Let me introduce the East London Strippers Collective(ELSC), that’s if you haven’t already heard of us, and tell you about our next wildly ambitious but amazing project. We have been together for about a year and a half, putting on talks and parties and generally self-organising. We are part event production team and part political organisation, with a social media following and press interest.
What are we doing? As we are all creative types, we are putting on an exhibition called the Art of Stripping, at the Red Gallery in Shoreditch, from 22nd October to Halloween. We are holding this event to celebrate the art that has been generated by the East London strip scene. The costume, the dance and the visual arts that have been created by dancers from their experiences. There will be photography, film, installations, costume and performances along with events, workshops and a closing party. Artists will include:
Millie Robson, a dancer who decided to specialise in pole dance photography and has built a flourishing business, travelling all over the world. She also won her category at this year’s Pole Theatre.
Vera Rodriguez, a photographer and sex worker activist who is also curating the event.She will be premiering her Performers photography project, bringing it to life with a cabaret on the opening night.
Why are we doing this? For several reasons; we are visual artists, who also happen to be strippers, and want to show our art, we are creative performers who want a platform to do our thing and we wish to challenge stigma. The striptease industry that we all know and love is unfortunately in a sorry state now. This is for several reasons including recession and a very badly written and punitive law that came about in 2009. This was designed to wreck the industry and is doing exactly that, but was drawn up with no thought given to those working as dancers, our rights and working conditions were ignored. Ultimately we’d like to see this law reviewed however the first thing we have to do is combat the negative narrative around us, a tough call I’m sure you’ll agree! But what better way to do it than to run our own event celebrating our art and performance?
People talk about things being ’empowering’ and the ELSC is exactly that. We have all stepped up to the mark as producers, filmmakers, marketers, photographers, costume designers and all round businesswomen.
What can you do to help? In short, donate to our Indiegogo fund and then share it far and wide. We have 1780 plus Facebook followers and if they put a pound in the jug we’d be laughing however they don’t all get to see our posts. We are on the Facebook naughty step after having been reported for side-boob and banned twice therefore we are not allowed to advertise as we have been classified as ‘adult’. In reality our photos and shows are no more risqué than burlesque but misinformation and prejudice abounds.
You may have just read this with interest, you may click on the links (I hope you do, click away!) but whatever you do don’t just ‘like’. If you think this is a good idea contribute some money, we have a pound in the jug option if you are skint or a £1000 option if you are a fancy pants high roller, and share all over to help us beat our advertising ban.
See below the video for text that inspired the making of this film.
He wrote to me;
“Why am I writing to you? Beauty, nakedness, curiosity. Or a thousand other reasons. I don’t know, really. That I’m selfish is a big part of it. And also that desire makes me – not just me, I think it goes for everyone – feel more alive.”
I nicknamed this customer Nosferatu. He was tall, skinny, lanky and dressed in a funereal way, but more than that, he had an intense, preternatural stare. One of those people that looks at you and you feel like they are reading your mind, looking straight into your soul and you cannot hide from them. A laser beam stare. You can ‘feel’ their gaze even with your back turned. It was part disturbing, part flattering, he was highly intelligent and could see through all the smoke and mirrors of the role you play as a dancer.
“I think we’ve evolved to treasure female beauty because it’s so potent and also so transient. Cultures all over the world have this metaphor of flowering or blooming. Men’s physical capacity for action has the same characteristics. It’s compelling, and it runs out. Male strength and female beauty in their prime are existential, I’d say, if I were pretentious, which I am. They symbolise what it is to be alive in a way that childhood and old age don’t. We’re drawn to them when we see them in others. That’s my excuse, anyway.”
‘I hope you don’t mind me coming in and talking to you? It’s just there’s no one else I can talk to like this?’ he said to me one quiet, mid week shift. He’d been my customer for a few months by now and was a clever and interesting man but not happy at all. ‘Can I have your email address? Can I write to you, I used to write for a living.’
