Life as a lap dancer
A pert blonde walks by and makes eyes at my partner. Normally I'd return that gesture with dagger looks and a few obscenities but tonight, I'm told, that response would be unjustified. The girl is just doing her job.
It's 11.30pm on a Tuesday night and we're in Angels, one of Dublin's longest-running lap-dancing clubs. The pert blonde is wearing only a basque and French knickers and it's my partner's money she fancies. Nothing personal.
Her job is to sell private lap dances and the first step in her sales pitch is to make and maintain eye contact with customers.
Next, engage them in friendly small talk over a drink, then hopefully take them into the dancing room where private lap dances cost anything from €25 for three minutes to a whopping €500 for an hour (with a bottle of Moet champagne included to take the edge off the price).
Sitting next to the blonde with the lingering looks are three brunettes in various stages of undress. They chat and text on their mobile phones.
A Japanese girl sits alone, reading a book in between getting up on the podium to perform languorous pole dances. Of the 14 girls working tonight, some are Czech, others Romanian or African, two are Irish. Most are in their 20s, the oldest is 40.
Some of the women are regulars, others come and go, moving between clubs or countries on a regular basis.
My partner is brought into a separate room by Amanda, a petite blonde dressed in a skimpy white outfit. She's gone heavy on the black eye-liner and tells us she had a boob job last year.
The so-called dancing room -- with booths for private dances -- is where the all-important 'couch sales' take place. Each customer pairs off with a dancer, buys a token from the club manager and disappears into this room for anywhere between three minutes and an hour.
By day, 33-year-old Amanda Norton does the school run with her children, who are aged between three and nine. At least four nights a week, she leaves her Tallaght home and goes to work in Angels between 11pm and 3am. The kids stay at home with her partner.
He's okay with her lap dancing: when they met, he had just split up with a dancer from another club.
He's currently unemployed and the money she makes dancing goes towards every-day living expenses.
Amanda is an experienced lap dancer, having worked in the famous Spearmint Rhino club in Birmingham, as well as a number of Irish clubs.
She's also a former stripogram and during the 1990s was a member of Centrefolds, the female version of Irish male stripper group Chain Gang. She's an athletic pole dancer and takes pride in teaching new girls how to pole dance.
She first got into lap dancing over a decade ago when she saw an ad for dancers. At the time, she worked in a fast-food takeaway and dreamed of being a podium dancer. She ended up working in now-defunct Kildare lap-dancing club The Chicken Ranch. It wasn't exactly Pasha.
She's upfront about what she does and sees no shame in it. Her family and some of her partner's family know she's a lap dancer. Even her children know what she works at; she sees no reason to hide it from them.
She also featured in the TV3 documentary series 'How the Irish Have Sex'.
"I've been called every name under the sun for being a lap dancer," she says.
"There's a lot of jealousy on the estate I live in. Some people can't handle the fact that I dance to get the money for the things I want.
"I've had windows in my house smashed. I'm not a hooker or a prostitute, I'm a lap dancer. I go to work, then I go home, I don't meet up with men after hours, I only dance. Ireland has always been a hypocritical, backward country and I think it's about time people started getting over it.
"I say don't knock something you haven't tried. I wouldn't be upset if my daughter started lap dancing when she's 17 or older. Most parents would think that's an awful thing to say: I can say it because I do it and I know it's not wrong."
Over the next five minutes, Amanda dances erotically for my partner, stripping out of that skimpy white outfit and placing parts of her body in his lap and face that are normally reserved for lovers or gynaecologists.
She strips totally and once she's naked, steps away. This is a no-touching club.
While Amanda dances for him, my other-half can see another dancer sitting on a punter's lap, whispering in his ear. It doesn't seem to detract from the experience.
This dance costs €50. She says 23pc is taken off for VAT and she shares the rest 50-50 with the club. So, for a five- minute dance, she earns almost €20.
Easy money for five minute's work perhaps but times are tough in Ireland's lap-dancing industry. By 3am, Amanda won't have danced for anyone else or earned any other money.
According to club owner/general manager Joe Moore, Angels' dancers can earn up to €600 a night but mostly average between €100 and €200 a night.
"You don't earn big money in lap dancing," Amanda says. "I'm not earning thousands one week then taking the next week off to go shopping. Lap dancing has gone quiet and you can't earn as much money as before. What I earn by night, I survive on by day.
"You might earn bigger money in the UK where lap dancing and strip clubs are an every-day fact of life. There are super-size strip clubs that men go to in their lunch break. It's a very different scene to here.
"At Angels, I might pull €100 a night or maybe just €50 or €60. There are nights when I earn nothing and it doesn't bother me, I know I'll earn money sooner or later.
"It isn't really a job for me, it's a hobby. I love pole dancing and I like coming in here to practise. It gets me out of the house, keeps me sane."
She says she stopped dancing for four years while her children were very young, but when her youngest child got to three, she went back to work.
"Now, I love coming into the club. You make friends with the other girls. Everyone has problems and you can come in and talk to the other girls or have a good cry.
