At Stadium Club, young, professional women party while other women strip

It’s Friday evening in D.C., and three women arrive at the Stadium Club, a converted warehouse in Northeast. It is flanked by rundown brick buildings and a gritty car repair station. Rough gravel replaces sidewalks, and the street is largely deserted. Other than the club, the only sign of life is a gas station a quarter of a mile away. Stadium is like a diamond in the rough, but in the way tarnished silverware shines when placed next to plastic spoons.

The women go inside.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be this nice,” says Rashanda Robertson, 33, an Atlanta native who’s in the city for graduate school.

Tonight is her first visit to a strip club. To her left and right are clusters of women, outnumbering the men. Women in heels. Women who teach. Women who advocate as social workers. Professional women. Heterosexual women. Women just like her.

Unlike many strip clubs — which are narrow, dark and dominated by men — Stadium, with color-changing chandeliers lighting up 14,000 square feet, has become a chic hot spot for young African American women. They host bachelorette and birthday parties here, buy rounds of drinks and chitchat while other women work the pole. The club is a bucket-list item for black yuppies. It falls somewhere between Dupont Circle day parties and concerts at The Park at 14th club.

They swarm to Stadium’s happy hour — $10 for unlimited drinks from 6 to 9 p.m. — but you can also find them any night of the week. The setting has become so popular it will be the backdrop for the reality show “Strip Club Queens.” The show, produced by Newton Media Group, will follow the lives of five Stadium dancers and one waitress. No network has signed yet, says club co-owner James Tru Redding, but three channels have expressed interest.

The club has black leather couches smartly decorated with red pillows. Flat-screen TVs hang against stone walls. Black coffee tables fit for a swanky bachelor pad dot the floor. Then there’s the stage, ornate poles and pull-up bars.

“It doesn’t really look like a strip club,” Robertson says.

By 7:45, the crowd is livening up. There are about 30 men but twice as many women dancing to Chris Brown’s “Strip” and other hip-hop tunes. The “entertainment” have removed their mesh shirts and skin-tight dresses, leaving nothing but a garter to hold their tips.

Male patrons thank them with dollar bills, but it’s a sea of women who truly show their gratitude every week, coming back again and again.

“Sixty percent of the club on any night is women,” Redding says.

From the bottom to the top

Yeah, I made it to the top, took a seat, still sittin’

Man, I’m up in Stadium in D.C. still tippin,

She coulda paid tuition five times, still strippin’

— Drake in Waka Flocka Flame’s 2011 single “Round of Applause”

Stadium opened almost three years ago, withstanding protests from the Ward 5 Improvement Association that challenged the club’s certification as a non-sexually oriented business and possible zoning violations. It was cleared of violating any zoning regulations in late 2010, Redding says. (Ward 5 Improvement Association President Don Padou did not return a request for comment.)

Last year, the Washington Times published an investigation into the club’s ties to D.C. drug lord Cornell Jones, who owned the building before Redding and his business partner Keith Forney took it over, and, according to the Times, continued to frequent it after its transformation into Stadium. (Redding denies personally knowing Jones, who was sued by D.C. for misusing city HIV/AIDS funds in connection with the building.)

After the club’s shaky beginning, a series of orchestrated and accidental events catapulted it to national acclaim. New York rapper Fabolous and local artist Wale performed at Stadium about five months after it opened, making them the first major hip-hop artists to come. But the real rap stamp of approval came in spring 2011.

Aaron Pinkett, a Stadium manager, booked Birdman, a leader of Cash Money/Young Money and the fourth richest hip-hop artist according to Forbes. Birdman brought hip-hop heavyweights Lil’ Wayne and Drake.

Much to the surprise of Stadium owners, Drake rapped about Stadium that August when he was featured on “Round of Applause,” by rap artist Waka Flocka Flame. The song became a regular on urban radio stations.

Months after Drake’s appearance at Stadium, the club booked Diddy for a Howard Homecoming celebration. Again, the owners were surprised when the rap mogul brought R&B crooner Tyrese. The next day, the same two-for-one deal happened when they invited Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Mayweather brought his friend 50 Cent.

“It went viral after that. It went insane,” Redding says. “It went from California all the way to New York and kind of put us on the map big time.”

