The not-so-secret life of a stripper

Dylan dances around the main stage pole before the Odd Ball Cabaret opens in North Hills Calif., on Oct. 20, 2019. Photos by Maja Losinska

Behind the deep burgundy curtain, the adult fragrance of burnt tobacco filled the dimly-lit Odd Ball Cabaret in North Hills on a quiet Thursday night. A patron sat by himself in the lonely club and watched as a tall woman in a revealing bodysuit that exposed her abdomen and back approached the long metallic pole. When she began to dance, the light centered on the stage lost its gleam that her rhinestone clad outfit gave off as her naked tattooed flesh started to contort around the pole.

Dylan, who asked to keep her identity hidden, is a 26-year-old full-time student at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) that works on the side as an exotic dancer. After serving in the Marines for five years, she returned to study as a communications major while also working the all-nude club.

“There’d be sometimes where I cried and I would just be like, I’m over this. Why do I put up with this?” Dylan said. “But then, other times, you know, I’ve made good friends, I’ve had great nights, I’ve made a lot of money. It’s just kind of like a give and take.”

Dylan moved to Long Beach after her service from the Marines and attended Long Beach City College before transferring. Even though she had her school paid by the government, Dylan wanted to work a flexible job that brought in extra income.

“You know, I was under so many rules for so long and being in the Marines and stuff, I just wanted to have fun,” Dylan said.

Dylan decided to work as an exotic dancer.

“At a topless club where they sell alcohol, you can get drunk at work. It just sounded like fun,” Dylan said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience that I’m not going to be able to do late in life.”

She began searching for a club that would take her, and she eventually landed an audition in a club called Candy Cat Too in Woodland Hills. Despite taking a class for pole dancing, Dylan felt that she wasn’t experienced enough.

“I was terrified. I got drunk in the parking lot before I walked in. I was like shaking,” Dylan remembered.

Several dollar bills rest in Dylan’s hand back stage at the Odd Ball Cabaret.
Several dollar bills rest in Dylan’s hand back stage at the Odd Ball Cabaret.

Expecting the establishment to be empty, Dylan found herself auditioning in front of several customers.

“I guess I was just nervous in the lights. I was just trying hard to look not bad. I made $12 on stage. I’ll always remember that day,” Dylan said.

She was rejected by the Candy Cat Too.

But after that experience, Dylan found a well-known dancer on Instagram, and, inspired by her level of confidence, began to message her. Asking for a job opportunity, the woman from Instagram told Dylan about the Odd Ball Cabaret.

“This is just the first club I started working at, so, it has a special place in my heart,” Dylan said.

Although Dylan started dancing in her early ‘20s, the Odd Ball Cabaret has a wide age range of dancers.

A more seasoned performer from France, who uses the stage name Manuella, has worked in the Odd Ball Cabaret for 30 years. She came into the country with a group of dancers doing several different kinds of dances, including ballet, flamenco and contemporary.

After she said her husband came to America, he landed a job as a double for a Belgium action star from the late ‘80s to the ‘90s and then Manuella became pregnant. After the baby was born, she began to dance again—first doing burlesque and later dabbling in exotic. She and her husband split and exotic dancing became her primary source of income.

“I started dancing because I was by myself, and when I started dancing like 30 years ago, naked, it was a lot of good money,” Manuella said.

Colleen Dunagan is professor at CSULB who teaches dance history and film. She said that there are major differences in technique between burlesque and exotic.

“I might take things off but I never really let you see me,” Dunagan explained about burlesque. “It’s the temptation, It’s the thought that you might finally see something. It’s not like stripping, where the whole point is that you’re going to already be naked or you’re going to take everything off.”

Exotic dancing is not necessarily seen as a legitimate technique. There are financial hardships of inconsistent pay, and it’s often not counted as an art.

“Dance is probably the least respected of the art forms in terms of economic stability and commitment by the government or the culture supporting it,” Dunagan said. “We tend to expect dancers to just try and survive, somehow.”

Dylan prepares for her dancing routine in the back stage at the Odd Ball Cabaret.

Like Dylan, Manuella attended school learning the business of beauty salons.

“I kept it going with exotic dance because they gave me more money, so I could take care of my son. My son never missed anything,” Manuella said. “He has always known, but he never sees it in a bad way.”

She eventually owned a salon in Encino, while dancing and going to school during the early 2000s, but the business failed. Still, Manuella is glad that she was successful during her son’s formative years.

“He has had a very good career, and I’m so proud of him, because, for me, the most important thing after having my son, is being a good mom,” Manuella said.

Dylan lived through the tribulations of the Marines and is continuing her journey with education. Although she started dancing just as a temporary job, it has taught her some skills that will be useful later on in life.

“I’ve never regretted it. I saved up a lot of money. I have a surgery coming up that I’m paying for in cash,” Dylan said. “Of course, the sh**** things came along with it, but I definitely don’t regret it and I would do it again for sure.”

To hear what the Pierce College Community thinks about Exotic dance, listen to the audio package by staff member, Shawn Tibero