“I’m writing to you because you’re very pretty and it’s good for my ego. Because, you’re clever and funny. Because women’s beauty is a precious thing that, as a man, you feel absorbed in and to some extent entitled to when you’re in your twenties and thirties. Then in middle age it ebbs away from you. Some men cope with it by using emotional maturity or some other magic. I don’t know where they get it from. I’m one of those men who really, really misses it.”
And so he began sending me the most well written and intriguing emails to my dancer address. He had previously worked as a screenwriter for BBC, ITV and HBO. He was thoughtful, articulate and prolific and would come to see me dance regularly, both for the erotic visual thrill and warmth that was missing in his life, but also reaching out to connect on a intellectual level, finding us girls who dance fascinating.
We spoke at length, it’s always nice to have an intelligent customer, you are actually interested in what they say, as opposed to fake giggles and feigned interest. I told him about the campaigns we’d done to defend striptease and it conjured the image of Marianne, like it had done with us. She seems to be our mascot in many minds.
“You remind me of that famous painting from the French Revolution. The woman Marianne leading the mob to righteous slaughter, Delacroix I think. It wasn’t just the public sexuality. There’s something about the way you hold your head, the inquisitive-but-knowing gleam in your eyes. You scared the shit out of me. The moment I saw you I wanted to spend the rest of the night talking to you. Maybe it was the lighting. Maybe it was the supernatural powers that come with being a dancer. (Maybe it’s A Tale Of Two Cities being on the radio that’s made me think of that painting.) You looked bonkers and the only sane person in the room, all at the same time. That sounds bad, probably. But it felt like charisma.”
After working as a writer for a few years, he followed the rules. He got married, had kids and then retrained, getting a sensible yet unfulfilling job in IT. He was a bit of a polymath, with a masters degree in pure maths from Cambridge but a talent and track record for writing aided by a very clever mind. Perfectly articulating the thoughts of the middle aged lonely customers who come to strip clubs on their own. His emails were like the echoes of the lonely, mixed in with guilt and lust.
“Every now and then I get a flashback to the first time I saw you, at Charlie’s bar. You’re looking sideways and I can’t tell if you’re going to throttle me or just wait for an accomplice to stab me in the kidneys. I’d take either as long as you were paying me attention.”
I started replying to his emails, they were interesting, and this provoked a slew of prose and poetry, musings and theories, that I have archived, noting that they clock up to over 50,000 words. That’s how much he needed to talk. He felt his life was in a feedback loop that he would never be able to climb out of. This air of despair and reluctant acceptance of his fate added to his peculiar and intense ways.
“Fifty years after the Salem Witch Trials and halfway round the world, a Wittenberg professor called Georg Bose was making a name for himself with public experiments. I heard about him on the radio this week. He’d stand a beautiful woman on a cake of resin and hook her up to an electrostatic generator, then invite men in the audience to kiss her. When they did, a spark would fly from her lips. Or he’d gradually charge her up in a darkened room. The air around her would ionize and glow with a saintly blue light. He’d deck her out in a pointed tin hat and the light would focus to a halo. Bose embellished the stunts with wacky poems and crackpot theories. The shock of the spark was male, the gentle luminosity female.
Funny how stuck we all are on the Madonna/whore thing. Here it is again as halo/spark. In The Crucible it’s wife/witch or something, I can’t remember. While men are just men. There’s something pretentious I could say about this twoness of women and oneness of men and how it affects you and me but I don’t know what it is so I’ll shut up.
We all have to make choices in our life and by doing so you may need to sacrifice a part of you. He had the family, the nice home, a wife and three kids but at a cost to himself. However he loved his kids and would never leave them, but the strip pub was the place he could come to reconnect with that part of himself he thought he’d lost. In the end his foray into our demi-world, answered his questions and saved his marriage. He stopped coming in.
“For me, the most interesting aspect of the whole debate is this: there are women who like to undress in front of men they don’t know. How should these women be regarded by the rest of society? How are they different from women who write for a living, or men who sing? All these people are drawing attention to a part of themselves that they love, and working hard to make the best display they can.
