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Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 10.02.08

 

Real! Live! Nude! ... Students?

Women dance their way through school

By Camilla Mortensen

It’s Monday morning, and it’s a school day for Oregon’s college students, but Ziona isn’t in class right now. She’s hanging upside down, clinging to a brass-colored pole with her thighs as her hair sweeps the dimly lit stage and dance music thumps in the background.

Ziona
The women of Dancers a la Carte

Ziona dances at Phil’s Clubhouse in Springfield and The Nile in Eugene. Call her an exotic dancer, call her an erotic dancer, call her a stripper. Ziona, like many other dancers who work in Lane County’s “gentleman’s clubs,” calls herself a student and a future businesswoman. She’s working to pay off the student loans she racked up while getting her associate’s degree at LCC, and she’s saving up to go back to school to finish her bachelor of arts degree. “I want to start my own business,” she says, “especially in this economy.”

Stereotypes about gentlemen’s clubs and the women who dance at them abound in Eugene/Springfield and across the country. Sleazy, demeaning and exploitative are just a few of the adjectives that get tossed at places like the Silver Dollar Club and The Brickhouse. But despite the bad rap, some of the dancers say that this is a job that allows them to work towards a better life. 

Phil Johnson (owner of the eponymously named “Phil’s Clubhouse”) says of the women who dance at his club, “This is a stepping stone. It’s a means to an end. Dancers are like professional athletes — there’s a window, and after that you need to use your brains not your feet.”

Ziona, tall and slim with long brown hair, says her skills dancing and swinging on the “stripper pole” come from her background doing gymnastics as a kid and dancing her whole life, even performing at the Hult Center. The clientele she deals with at Phil’s Clubhouse during the daytime hours are “really professional people,” she says. “Nights are fun, a real free-for-all” because “all kinds of different people show up.”

Ziona is not the only dancer to think about starting a business after she finishes school and is done with dancing. Lily “Stormy” Howard is already realizing that dream. With the help of her sister, a seamstress, and other local dancers, she’s opened Dancers a la Carte on Main Street in Springfield. It’s a store that caters to dancers of all types, anything from tap to salsa. Howard, herself a dancer, used her earnings to pay for training to become a mechanic as well as a licensed massage therapist before turning her hand to retail.

Howard does caution women who are thinking about getting started as dancers at the so-called “nudie bars” in town. It’s not for everyone. She says, “The glitter’s all wonderful for the girls, but the glitter doesn’t stay if you don’t stay focused. Make smart choices and realize what the consequences of those choices will be.”

The women are independent contractors at each club. Club owner Phil Johnson says he makes allowances for the schedules of the students, giving them time off when they have a lot of homework or exams. Some of the dancers say that they have time to study between dance sets and enjoy the flexibility a non-9-to-5 schedule gives them.

But is it exploitative? “I’m proud of my body and what I do. It’s empowering,” says Fawn, a single mom majoring in microbusiness management at LCC. “For centuries, a woman’s body has been her biggest asset. It’s an equal exchange. They’re there for attention; we’re there to make money and we give them attention.”

Fawn says that when she finishes her degree she’d like to open a coffee bean roaster and coffee shop and that she’d call it “Bean Babe.” Dancing pays to raise her child and work towards her beanery dream, she says. “I’d like to allow myself an opportunity in this socioeconomic climate, and you can only go so far with minimum wage.”

 

 

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