JOURNALISM | BARELY LEGAL; PEELING OFF THE LAYERS OF JOHANNESBURG’S STRIP-CLUB INDUSTRY

I sat down with South African club performer, Zee, to get the ins and outs of making it as a successful exotic dancer in Johannesburg.

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BARE ESSENTIALS
To become an exotic dancer in South Africa, applicants must be 18 years or older. For the initial interview, nothing is required of you, not even a passport, ID or drivers licence to prove your age. It doesn’t cost anything to go for an interview, though you may be required to fill out an application form with a few details and sign a basic contract that lists you as an “independent performer” at the venue.

THE GAME
The club lighting is dull and dubious, made bright only by the neon glow of lingerie, white collared shirts and the occasional low-hanging light fixture. The “girls” strut past tables wearing barely-there costumes: bejewelled, French maid, or luminous. Some are dressed to a theme: innocent bride, dominatrix, sweet-looking girl next door, mysterious temptress.

Dancers operate in teams of two. They pick tables as if at random, flirt, keeping their chests close enough to your shoulders so you can’t help but brush against them whenever you move. Olga, Mia or Lana speak in fragmented English. They insist on joining you for a drink – on your tab – and feed on your attention.

The performers are always “on” – the moment they appear not to be enjoying themselves the mood becomes flat, rapidly. “A true gentleman reviews his figures in private,” goes the motto and you’re encouraged at every turn to head upstairs and spend some alone time with a woman…or two.

From a dancer’s perspective, once a potential client is pinned down, you will need to approach with confidence. A “sexy smile” doesn’t hurt either. A client needs to believe that you have something to offer that no one else can. Your dance on stage needs to draw eyes. “Sometimes you will need to spend a little more time at tables than others,” says Zee, a seasoned professional. “Because some fish need bigger bait.”

CITY LIGHTS
Zee was a small-town girl. Petite with smiling eyes, dimpled cheeks and a figure like Dita Von Teese, she has always been driven; ambitious. After high-school she moved to Joburg to begin a career at a modelling agency as a make-up artist and hair stylist. She began dancing in 2005, taking a break in 2008 after making enough money to finish her degree and start her own beauty therapy business; doing graphic design and photography on the side.

But when faced with financial challenges in 2014, Zee took to dancing again and has been showing off her curves for cash ever since.

“Nine out of ten applicants will get the job”, says Zee of the application process. We’re sitting at a small French bakery in Randburg, where she’s agreed to meet. She takes a sip of her iced caffe latte, her eyes locked on mine. At the end of the day “you’re a woman; and men love women in all different shapes and colours!”

The interview might be free, but the job will cost each dancer a monthly levy to cover maintenance and marketing. The rest is extra profit for the club owners. Levies are charged from R2800 and depend on the venue or, if you’re an independent dancer, your particular arrangement with the club’s manager.  

It will stand an applicant in good stead to be in shape, well-groomed and have a unique style of their own, plus a wardrobe filled with sexy lingerie. Zee sources her clothes from a variety of places; anywhere from her travels overseas to her local China Mall. The club usually also stocks an impressive range of outfits.

“If you are sweet and sexy, or a dominant seductress, or the glam goddess, it doesn’t matter,” says Zee, “You’ll need to find what works for you and perfect that.” The club performers know what works and generally play to clichéd male fantasies. The bottom line? This job demands that one feels completely comfortable in one’s own skin.

Knowing how to apply make-up and style hair is a plus. A typical day for Zee consists of sleep, gym, going to the bank or shopping mall, and an occasional stop at a tan salon or spa for beauty treatments. “I spend more time and money making myself look the part than anything else.”

Prior pole-dance experience is beneficial but not absolutely necessary. You can gain dance experience in the comfort of your own home by watching YouTube – the preferred training facility for many aspiring exotic dancers around the world.

DANCER FOR MONEY
Initially, the idea of dancing naked for money did not seem like a huge adjustment for Zee who already had some modern dance training. “How bad can it be?” she thought, “They don’t even drop their knickers and the men are only allowed to watch.” Boy was she wrong.

Confident she could do it, Zee marched into her first club and almost collided with a beautiful Bulgarian girl spread over a table, long legs ending in “stripper heels” wrapped around a gentleman’s head, her “principles” just inches away from his face. “I couldn’t stop staring,” says Zee. “I couldn’t see myself having the lady-balls to pull that off, so I became a waitress instead.”