Should authors be stigmatized for selling their psychological truth on the open market? Isn’t what good writers are offering every bit as intimate as a bare bum? Men might read Jeanette Winterson and then go home and expect their wives to bare their souls too. Why is soul stripping respectable and body stripping not? I’ve watched you on stage and I’ve read your emails. When you dance you might not have any clothes on, but when you write you’re truly naked. It’s always baffled me that fear and hate, loneliness and longing, greed and love are seen as less shocking than boobs and pubes.”
A less interesting question but one you might want to have a pop at is if beauty is commodified, where does that leave the ugly people? Speaking on their behalf, I think I can say it leaves us where we’ve always been: reliant on our wits. Not great for the stupid ugly people, but no one suggests shutting down the universities to level that playing field, do they? And the commodification is an effect, not a cause.”
Sex sells because people really, really want it already. I don’t think ugly people mind beautiful ones, anyway. They’re nice to look at, after all. We just wish there was one in the mirror.
All this rich conversation has not gone to waste. Another dancer and I are in the process of filming the world of strip pubs and one day at someone’s house, the subject pulled out a box of letters customers had written to her over the years. She’d kept hers like I’d kept mine.
We put the message out ‘has anyone got any letters from customers?’ Many came back with saved letters, poems, cards and emails. The need to connect, the cry of please listen to me.
Stripper and activist Edie Lamort muses on the devastating effects of gentrification on the strip pub scene she knows and loves.
“I feel like an endangered species that is becoming extinct because my natural habitat is being destroyed.” – Solitaire
Protect The Wildlife
As the the Tsunami of gentrification crashes through my city, laying waste to communities and culture, leaving it like driftwood in its wake, I wonder how long my industry will survive. My industry is the traditional strip pub. Not the glossy US style corporate club but the family owned strip pub with jug collections and stage shows. The place where customers relax at the bar without being pestered for private dances and where we are individual showgirls not identikit sexbots. But the whole pub industry is in freefall no matter what kind of entertainment they have. Pubs up and down the land stand ruined and concealed in hoardings as landlords go out of business and breweries go into administration. The Peel in South London closed down in April because the brewery, Punch Taverns, is in so much debt that it needs to sell off the land to property developers. It was such a quirky place inside with a wonderful old vaudeville-esq stage, so that the dancers would call it Twin Peaks. It was also a live venue that hosted band nights promoted by indie record labels. Many a famous name in music has played there. When it closed the landlord said to me, ‘They just want to destroy all alternative culture.”
On Monday 21st July the bulldozers moved in to raze it to the ground. It will now be turned into ‘luxury’ flats, the biggest con of our age.
So as the time comes for me to hang up my G-String, here are the things I will desperately miss about being a Striptease Artiste!
Well of course! This makes life so much fun; it is the lure and the second main thing that holds you to the job. You too can eradicate the crushing misery of poverty in a few easy shifts! Doors will open and opportunities will appear for you. Over the past few years I have had my feet in both worlds; ‘normal’ job and dancing and all I can say is ‘Thank God for dancing!’ The times it has covered the shortfall that ‘normal’ job wages haven’t are too numerous to count. I don’t claim in work benefits, instead I pole dance, but the need is the same. At least I can’t be called a scrounger, only a slut.
I recent asked a group of fellow strippers, “What’s the most important part of the job? The money or the performance?” The general consensus was that both are of equal importance and it was impossible to rank. We are creative, extrovert people who wither and die in office admin jobs. We like to display and play with the audience, to get the adulation and to flirt. You can be witty, you can be silly then you can be sultry and moody. Essentially you can express yourself when you are improvising a dance on stage. So many offices I’ve stepped into are like morgues, with browbeaten people repressed and under manners, radiating a low-level emission of desperation. I look at the guys and think, ‘Yup, you’ll be in Browns soon!’
In the traditional pubs we choose our music, our costume and choreograph our individual shows, therefore we get creative satisfaction. Copying someone’s show or music is frowned upon: think for yourself! Girls train on the pole at home and in dance schools to put on a great stage show. Creativity and performance are incredibly satisfying. Especially live performance as you have the immediate response of the audience. A few dazzling minutes on stage give you a confidence and pizzazz, a vitality and a certain élan.
