A Glimpse into the World of Arkansas' Exotic Dancers
There seems to be a lot of subcultures in the dark world of stripping. These subcultures tend to vary from the state one works in because the laws for strip clubs differ from state to state. To protect the privacy of the organization I visited, I will not expose the name or location other than it being in Arkansas. I made two separate visits so that I could collect data from both observation and interviews. I wanted to know and observe how the business and the girls operated. In addition, I wanted to know what kind of lives the girls had outside of their job and why they chose to be a stripper.
The first visit was on a late Friday night and from a distance I could see the building, but it wasn’t lit up in a manner that would bring attention to the business. The only obvious sign that it was a strip club was the black silhouette of naked woman above the door. Upon my arrival, the gravel parking lot was almost completely full causing me to park in the back area that didn’t have much lighting, which made me feel a little unsafe. From the outside, you could hear the bass from the loud music blaring from the inside of the building. When I entered the door, there was a small enclosed area where one must pay before entering a second door. This kept the customers from seeing inside before they entered just in case the individuals trying to get in were not of age because you must be at least 21 years of age before entering. The “door man” (the one who collects the money and checks IDs) seemed friendly, but told me I was not allowed into the establishment without a male escort. I questioned as to the importance of this rule and he stated, “It takes away from the dancers’ money because the male customers will turn their attention to female customers because they feel they would have a better chance of taking the female customer home with them.” I thought, “Why would they think they could take any female home with them if this is a strip club and not a whore house?” Luckily, I know the owner personally so I made a quick phone call to explain my situation and my purpose for the visit. I had to promise to not associate with any of the customers and just observe so that’s what I did. I also assured him that all of the information I used would be kept confidential.
After finally being able to enter the second door, I found the seating was scarce so I sat at the end of the bar. There were 12 girls working that night so I’m not sure if that was the usual number or if some took the night off. I first noticed that there was only one stage and it was placed in the center of the room. In addition, I noticed that there was an area in the back, which I could not see, but noticed the girls would take customers back there for the length of a song or two. I was curious about what was back there, but knew that I would I have to wait for my second visit to engage in any type of activities and for the collection of my interview data. I watched as the girls made their rounds to each table where they engaged in conversations with the customers. I tried to eavesdrop on some of the conversations, but the loud music made it a little difficult. However, I was able to hear one conversation between a dancer and customer that were sitting next to me at the bar. She had recently came off the stage and was thanking the man for tipping her. She politely sat down and introduced herself as Diamond. (She was attractive enough to be a diamond). She continued by asking the man if he had ever been to this club before and he replied, “No”. She then replied by telling him it is a great place to come and that all the girls are very friendly. She then asked if he would mind buying her a drink (alcohol). The customer gladly did so. He then proceeded to tell her a little about himself and that he was just visiting there are on a business trip and wanted to stop in for a couple of drinks and be on his way. The dancer thanked him for the drink and moved on to the next customer. As I watched her walk away, I noticed that she knew exactly where she was going next, which happened to be at a table just below me at the bar. She was still close enough for me to hear most of the conversation. It was obvious to me that she knew the men sitting there because they engaged in a conversation about things pertaining to the last time they were in and she began telling them about things that were going on outside of the business pertaining to her personal life. They asked how her child was doing and other personal things. This table was a group of men and they too bought her a drink and a round of drinks for the table. Furthermore, I noticed that most of the customers came in as groups and not on a solo basis.
After observing the interaction with customers from one particular dancer, I decided to turn my attention to the way the entertainment part was set up. The DJ would announce each girl to the stage one at a time. The flow seemed to follow a sequence of rotation for when each girl entered the stage. Two songs were played for each girl, which they called a “set”. During the first song, the dancer would dance around or do a little pole work with their outfit on. The second song would be when they would undress everything except for their thongs, which had to remain on due to one of the Arkansas laws. The customers would go to the stage and lay the money down on the stage because of another law, which requires the customer to remain at least three feet away from the dancer with no touching allowed, according to the bartender. Each girl had their own style of clothing that they would change out of after each set, and after thanking each customer for tipping them. Although each customer was thanked, I observed that most of the girls would, after returning from changing outfits, sit with the customer that tipped them the most money on stage. Sometimes, there would be more than one girl at a table, especially, when that table of customers would blatantly display stacks of $100 dollar bills on the table for everyone to see.
