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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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From dancer to owner

Darkness has fallen by the time Aurora walks through the caged doors of the Sutherland Hotel on Main Street. There is no dance floor, per se, but just a few square feet in front of a motley crew that includes an old man with an oxygen tank sitting alone by a far wall.

By the time Aurora has finished her first song, the old man has moved next to stage, leaving his oxygen tank behind.

Above the music, Chelsea leans into a reporter and says, "No chance I would come into a place like this and take my clothes off. It’s scary. But she (Aurora) comes here all the time. I tell her she’s better than this. But money is money.

"You go from high-class places like a gentleman’s club to this. Back-to-back."

Both shows pay the same; between $50-$60.

But it turns out location doesn’t mean much, either. Because here’s another truism: No matter how many googly-eyes they make, no matter how many times they wink or have patrons believing they’re the only ones in the room, the key is not seeing the customers at all.

Says Chelsea, echoing a trade secret of all dancers: "If I ask her to describe three people in the front row she wouldn’t be able to. Guaranteed."

The woman sitting behind the desk in a small room at the Chalet Hotel — home of Teaser’s Burlesque Palace — is in the middle of an interview when a security guard knocks on the door to politely interrupt to say a couple of patrons in the crowd might need special attention.

Robin Skolnik nods.

Moments later, the same security guard comes back to inform Skolnik that a couple of police officers have also arrived.

Skolnik immediately knows why. "They’re here because the bad guys are here," she explains.

It’s Thursday night at Teasers, and the Miss Nude Manitoba contest is well underway. In fact, Aurora will be performing around midnight, if all goes well.

Coincidentally, Skolnik was the reigning Miss Nude Manitoba when she retired from dancing in 2007. Now she owns and runs the Chalet; the dance club, the hotel, the bar, everything.

"Nobody handed me anything," Skolnik is saying. "I had to do it on my own."

She started out at age 19, joining Irving’s agency after growing up in East Kildonan. Her first trip was to Thunder Bay. "I was so nervous," she recalls, "I walked into the pole."

But at the peak of her career, Skolnik was making six figures. She was a headliner who prided herself in attention to detail. Her props included a shower, strobe lights, a swing and... a snow-making machine? Says Skolnik: "I’d pull up with a U-Haul."

She once whittled her own staff for a Lord of the Rings routine, which included a $2,000 costume.

"At that time it was more glamorous," she allows. "You had to stand out to get a booking."

Skolnik stood out. She once dated The Undertaker, the iconic WWE wrestler, flying to his matches all over North America. "My grandmother made him his first perogies," Skolnik says.

A few years ago, Skolnik decided to leave the stage. She first managed the now defunct Sin City strip club before taking a huge financial risk to buy the Chalet. Now the same lady who whittled her LOR staff serves as book keeper, bartender, renovator and negotiator.

Skolnik has been immersed in the exotic dancing business her entire adult life and has experienced both the glamour and the gutter of burlesque. Ask her what type of women are attracted to the profession and her answer us direct.

"You get all types," Skolnik replies. "You’ll get people who do it as a job. You’ll get people who’ll turn to drugs and alcohol. Or you get people who live for the lifestyle; they love the attention. You get guys following you around from bar to bar. You get guys who give you things."

Like plane tickets from a famous wrestler that would just show up at her house.

In fact, if you learn anything from peeking behind the curtain of the burlesque business, it’s that life is often what you make it — for better or worse. And let the record show that while many dancers may come from Tuxedo, geographically speaking, the majority come from far less affluent beginnings.

History

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

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