Early last week, the hashtag #NYCStripperStrike started cropping up on Instagram and Twitter. A story on MTO News was quickly aggregated by Page Six: "Strippers go on strike in battle against bartenders." Platinum rapper Cardi B., originally from the Bronx and vocal about her past as an exotic dancer, weighed in on Instagram about a problem she says she's observed: strippers not getting tips. "They are in need," Cardi said. "They need to pay they rent. They need to pay they kids. They need to survive."
This weekend, we talked to 29-year-old Bronx dancer Gizelle Marie about the allegations of favoritism and racism in Queens hip-hop clubs that have prompted dancers to speak out.
Gizelle (she asked that we use her performer name) has over 59,000 Instagram followers, and says she's using her platform to highlight issues that are being discussed behind the scenes by dancers fearful of losing their jobs. She says the dancers' grievances stem from a change in how the clubs work: in addition to pouring drinks and talking up customers, female bartenders have started dancing, and collecting tips. Through Instagram DMs and chats, she's heard from women who say that dark-skinned black performers are unfairly excluded from these more lucrative bartending gigs. Others are upset about the influence of club management and promoters, who allegedly steer customers towards their favorite performers.
Last Thursday, about thirty dancers and their supporters met at Poletic Justice in the Bronx to discuss their grievances. Gizelle says she's not slowing down, even though some clubs have stopped letting her dance.
Let's start with the hashtag. Are dancers actually walking off of the job?
The whole strike thing was a hashtag to bring the attention into what's going on. It turns out a lot of people outside of New York are supportive because a lot of people are going through the same thing, which is kind of surprising. I don't suggest dancers skip work, because everybody needs to get their money. I just think we need to fight for ourselves. Because a lot of dancers do need help. There's a lot of things that need to be fixed.
What are some of the major issues?
[The bartenders] are basically doing our job and we are left without doing anything. We are just standing there. We are not the stars. Their job is to make drinks, and they are taking our job as well. They are dancing behind the bar. They are blocking us from being seen in the customer's eye. It makes the dancer lose her dignity standing on the stage, and make them not want to go to work. A lot of girls have stopped dancing.
I don't feel that it's right that those bartenders are dancing for customers. What's the sense of us being there? They might as well take the poles out of the club. When you were a dancer back in the day it was fun to go to work and get your money because you were dancing, having fun, and making the best of the situation.
When did the problem start?
This has been happening for a couple of years but now.... It's strange because years ago it was based off of you having a license to bartend—mixology—and now it's based off your [social media] following and your look.
How has the conflict with bartenders impacted nightly earnings?
I'm going to talk about how it is out of town, compared to how it is in New York. A lot of the girls leave town because the dancers are more catered-to outside of New York. Girls out of town can make between $1,000 and $10,000 within the week. Actually more. There are nights a girl can make $3,000, $4,000 by herself. And in New York it can range between $500 and maybe $1,500. But not every night.
A lot of the press over the last week has suggested animosity between dancers and bartenders. One Instagram video with thousands of views appears to show bartenders sweeping dancers' cash off of the stage. What's your take on that?
The fact that they swipe the money off the stages, it looks bad on both of us. It looks bad on us because it looks like us [dancers] not making any money. If the bartenders respected the stage, I feel like a lot of more money would be flowing into the building.
[But] it's not really the bartenders' fault. They come in thinking they can conduct themselves in a certain way because management allows it to happen...Bartenders used to really work with their dancers. We want to be able to work with them and not [have] a segregation.
Are these issues cropping up in all strip clubs in NYC?
All the urban hip hop clubs. Not the cabarets—these are places where the dancers are basically more respected. The problem is, there's not a lot left out here...And the clubs that are little cabarets, they don't bring in enough traffic.
What major changes would dancers like to see in the short term?
There are a few dancers saying we shouldn't be charged house fees [a payment dancers make to the venue]. It depends...the house fees can be extremely outrageous. Sometimes it's $50, but special events can be $200 to $300. It becomes hard for some people because girls don't make the house fee back.
And the favoritism. A lot of the girls don't like it. I'm a very well-kept dancer. I invest in myself. And there are some customers that like that. And there's some that don't. As opposed to another dancer who is there to make her money and that's it. I just choose to want to do my makeup and have my hair extra long and be extra blingy. Maybe that doesn't attract everyone. I may be too flashy for someone else. Promoters feel like they know who the customers like, and it shouldn't be like that.
And [people asked me], 'Why aren't there black bartenders?' What they mean is dark chocolate bartenders. We have a lot fair skinned black women, but they could be confused with being Hispanic, which I know they can't stand hearing either. It would make sense to put forward a darker beautiful woman. There are probably one or two girls that are dark in tone, and the others are fair skinned.
What would you say to people observing #NYCStripperStrike, who judge women for working in clubs?
We have children. Some of these women live a normal life outside of strip clubs. Who is anybody to judge? There's some girls that go to school and work and do dance. Me, I take this as my job because my purpose is to use this to support my family, and open a business at some point.
What's the next step for #NYCStripperStrike?
We're not going to say that there may be a strike. We're trying to see what they [managers and promoters] are going to do to change things before that may happen. They need to pay attention to the dancers or they are going to lose them.
We just want to be treated equally.
This interview has been edited and condensed.