Chronicles of a stripper

03 Jul, 2022 - 00:07 0 Views
Chronicles of a stripper Strip club

The Sunday News

Simba Jemwa, Features Correspondent

FOR their mostly male customers, strip clubs are the epitome of an adult playground, where libido and fantasy run free. For critics, they are a depraved wasteland, where women are written off as immoral, lost souls.

For the scores of women taking their clothes off for a living in cities across the country, it is a job, and they say it is one of the toughest sales jobs on earth.

“It’s a real job. A real job pays real money. And I am able to provide for myself, my family and my children,” said “Butterfly” who dances at Zimbabwe’s largest strip club franchise in Bulawayo.

Strippers are part of an ever-growing, multibillion-dollar industry. But as one listens to them talk about competing against other women and avoiding abuse and exploitation, one realises their stories are echoed not just by other dancers, but by women throughout the workforce.

On top of the competitiveness and sometimes threatening environment they deal with; the dancers also deal with the shame from disapproving family and friends. Butterfly, who asked Sunday News to identify her only by her stage name, said she was 22 and a recently divorced mother of two when she made the decision to strip.

“I had to make money, good money and fast,” she said.

Butterfly spends all day with her children, then leaves them with a babysitter when she heads to work at night.

Nicole, who requested to use her stage name, is also a working mum. She started out working in the local industries where she was employed as a seamstress.

“I did eight years as a seamstress. And then the company closed down. I contemplated working as a sex worker but a friend of mine told me about stripping. I found myself a job here, from there I started pole dancing,” she said.

For her, the schedule fits well with parenting.

“I work at night. My son will be in bed by the time I come to work. I am home when he wakes up,” she said.

Rachel is stripping to save money she needs for varsity. Stephanie is a college student.

“I am getting a degree in media studies. This, for better or worse, is probably the best-paying job I’ll ever have,” she said.

Another dancer, Dawn, pays her way through school by dancing on weekends.

“I start work on Friday after school. And then I go back home Sunday or Monday to get ready to go back to school,” she said.

The women followed different paths to the same career choice. But once they made that choice, almost all of them said they had no idea what they were supposed to do.

“Nobody takes new dancers under their wing and mentors them, or tell them how to survive and how to make a lot of money. You have to figure it out on your own,” they said.

To make real money, the women said, you have to work the room — chat up the customers and persuade them to pay you for a private dance or just for your time and attention. A one-on-one dance, or a lap dance, makes them more than a little in cash. Butterfly said she got over her embarrassment by blocking out what she was doing.

“I would just pretend, like in my head, like I was, you know, going through sex acts. I believe that you’re either born with it, or you’re not,” she said.

What is it that strip clubs look for in their dancers?

“The primary thing that they look for in an entertainer is attractiveness and socially capable of carrying on conversations with men. Somebody who feels comfortable in this type of setting,” Dawn said.

And the setting can be intimidating. After watching dancers give lap dances it’s easy to guess what the customer is thinking about. But what’s going through a dancer’s mind while she gives such an intimate dance to a complete stranger? For Butterfly, it is strictly business.

“Number one, I’m thinking about how I can move my body to please them and make their fantasy come true. My second thought is how much money can I get out of this person. I’m sorry, but this is my job and that’s what I am here for,” she said.

The most successful dancers, like Nonhlanhla, combine the physical confidence of a runway model with the verbal skills of a used-car salesman. Some of the dancers said the sell had to be personalised. Some said they treat all their clientele the same.  But they all agreed that sizing up customers, to determine who the big spenders are, was critical. A client’s shoes, wristwatch, type of suit, even the type of eyeglasses are scrutinised to see whether the client has enough money to pay for a pricey champagne, or VIP room, where dancers give one-on-one attention.

“Honestly, we look for the vulnerable ones,” Tafadzwa Madziva a former stripper in Harare said. 

“The really cute guy, the cocky guy — we talk to them last, they’re last pick. We look at the guy who probably doesn’t get that much love or affection or whatever. And then we try to fulfil that need, you know? We try to make them feel better about themselves — smarter, stronger, whatever. And then we are compensated for that.”