When it seemed I had gathered enough observations for the night, I decided to leave and return another day, but at an earlier time so that I could have a chance to speak with the dancers for interviewing purposes. Because of the many observations from the night before, I had many more questions. I arrived around 7:00 pm Saturday night. The business was basically empty and there were fewer girls. This time I sat at one of the tables and observed that I was one of only three customers. The other two were sitting at the bar and had apparently arrived separate from each other. Three girls came out of the dressing room and found a table to sit at while they waited for customers. I decided that this was a good opportunity to speak with them. I walked over and introduced myself and asked if I could join them in which they graciously aloud me. I started by asking their names. One of them answered, “Jade” and the other “Essence”. The second name made me question their names and I drew the conclusion that they were aliases so I had to further investigate. I told Essence she had a beautiful name and asked her if her mother given her that name. She responded, “No, it is my ‘stage’ name. We all use a stage name to keep the creepers from knowing our real names.” I asked her what a ‘creeper’ was and she implied that they were the crazy men who may try to stalk them outside of work. Furthermore, most of the girls that work there do not know each other’s real name for privacy purposes because it’s a small world and some of their family members and friends do not know that they work at a strip club. I continued the conversation by asking them why they chose to have a job as a stripper. I was quickly corrected on my use of the term stripper. Jade informed me that, “We are exotic dancers, not strippers!” I quickly apologized for my naïve realism: a term in which I had to explain. I was forgiven and the conversation continued. Jade explained that she was a college student and was just trying to make extra money so that she could get through school. She said she didn’t have to work but a few nights a week to make enough money to live on and it never interfered with her schoolwork. Essence explained that she was a recently divorced mother of two and working nights allowed her to make the money she needed to support herself and her children while still being able to spend the days with her family. She liked it because the kids were asleep while she was at work so they didn’t miss her not being at home. At that moment, Jade said, “Yay, my customer is here!” As she jumped up from the table, I noticed an older man had entered the building. She ran over and gave him a hug and they went off to their own table. I asked Essence what she meant by “my customer”. She said, “We all have our regulars. You know, the ones that come in regularly to see a certain girl.” I asked if the girls see these ‘regulars’ outside of the club. She said, “No, not really, but we do become friends with some of them and hang out at other bars or go out to eat, but nothing more.”
The Lap Dance
Although the club had only a handful of customers, the girls still had to go on stage and do their sets. I decided I would tip a few dollars to the two girls that allowed me to sit and talk with them. Upon my arrival to the stage during the second round of their set, I noticed that even though their tops were off, their nipples were covered with some type of tape. I went back to my table hoping that one of them would stop by to thank me so that I could ask a couple of more questions. I knew once the building began to fill up there would be no time to talk with the girls like I needed to. I also began to notice more girls coming out of the dressing room so I felt like it was about to get busy and I didn’t want to interrupt their work with my questions. Luckily, Essence stopped back by to sit for a minute before she ventured off to other customers. I took this time to asked her about the back room and if I could take a look. She said, “That is where we give our lap dances. Would you like one?” I figured saying yes would be the only way I could see what went on behind the wall. I asked her how much one would cost and she said, “$25 per song”. I thought that was a little much, but it was going to be my only chance to get a glimpse so I accepted the offer and, I had to pay the money up front. She explained that she doesn’t get to keep all of the money because part of it goes to the bouncer and the DJ. She also let me know that they have to pay the club a portion of the money that they make each night. She took me on back to the room where a bouncer stood watch. There were several couches back there and a couple of other girls had taken back a customer for a lap dance as well. The girls waited for the beginning of the next song before they started to keep from cheating the customer out of a full song. As Essence began dancing, I tried to observe the other girls as well. They basically just danced in front of you and in your lap without too much contact. They never took any of their clothes off so it was really just a dance for you in private. However, I was told up front that there was no touching allowed. When the song ended, I asked her why the girls all had tape on their nipples. She explained that it was the law in Arkansas to cover their nipples and they could be fined and the club could be shut down if they were not covered. I thanked her for the dance and taking the time she spent conversing with me. I then decided it was time for me to leave. I had to use headnotes during my observations and interviewing so when I got to my car, I wrote down as much of the information that I could remember and what I thought was important to display in field notes.
What I Learned
I think an important part of this study is learning that there are a lot of stigmas associated with working as an exotic dancer. Most, but not all, are there to get them through certain situations in their lives by being able to earn some quick money, and according to the two girls I spoke with and the money I observed being placed on the stage the night before, quite a bit of money can be earned in just one night. Furthermore, I feel I should note that not all of the girls looked like models. They were all shapes and sizes, but they all seemed to make a decent amount of money. It would take many more nights of observation and speaking with more girls to get deeper into this subculture, but I feel I was able to obtain the answers to the questions I went in hoping to get. I would also like to add that the girls seemed to carry themselves gracefully and not whorishly like most that have never entered a strip club would assume.