I made $70 my first night as a dancer.
My first club wasn’t really a strip club – it was a bikini club, which was like training wheels for real stripping (in topless or nude clubs). There was no nudity; dancers wore g-strings and bikini tops. There were no private booths or champagne rooms. It was just a tiny, grungy bar with a bunch of regulars. Think, Cheers with girls in bikinis.
I wore an abomination of an outfit that first night. I had gone to a seedy adult store and purchased a pair of patent leather black platform heels – that was all they had in my size. I also bought a bright orange thong bikini and completed the look with a sheer white sarong. I looked like something a jack-o-lantern had puked up.
I wore the heels for a couple days before my first night, stumbling and falling around my apartment as I vacuumed and did laundry. I had no idea how hard it would be to walk in stripper shoes, let alone dance in them. The thought was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.
I had already gone to the club and filled out the “application” a couple days earlier. There was no audition (thankfully), and certainly no interview. The hiring process involved a quick glance from the manager to make sure I was hot enough for the night shift.
When I arrived through the back door of the club for my first night, I walked into a tiny locker room crowded with girls. I was quiet. Nervous. I looked around and set my bag down on a bench. The girls were busy chatting with one another, joking around. A couple girls said hi and introduced themselves by their stage names.
I was changing into my outfit when the night manager, Todd, entered the locker room to ask what my stage name was. I quickly tied my top and glanced around the room at the other girls in various stages of undress. The presence of a man in a women’s locker room was jolting to me
Which was, perhaps, ironic.
I hadn’t given much thought to my stage name. I wanted something sexy and the only thing I could think of was Carmen. Like Carmen Electra.
So the blonde haired, blue eyed, white-as-they-come, girl next door picked Carmen for her stage name. I still chuckle about that.
Todd scribbled my new name onto the rotation list for the DJ and left. I was struck by how nice the girls were to me. I anticipated a catty bitch fest in the locker room, but it wasn’t anything like that.
Upon finding out that it was my first night, one of the other dancers asked me where my garter was. I told her I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Here,” she said, pulling a round piece of sequined elastic from her duffel piece. “You can borrow one of mine.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking it from her hand. I quickly glanced around the locker room and realized all the girls were wearing garters on their thighs. Some girls had money folded over them, held in place by a rubber band.
Garters were stripper banks.
I slipped the garter up my thigh, wrapped the sarong around my waist, and left the locker room. Air thick with cigarette smoke greeted me as I walked out onto the main floor. Classic rock boomed over tinny speakers. Over the mic, I heard the DJ call me over to the booth (by my new name) and I carefully traversed the floor in my sky-high heels.
“Carmen?” he said.
“First night?” he asked. My walk had given me away.
“Okay, let me explain how the rotation works.” Sets lasted three songs because there weren’t many girls yet. I was assured that as more girls came out onto the floor, the rotation would drop to two songs per set. He asked what kind of music I liked to dance to and I told him trance and techno.
I found an empty booth against the back wall and sat down to take everything in. I was early. There were only a couple other girls on the floor and a handful of regulars nursing beers at the bar.
The stage was small and outfitted with a single brass pole. It’s perimeter looked like a counter top with several chairs tucked under it. This was the tip rail. Or pervert’s row. Some girls danced on the tip rail, running their hands along the low ceiling overhead to balance themselves. There was also a waist-height brass bar mounted against the mirrored back wall of the stage. I watched one girl hold the bar and dance for herself in front of the mirror, seemingly disinterested in putting on a show for an empty room. Or maybe, this was part of the show. I had nothing to compare it to but there was something sexy about her disinterest in the room, as if she were in her own world, dancing for her pleasure. A drunk guy stumbled up to the tip rail with a wrinkled dollar bill in his hand, motioning for her to come over to him. I saw her eyes glance over to his reflection in the mirror and quickly come back to herself. She ignored him. The dollar wasn’t worth it to her. Eventually, the guy gave up, laid the money on the tip rail, and returned to his seat at the bar. When her set was up, she picked up the cash and stuck it in her garter.
The club was small and dingy. It had cheap high top tables and chairs, and ugly orange booth seating along the back walls. I soon learned this was where “private dances” took place.
Todd walked over from across the room and sat down next to me.
“Okay, do you understand how dances work?” he asked.
