It’s late Friday afternoon when the red pickup truck containing Aurora Sky pulls into the Green Brier parking lot.
The 27-year-old mother of two is racing to perform her standard three-song set; stripping off her scanty outfit for the happy-hour crowd of complete strangers.
So what’s going through Aurora’s mind as her driver, another former exotic dancer named Chelsea, tries in vain to find a parking spot?
"All I’m thinking about is don’t be late," she says. "I need to get in and out and get to the next job."
A biting March wind only exacerbates a temperature hovering around -20 C. Yet Aurora, who wears only a fishnet wrap over a bra top and leather shorts, is oblivious. After all, she has already made a couple stops in her "jamming session" — an only-in-Winnipeg phenomenon for dancers that goes back almost 50 years — and has seven more gigs to go. Her final show won’t be finished until after midnight.
Now, though, Aurora frantically fishes around in her purse, as her 5 p.m. showtime fast approaches, before finally locating the CD of her music — inside a DVD case of Monsters Inc., an animated movie that is a favourite of her two young boys.
Aurora shrugs at the irony: "Some of the DJs make fun of it, but.... I don’t care," she says.
The Brier crowd is still rather sparse. Men drinking draft at the tables nearest to a stripper’s true north: The pole. A few young girls are playing pool in the back. But the "who" or "where" matters little to Aurora, who has spent her entire adult life in a business that — for all its literal exposure — operates largely in the shadows.
Women like Aurora are leered at, fantasized about, marginalized and shunned. They can be used up, exploited and spit out. But they can also be grossly misunderstood.
In her other life, Aurora (her real given name) has raised two children and works part-time as a health-care aide, where she performs such glamorous tasks as cleaning bed pans and washing patients. She has a long-time boyfriend who works construction. She takes her children to Sunday school.
No apologies. No regrets.
"I’ve put myself through school doing this," she says. "I’ve bought my house doing this. I’ve bought my truck doing this. I love this job."
For a half-century now, women have been dancing in Winnipeg bars and lounges for money. It’s a burlesque history unique to this city, rife with colourful characters with a decidedly blue hue: A larger-than-life Queen of the Go-Go Girls, the 11-year-old boy-turned-protégé she adopted into the business, an octogenarian former stripper obsessed with Elvis, and a woman who now owns the very strip club in which she once performed — while dating one of the world’s most famous WWE wrestlers. But we’ll get to that later.
Back in the Green Brier, as Aurora straddles the pole with her thighs, hanging upside down, her long-time friend and former colleague Chelsea is explaining the one truism and shared experience of almost every terrified dancer who has taken the stage for the first time in Winnipeg since the mid-1960s.
There is no Stripper University. It’s one of the ultimate self-taught professions.
"Anything Aurora has learned on the pole," Chelsea offers, in genuine admiration, "has been trial and error."
Seconds later, the music stops. Aurora quickly gathers her clothes off the floor and slaps her CD back in the Monsters Inc. box.
She’s off to the Kildonan with five minutes to spare.
Updated on Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 6:30 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Chelsea; minor edits.
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