Earlier this week, I learned that New York City exotic dancers were in the process of organizing a strike. They’re raising awareness and protesting against issues of colorism in the strip club and the preferential treatment bartenders, who are almost always lighter complected women, receive. I had a chance to speak to two dancers, Panama and Dakota Matrix about their experiences as Black dancers in the club and what they want to change.
My conversation began with Panama. (With the exception of the ladies' names, my words are in bold.)
No one can say that we’re wrong or that this doesn’t happen. No one can say that but everybody wants to shut us up, because they know we’re right. Just because it affects their money too now, they’re like ‘Nah, y’all gotta shut up.’ It’s crazy. We even have girls who we work with coming at us. Yesterday, somebody threatened me.
Yes! It’s really getting that bad. It’s like y’all are more angry than we are and we’re just standing up for something that’s right. And a lot of people are coming at me because I’m not dark skinned and because I haven’t worked in New York in so many months. People are like, ‘Why are you even saying something if you don’t even work here?’
Even girls who I know have complained, I’ve seen them post videos. I’ve seen them talk about it. They’re turning around like, ‘Oh, no.‘Y’all need to leave this alone.’ I have so many more people supporting me and my friends, who tell us to keep doing what we’re doing because they’re going to hear us and they’re going to have to change this.
I don’t even care what these people [our detractors] are saying to us. I really don’t care. The hate that’s coming to us--I consider it like a confused love.
I can’t remember who said it but there’s this theory that women perform for the approval of men. So, even if you’ve complained about something that you have seen, witnessed and have a problem with; if men don’t want you to complain or talk about it, you switch up just to appease them.
That is what’s happening. The guys that are saying something or voicing their opinions, the way they’re even talking about us: like, ‘those bitches…’ ‘Those bitches aren’t going to do this. They’re not going to do that.’ They don’t know our plans are. We wouldn’t just be doing this if we didn’t know what we were doing! We’re smart girls too.
That’s what they’re even more upset at, is that they’re dealing with smart girls who actually know how we can pull this down.
I don’t have to work in these clubs if I don’t want to. I’d already made up my mind that I didn’t want to and I have other reasons besides the way the club is why I don’t want to do that. I have a child.
But the bartenders and dancers can work together. Every time I’m ever sitting at the bar with a customer, I ring off the register for the bartender. I’m getting him drinks, getting her drinks. I always offer, if I’m sitting with a customer if I know he’s spending money. I know he’s buying drinks. I always ask her, whoever she is, even if I don’t like her for something I’ve seen her do before or we had a falling out, I still do that. Why? Because I’m working in this club and I’m trying to make money and make the club money because I like the establishment. But I’m going places where I don’t even like working there. It’s getting ridiculous. And I can work anywhere. I’m hired in like every club. Some clubs I can’t go back to, because of things like this.
So let’s start at the beginning. What made you decide to become a dancer, what made you feel like this was a good option for you at the time?
I was 19 or 20. I was working as a home health aide. I had my own apartment. I had a two-year-old and my job just wasn’t cutting it. It was not paying my bills. It just wasn’t doing it. I was talking to a guy at the time who knew some girls who were dancers and he was like, ‘You’re attractive and you can dance.’ So, before I even knew what a dancer was, I was a dancer. African, modern, jazz, choreography, everything. I’m a dancer. So he introduced me to these girls and I went to the club with them. My first night, I got really drunk. I didn’t make any money. I made $75, I think. Then the next night, I went back and I made $300-$400. From there, $300 and $400 turned into $700 and $800 and then $1200 or $1300 and I was like ‘Oh my God I love this.’
Then at one point, it got to where I was like, ‘I’m too tired from drinking all night and dancing and making money…’ So I had slowed down on my day job. Then I stopped my day job. When I stopped my day job, I started to travel. I got a bigger place. I went back to work a few times, on and off just because it’s always good to have things, for the resume when you do want to work.
Over the past year, I wasn’t on the scene as much and then I just stopped because I didn’t like how the clubs are run.
These clubs are acting like they're making money but they’re not even open seven days a week. They call the dancers, they have to make flyers and offer lower house fees than the other clubs. They have to bring dancers in now because they don’t want to come. They never had to do that. Dancers used to want to be house girls and just stay at one club, not bouncing around. I never used to bounce around. I hated that. How am I going to meet steady customers and build my clientele if I’m always jumping around from club to club?
