As a friend and I sat at Rick’s Cabaret, I noticed he wouldn’t stop staring at me. The dark room intermittently lit up with seizure-inducing spotlights. Watery radio hip-hop blared from the omnipresent speakers so loud we had to scream to talk. The room was packed with beautiful naked women parading around him, but he was so leery of being hustled out of money that he refused to make eye contact with any of the dancers and decided I was the safest view in the club.
That’s how the game is supposed to work at a strip club: A girl makes eye contact, sits down next to you, and pretends to be interested in something besides the $30 cost of a lap dance –– and then she spirits you away to bump and grind on your denim.
But only two ladies sat down and actually tried to flirt with us. Plenty of others breezed by asking, “Want a dance?” as cavalierly as hot dog vendors at a baseball game.
Since burlesque and strip clubs share an origin story, I thought it only fitting that I visit a nudie bar. I chose Rick’s because it was where I had my first strip club experience, when the place was called New Orleans Nights.
Every dancer at Rick’s –– at least the dozen or so we saw that night –– was incredibly attractive. And yet every time one of them ascended her pole with the skill and grace of a trained acrobat/ballerina, she couldn’t help but look a little bit bored.
I have a friend who frequents the more than a dozen (by his count) strip bars in town, and I wanted to know why he enjoys them. He spoke on the condition that I do not use his real name, to keep his mother in the dark. At strip clubs, he goes by “Zeus.”
“I tell them my name is Zeus, and they all say, ‘That’s not your real name!’ And I’m like, ‘OK, Bambi.’ And we all get a good laugh.”
Zeus said he doesn’t go to strip clubs only for the women. He, like many husbands and boyfriends trying to explain why they come home smelling like perfume, contends that he’s drawn in by the drink specials, but “it’s pleasing to see naked women,” he said.
To walk out of a strip joint with money in your wallet, he said, you have to go in with a plan.
“I tell the dancers up front that I’m not interested in a dance,” he said. “I’ll offer to buy them a beer, but you can’t let them order for themselves, or they’ll get a $20 drink.”
To Zeus, nudie bars are arousing “only as much as seeing a beautiful woman walking down the street on a breezy day,” he said. “You might follow her an extra block just to see if a stiff wind blows her skirt up.”
There’s very little eye contact among customers at a strip joint. It’s generally accepted that you are all alone or pretending to be or with only the people at your table. It’s basically urinal etiquette on a larger scale. At Rick’s, I saw Zeus about 20 years from now. This guy was wearing jorts and a t-shirt, and every time a new girl got on the pole at the satellite stage next to his seat, he got up and not so subtly rubbed himself against her. The dancers all seemed to know him, and they took his money grudgingly, without as much as a smile.
After seeing that sad exchange a few times, my friend and I left the place feeling as though our dignity had been compromised. I couldn’t stop watching that lecherous old man, and my buddy couldn’t stop looking at me. It was not a proud moment for either of us.
Crème de la Crème’s Russell and Waters spent most of the day following their Stage West show cleaning up glitter and rogue feathers.
“We have a separate vacuum just for glitter,” Waters said.
The two met a couple of years ago at a workshop that Russell called “body positive” and that has shaped the way the two have approached their business.
“We tend to exist in the space between classic and slightly neo,” Russell said. “We see the need for that, and we understand that for a new audience it makes it easier to introduce a lot of people into [our] world and allows them to explore it even further.”
For now, Russell said, it would be difficult to make a living doing burlesque in just Fort Worth, as either a dancer or producer/promoter. Crème de la Crème pays for itself, she said, but it’s not yet the cash cow they hope it will soon become.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said. “If we had a show at a bar every month and a theater show every other month, it would be more profitable. We have a few goals for ourselves like doing community workshops, classes, and things like that.”
Since burlesque became popular again, several companies have come and gone in Fort Worth. Crème de la Crème is now the longest running in town –– one year. The burlesque shows and classes that regularly happen at Arts Fifth Avenue, the nonprofit Near Southside institution, are courtesy of Dallas’ Velvet Kittens.
After chatting with Russell and Waters and doing a bit of “research,” I understand the enthusiasm for burlesque. Internet porn and strip clubs have all but erased the parts of our brains that appreciate tongue-in-cheek, playful amalgams of sexuality and theater.
“You’re not going to have knife play or people pouring blood all over themselves or hot wax,” Waters said. “Our shows tend to be a little more introductory. It’s a gateway to other types of burlesque.”