In one topless no-contact club in New York City, a fellow dancer in the dressing room suggested I allow the customer to touch my breasts for a minute or two in exchange for a good tip. And so one night I was pimped out by an overly zealous and greedy club hostess and sent up the black-lit stairs to the champagne room with a polite and very drunk Japanese businessman. We were escorted to our cheap cafe table in the corner while the hostess, using the finest etiquette, presented the label of the bottle to the customer. After ensuring her own tip on his credit card, I was left alone to entertain the gentleman. Eye on my wristwatch, I went through the usual routine: fifteen minutes of champagne drinking, party chat, and a half-hour of table dancing and neck massage. As a grand finale, I reluctantly tried out the minute-grope ploy. For two brief moments he touched my breasts. Then with a cheerful grin I said that was enough. It was the beginning of the end before I left that club.
Come with me. I really want to dance for you.
When I discovered lap dancing, I was delighted because my job description was cut and dry—no more conniving for tips. I provided a service and was paid upfront. I had the freedom of choice to interact with customers verbally if I cared to, but my income didn’t depend on me making conversation with men or developing regulars. If they were difficult, I always had the option of turning my back and walking away. Since alcohol is not served in nude clubs, I never felt the pressure to sit with a customer for drinks, which invariably left me with a hangover the next morning. I personally found it less emotionally taxing.
Besides doing the obligatory dance sets—either sharing the stage with other dancers or performing alone—I made the majority of my money walking up to customers and soliciting “private dances”—lap dances—and taking them into “private” areas of the club. Private dances are really not so private: they are often wedged between undulating couples biding for space. During peak hours on Fridays and Saturdays, customers and dancers wait their turn outside the lap dance room.
A lap dance has a beginning, a middle, and an end. First, I would systematically lay down a cloth on the customers’ laps, then grind against their crotches, either by straddling them frontally or by rubbing my buttocks against their groins. In nude lap dance clubs, many dancers carry around personal wraps or leave them in the lap dance room. They lay the material across customers’ laps to provide a hygienic barrier between themselves and rough or dirty pants and unwanted fluids.
In a way a lap dance is like being a teenager again—rubbing one’s genitals against another without actually having intercourse. Customers keep their clothes on. I do remember one unusual occasion when a drunken customer pulled out his penis, and I politely told him “to put it away”—which he did. I felt more like a mother scolding a child than an erotic dancer.
Once in a while the customer was too obese to wrap my legs around, making me feel like a splayed chicken awkwardly bobbing up and down. So instead I would kneel between his legs and rub my breasts against his crotch, mimicking other more well-endowed, voluptuous dancers. This method was also a relief when my hip and knee joints began to fail me at the end of the night. After wearing stiletto heels for eight to ten hours a night, I preferred to do most of my work sitting down.
For several years I worked in a lap dance club where customers were allowed to touch my ass, and at the time it didn’t bother me (sometimes the kneading even felt like a deep tissue massage to sore muscles). In another “hands-on” club in Jersey, which I nicknamed the Inferno, beautiful dancers would fly in from all over the country just for the chance of working a three-day booking where they would make $3000 plus. Because the manager had a penchant for large-breasted blondes, I actually felt fortunate to be hired. But after the three-day stint, burning candles and incense trying to meditate it out in my hotel room, I decided to quit, no matter how great the money was. I couldn’t just smile through it. I was completely enraged by men touching my breasts. I felt out of control, violated. I was relieved to finally find clubs where customers were told to keep their hands braced to the sides of their chairs, bouncers at the ready. I had found my own personal boundaries—every dancer does.
On a conscious level I discovered I could turn myself off emotionally. I then worked on automatic, transforming every man that followed me into the lap dance room into a twenty dollar bill. Sometimes it seemed that the only way I could tolerate the monotony was by focusing on numbers. As I methodically went from customer to customer, I slipped into a mental trance: a rhythmic meditation of counting songs, counting dances, counting singles, counting twenties, counting customers.
I habitually performed the same sequence of moves for each customer, whispering to him in his ear near the end of the song, “Would you like another dance?” Lap dancing had become an intense physical workout and an emotional no-brainer. I felt victorious as I kept each succeeding customer underneath me, knowing that with every gyration I was closer to emptying their wallets—and filling my garter. A positive attitude, a good sales pitch, and the physical stamina to keep hustling until the club’s last call were vital in meeting my nightly goals.
However subversive my job might have seemed to the outside world, for me it was just another day at the office. I provided a service and was well paid. I often compared lap dancing to waitressing in a diner. “Turn and burn ’em” became my personal decree; my earnings were based on bulk rather than on quality. For $20 a song, the key was to keep the customer hard. Or not hard, depending on the customer. After years of dancing, if I were to conjure up one of these customer’s faces today, besides a few memorable regulars, I would permanently pause on the image of a blurred face wearing a baseball cap.
I’m going to give you the best lap dance you ever had.
When the monotony of the job began to wear me thin, and the customers seemed to be getting bored watching me dance five days a week in my “home” club in Jersey, I convinced a dancer friend to hit the road with me. The options were endless—Florida, Texas, Hawaii, Guam, Europe, Japan. The geographical solution was based on the theory that, at least in the short term, being the “new girl” in a chosen club might increase my income.
Many of the dancers traveled back and forth from Florida—like Michelle, who owned several condos near Miami and rented an apartment in Jersey. There I might meet dancers from all over the country and abroad who might convince me to come work at their home club, or who might offer insight into clubs in other cities. The names of good clubs are highly coveted pieces of information. It makes sense to only tell your closest confidante where the money is being made before news runs like wildfire and every dancer in the vicinity floods the club, destroying business for the lucky few who got there first.
One February, when the low season in New York set in, a dancer named Kaylani and I took a working vacation to Tampa where high season was just beginning. Driving from the airport, we plugged the driver for valuable stripper information—where the strip clubs were, which ones were the best, which ones we should stay clear of, phone numbers for take-out, and the nearest tanning and nail salons. Taxi drivers, often independent contractors like strippers, are reliable allies in unfamiliar towns. We set up our home base at the local Indian family-owned Howard Johnson, unpacked our makeup, and prepared for that night’s auditions. Within a day or two, we had pinpointed the most lucrative clubs and agreed on the one that seemed the most tolerable.
With every new club came a new stage name. I changed my name as often as I changed the style and color of my hair. Nico sounded too butch outside of New York. In Tampa I was Sophie; in Hawaii I was Jessie; in Reno I was Amanda; in New Jersey I was River—and so on. Traveling to different cities definitely broke up the assembly-line quality of the business (bend over, smile, grab a dollar), but after expenses proved less lucrative than staying home and working at one particular club as a “house dancer.”
Working in Hawaii proved in particular to be a painful experience because most of the house dancers at the club despised me. I was accused of selling dances at half-price and allowing customers to touch me. True, I didn’t socialize much with the other dancers, but you had to be a dedicated hustler to make up the costs of hotel rooms and flight tickets and still return home with some savings. When I walked into the dressing room, conversations would halt. When I finished my dance set on stage, none of the dancers applauded. It was incredibly alienating, but I was determined to stay despite friends in New York urging me to return to the mainland. Eventually I did make one friend, a fellow hustler. And then I left town.
Coming home to a lonely hotel room, I suspected, was not a far cry from what many of the customers on business trips felt—just another hour, sit with the pretty girl until last call, then back to an empty room with over-bleached towels, stiff bedding, and a remote control, dreams and fantasies left behind.