As it is essentially a part time job for full time wages it allowed the creative types space to do other things. Shoreditch at its peak was a creative hub and dancers contributed to this. I did music, others ran dance troupes, set up club nights, made art, sculptures and designed clothes. We were part of a scene that was rich in ideas and creativity and that spawned many a mainstream fad.
When you are earning money and performing to an adoring crowd you feel like a star. Things are not as good as they were in the Golden Age of Striptease – the 90s and the 00s – but up until the financial crash it had all the essential components of glamour, baby!
The sexual confidence, the allure, the looks, the self-possession and individuality. It was an environment that bred confidence and sass and allowed it to flourish. Dancers had the clothes, the cars, the luxury foreign travel and went to all the fashionable places because money makes that happen. They are also independent free spirits, the artists, the performers, the risk takers and life’s go-getters. Why sit at a desk job when you can dance and get all those things you always wanted? Dancers have attitude, wit and sass and they use it!
Freedom and Independence
I went on holiday to Thailand and met a group of friendly East Coast Americans. We kept in touch and one rainy Tuesday I spoke to one who said ‘Why don’t you come over for the weekend? We’re having party and you can stay here if you want.’ So I phoned Browns to cancel my week’s bookings. It was fine, there are plenty of girls who want to earn money and my shifts would easily be covered. I would just work more the next week and recover the money. Then I got out my credit card and booked a flight to NYC. By that evening I was in the US and at the party. This sense of freedom and independence is such a wonderful experience. You feel totally in control of your own life when you can choose your hours and generate your own financial security. Money in itself won’t make you happy but the opportunity and the freedom it brings will certainly help.
“Office work has ruined my life”, said an overweight and despondent looking customer to me, a few years ago. I didn’t understand what he meant until I started tentatively venturing into that landscape. When you are a dancer your job is a high paid workout. The strength and tone and the general feeling of health you get from being physical goes unnoticed, until you stop! Sitting for hours in an overly air-conditioned, uncomfortable environment with fluorescent lights overhead is bad for your health. Within a few months of working in an office I began to feel my strength ebbing away and to learn that there was such a thing as back fat. Your life becomes a fight against the sedentary weakening of your body, as feeder-like colleagues bring in biscuits and cakes, relentlessly! We are not designed to be so static and feeling your body in its peak of health, as it is supposed to be, is joyful.
Walking on the Wild Side
If you are a bit kooky see it as a blessing; why on earth would you want to be normal and boring? It’s not an enriching place to be hence people are drawn to the deviant and the risqué. The inhabitants of the traditional strip pub are the weird and wonderful multitudes of humanity and I mean that for everyone. The customers of course display most of these attributes but the owners, the bar staff, the DJs, the bouncers and the dancers are permitted to be themselves and to be self expressed. I delight in meeting the many varied and whacky people of the world.
From the OCD punters and the drunken morons, to the intensely clever and interesting guys, you will see all sides of humanity. We’ve had gay guys and older gentlemen with a penchant for cross-dressing, come out to us because they feel like it’s an environment they can be free in.
“Love them whores they never judge you, well what can you say when you’re a whore?” – Perry Farrell
Not that we are whores. I know how tetchy people get about language.
The dancers can be divided into ‘creative’ and ‘businesswomen’, with one or two nutters, and everyone becomes larger than life. You will also be at the forefront or each new wave of immigration so will meet people from all over the world, speaking many different languages. About 70% of my friends are immigrants because of this job. There is a sense of camaraderie that develops because we are demonized by society at large so we need to have each other’s backs. This has given me some of the best friends I’ve ever known. I have met the most outrageous characters, the most eccentric, the funniest, the smartest, the wittiest and the most independent, and thank God for that!
If you like music, art, fashion, performance and dance you will mourn the loss of the London subcultures, including dancing, because these are the places that spawn creativity. They are fragile ecosystems of low rent and liberal attitudes that allow the evolution of the ‘next big thing’: the next music trend, the next art movement, the next fashion and the next development in dance. They are nurseries of ideas and trends that feed into the mainstream and keep it alive and interesting. Without this fragile reef, the mainstream will become stale and drab, with nothing to feed it. As the corporate vandals smash through neighbourhoods I wonder how long it will take us to recover. Occasionally things will breakthrough and you will see a great band, hear a great DJ or see someone looking amazing. The urge will always be there and will ultimately triumph but right now things are looking drab.