One night, after a few short months of working at the club, Zee’s head waitress literally gave her the push she needed. “She shoved me against Lolly Jackson and told me to tell him I want to dance!” At the time, the charismatic Teazers boss owned seven clubs around South Africa and was the go-to guy for an aspiring dancer.  Jackson took a long puff of his cigar and, upon exhaling, told her show him some skin. She cooperatively undressed for him. Seemingly pleased with what he saw, he told Zee to get a tan line and her nails done because she starts on Monday. “And that’s where it all began,” says Zee.

OPENING UP
People are intrigued [about what I do],” says Zee. “They ask questions because of curiosity, or some ask me to give them advice on men or how to be sexy.” In a shrill half-whisper, Zee confides “When I tell men, they love it! Most men have fantasies and a major one is to be with a stripper and tell their friends.” Winking and popping a gum bubble, Zee shrugs. “It’s a boy thing.”  

PITFALLS & PERKS
Every club operates differently, but the basic principles are the same. Each dancer is charged a levy to work on stage and the levy will differ for each venue. The dancers work in shifts and some clubs even host themed performances with huge production values. Perks at certain venues include getting to choose your own shifts. The more you dance, the less you pay towards levies so it’s up to each performer to decide how many hours they work.

Other perks include eating at the venue for free and enjoying drinks with the patrons – so long as you know your limit; getting drunk while working is not permitted. At more upmarket “Gentlemen’s Clubs”, the dancers get to mingle with patrons of a certain calibre, “meaning a lot of famous people,” says Zee. “People from all over the world come and visit.” Like who? Zee doesn’t budge on spilling secrets or clues as to who she’s spotted in the club, but insists the details are tantalising…

Falling in love with clients is a big risk and happens often with dancers. “I’ve also seen some girls fall down because of drug and alcohol abuse,” says Zee, cocaine being a popular drug shared in club venues. The hours are long, the work is strenuous and will almost certainly take a toll on one’s health. Zee warns that “it’s easy to get used to the constant flow of money and never save up, and lose the job or get into accident and have no insurance and fall into debt.”

BANG FOR YOUR BUCK
It’s Saturday night. The club is open for business. A selection of popular tracks you’ve probably heard on the radio is spilling from the speakers. The music is determined by the venue and the DJ working the night, not by the dancers, although if a bachelor’s party is underway, dancers tend to choose their own tracks. Zee’s personal favourite? Anything by Lana Del Rey: “Give me that sexy beat and I go into super stripper mode.”

At the moment she is working a table. One of the patrons is getting cocky, asking for “something extra” – he’ll pay, of course. “At some clubs a little more goes down than just good, clean fun,” admits Zee, “but owners don’t own up to that because it’s illegal.” A lot has changed since Zee started dancing. “It’s a new age,” she says. “I used to get offended and act out and be rude to client if he [asked for more].” Now she understands that “it’s part of human nature” and embraces it. The patron becomes more insistent and Zee plays along. “I’m very expensive,” she tells the man, quoting an exorbitant amount. He offers a credit card and Zee laughs, batting away his advances: “Honey, it’s going to take more than just one dance to get into my pants!” she admonishes. The customer laughs and desists. “The point is not to ruin a guy’s night or put him off,” winks Zee.

At another table,  a client has succumbed to the club’s ceaseless insistence to view a private dance. The client is led upstairs to a more “intimate” space where he’s seated on one side of red velvet curtains. On the other side: the world. There are no cameras in these spaces and the stale stench of cigarette smoke envelopes whatever happens on the leather seats. A thick metal pole obscures the crack in the curtains and the dancers, well, give you what you pay for – and that’s anything from R1600 for 30 minutes, per dancer.

If you reach a compromise and decide on a less taboo table routine, you may be treated to what is not quite a dance, but more gyrations of unmentionables uncomfortably close to your face. This will cost anything from R350 for four songs. The dull venue lights and fast-paced remixes of popular tracks contribute to an illusion that time doesn’t exist. This is a dangerous combination when you’re paying by the song.

Reaching to touch the girls is a serious faux pas and may cost a couple of hundred bucks to get the bouncers to look away. Taking photos is strictly forbidden.

Soliciting sex from a dancer is completely against the law, of course, but Zee insists that “it’s gotten to a point where girls give in because you have to compete with other girls doing extras” – anything more than dancing topless on a pole. “Levies are so high that it’s an easier option to do extras because [dancers] can charge more. More and more girls are doing it so it’s not even a taboo anymore. But if you ask the owner, he pleads ignorance and says girls are not allowed to do it.” Zee shrugs and sighs: “It still happens.” To keep up with competition, Zee works sex toys into her private dance routine and does girl-on-girl shows to impress her clients. For Zee, the worst parts of her job are “the extras, drugs and disrespectful men!”

