Jul 31, 2023

Colorado strippers dance through economic uncertainties

In her Lakewood home, 24-year-old Elyssa Hanley prepared for the day shift ahead at strip club Shotgun Willie’s in Glendale on the morning of Thursday, July 20.

Her blonde hair pulled up in a clip, she sat in front of a mirror adorned with photo booth pictures in her bedroom, a pile of bikinis and sky-high heels to her left. As she applied her makeup – contour, brows, eyeliner, lashes and, soon, her signature red lipstick – Hanley debated whether she’d don her go-to school girl outfit later.

For the time being, she wore a black sweatshirt featuring a stripper’s silhouette, emblazoned with the phrase: “Support the performing arts.”

A dancer at the club at 490 S. Colorado Blvd. since the summer of 2021, her typical morning starts around 10 a.m. She’ll stretch, then work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Hanley makes anywhere between $200 to $2,000 daily.

Since the age of 18, “I’ve always had an interest in sex work,” said Hanley, who uses she/they pronouns. A recent graduate of the University of Colorado Denver, her final project for her bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies focused on discrimination against strippers throughout the clubs’ hiring processes.

American society makes “us into such a stereotype – we have a baby daddy or we’re doing drugs,” Hanley said. “There are people who do that, but a lot of us have jobs or are going to school or have kids.”

As both an empowering and exploitative industry, strip clubs – and the dancers who work onstage – endure lasting stigmas. Dancers argue that movies like “Magic Mike” and “Hustlers” inaccurately portray their jobs, as they instead work in a cash-reliant industry that isn’t immune to economic headwinds.

In Colorado, strip clubs often make headlines, but not for commercial reasons. In October, attorney Steve Long died at Shotgun Willie’s, with Kroger executive Randall Wright also dying at the club in 2019. That same year, an assailant with a baseball bat killed one man and injured three others at PT’s Showclub in Denver.

The Denver area is home to more than a dozen strip clubs, including national brands like Rick’s Cabaret and Scarlett’s Cabaret – both owned by RCI Hospitality Holdings Inc. With more than 60 locations across the country, the company’s nightclubs reported $62 million in sales in the fiscal third quarter of this year, which counts as a 14% jump year-over-year.

President and CEO Eric Langan credited this boost to “the benefit of acquisitions, partially offset by macroeconomic uncertainty,” he said in a news release.

But the industry hasn’t experienced the same growth. With thousands of strip clubs supporting close to 40,000 jobs across the U.S., the national industry’s market size amounted to $7.6 billion in revenue last year, according to industry reports publisher IBISWorld. As of now, that’s steadily shrinking, with a negative growth rate of about -4% in 2022. Between 2017 and 2022, the industry’s market size has dropped an average of 3% annually, with IBISWorld listing factors like “high revenue volatility and low industry assistance.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “it’s been a tough comeback,” said Randy Long, owner of gay club Boyztown at 117 Broadway in Denver. “And, then, the economy takes a nosedive, and cost of everything has just escalated.”

He employs a staff of about a dozen employees, including bartenders and DJs, but has faced hiring challenges. Dancers make between $400 to $800 weekly, with lap dances offered for $30, according to the club’s website.

With 17 years in business, Long’s noticed that, lately, “customers are having to budget, too.”

The Colorado Secretary of State’s office notably doesn’t track the field in which a business operates, the number of people a company employs or its reported revenue, said spokesperson Jack Todd, so it couldn’t confirm how many strip clubs operate throughout the state.

Managers for several Denver area clubs didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“With the economy in general, it’s definitely not as much money as it used to be,” Hanley said, with patrons treating the club “like a regular bar” now.

Her first foray into the world of sex work began by selling photos online and working in financial domination: a fetish that involves a client sending money or gifts to their mistress. After two years, she bought her heels and bikinis, then started dancing at Nitro Club in Boulder at 1124 Pearl St.

Among the misconceptions about her job, she considers the greatest to be the idea that it’s a hobby for the strippers – or one big party.

“We’re there to make money,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know that we have to pay to work there, and that they take a percentage of our dances and our VIPs and we have to tip everyone out.”

Although her least favorite parts of her job are “the men” and, sometimes, management, dancing has helped her overcome her social anxiety and gain confidence.

For now, Hanley’s plan is to continue stripping while she builds up her resume. She aims to secure a salaried position within one year, and dreams of one day working in policy at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I’m not surprised to hear there’s a decline in market share for several reasons,” said Dr. Bernadette Barton, professor of sociology and director of gender studies at Morehead State University in Kentucky. Those factors include the rise of digital pornography and competition presented by OnlyFans and cam girls, who perform online for money.

“Part of the problem, too, is that clubs are not as supportive of their employees as they could be,” Barton said. “It’s a lot of workers’ rights violations and dancers being classified as independent contractors.”

Historically, burlesque shows served as the 20th-century ancestor of the present-day strip clubs – and those dancers were stigmatized, just like today’s strippers. In the 1970s and 1980s, strip clubs operated, but Barton described them as “seedier.”

The 1990s became the golden age of strip clubs when they underwent a glamorous resurgence, often catering to businessmen, she said.