Just remember, when you destroy the cultural ecosystem, it’s not just the animals that suffer.
Stripper Edie Lamort writes about snobbish and prudish attacks on strip clubs made in the name of feminism.
This Friday 28th February, Labour MP Diana Johnson, will be reading her proposals for a new bill on Sex Entertainment Venues (SEVs) for the second time in the House of Commons. She is the MP for Kingston-Upon-Hull and the striptease venues near her are Honey Trap and Purple Door. Her bill aims to increase regulations of Sexual Encounter Venues (SEVs) despite these being very heavily regulated anyway. Currently a council can consult with the public on SEVs and ask if it wishes to see a nil policy introduced. Effectively banning striptease in that particular borough. However this is not mandatory and this new legislation seeks to make it mandatory for all councils to go through this procedure, whether they believe it relevant or not.
Along with being an admirer of extremist lobby group Object she states: “As well as the specific concerns about the links between the sex entertainment industry and coercion and human trafficking, there is a widespread view that lap-dancing clubs can contribute in a negative way to the general character of an area and detract from the residents’ quality of life, especially if the clubs are located in residential areas or near schools.”
This is the usual line given and is not supported by any evidence. In terms of human trafficking; the very idea of allowing legal licensed venues is to prevent such things. You have to show your passport to the club to prove that you can legitimately work in the UK therefore making it impossible for undocumented or trafficked persons to get a job. Copies of passports must be held by the club as they can be checked by the local council at any time.
Tied up in the ‘concerns’ about coercion is the patronising attitude that good girls couldn’t possibly choose such a job and those who do must be damaged, drug addicts and therefore coerced.
In terms of them contributing negatively to the character of the area one thing I hear frequently, when attending debates on the subject, is the phrase ‘I had no idea these places existed in my borough, but they must be banned.’ So if they had no idea they existed then they weren’t causing that much trouble in the first place. There have also been very strict regulations on the kind of signage and advertising clubs can do for many years now. No club is allowed to display obscene or overt advertising or flyer passers by.
Finally clubs are not usually open during school hours and children do not attend school in the nighttime. But hey, why let the facts get in the way of a good moral panic?
She also uses quotes from three concerned local residents who do not like striptease venues. They say they fear the customers of such clubs and feel vulnerable. As much as their fears are real to them we must ask if they are founded. Is this fear real or imagined?
The three residents quoted by Diana Johnson may not like the dancers and dislike the customers. They may find us all slutty and trashy for dancing naked but I find their snobbery distasteful. They are welcome to their opinion but I and many others are also entitled to our freedom. The argument of finding customers of strip pubs rowdy and unpleasant could also be used against football supporters, clubbers or rock fans going to a gig.
A few weeks ago, in the club I work in, we had a group of girls in celebrating a birthday. They were great fun, respectful to all and are most welcome to come again. These women were not afraid of dancers or customers. Not all women are quaking with fear because of striptease.
The Stripping the Illusion blog recently put in a freedom of information request to the Kingston-Upon-Hull City Council to see if they too were of the same mind as the three upset residents.
“Freedom of Information Act 2000 – Information Request – 000304/14
With regard to your Freedom of Information request received on 7 February 2014, please find our response below.
‘I am making an enquiry under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, and I would grateful if you would provide me the following information:-
• Details of premises within the city currently licenced for striptease (either under the Police and Crime Act 2009, or the Licensing Act 2003);
• Details of any premises which were licenced for striptease (under the Licensing Act 2003) over the last ten years, i.e. from February 2004;
• Records of any official complaints made against the above premises, either to Kingston-upon-Hull City Council or Humberside Police.’
The only two premises that have been licensed for striptease are Fantasy Bar (now the Honey Trap) and Purple Door. There have been no official complaints made against either of these premises.
We hope that you will be satisfied with our response and should you require any further information then please do not hesitate to contact us.”