When would you say you started to notice a shift and more emphasis being placed on the bartenders?
I would say bar hopping started to happen about five years ago. That was the tip-off because we saw it a little bit but it wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t in all the clubs. It kind of spread like a disease. The dancers were still coming because they were still making money but then it started to get weird. You started to see all of one kind of girl in one club on one night and then the other kind of the girl on the other night. Then, you’re being told on one night or the other that you can’t work. That chased out a lot of regular customers.
Then they started building clubs that didn’t cater to the customers, no floor seats, the bar was around the stage. A lot of people that I met in the club, who love to go to the club and have a good time. They don’t want to come anymore, they chased them out.
So, is it more money for them?
Yeah. One of the promoters that I spoke to this morning said, they had to figure out a way to make the bartenders make more money. And he said, ‘This might sound wrong or messed but in order for them to make more money, y’all had to make less.’ Because they [the bartenders] were complaining. So when all of the dancers were in the back, they would put the bartenders on stage. It started from that to now they’re behind the bar dancing, completely dressed like us. They have rhinestones in their outfits, chains, and everything. You really cannot tell us apart.
And the funny thing is, people are like, ‘The bartenders do themselves up.’ The dancers do too they’re just overlooked. Every time I hear it. The more I hear ‘The bartenders look better.’ But if you think about it, the only people that are bartenders are Spanish women.
That to me was interesting. Can you speak to the colorism issue and what it’s like being a Black girl or a darker skinned woman in the club?
To answer the question of how it feels to be a dark-skinned girl, I can actually get one on the phone for you because I honestly, can tell you I will never know how they feel. I just see what’s going on. And even though I’m not dark skinned, I still feel it. I’ve had people tell me ‘I don’t talk to Black girls.’ And they’ve been blacker than the sky at night. And it’s like, ‘Ok, how did that happen?’
One of the saddest things about Black people as a whole--and it’s really sad. It makes me emotional-- a lot of Black people are so eager to please people lighter than them or that look different, or people that they feel have more control. ? No, it’s there. Face it. Face that shit.
A lot of the promoters won’t even hire Black girls, or they won’t let them work on certain nights. I can quote one promoter who said, ‘The Black girls scare the customers away.’ That was said a few years ago. Somebody leaked his DMs. That’s the kind of stuff that we deal with.
It’s just like anything else that’s happening in the world right now. When you talk about racism or women’s rights, it has to be hushed up really quick. Because people do not like to hear the truth. And people hate what they don’t understand.
Like it’s easy for a White cop who’s hearing a story about another Black man that got killed to go, “Ahh shut the fuck up.’ He’ll never feel what that Black family felt. He’ll never know what that Black cop, who has to work with him, has to deal with. If he stands up and says something, he’s going to get fired, he’s going to get suspended. They’re going to have to move him out because they’re going to turn their backs on him. And that’s the same thing that we’re dealing with. It’s the same thing. It’s not any different than what Colin Kaepernick is doing.
At this point, Panama starts crying. I mean, sobbing to the point she can't speak clearly anymore.
I’m sorry I’ve been holding this in. I’m a very empathetic person and when people are being so hurt and being discriminated against, I think I just care about things too much. I’m not going to change that about myself. This is wrong and everybody knows it’s wrong. But everybody’s afraid of getting a bad rep. And it's been like that for decades. Anyone who is in the business of teasing men or in the sex business--because even if we’re not prostitutes we’re still in the sex business, dancing exotically and erotically for men, that’s a sexual pleasure. So it’s always taboo. And on top of all that, and on top of all the disrespect we always get from customers--we have to deal with people being disrespectful to us. The Black girls always get talked about.
So, the bartenders are not often trained dancers right?
No, they’re not even trained bartenders. They don’t even know how to make drinks. They just pour shots and sell bottles.
It started with promoters telling customers not to throw money on the dancers but to throw it on the bartenders. Then it was on the flyers. ‘Come see this girl, come see that girl’ and they weren’t ever talking about the dancers. The clubs hired promoters to bring customers into the clubs but the promoters also did whatever they wanted to do. So the promoters hired girls they were sleeping with. They were hiring girls who weren’t Black because that was their preference. And it’s fine to have a preference but you can’t be discriminating against other women because of your preference.