“The really big money happened in the ’90s through the 2008 recession,” Barton said in an interview. “The strip club industry was hit like all industries, and then bounced back, but is fighting against digital revolution.”

The in-person performances offered at strip clubs still attract customers looking to socialize, along with bachelor and bachelorette parties. But “I’m not sure it can evolve technologically,” she added. “It has to stay that business model because that’s what it is” – face-to-face interactions.

As an industry, “it’s definitely not bulletproof,” Barton said. “It remains to be seen what’s going to happen with it.”

Vanessa Herr, 25, keeps her schedule full as a travel dancer, college student and military service member.

The strip club industry “has taken me very far, and has helped me get out of a lot of horrible situations,” Herr said. “People often are shocked when they find out I am in the military – I’m actually a combat veteran. I am going to school for something to better society.”

Serving for years in the Army National Guard, she was deployed in 2019 to Afghanistan. One year away from obtaining her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Oregon State University, Herr also plans to join a master’s and doctoral program, with the end goal of becoming a sex therapist who specializes in sexual trauma and rehabilitation.

And on top of that, she dances – a job she started at the age of 20 to earn money quickly to flee “a really toxic and abusive situation.”

Herr described her first club, Bare Assets in Melbourne, Fla., as “a little hole-in-the-wall, stuck-in-the-early-’90s type club.” She remembers showing up before it opened to practice on the pole.

Once she began dancing, she left Florida for Hawai’i, then moved to Oregon and eventually landed in Colorado. The Colorado Springs resident commutes to Denver to work at Shotgun Willie’s, and has a contract at Diamond Cabaret in downtown Denver, but also works in clubs across the country.

“The media really does a horrible job at portraying sex workers, and it either paints us to be victims who have no way out or these scammers who are just money-hungry,” Herr said. Although she acknowledges the probability of some dancers filling those stereotypes, “I’ve never met one personally.”

She appreciates the freedom to travel, networking opportunities and money that all come with the job.

But she doesn’t like the instability. On some nights, she’s owed the club hundreds of dollars to pay house fees and tips. Less frequently, she’s racked up thousands.

In the future, Herr is considering transitioning to OnlyFans or social media influencing for more flexibility. This month, she walked onstage in Miami Swim Week for the Black Tape Project in her first modeling gig, and hopes to walk in New York Fashion Week.

“I’m going to continue to try to explore all the opportunities that that brings,” Herr added. “Kind of a big deal – for me, at least.”

She plans to leave the clubs within two years.

Dancers and workout enthusiasts alike walk through the doors of pole fitness studio Studio 3sixT at 2553 S. Colorado Blvd. in Denver, owner Jennifer West said. Her clientele base is predominantly made up of young women in their late 20s and early 30s, but one regular student is in her 70s.

“We’ve had plenty of people come in and say, ‘I’m trying out to be a dancer at a club. I need to take some lessons,’ ” West said. “I’m sure we have a wide range of sex workers that come,” although she doesn’t have a specific number.

Established in 2011, her studio weathered COVID by immediately shifting to online classes. As the pandemic continued, the number of attendees started to drop.

Attendance didn’t immediately bounce back, either. “We did lose some people that were super-duper scared” of getting infected, West said.

Without Paycheck Protection Program loans and employee retention credits, “we still would have been in business, but I would have had to make some changes,” like teaching more classes herself and cutting her salary, she said.

Twelve years ago, her studio faced a more negative public perception. “Sometimes, I just say I own a fitness studio – not that I’m not proud, just that it does have such a stigma attached to it,” West said.

“It’s getting better,” and more competitors are entering the Denver market. She credits that improvement to social media, contemporary circus Cirque du Soleil and Chinese pole, a form of acrobatics.

Rebecca Dolana, 35, works as a pole dancing instructor at Studio 3sixT. She took her first class at the age of 21 at Denver’s Tease Studio, and was offered a position there six months later.

“When I first started teaching pole dancing, I had never even stepped foot inside of a strip club,” she said in an interview. Born in Salt Lake City, she grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and practiced gymnastics and ballet.

Her conservative upbringing “instilled a bit of rebellion,” and, at 26, she started dancing. Today, Dolana strips intermittently at Denver area clubs, including PT’s Showclub and Shotgun Willie’s.

“It can be such easy money. It can also be terrible money, too,” she said. “Especially when the economy is going through a hard time, that’s one of the first things that people cut.”

Before COVID, cash “got thrown around a little bit easier,” Dolana said. But she pointed to one bright side during the pandemic: the plastic barriers set up around the stage to prevent touching.

She quantifies the best parts of her job as the pay and several lifelong bonds, and the worst as “the trauma,” she said. “I’m not a huge fan of working in the club.”

These days, Dolana tries to ensure her regulars will stop by during her shifts so that she can walk away with at least $400 nightly. She’s also invested time and energy into running workshops for dancers, including her upcoming retreat, Strip Shop Vegas.

“Everyone has an individual experience, whether they’ve been in the strip club as a customer, as a dancer, or have just heard of it,” Dolana said. “Don’t judge anyone on any end of the spectrum – I feel like it’s important for all of us to have a little bit more understanding for each other.”

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