The gold Mylar balloons spelling “LABOR DAY! ” were getting limp at Club Exstasy.
But early Monday morning, everything else in the Prince George’s County strip club was lively.
It was 4 a.m., the birds were just beginning to chirp outside, and there were four lap dances happening around the all-nude club, on the red, vinyl banquettes or the cheap, metal chairs.
Three dancers were busy on the three poles, spinning, swinging or straddling, after carefully wiping them down with antibacterial wipes.
A dancer who approached me three times for a lap dance (“Women pay better,” she later explained) said she was anxious to get home before her kids, 3- and 5-year-old girls, woke up.
Another was counting her tips and cashing out so she could get to her day job at a hotel on time.
“Like it? Do I like the job?” she mocked me, which is what you’ve got to do when you’re about two feet taller than everyone else in your lucite heels and have nothing much else on. “S’awright. Money. That’s what it is.”
This, ladies, is stripping at its best.
In the past few years, it’s become increasingly vogue for women to go to strip clubs. They come in big girl groups, giggling at their boldness. They come with their husbands or boyfriends, to get ideas and get excited. They come to hook up with the men who are there, watching, dancing, raining dollar bills on a woman who will writhe onstage and in a guy’s face.
The club used to allow only male customers, but Womack was turning so many women away it became “bad for business,” he told me. The policy was changed about two years ago.
The epicenter of the female customer trend is the Stadium Club, which we wrote about in The Washington Post last week. It’s a famous mega-club, known for filler-free crab cakes and a posh atmosphere, visited by Diddy and Lil’ Wayne and rapped about on every urban radio station in America.
It’s a music video come to life, where dancers are athletic and gorgeous and the high-roller floor seats cost about $500.
And I thought that maybe the female customer trend was all about the club’s status. A place with VIPs, ballers and stars and fancy decor?
It’s happening all over, at the holes in the walls, the places that dodge government control by calling themselves “juice bars” and not serving booze. They have signs outside that warn: “No ink pens! No cameras! No condoms!” and cops burst in at 3 a.m. to pick up a guy and don’t really care that the lap dancers all quickly jump off laps.
Women are there, too, sipping Snapple and smoothing out the plastic tablecloths.
“Male strippers didn’t do it for me. Even though I’m straight, this is sexy to watch,” one woman in a tight white dress and towering orange shoes told me.
There is a temptation to call this empowering.
“Between us girls, I started coming to keep an eye on him,” a woman sitting in the front row at one of the sad, suburban clubs told me behind her husband’s back. While their 3-year-old son slept at home with a sitter, they were in the strip club. She smiled at her husband and said, “We bring home some of what we learn here,” with a wink. “And this way, I know he’s coming home with me.”
Some women say they are paying respect to the art of strip club dancing. The dancers can be admired, envied and ogled. At the better clubs, they make thousands of dollars a night.
I remember one dancer who was the portrait of success. She was a shrewd investor — gold, coins, stocks. She had a beautiful house in central New Jersey, and her income supported much of her extended family — sisters, aunts, her parents. She never went home with customers, was careful, healthy and beautiful.
I learned all of this from court records after she was murdered by an obsessed customer who followed her home.
Take away the fancy food and the plush pillows. Remove the bachelorette party bravado and the hope that somewhere in the crowd of men tossing dollar bills is your true love.
Strip clubs aren’t really about Saturday night and body glitter, chandeliers and glamour.
They are about Monday morning, 4 a.m. and no other choices.
“Empowering? Pffft. I’ve been doing this for five months. All I can say is women tip better,” said a 21-year-old dancer who calls herself Cherry.
Some bouncers said female patrons make the atmosphere at the clubs a little better, more like a party than a prowl. But most of the dancers, beyond the extra cash that women give, aren’t thrilled, empowered or flattered that they have a female audience.
It remains a business that is largely run by and for men, all about their 4 a.m. desires.
“Is it a good job at least? Do you get benefits? Dental? Vacation? Maternity leave?” I ask another dancer, who was laughing at the irony of the “Labor Day” balloons sagging in the club.
She told me she wants someday to have another job again, one where she wears clothes and gets weekends off and isn’t always scared that someone will recognize her from the club when she’s out with her kids.
So why is she stripping?
“Money. That’s it,” she said. “And never that much. Never as much as you think.”
She put her purse over her shoulder. The sun was about to rise on Monday morning.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.