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The naked truth

They're leered at, marginalized and shunned. But mostly those who work in the exotic dance industry are misunderstood

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Get in, get naked, get out

A night spent "jamming" along with Aurora and Chelsea is an education in eroticism. Or the myth of erotica.

Apart from all the nudity, it’s very workmanlike, for starters.

Ten different gigs over eight hours. Three-song sets that last about eight minutes. Get in, get naked, get out.

Back in the 1990s, when the burlesque business was at its apex — before the Internet flooded the planet with free and unlimited porn — Irving’s agency booked Winnipeg-based dancers all over the world. Headliners would be flown to Germany or Japan for tours.

In Manitoba, Superb had a fleet of between 120-150 dancers servicing about 50 bars.

"I heard they used to get taken to their shows in limos," Aurora says. "It was so glamorous. Like movie stars."

Adds Chelsea: "Now it’s work."

At the Marion, Aurora is competing for attention with a dozen TV screens and VLT machines for a blue-collar crowd. Teasers is a true strip club; dark, with a dedicated stage and veteran clientele. The Brier and Kildonan are two working men’s pubs where Friday afternoon strippers and draft beer have been standard fare for decades. The Sutherland on Main Street is, well, the Sutherland.

Make no mistake: Aurora is a pro. She prides herself on performing, not just going through the gyrating motions. "You’re up there," she reasons. "It’s your time to be sexy."

(Indeed, Irving laments a significant issue within the exotic-dance community of declining work ethic, admonishing, "Everybody wants to be at the top but they don’t want to work.")

A feature dancer can make upwards of $2,500-$3,000 a week, while a non-headline performer, such as Aurora, can earn $800-$1,000 a week, not including tips.

Aurora makes an effort to keep her job private, for fear of being harshly judged. "If it (the question: "What do you do?") comes up, I tell them I’m a mom," she says. "They don’t need to know what I do."

Aurora’s parents? They were OK as long as dancing was A) her choice, B) she was happy and C) still going to school. "I’m proud," Aurora says. "And they’re proud."

Although Aurora doesn’t volunteer what she does for a living in certain aspects of her life, especially involving her children, she isn’t ashamed about what she does, either. Quite the opposite. In fact, she agreed to allow the Free Press open access to her life in the hopes of addressing the negative misconceptions she has encountered relating to her unorthodox occupation.

Of course, there is a dark side to the business — even in a province where the industry is almost exclusively run by a gay couple and mostly family-run hotels.

Aurora and Chelsea, along with Irving, all concede that the lifestyle can expose young women to drugs, very bad men and, ultimately, tragic results.

"It’s very fast-paced," Irving says. "You can make a lot of money and come out the other end OK. Or you don’t. There’s dancers with liquor problems. There’s dancers will drug problems. But that’s just like a lot of professions, actually."

"If we find out they prostitute... they're finished."

-Rick Irving

Recently, one dancer overdosed. Another, in her early 20s, with a four-year-old daughter, committed suicide.

Chelsea personally knows of two women who died in car accidents (DUI).

"That’s the thing," she says. "You can’t get caught up in all the drama and the life. It can be a gateway for some. Just like drugs. But most of us have lives and we do very well for ourselves. If you keep out of harm’s way, nothing’s going to happen."

Her point: Exotic dancers can become addicted to drugs. They can overdose. They can die as the result of bad choices — not unlike teachers or movie stars or journalists. They can also be students and nurses and businesswomen.

Perhaps the biggest misconception, however, is the perceived link between stripping and the sex trade. One bar owner didn’t deny that there are dancers who work as prostitutes — they’ll even advertise on their Facebook pages.

But not for long.

"If we find out they prostitute, we fire them," Irving says. "I don’t book them. They’re finished. I’m very strict about that."

The vast majority of dancers, who are not working the sex trade, are offended by the common assumption.

"If we see something like that, it’s frowned upon," Aurora says. "We’re going to straighten you out."

Adds Chelsea: "It’s offensive. Then that guy will think it’s OK for the next girl. And it’s not. You’re giving the rest of the girls a bad name. And that guy you just did that with? He’s going to come and try something with us and that’s not OK.

"It’s usually rookies who do that kind of stuff because they don’t know," she adds. "They feel they have to."

Both Aurora and Chelsea talk of a confidence when they’re on the dance floor. A feeling of control, even when they have heard snide comments or been treated with disrespect, not uncommon in a profession where the women are vulnerable and exposed.

"You can’t care what people think," Aurora says. "You know you look good. You just have to learn how to deal with the negative, right?"


Updated on Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 6:30 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Chelsea; minor edits.

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