I shook my head and Todd proceeded to explain the rules of engagement. Dances were $10/song. Customers could touch your legs, arms, stomach… but that was it. Dancers could not straddle or grind on customers. When on stage, customers could only place money in dancers’ garters – not their bikini bottoms or tops. When the set was up, a dancer had to wait for the next girl to get to the stage and help her up the stairs.
Todd told me to always get my money for dances up front and then stood up and walked over to chat with the bartender. Weeks later, I learned they were dating. I heard the DJ announce that Carmen was “on standby” and it took a second to remember that was me.
When my turn came, I carefully walked up to the stage. The dancer who had just finished her set waited for me at the edge of the stage, extending her hand to help me up the stairs. I stepped onto the shiny waxed stage and walked up to the pole.
I was wobbly. I clung to the pole and tried spinning myself around it as girls before me had done. I didn’t know what to do? Spin? Wiggle? Strut around the stage and risk falling in front of everyone? All the girls before me made it look so effortless, so graceful. And here I was stomping around like an awkward buffoon.
Somehow, I made it through that first, long, three-song set. A couple guys had come to stage to tip me. I figured maybe they felt sorry for me, or maybe they just enjoyed the novelty of a newbie dancer.
The club started to come alive a couple hours later. Girls bustled around the room, which had slowly filled up with customers. An older bald guy asked for a dance and I obliged. I awkwardly danced in front of him, doing my best to be sexy, but most definitely failing.
I sold 8 dances during the whole night. With tips, I made about $110. But then I had to pay house and tip everyone out. To work in a club, dancers have to pay a “house fee,” which can range anywhere from $10 to $100+. The fee is always paid – if a girl has a terrible night and doesn’t make enough money to pay house, the debt can be carried over to the next night. DJ’s typically get tipped at least 10% of a girl’s total earnings. Other tipouts can include managers, bouncers, bartenders, waitresses, and house moms. At a high-end club, total tipouts can be a couple hundred bucks or more.
Tipouts are often a contentious issue for dancers because they are unpaid workers who are required to tip out paid workers. Actually, dancers are workers who must pay (a house fee) to have the privilege of stripping in a club. Tipouts only felt grimy when I had to tip people who did absolutely nothing for me. I was happy to tip a DJ who promoted me on stage, played the music I liked, or pointed money out to me when it walked through the door. But it burned me up to tip out a salaried manager who just sat in a back office watching cameras or counting cash.
On the bright side, tipping was a great opportunity to butter up the people I wanted in my corner. When I started making decent money, I began tipping out generously; this provided me with eyes and ears throughout the club. I didn’t get hassled about coming in a little late or leaving early. And staff would call me over and point out customers with cash markers – expensive shoes or watches, a Black American Express, etc.
My tipout that first night was $10 to the house, $10 to the DJ, $5 to two bouncers, and $10 to the manager. That left me with $70.
I was exhausted by the time the club closed at 3am. All the girls paraded into the cramped locker room, counted their money, and changed back into street clothes while the bouncers ushered straggling customers out the front door. The manager stood in the parking lot to make sure all the customers cleared out before any of us were allowed to leave the building. When we did, we were escorted to our cars by the bouncers, one at a time.
I would later grow to really appreciate this concern for our safety, as it was not the norm in every club.
Feelings after my first night
Before that night, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about dancing. Ashamed? Embarrassed? Like an imposter?
To my surprise, I felt none of those things. Rather…I felt kind of… proud. Not about the $70 I’d made, but because I had done something that was so, so far outside of my comfort zone. It was also kind of liberating to rip off the tape that made me feel so embarrassed by sexuality. I felt fierce and empowered, not degraded or objectified. Over my years of dancing, there were moments when I did feel degraded. But for the most part, I learned how to tip the power in my direction.
I got home, showered the stench of cigarette smoke off my body, and went to bed just before dawn. I’d get up and do it again the next day.
I worked in two bikini bars for a little over a year before transitioning to a topless club and becoming a legitimate stripper. The money was far better, but the environment was completely different. The rules I’d learned about giving lap dances and receiving stage tips no longer applied… or at least, were rarely followed. There were darkened private booths and champagne rooms. The competition was steep and the girls could be cutthroat. Customers would proposition for dates outside the club, sex, and everything in between. Drugs were common.
I had changed my stage name to Belle when I moved to the second bikini club, but I’d not yet created a persona for her. I hadn’t really needed it up to that point.
But at my first topless club, I did.