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Eugene Weekly : News : 10.23.08




Stripping by the Numbers

Students take it off to afford college

by Camilla Mortensen

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part story on women who pay for college by dancing in nightclubs. See our first story Oct. 2. 

Ziona dances at Phil’s Clubhouse

It’s dark, and the music blares. A woman wearing see-through plastic high-heeled shoes and not a whole lot more seems deep in conversation with the man beside her, their faces lost in the dim light. Another woman dances and smiles at herself in the mirrors behind the stage, looking past the men ogling her as she sheds her clothes.

It’s a Thursday night at one of Eugene’s strip clubs, and some of these women, when they aren’t dancing or chatting up potential tippers, are cracking the books between sets.

Sure, the economy is bad, but what would drive a college woman to spend her nights performing nude for strange men?

As it turns out, a lot of it is a numbers game.

Pandora, whose wide-set eyes and curly brown hair make her look very young, says she started dancing only a month ago to pay tuition at the UO. She wants to study horticulture. She says, “I just want to make the world a better place.” (Like many strippers, doesn’t use her real name.)

She says that when she started, “I thought, this is all right. This will work. It will help me pay for classes.”

Classes at the UO aren’t cheap. According the UO’s online “tuition and fees estimator,” a student taking the minimum credits required to be full time pays about $2,000 a quarter in tuition and fees. That number doesn’t take into account the textbooks for a required course such as English composition that can cost $100. The books for math and science courses can easily cost two or three times that amount. 

So with $6,000 a year in tuition, about $1,200 a year in books, and figure on about $3,000 for cheap rent in a nine month academic year, it costs a UO student about $10,000 a year to go to school. LCC students fare slightly better — the $976 tuition is about half what students at UO pay. But they have to pay rent and buy books as well, and some have to support families.

These numbers don’t even include basics such as food, utilities or clothing, and $1,000 computers have become almost mandatory in higher education. These items quickly add another couple thousand dollars to the academic year’s total.

With her daylight hours taken up by her classes, a full-time student doesn’t usually have time for a 40-hour-a-week job. A quick glance at the jobs with the flexible hours a student needs offered on Craigslist and in the R-G yields positions such as retail clerk, barista and everyone’s favorite during election season, signature collector. These jobs start at around $8 an hour ($8.40 when Oregon’s minimum wage goes up in January).

Even if a full-time student were able to work at a full-time job, and most can’t do that and still pass courses, a salary at that wage barely clears tuition and rent and doesn’t allow for food, heat or a phone.

Exotic dancers in Eugene and Springfield say that they can make $250 a night, even after they pay a $15 to $30 “stage fee” to the club for letting them dance, and can pull in $500 on a good night. The net amount drops a little because many clubs also require the dancers to “tip out” and give a portion of what they earned to bouncers and other employees. The dancers don’t make a salary; their income is purely from tips.

Dancers like Ziona, a pole dancer and LCC student who works at more than one club, can work five nights and figure on pulling in $1,000 in a week — a little less than what a minimum wage job pays in a month. The strip club industry is estimated to generate $5 billion a year in the U.S. That money provides the lure for the dancers. Many of the women EW spoke to had gone on to other careers but returned to dancing because they made better money.

According to Lily Howard, dancers are independent contractors. She hopes to get some dancers more work hiring them out from her dance supply store, Dancers a la Carte. She says she can send them out on jobs ranging from bachelor parties to house cleaning while dressed as sexy French maids. She, too, dances sometimes to help pay for her fledgling business.

As independent contractors, the women file 1099 tax forms like any other self-employed workers. They can claim work related expenses, like those see-through shoes, on their taxes.

But the downside to being an independent contractor is that the dancers get no benefits: no unemployment and no health insurance. If a woman is too sick to dance, she doesn’t make any money. That’s one of the reasons the Mad Diva, who dances and also works with Howard at Dancers a la Carte, says dancers have to take care of each other, “Every one of us girls — we have to make sure our community has people who care about them.”