I can look at the same Black girl and I’ll see a beautiful woman from her skin tone, to her face, everything. And he’ll tell me she’s ugly to him just because he doesn’t like Black women. You cannot change someone’s perspective that’s fine. But in this country, since people don’t seem to understand what’s wrong, you’ve got to get real technical with them. ‘It’s against the law not to hire someone because they’re Black.’ Get technical on them, Title VII.
I’m really just in awe at how ignorant these people are.
Panama calls up another dancer, a woman darker than her to share her experiences and thoughts on the strike.
Dakota: Each shade of dark-skinned women goes through their own trials and tribulations because there are some things that me and Panama will never understand that darker women than us have gone through. And there are things that lighter women than us won’t understand. From my personal experience, it’s always been, ‘I don’t like Black girls but I like you.’ Or ‘You’re clean for a Black girl.’ More backhanded comments than anything. Somebody will say, ‘I can’t really stand certain things that Black people do but what do you care because you’re Spanish, right?’ Not understanding that I’m still a Black woman at the end of the day. When someone looks at my skin color, they see a Black person. They see a Black woman. Then it’s gotta be, ‘I know you’re mixed with something. You can’t just be Black.’
These are my experiences but there are women who are deeper in melanin and they experience horrific things--they bring tears to my eyes.
A lot of people are criticizing the effectiveness of the movement saying that because dancers are easily replaceable, the strike won’t go very far.
Panama: It’s true. As one dancer goes out, another one will come right in. It’s true. But does that mean that the club does not change because of that? So make all of the new girls go through all of that too? Like, it’s fine? No! It has to change for everyone. If dancers are going to keep coming in, the dancers have to be happy. The club is supposed to be about them. It’s a strip club. It’s not a strip club without the strippers. At the end of the day, if the dancers don’t go to work, the club is still going to make money, [Because dancers have to pay a house fee before they’re able to work.] but they’re not going to make significant amounts of money.
Dakota: Dancers can be replaced, no doubt. Because of social media becoming a stripper is more of a thing. But they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into when they enter the strip club. They don’t know what they’re going to have to endure. They see the spotlight of it from social media but they don’t see the behind the scenes stuff.
Panama: They think they’re going to come in and make all of this money. The little couple of hundred dollars they’re making, that’s not money. We’re used to making $1,200. They’re coming into the club, thinking this is what it’s supposed to be. They’re young. A lot of them are still living with their parents. You’re not making the money that’s going to be able--when you move out of your mom’s house, when you finish school when you’ve got your apartment, when you start your job, you’re going to realize how tight it is.
Dakota: I put myself through college through dancing. I put myself on a platform through dancing. And it was because we didn’t want society’s way of doing things. But you still got to make ends meet. So I have bills to pay. I pay over $1,800 in rent. And I been doing that shit since I was 16. People don’t understand that. I don’t pay for a room where I’m only paying $150 or I don’t live in my parents’ house. I don’t have any kids but I got three dogs. They need fucking kibble. They eat holistic. I honestly think they eat better than me. But imagine now, if I had a child or if I was responsible for another human being. God rest my mom’s soul because she just passed away. But I paid all of my mom’s bills. I’ve taken care of her and her situation. People have situations where a regular job may not cut it. This is why we’re here to support ourselves and society too. And now the main attraction of this business is not able to eat? What part of the game is that?
How are the owners and promoters responding to this strike?
Panama: Negatively. Well, actually the owners aren’t saying anything. And they know why they’re being quiet. Right now, they’re watching everybody up in arms. They’re watching the promoters talk shit. They’re watching us. And the reason why they’re being quiet is because they actually know what the end of this could be. They could incriminate themselves.
Dakota: They want to know how to protect themselves from what they think could happen with this strike coming. Because it is a big deal. If you don’t have any strippers, then you don’t have a strip club. That’s why it’s not called a Hookah Lounge. This is New York. We’re known for the club scene. This the city that don’t sleep. The strip club has become the new club in New York City. So, how dare you insist on trying to suppress the entertainment?
Panama: How dare you? This is our spot. We paid to work here.
Another thing I’m seeing is people saying why don’t you just evolve? Why: don't you just become bartenders then?
Panama: That’s actually what a lot of the bartenders are, they used to be dancers.