It is very easy to criticise and condemn something you don’t understand but the main question here is do we want to live in the prison of other people’s fears? Fears that are not your own but simply those of a tiny yet vocal minority. Whilst their fear is of significance to them we cannot let them dictate to the more courageous majority and have the richness of our lives censored or limited.
This does not only affect dancing venues. If we continue to put the opinions of the local busybody, someone with a grudge or perhaps the interests of a property developer over and above the enjoyment of the rest of society we will all be poorer. This nimbyism doesn’t stop at strip clubs. More and more the objections of a tiny minority of residents are causing venues and arts projects to close.
The Wapping Project in East London is closing due to the complaints of three awkward residents. It will now be turned into ‘luxury’ flats. The George Tavern music venue in Stepney is threatened due to a development of ‘luxury’ flats. The Coliseum is closing, all the clubs by London Bridge have been closed and the Raymond Revue Bar was closed in the disgraceful Soho land grab just before Christmas.
This all amounts to nothing more than a conservative attack on communities and the arts. Hundreds of pubs and venues are closing up and down the country every week. Mostly to make way for ‘luxury’ flats that are bought off plan by foreign investors. Whole areas are being cleansed and sold, not just Soho, but also the Elephant and Castle redevelopment.
Do we wish to live in society full of unaffordable ‘luxury’ flats, in a cultural wasteland, or do we want to keep music, dance (including pole dance) and the arts as part of our lives? A friend of mine who has been a successful club promoter for over two decades now, gave a wry smile recently and said, ‘I don’t know why they are planning a 24 tube service in 2015. At this rate there will be no more clubs in central London to go to.’
Not only is this bill part of ‘the feminism that cried wolf’ syndrome, taking offence to everything, but it’s also the feminism that is the handmaid of property developers.
Another question this raises for me is why are ‘feminists’ such cowards and why do they seek to blame others all the time for their issues? I know the world is not perfect but my formative years were during the 90s where everyone went a bit hippy. People went travelling and ‘found themselves’, people did Yoga, meditation and therapies of all kinds. Essentially people took responsibility for themselves. They therapied themselves silly, sometimes with charlatan gurus admittedly, but the over all philosophy of the time was, ‘if you have personal issues you can deal with them, gain power over them and be happier.’ A flotation tank and some crystals do not solve all problems but this was an overall healthier mentality than today’s finger pointing.
Now people do not look to themselves to see why they are afraid or if their fears have any foundation, they instead they accuse the other. They point the finger and say ‘it must be banned’. Whether the narrative is ‘porn makes me feel bad’, ‘men who’ve looked at other women may gaze lustfully at me’ or even ‘she’s prettier than me, I feel bad, it’s her fault’. They need to ask themselves questions first before blaming the other. It’s not always someone else’s fault and it’s very important we get the balance right.
Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates recently attacked Helen Grant MP when she dared to suggest girls who don’t like traditional sports should try other types. A reasonable suggestion in my opinion and as someone who enjoys ‘feminine’ dance as well as ‘masculine’ British Military Fitness I appreciate the differences and the benefits of varied forms of exercise. Apparently teenagers can be awkward and say they don’t want to mess their hair. Err ….. well of course and hasn’t this always been the case? I don’t think difficult teenagers are a modern phenomena. This is just another way that people abdicate personal responsibility by pointing the finger at external factors.
Are today’s young women really so feeble minded? I know my nieces aren’t. I’m sure our athletes or cheerleaders aren’t, I know my pole dancing friends aren’t. This modern strand of feminism really is in danger of being the feminism that cried wolf and simply makes a mockery out of a once honorable movement. Laura Bates and Everyday Sexism being a good example of this. Some of the stories published on the website are of actual sexism and some even of criminal acts, these are valid complaints. However there are a great deal that are simply small-minded whining and these will only serve to damage the movement.
Whether it be your local pole dance venue, your local music venue or arts project; these should be saved and not closed down on the whims and complaints of a tiny handful of residents. This bill should set a threshold, a minimum number of complaints, before a successful business can be closed. These complaints should also be backed up by police evidence. Thus preventing the local busybody from ruining everyone else’s fun.