Still stripping: Virtual show allows exotic dancers to return to the stage
The Cellar Door provides a strip club alternative during the pandemic, but it's not enough to pay the bills
At Cellar Door, subscribers can log on to see the monthly live strip show streaming from a studio in downtown Vancouver.
Instead of performing on a stage, two or three dancers use a pole installed in a large vacant room. Other dancers in B.C and Alberta join the show from their homes where they have their own pole set up.
Dancer Jennifer Ashley, who goes by the stage name Summer Kitten, said she organized the show to provide an outlet for dancers who wanted to get back to performing, though the monthly $15 subscription fee doesn't compensate for the income she lost when strip clubs first closed last March.
"We just lost all of our bookings," she said, "a lot of entertainers have had to turn to online means or diversify their employment."
Ashley has training as a professional ballet dancer and does aerial performances. She was able to compensate for some of her lost income by teaching dance classes during the day, but she said other colleagues have had difficulty finding alternative employment.
While many of the dancers she knows have found day jobs or pivoted to other forms of sex work, in some cases she said she's seen women turn to survival sex work due to a lack of income.
Strippers who are unemployed can collect CERB, but since dancers are generally considered independent contractors by strip clubs there can be complications.
In Canada, strippers are typically considered self-employed and book their stage time at a club. For Ashley, those bookings have largely dried up even though clubs in B.C. have been able to open to patrons for certain periods in the last year.
"It has been a struggle for lots of people that I know personally," Ashley said.
No more 2 a.m. power-hour
While strippers can sometimes even lose money performing by paying their fee to a club or booking agent for their stage time, they can also make large sums in tips in one night, Ashley said.
"There is a saying in the industry: stay until the end [of the night]," she said.
The last hour before close can prove to be one of the most profitable times for strippers when customers are eager to order lap dances and see one last performance before leaving.
"There are girls who are really good hustlers and that's basically their power hour," she said.
One night working a club in Edmonton, Ashley said she made $1,000, mostly from one customer who started throwing bills on stage in the last hour before close.
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Before COVID-19 hit, Ashley worked four or five nights a week at clubs. The Cellar Door has been a passion project that recreates some of that atmosphere and allows her to perform with friends again while she waits for clubs to reopen.
Her monthly virtual strip show also provides a glimpse into the dancers' world, showing some of the camaraderie backstage that you wouldn't normally see at a club, as they joke around and prepare.
Ashley said she feels it's important that people outside the industry see a different side of women who work as strippers. To illustrate that, she also hosts a podcast called Strippers with Anxiety that includes unedited moments of dancers backstage at work.
"The whole premise was a super informal way to let people know that strippers are humans," she said, "being objectified, or being subject to the stigma around the industry, I think some people forget that."
Once clubs reopen, Ashley said she's looking forward to those moments backstage and seeing regular patrons in person.
"It'll be nice just to be on stage again, do a live show for people and just have that interaction," she said.