Dakota: And it’s crazy because going through the same things that we’re expressing. For them to turn around and now they think they’re actually better than the dancers. It’s insane because you were right here. And if you were going to continue to shake your ass behind the bar, you should have just stayed a dancer because none of the bartenders are serving real drinks anyway. They’re not certified, they don’t have a food handler’s permit. They don’t have the tip certificate. Their criteria is that they have to have a lot of followers. So they’re inexperienced. And now they get to wear the same outfits we wear. You can take a picture and you can’t tell a bartender from a stripper. Period.
Panama: And on top of that, we don’t want to do that. We like to dance. We like what we do.
Dakota: And clearly they like to dance too because they’re still fucking dancing.
Panama: What the club needs to do is tell them to buy some shoes off Jamaica Ave. They can spend that $60 for the house fee. They all have hundreds of outfits anyway. They can hire some real bartenders and then we can all get money together. Otherwise, they need to just do their job and let us do ours.
Dakota: And on top of that, they get to shake their ass behind the bar comfortably. Let me put on a pair of motherfucking sneakers and see how hard I twerk. I’ma hang from the chandelier, fix brownies and shake my ass at the same time, in a pair of Js.
And the crazy part is, most strippers know how to make real drinks anyway just by being in the strip club, watching real bartenders serve drinks. But nobody’s coming off the stage to make that guy the rum and coke because the girl doesn’t know what goes in it.
Panama: Imitating the costumer and bartender: 'Let me get a rum and coke.' 'What’s in that?'
Dakota: Girl, I asked a girl for a seltzer water on the rocks and she said, ‘What’s the rocks?’
Panama: I’ve heard that a couple of times. ‘What’s the rocks?’ Ice?
It’s just mind-boggling to see the hate and disrespect that comes along with us just voicing our opinions.
What were some of the demands that you guys discussed yesterday evening if you can share?
Panama: We opened it to the public. We wanted to hear what other people were saying. We wanted to see who we had supporting us. Basically, what we talked about is what you asked us. We wanted to know what girls experienced individually and what do they think could be different.
Dakota: It really was a healing process. It was a meeting where people could have their voice heard. Because, at the end of the day, there are a lot of women who are really hurt and angry behind the treatment. And taking the knowledge from that and listening to people’s testimonies and their stories is how we’re going to develop our future meetings and touch different topics.
Panama: It was needed because so many girls are being hushed up. A lot them don’t want to complain because if you go and complain, you can get fired. That’s why a lot of these other girls are telling us 'Leave it alone,' ‘You sound stupid.’ because they know the outcome of standing up in this industry. So right now, the courage that all these girls do have, I admire it because you have to be strong.
Dakota: You have to be strong to be in the entertainment business, in itself. This business will chew you up and spit you back out. This is a business where women can come and make their money and be able to change their circumstances and it’s being taking away. And make no mistake, we’re talking about this, we’re not broke girls. We’re not bitter girls. We’re just tired girls, tired of what’s going on. I feel like the media is portraying us like ‘Oh you guys don’t make money anymore.’ We can still go to the club and get a bag. That’s not an issue.
But it’s discrimination.
Panama: Right. And it’s not even just discrimination against color. It’s discrimination against dancers too. Just being a dancer alone, is like being a Black person in Kentucky. Being a dancer itself is something people are biased against as a whole.
Did you guys discuss what you were going to ask of promoters or club owners to help make the situation better?
Panama: When we asked each other what you feel needs to change, we came up with some things.
Dakota: I think that’s still in development. The way that we want to approach the promoters to have them work with us.
Panama: Even the things that we mentioned we might try, some of the people that were there, said no we’re not going to do that. But we’re still going to try anyway. So we’re a lot more focused than people think we are. ‘Oh, these birdbrain dancers. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re stupid.’ But we’re not going to succumb to what everyone else is saying or doing.
Dakota: We do understand that it’s a process. It will take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. We don’t want to rush into something unprepared either.
Panama: People have been reaching out to us, giving us information that we might need. It’s not that we don’t have an end goal. We do. It’s to change the club to what it’s supposed to be.
Dakota: Promoters promoting, bartenders, bartending. Dancers entertaining.