The club started showing up in more songs by more rap and R&B artists; Big Sean and Young Jeezy visited. Fame was born, and patrons followed — including a lot of women.

“Everybody likes bling bling,” says James Tanner, a 46-year-old Washington entrepreneur and Stadium fan.

What women want

Stadium insiders say the allure is not just the high-wattage names. They list four other reasons for the largely female audience.

●The decor is upscale: You won’t find cheap tablecloths, plastic trees decorated with Christmas lights or pleather chairs bursting with stuffing that decorate some of D.C.’s other gentleman’s clubs.

“This [club’s] really clean and classy,” says Tanisha Wood, a local teacher. “The ambiance is on point.”

●There are high-rollers: Seating on the floor runs patrons $500. A spot in the VIP area, directly behind the stage, costs $1,000, and renting a private lounge overlooking the entire club is $1,500.

●It’s a party: When you mix free alcohol and the latest hip-hop tunes at a Friday night happy hour, it’s hard not to get this reaction from patrons: “It’s fun,” says Ana Menviata, a 24-year-old teacher in town for a conference. Women and men often liken Stadium to a club that happens to have strippers; a strip club that gives patrons something more to do than watch the dancers. Clubgoers can order a crab cake, wings or entrees that start at $35 from the club’s five-star restaurant or simply dance with their girlfriends without ogling men pulling at their waists.

“They don’t feel like a piece of meat,” says Manny Collado, a promoter for the club. “They’re not really getting harassed like that.”

●The dancers have skills: “Even with the women, they set standards . . . instead of just letting anybody on stage,” Wood says.

Latesha Jones, 28, agrees: “When I see certain stuff I’m like, ‘Oh, she got talent!’ ”

Gabriella Peru, one of Stadium’s first employees, joined after a bad divorce left her pockets empty. She heard she could make money fast as a stripper, but first she had to get good.

“I just started coming to the club in the daytime way early,” she said. “Everything I know I taught myself.”

Two and a half years later, the spins, kicks and twirls she does on the pole come with ease. “In order for my body not to be as exhausted or as sore, I go to the gym almost seven days a week,” says the 26-year-old. She says she earns anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000 in one night.

On the night Robertson was at the club, it was Dominique, Jasmine and Star who had the crowd going wild. They swung from pole to pull-up bar with the agility of a Cirque du Soleil dancer.

One woman said what many in the crowd were probably thinking: “Wow.”

Attitudes about strip clubs

Talent or not, upscale or not, we’re talking about strippers. Why are women going to a club that many people say objectifies women?

Women supporting female strippers is an attempt to reclaim sexuality, says Ebony Utley, a professor of communication studies at California State University at Long Beach who has done extensive research into women and hip-hop.

“I think in the strip club we’ve got a new generation of women that is throwing off the shackles of the politics of respectability,” says Utley, whose research has appeared in academic journals such as “Women and Language.”

This comes, she says, after many years of black women having to appear almost asexual in public to counter their image, originated during slavery, as hyper-sexual.

“It’s kind of like a liberation strategy,” she says. “Males are no longer allowed to dominate black women’s expectations of how they should behave in public regarding sex.”

On the other hand, Utley says, “I would imagine that there are some black women, professional black women, who go to the strip club to say, ‘I’m so much better than those girls stripping in the club. I’m a professional woman. I have my degree. I have my education to fall back on. I would never have to subject myself to dancing naked for men. I feel better about me because I can look down on you when I go to this club.’ ”

Elizabeth Velez, a lecturer in the Women’s Studies Program at Georgetown University, says the setting at Stadium perpetuates men deciding what’s sexy and what’s not.

“Dancing around poles was something that men decided was a sexy kind of thing to do,” she says. “It puts women in a situation of being complete objects, being looked at. Why do women want to engage in this without looking at it really carefully and seeing if it fits a woman’s idea of what is sexy?”

Some women answer that they want to learn what men like, that pole dancing is a popular fitness trend and they want to learn moves to get in shape.

“I’m working on how to flip my legs up over my head,” 38-year-old Keva Bandy says one Friday night. The mother of six, who is studying to be a paralegal, recently purchased a pole to practice dancing at home. She came to Stadium to learn by observation.

“I just want to get in touch with being a sexy woman,” she said.