"We're our own bosses. We all work differently but I don't see the other girls as competition, we get on well together. The club manager Joe is easy-going and takes an interest in us."
It's a typically quiet night in Angels. There are maybe half a dozen male customers, including an Italian and an Irish guy in his late 30s. One customer, a fortysomething Englishman in a salesman suit, complains loudly about the lap-dance prices: "These are Las Vegas prices mate," he asserts before buying a token for the cheapest dance on the list. When we leave two hours later, he's still there.
Back in the early 1990s, Toni the exotic dancer was as far as Ireland's stripping scene went.
The Tallaght woman's weekly strip shows in the Lower Deck pub in Portobello were the talk of the town.
But by the early noughties, there was an explosion of Irish lap-dancing clubs, opening just in time to capitalise on Celtic Tiger spending. Angels was a frontrunner, opening in 2000. For many years, it was owned by Patrick O'Keefe, who went on to re-invent Buck Whaley's night club.
Angels manager Joe Moore, a former golfing salesman from Dublin's East Wall, says the club had a revamp a few years ago, but the place looks tired and is in need of refurbishment. It's old-fashioned and basic-looking; the carpets are stained and worn.
But, claims Moore, there's no money to invest in refurbishment. Irish lap-dancing clubs are facing challenging times.
The novelty factor has worn off, the volume of customers is down at least 50pc, operating costs are higher, the club has been operating at a small loss for the last year.
By the time the club closes at 3am, seven of the 14 girls working will go home without having made a cent. The club will have taken just under a €1,000 from around 20 lap dances and a bit extra from €20 admission fees and the bar.
Not knowing how much money they'll earn is what keeps the girls coming back five or six nights a week. They're not on any payroll or guaranteed any earnings.
My partner instantly declares Amanda's dance the best of the three lap dances he's ever had in his life, the other two having taken place at the Barclay Club on South William Street a few nights earlier.
One of those, from a Dublin girl, he deemed perfunctory: the other, from a Brazilian girl, was more skilful, better designed to tease him into spending more money on another dance. The Barclay is a more glamorous-looking club but at midnight on a Saturday, there were just a few male customers there, one a middle-class man wearing a Berghaus jacket, the kind that hillwalkers wear.
He sat at the bar chatting to a dancer, paid his bill by credit card and left by 1am.
The €20 admission fee included a two-minute lap dance but we were told the next dance available would cost €150 for 15 minutes. A gin and tonic at the bar cost €9, cocktails €15.
Most lap-dancing clubs insist that customers are not allowed to touch dancers. This theory was challenged at the Barclay club a number of years ago when gardai raided it and found one dancer being touched by a customer during a lap dance.
The customer claimed the dancer had been startled by the sudden garda presence and that he had only touched her to stop her from falling. His claim was rubbished by the judge that presided over the ensuing court case.
After his brief lap dance at the Barclay Club, my partner asked if touching was allowed. The dancer -- gesturing to her hips -- told him that if he opted for a longer dance, a little bit of touching might be allowed.
With every imaginable type of hardcore porn now available online and prostitution thriving in Ireland, it seemed to my partner that lap dancing is softcore, an innocent bit of erotic fun that will seem quaint to us in years to come.
Lap-dancing clubs, he thinks, also feed the male ego. "There's the feeling in a lap-dancing club that you're being chatted up by women, that you're attractive to them and that you will get to see them naked or almost naked if and when you choose to," my partner tells me. "It's an illusion."
Inevitably, the recession has meant a downturn in business for Ireland's erotic dancing clubs. The stag parties still show up, but tourist numbers are down and many Irish men simply aren't bothered or don't have the money to spend on erotic dances.
Conversely, you know the recession is ongoing when the Chippendales reform and announce a string of appearances, including Dublin.
In the early noughties, clubs opened everywhere from Tipperary to Kildare, Kilkenny and Drogheda to Waterford but many have since closed down, most recently Lapetite in Dublin's Barry's Hotel and various other clubs dotted around the country. Some clubs say they are still ticking over, others say they have been hit hard by the recession.
The recession is also bringing Irish women back into lap dancing. In recent years, far fewer Irish women have worked in clubs but a growing number are once again looking for work as dancers.
"I have friends who would have always said to me, 'Oh I'd never do that to earn money'," says Amanda. "Now they're screaming out for work, asking me to ask in the club for work for them".
In recent years, a so-called 'empowerment myth' has grown up around lap dancing, which claims that lap dancing empowers young women by enabling them to fund their way through college.
In Angels, only two of the current pool of dancers are students, according to Joe Moore.
The feminist argument against lap dancing doesn't hold much sway with dancers like Amanda. While some think clubs like Angels objectify women and commodify their bodies, offering little in return, she doesn't, or can't, see what the big deal is.
A far more pressing issue for men who like lap-dancing clubs is the fact that the cost of buying a lap dance here is relatively expensive.
"I don't get hassle working in the club," says Amanda.
"There's a generational shift, men now understand the rules and generally respect them. But the one thing men do complain about is the price of a lap dance in Dublin.
