Walking up to the bar, it looks just like any other club. Music is blaring from the speakers, there’s sophisticated lighting and large mirrors. But this is no ordinary club. This is one of over a hundred lap- and pole-dancing clubs in the UK that are now seen as part of the sex industry.
Beyond the bar, a girl in a tight black dress and thong begins to twist and twirl herself around the pole. This is 19-year-old Pixie* and this is the first of many dances she’ll do tonight.
Pole-dancing’s popularity has become more socially acceptable as it is seen as a great form of exercise, but lap-dancing still has a very negative stereotype. There is a common assumption that girls have to be desperate for money to take on this work.
But even though the girls all cite money as the main reason for starting work here, they weren’t desperate – Pixie says she just wanted money for a social life.
It’s easy to see why money is the biggest incentive. Unlike other clubs, the dancers aren’t required to pay a ‘floor fee’ for working here, and so they take home 70% of everything they earn – and they can earn a lot.
Private dances cost from £10 for a three-minute strip tease, to £200 for an hour, but the girls’ earnings vary from one night to the next.
For 25-year-old Layla, who also works full-time, 30 dances is a good night. Pixie tells me she did 34 dances last week but by midnight tonight she’s only done three.
Aside from the money, the girls have more personal reasons for working here.
One of the girls, a 21-year-old who has been dancing for over a year, says dancing was an opportunity for her to rebuild her confidence around men as well as earn much-needed cash.
Past relationships left her with low self-esteem and she didn’t like the way she looked which, she admits, makes lap-dancing seem an odd choice. But rather than learn to develop her confidence from one guy, “Why not learn it from a hundred?” she asks.
Working the floor in a bright pink bra and matching G-string, with pieces of material barely covering her mid-drift and lower body, it appears that dancing has made her much more confident.
All the girls agree that working as a dancer is a great confidence-booster: “I used to have mega body issues but [now] I just don’t hate myself as much body-wise and get on with it,” says Kitty.
She also finds lap-dancing empowering for women: “You come to a club like this and men are paying money just for a bit of female attention,” she says.
Most male customers don’t see it that way, though. Sam, who works at one of these clubs, says that men often come into the club and think that they are the ones in control, but that couldn’t be further than the truth: “They come in and they feel like they have the power because they’re going ‘you, dance’…but the girls always have the choice,” he says.
Kitty admits that she has refused dances in the past, but that she always has a reason: “They’ve either spoken to me like I’m a piece of meat and I’ve turned round and gone ‘no, speak to me properly’, or they’ve been too drunk,” she says.
Some guys can be nice: “I had this guy come in and it was his birthday and he asked me to go home and have a meal with him and his Mum,” says Pixie.
Despite having the alter-ego of a stage name, Sam says that new girls are warned that they need a thick skin because of the negativity facing them and the industry they work in.
Whilst money and empowerment are main reasons for lap-dancing, the dancers stress how safe they feel when working.
Those wanting a private dance are taken upstairs, through silk drapes to a room lined with mirrors on one side and booths on the other.
Another set of drapes leads through to the champagne lounge where clients sit and talk to a girl for up to an hour. Despite the £200 cost, it’s popular.
Both areas, like the rest of the club, are closely monitored with cameras placed to ensure that the no touching rule stays strictly in place. It’s this rule that makes the club legal. Sam explains: “A club that allows touching is a club that’s allowing extras. Touching is illegal. If the girls here accidentally touch a customer, they all know [to] step back, hands up, wave to the camera and carry on.”
This rule is just one reason why the dancers feel safe. From health and safety to risk assessments, all regulations are heavily focused on the girls, and some also have to be adapted due to the nature of the job.
Fire drills are difficult because “the girls can’t just run out” says Sam, so an exception is made for them.
“We’ve got a letter from the fire brigade saying that we can perform a fire drill to the front door but then no further, because obviously the girls can’t just run out,” says Sam.
“Our risk assessments include the girls being escorted to their cars, going on the pole, being upside down,” he adds.
Last year, the introduction of the new sex industries licence meant that lap dancing clubs are now seen as part of the sex industry which, despite it being expensive, Sam welcomes: “We’ve now made the industry safer for girls and for door staff and better for customers and a better experience and we take our hats off to the council.”
Layla says that the safety of the club is why her Mum is happy for her to dance here, but for most of the girls, their job is a closely guarded secret. Tonight, one of the girls has told her family that she’s working extra hours at her other job. But for another girl, her whole family know and are fully supportive.
There’s a strict no-boyfriends rule at the club which goes for all of the staff, and for the girls’ partners, it’s hard to be supportive.
“I was with someone when I first started and I told him and he wasn’t impressed, because people have got their own opinion of what goes on,” says Layla.
Sam’s fiancé was a pole dancer, although it wasn’t how they met, and he admits that such situations can be difficult: “You go through some serious emotional roller coasters,” he says.
The girls all agree that ‘squaddies’ are the most common customer, but the demographic is varied, from students in university sports societies to men on stag nights and even girls.
Pixie says that she thinks girls are just appreciative of the female body, but Kitty says that they’re curious, too: “Women generally are intrigued, they want to see ‘Does my body look like that?’, ‘am I normal?’ ‘What’s it like’,” she says.
Watching one of the girls hang upside down from the pole, the effort and hard work this job requires is evident. These girls work from nine at night until four in the morning, where they dance on the pole, do private dances and talk to the customers. Due to the hard work, they are encouraged to work no more than three shifts a week.
The negative assumptions about gentlemen’s clubs may be widespread, but there are many positives. From the women feeling empowered through what they do, to feeling safe and in control, not everyone can say that their job makes them feel good about themselves.
*All names are the girls’ stage namesTweet