Panama: Everybody looking good, smelling good. We understand what people are saying, ‘’Oh the girls don’t keep up with themselves.’ Ok, they’re not making money. How are they going to do that? Every girl doesn’t have hair like me and Matrix. We can wear our natural hair out. Every girl doesn’t have hair like that. Like Matrix said. She’s a darker skinned woman but she’s like an almond brown. And like I said, a Black girl wearing her hair out, like 100 percent Black, she’s not mixed with anything, wearing her natural hair out would be looked down upon. And I’m like, ‘Go ‘head girl.’
Dakota: It’s like oh you don’t want to straighten your hair?’ ‘Oh you need to get your hair done.’ Which is why so many girls wear wigs.
So Panama are you biracial?
Panama: I’m Afro-Latino.
Dakota: And the same here. I’m Brazilian so I’m considered Afro-Latino.
Panama: But if you ask me, the box I check off is Black. I identify as a Black girl. You’re talking to a Black girl.
Dakota: And the same here.
Panama: And that’s simply because I know better.
Dakota: And the same here.
Panama: You got to know what you’re doing. And on top of that, I’m raising a Black son. My son’s father is half Puerto Rican but my son is a Black man no matter what he’s mixed with. I’m raising a Black man so he has to know, he has to grow up respecting Black women. I don’t care how light his mother is. And this is where it starts. We have to teach the children because they’re going to grow up to be the people that we’re dealing with right now. You know how many people have been telling me, ‘Shut up, you’re not dark skinned. You’re not even Black.’? You sound ignorant. I need to start giving out maps and geography lessons.
And history, shoot.
Dakota: There are Black people in every part of the world.
Panama: That goes back to what I was saying earlier. Matrix, I was on the phone crying with this woman. I’m sorry.
No, it's okay.
Panama: It’s a shame Black people are so eager to appease their oppressors.
Dakota: It’s already going on so heavily in society. And to think that here we are at 2017 and this is the main topic that’s floating around, it hurts my heart. It’s been in our hustle world but it hasn’t been so dominant. But I feel that it’s increasingly becoming dominant because it’s being accepted more in society.
Panama: And being joked about and being laughed at.
Dakota: So they don’t expect these problems to be real problems in the strip club but it is. It always has been but now it’s getting out of control.
Panama: And what happens when we lash out? You’re the angry Black woman.
Dakota: The bitter Black woman. It’s not that we’re not making money. It’s that we could be making more money and we used to make more money and we want the girls coming in to know what it’s like to make money to elevate themselves.
Panama: I’m just disgusted at the behavior of a lot of people. Just like I’m disgusted at the behavior of people in the world that I don’t know. So, what makes me more passionate about this is because there are things in the world that I see that I cannot change, that I cannot help with, that I cannot do anything about. When I see injustices in the rest of the world, when a Black kid is killed or when they’re bombing countries across the seas for no reason. Only thing I can do is help spread awareness. But this right here is right here. This is something that I can put my two cents in. This is something that I can stand up for. What’s upsetting me is how they’re so mad that we’re doing it when we have outside women who don’t work in this industry standing up for us. That’s the magnitude of it.
It’s not, ‘Oh you don’t work anymore.’ or ‘You don’t work in the clubs in New York anymore.’ ‘You’re not dark skinned. Why do you care?’
So what? The people who don’t dance in the club at all, care and they’re standing up for us. You’re going to get mad at them too? I’m doing what’s right how is that wrong?
I heard someone say--which is how I feel-- you all speaking up about this issue in your industry, helps a lot of other women speak up about the same issue in their industry. We see lighter complected actresses or the lighter complected musicians. It’s like our whole world is based on colorism and ‘light is right.’ I want to know how you guys think your movement can influence other women, other dark-skinned people to speak up.
Panama: I think because of the industry and the taboo of the industry, hopefully, the women will see that, ‘If they’re basically looked at as the bottom of the barrel and these girls are this smart and they’re standing up for themselves, I need to be more assertive. I can do it too.’
Dakota: It surpasses outside of the strip club. We want to unite women period. Women of color and all shades of color. I remember when it was older girls like me who coached younger girls. ‘Make sure you save your money. Make sure you do this. Make sure you do that.’ Because we know that dancing is only a catalyst to other things. Of course, you’re not going to dance forever. And it was that sisterhood of helping each other and teaching each other how to use that hustle and get ahead.
I just think in general, women don’t stick together enough. They don’t have that unity.
But we want to work on that.