"They'll say lap dances are much cheaper in the UK or say, Prague. Or that what we're offering here is totally lame compared to what they can get in other countries. Some UK clubs for example, don't have the no-touching rule. So men do come in expecting something different and they do give out about the prices."
There are currently five or six clubs in Dublin, one in Galway and one in Cork. Of those now operating, some work as a cross between casinos and lap-dancing venues.
Others, like Lapello, which is owned by Chris Kelly Holdings (which also owns the Barclay Club and Capitol Lounge (a regular bar) on Dublin's South Great George's Street) have stuck to lap-dancing. Despite repeated requests for an interview, Chris Kelly from Chris Kelly Holdings did not speak to us for this article.
In the UK and America, many clubs charge women a house fee to dance there. If a dancer makes no money on a given night, she can find herself owing rather than earning money.
In the industry's heyday, some Irish clubs are said to have previously charged dancers a house fee to perform.
Joe Moore, who says he runs Angels on behalf on English and Spanish owners, is the only lap-dancing club manager we contacted who offers to speak to us. He says his club doesn't charge dancers a nightly house fee but takes 50pc of the dancers' earnings.
"At the beginning," he says, "there was a positive reaction to lap-dancing clubs. Men were queueing up outside our door to come in and pay to see topless girls dance for them, groups of lads travelled up from the country. At one point, we had seven clubs around the country, including Galway and Tipperary.
"In 2003, Operation Quest raided lap-dancing clubs in search of criminal activity. There were images of black marias outside clubs; it was damaging to the industry. At the time, this club had seven non-EU dancers and I'm proud to say that every one of them had their correct papers.
"Operation Quest didn't find any evidence of criminal activity in our club but those findings were never published.
From then on, lap-dancing clubs got lumped in with prostitution and trafficking, which really upsets me.
"People hear the word sex now and they think first of prostitution and trafficking. Like it or hate it, lap-dancing clubs are thrown into the same category."
In 2005, the owner and managers of Angels lap-dancing club in Galway were fined over a non-EU dancer found to be working at the club with a false passport. Joe Moore says the case was a one-off.
In 2006, the Irish industry was dealt another blow when Peter Stringfellow's club on Parnell street in Dublin closed down after just five months.
The 'high class' club had met with stiff opposition from protesting locals and was also considered by industry insiders to be in the wrong place. Stringfellow presumed his name would work in any part of the city but it didn't.
More importantly, protesters labelled lap-dancing clubs as tacky, sleazy, undesirable venues to have in their area. The label stuck.
The lap-dancing industry tries to distance itself from the sex industry but in the UK, legislation introduced in 2010 resulted in new licensing laws for lap-dancing clubs. They are now classed as sex establishments rather than bars or clubs. If you have a lap dance, it's called a 'sex encounter'.
However, in the same year, a survey of 300 lap dancers carried out at the University of Leeds found that most women who got into lap dancing had done so not because they were coerced or had drug habits but rather for economic or career reasons.
They were either supplementing income from arts jobs such as acting or modelling or were unemployed graduates who earned more lap dancing than working in a bar.
A quarter of them had degrees and three quarters of them said they were happy lap dancing.
Apart from Operation Quest, new Irish licensing laws in 2008, the smoking ban and the recession have also contributed to the downturn in fortunes for lap-dancing clubs here.
"The novelty factor has worn off, as I always knew it would," says Joe Moore. "Ten years ago, even five years ago, we would have five or six door staff on each night, 50 or 60 girls dancing, four bar staff, two bars running, a cashier and myself.
"Tonight, there's just three full-time staff on: myself, a barman and a doorman. At the weekend, we might have 18 or 20 girls on, taken from a pool of 25 or 30, we wouldn't have more than 20 girls on in a single night."
According to Moore, men are mostly buying €50 lap dances so in a good week the club will sell 500 tokens for €50 lap dances. An average week is 300 tokens, a bad week is 200 tokens.
"We have no idea what business is going to be like," he says. "We might have one really quiet week followed by two good weeks. We operated at a loss of around €500 a week last year and this year looks like being the same, although there are the rugby matches coming up and we don't know yet how good Christmas will be."
Now, says Joe, the club gets stag parties at the weekend and survives on regulars during the week.
Amanda Norton says she has seen a difference in how the business and its recession-time clients operate.
"I only started back dancing six months ago," she says. "And in that time I have genuinely noticed that a lot of the men who come in just want to sit down with you and talk about their problems.
"In all honesty, 80pc of my work as a lap dancer is talking, the rest is dancing. You become an agony aunt of sorts, listening to men talking about the issues in their lives.
"You also learn how to read situations. If I ask a man for a dance, I take the time to read him. If I think he's going to be trouble, I steer clear. I rarely get hassle and if I did, Joe would be straight in to sort it out.
She says she gets more hassle from women about lap dancing than from men.
"Some Irish women are very narrow- minded about it. They think it's a kind of cheating because their man is being sexually excited by another woman, but I don't know where they get off saying that -- there's no sex or kissing or touching, it's not cheating."
Joe Moore says they don't get much hassle at the club. "Let's just say that 70pc of our customers are married. The last place they want to be caught getting into trouble is in a lap-dancing club."