STRICTLY A GENTLEMAN’S CLUB?
Back at the club and downstairs a number of men has just entered the establishment. This is still the most frequent type of customer: groups of men looking for a unique bonding experience; men travelling abroad and looking for company; or businessmen looking to wrap up a deal. As Zee puts it “it’s an ideal place to soften up any man; some booze, sexy naked women and the deal is as good as done!”

However, Zee has observed more and more women in strip clubs during her time in the industry. “It’s about getting in touch with a more sexual side; either to join their partners to spice things up, or just to come have fun!” Zee believes that “these days, ladies are not scared to have a naked body all over her. It makes her feel somewhat sexier and powerful, and in touch with a wilder side that is now okay in a new age for women to express.”

As a woman visiting a strip-club you may be given royal treatment. This is a thought-through tactical move on behalf of the venue to increase their target market and encourage return visits. “We don’t want [women] to be uncomfortable or made to feel like we’re overstepping any boundaries she and her man might have. [This] makes it harder to approach the gals, but once they call us I love to dance for the ladies!” Says Zee. “I give all my attention to her and make her feel like she’s on top. I let the guy watch how I ravage his lady until he can’t handle it anymore and sometimes I even leave them alone in the booth to enjoy each other.” Zee’s point is that she wants to “encourage you to come back; and next time your guy decides to go to a strip club he will think twice before leaving you home alone.”

Zee believes she’s seen a significant growth in the industry since she began dancing and points to social media and pop music as a potential explanation: “Pole-dancing is very popular on social media. It’s become a sport, a form of exercise. There is no sport sexier than pole dancing; it takes some skill to do what those girls do and even men are doing it,” she explains. Plus, “Every damn Rap artist is rapping about strippers!” Zee says laughing and slapping her knee. “It was just a matter of time that my industry became part of an average night out! Champagne, good food and music with some exotic entertainment on top is a recipe for a memorable night out in any town, anywhere in the world.”

MAKING BANK
A busy club doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good night for a dancer – it all depends on who walks into the club, and who’s  willing to spend money. “You as a dancer need to read the signs. You will need to make eye contact and carefully read body language. Normally, a guy standing around is looking for a girl to entertain him.” Is the money worth it? Zee seems to think so. She can earn anywhere from nothing to R20,000 a night – quite a range. “But on average I would say R3000 to R5000 a night.”

COST TO CONSUMER
Any establishment can be sussed out based on a trip to the bathroom – and this applies doubly to revue clubs. The Teazers bathrooms sport slatted glass mirrors to enhance illusion and distort reality, giving the facade of classy joint. The Grand is a slightly more opulent experience with perfume in the bathrooms and clean towelettes to dry your hands. Urinals are in the shape of Rolling Stone lips.  

Entrance to the Grand is a costly R800 but does afford you an all-you-can-eat buffet. While the food there is pretty great, there are far more affordable ways to satisfy a gourmet hunger if that’s what you’re really after.

To enter Teazers only costs R150; the experience is relative to the price – the cost doesn’t cover any free treats. The Lollipop Lounge will also set you back R150 before 10pm. But if you’re feeling adventurous, the place also boasts a wedding chapel like no other for as little as R5000.

While indulging in pre-club drinks may seem like a cheaper alternative to buying drinks at the venue, it’s probably wiser to arrive sober with the foresight to turn down any private experiences. What’s way worse than the two-day hangover is a whopping bill which, the next day, paints residual shame into the reels of memory tape from the night before. The entire experience is designed to make you lose track of time, of yourself, of any sane thoughts.

HIGHER PURPOSE POLE-DANCING
How do you measure success in the exotic dance industry? Well, that appears to depend on each dancer. For Zee, “being successful as a dancer to yourself is a whole different ball-game. No one woman is the same; every woman has got her own thing going on. If you can bring that to the surface and use it to make your money, and use your money to achieve your dreams or to better your life, you are a successful dancer to me.”  

Part of what makes Zee successful, she says, is knowing what to do with her money. “Gravity is no lady’s friend and what once was up will go down,” says Zee, driving home the point that this is a means to an end – at least for her.

“I have a few investments and I am travelling with the money I make…There is a lot I want to do with my life so I have taken it upon myself to dance in the States and do some drama training on the side. I will be off to London after that to get into TV, film and theatre make-up artistry so I can improve my skills and bring in more for my current business.” Of course, she adds, she will also check out a few clubs there too. When Zee returns she hopes to invest in a beauty shop franchise.

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