her why she chose this career, she says, “I grew up dancing and entertaining and knew from a very young age I was meant to be on stage. I never thought I’d be a stripper but I am glad to be in this sisterhood of strong women. I am very extroverted and enjoy socialization; it definitely helps to fake it till I make it.”

Like Babs, Poison sees strip clubs as an important part of New Orleans’s economy. Poison says, “New Orleans was built on the red light district. So the question kind of answers itself. Absolutely! The business is absolutely necessary for the well-being of this city. New Orleans specifically is in the worst pit of economic crisis. We’re probably the only industry keeping anyone afloat.”

“Personally,” she continues, “I thought it (the raids) was a political game. It’s no big secret that they want to ‘sanitize’ Bourbon Street. We went from fifteen clubs last year, and are now down to seven. They are trying to flush us out.”

Luna is the dancer I know best. She’s smart, extremely well-educated, and is a genuinely interesting person. Not only that but when she’s serious, she speaks with a kindness and empathy that runs deep. She doesn’t work in the field anymore. Luna is not her stage name. Nor is it her real name. I call her Luna because of what she tells me, “We had a Harry Potter book club at the club, and we would all dress in costumes for every book release. We would meet once a week, two hours before work, and discuss the books.”

Luna ended her dancing career a few years ago, “It was ‘96-’09. I received my Bachelor’s in Science and then I received my RN degree.”

I say that people usually burn out in that field quicker than that. Luna agrees, “I did. I was hitting customers in the end, because things weren’t like they were when I first started dancing. Back then, customers were never allowed to touch, hold hands, sit on laps, and when you danced you had a pedestal and you had to be a certain length away.”

Babs has a different reason. She also used stripping to put herself through school. She now has a great job doing something that I would say is pretty awesome. I won’t tell you what she does for a living, but I promise you, it does not require her to take any of her clothes off, as far as I know.

She confirms my own theory of the job when she says simply, “Sex work is a service industry.” Which obviously makes sense. But it’s not how some people look at it.

Poison responds similarly, “I would consider doing what I do to be partial customer service if you are not good with people, more than likely you’re not going to be a good stripper. You have to deal with people to make money, end of story.”

The next woman I speak to is named Knives.  Knives have a lot of piercings and a great smile. When the topic of strip clubs being shut down is brought up with her, she says, “The rumors about police raiding our clubs because of underage trafficking is a horrible cover up for the truth, which is that New Orleans wants to own and run all business on Bourbon. And lying to the locals, telling them that they have a say-so in this, and came up with some bullshit excuse that they voted and that this is what the ‘people want.’ Where and when was this meeting taking place? And for the real meeting held at city hall where the seats were over-filled with dancers, bartenders, managers etc. with amazing speeches disputing the facts, how did these meetings not end in better results?”

I touch briefly on the dangers of the job. It’s an uncomfortable subject. Jaren Lockhart was a dancer at Temptations. In 2012, her murderers pretended to hire her to dance at a private party. When I ask Babs about this, she replies, “She was a girl in a hard spot. She was betrayed by people she trusted. It’s very sad. I called her friend. And I loved her.”

Babs is grateful to the career, even going so far as to say it kept her alive. “It was my livelihood for ten years. It saved my life more than once. I wouldn’t have anything that I have today without it. That includes my child and husband.”

Poison sees things in a similar light. “It does not matter why you chose this profession. Embrace it. I can’t believe I almost lived my whole life not knowing what it was like to be a stripper.” She adds, “I enjoy my job profusely. Just because people look down on it and don’t understand the business does not make our jobs any less of a job. There is a lot of emotional labor needed to be an entertainer. Keep in mind what we do is absolutely work, and is absolutely a job.”

Knives is truly grateful for her job as well. “The adult entertainment industry has been an amazing job to have all throughout my twenties. It paid well and allowed me to go to school and travel.”

Luna bristles at the assumption that dancers are uneducated. “Girls I’m still friends with…one is an English professor, another is an ER doc, I’m a nurse, one is a school teacher, and others own businesses.”

I ask Babs if there’s anything else she’d like to add. She replies, “Most of these girls are going to do amazing things.” And when I hear her say this, for some reason, I not only hope she’s right, I know she is.

Empowerment

Despite the city waging a war on strip clubs, despite the stereotypes, despite the struggles inherent in the job, these women have fought and risen to the challenge, protecting their craft and their industry. The strong women I spoke to haven’t given up on anything.

– Michael David Raso is a former bartender in New Orleans. He prefers to write than to be forced to socialize with strangers. His hobbies include: playing with his pets and avoiding eye contact with panhandlers. He mistakenly believes Professor Elemental is the best rapper that has ever lived. He works as a professional ghostwriter, copywriter, and is presently putting the finishing touches on one novel, “Memories of the Black Blade.” He can be reached at: MichaelDavidRaso@gmail.com

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