And that compensation is earned whether the customer wants lap dances or just a pretty girl to sit and talk with him — what they call “GFE,” or Girlfriend Experience.

“The big-money customers want to come in and spend time with a beautiful girl. And they want to get to know her,” said Eric Nyathi a bouncer at a local strip club. 

“They want the fantasy to think, you know, ‘Gee, this girl really likes me’,” he said.

And they don’t have to work hard to get the attention. If they pay, they get a woman who’ll sit and talk and be charming.

“A lot of times we’re like psychiatrists, listening to people’s problems. Over and over again, people will pay you just to sit there and listen,” Butterfly said. 

She said her clients talked about everything from work to their wives to their kids. But if the client isn’t paying, Butterfly said she cut him off after two songs. Some clubs have exclusive areas, often completely private rooms or booths that are charged by the hour. And it can be incredibly lucrative for the dancers. But in some clubs the bad nights far outweigh the good ones.

Butterfly works in Bulawayo, where major events like the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair bring with them a steady stream of visitors to the city which makes it relatively easy for her to support her family. But for the rest of the year, making a decent living as a stripper is no sure thing. Most dancers do not get paid by the club.

Instead, they are considered independent contractors, and they earn their money from stage tips, selling one-on-one lap dances, or persuading customers to buy time in a VIP room. And sometimes in the fiercely competitive world of a strip club — with dancers chasing after the same customers — some women can feel pressure to sell not just a sexual fantasy, but sex.

“The business arrangement is such that they are pressured into prostitution because otherwise they can’t profit from their work,” Nyathi revealed.

But most dancers make much less, sometimes even going home with less money than they started with.

How could you lose money working? The surprising answer is that dancers not only do not get paid any salary, but they actually pay the club a shift for what is called a stage or house fee. Jennifer says she’s lost money on occasion.

“There have been certain days where you don’t make your money back, and they don’t pay you. There is no compensation or anything. And you just have to suck it up and hope that the next day is better,” she said.

And it’s not just the stage fee that dancers pay. Most of these so-called independent contractors must “tip out” at the end of their shift — which means paying money to the other people working at the club — from bouncers to DJs to the maitre d’s in the VIP rooms.

Butterfly says she can end the night shelling out US$20 in tips. On top of all that, the dancers get no protection or benefits, like workers’ compensation and health care, that are offered to everybody else working in the club. That bothers Butterfly.

“I have children. I believe that we should get insurance. You know medical insurance, dental insurance, vision, workers’ comp. Anything, where we work — we pay them anyway,” she said.

Nyathi doesn’t see this as an unfair setup.

“A boy at a restaurant gets chump change compared to what a dancer can take home,” he said.

And for the women who don’t take home a lot of money? Nyathi said he tells a dancer who wasn’t making much money to consider other work.

“I try to encourage her to — I call it ‘broaden your career horizon a little bit’ —find something that you’re good at. This isn’t for you,” he said.

The rules about how intimate the contact can be between dancer and customer are not set in stone. And in most clubs, some touching is allowed if the dancer encourages it. Clients can touch the dancers’ arms and legs. Butterfly said: “And our belly if they’re careful. If they start moving up, we absolutely have to have to move their hands away,” she said.

And that apparently happens frequently. Butterfly said she had ended dances because a client wouldn’t follow house rules. But a new trend could be making it more difficult for dancers to keep clients’ hands at bay. Increasingly, clubs are building private booths where the dancer and customer are alone. These booths are where dancers make the most money, but it is also where dancers are potentially the most vulnerable.

“They’re working in a booth and then the customer wants one thing or another and they feel forced to comply,” Nyathi said.

Nyathi acknowledges that sex can occur in clubs, but says the clubs try to prevent it. If a client is having sex with a dancer, Nyathi said: “They’re going to have to do it really fast. Because there’s going to be somebody coming around checking on that room. And if they get interrupted, they’re going to be thrown out.”

Like many working women, the dancers who spoke to Sunday News will tell you any kind of respect would be appreciated. They work in a world full of scorn and moral condemnation. They have each made a choice about what is best for themselves and their families. And they show up each night because it’s their job. — @RealSimbaJemwa

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