It was a slow night last winter inside a strip club in Long Island City in Queens. Only a smattering of customers were still inside the club. One of them was throwing cash - hundreds of dollars - toward a dancer calling herself Panama as she performed on stage. Once the man stopped, she thanked him and started gathering her earned cash with the help of another dancer.
But the club, like many others now, has a relatively new breed of "bartender" - once called "bottle girls" - women almost as naked as the strippers, who are competing with them for the attention of the audience and their money. They are not your grandfather's or even your father's bartender. Like the strippers, they are not employees of the club but "private contractors." But they have mastered social media, using Instagram to build followings of men in the hope that these men will follow them into the clubs.
And in those clubs, they have the same goal as the strippers: They want to "make it rain" cash, on them.
Just as Panama says she was picking up her money, one of these bartenders also started to gather the cash - for herself. When Panama tried to retrieve the money from the bartender, a female bouncer picked up Panama and tried to restrain her. As she struggled to break free in her spiked heels, she twisted her ankle, she told The Washington Post.
One of the club's co-owners, who Panama has known for years, intervened, siding with the bartender. Once Panama got upstairs, management handed her a little bucket containing $200. Panama says she was distraught. It was her son's birthday and she planned on using that extra $600 for his party.
"The next day I had a swollen ankle during my son's birthday and all I could think about was how I got treated at work," Panama told The Washington Post. "When I went back to the club they said they looked at the cameras and said it was my money. But there was nothing they could do about it then."
Panama is a stage name and she declined to provide her real name. She is for real, though, said Mona Marie, the owner of a New York dance studio where many dancers train called Poletic Justice. And, she says, so are their mounting grievances, so much so that some of them have declared a stripper's strike. It's unclear how many dancers are participating and what the impact on the clubs has been. The strike is about a week old.
This isn't your normal labor dispute between employees and employers. It's between bartenders and strippers, on the one hand, and between strippers and club promoters on the other, who tend to side with the bartenders because, after all, it's the bartenders who they believe are bringing in the customers via social media.
And for the strippers, race and racism is definitely part of the mix. The aggrieved strippers tend to be black women and the bartenders white or Latina.
At bottom, however, the dispute stems from change in the business. Like all other industries, this one has been disrupted.
"It's a new day," wrote DJ Kay Slay, a well-known New York hip hop disc jockey, in an Instagram post on Oct. 24.
There's always been racism in the strip club business he agreed. But "we all have to face the fact that it's a new day. It was a time where bartenders were only allowed to serve drinks and didn't wear the same attire as the dancers. The ladies did not change that rule," he wrote, "the clubs did. And social media made it where some promoters (not all) will use popular ladies who have never bartended in their life, to bartend at their events," using their "IG celebrity to make their fans come out on their nights . . .. Personally I feel they should drop both titles 'Strippers and Bartenders' because it's all the same sh- now!"
A visitor to New York who blogs on the business under the name of Urban, described her surprise upon entering two of New York's best-known clubs, Aces (now shut down for various violations) and Starlets.
"How both of these clubs are set up is that the stage is actually behind a bar that wraps around it. I found this really weird considering the dancers were pretty much inaccessible unless they came up to you personally for a lap dance. What blew my mind though is pretty much all night rather than serving drinks, the "bartenders" were shaking their asses to have the dudes sitting around throw money on them . . ."
During a radio interview, former New York stripper turned best selling hip-hop star Cardi B., who is Dominican American, said, "People want to follow the trend. Even if its a bad- stripper, like the baddest of the baddest, people still wanna throw money at the bar tender because it's just like the trend."
As BET put it, "strippers are calling out the bottle girls for literally swiping the money that does get tossed on stage."
In years gone by, strippers at "Gentlemens Clubs" performed on stage and in VIP rooms. Bartenders, fully dressed, were certified and poured customers drinks. The dancers were the money makers and rarely moved around to different clubs.
The shift began about five years ago, which is when the Instagram "models" with large social media followings calling themselves "startenders" started to be hired in the urban clubs primarily in Queens and Brooklyn. Club promoters stopped seeking out the best mixologists and started hiring from Instagram, based on a particular kind of look and followings. Bartenders started to resemble the strippers except they reaped a lot more benefits.
Strippers have always paid a "house fee" to the club. They must pay at a minimum $50 a night to strip. During big events the fee increases to $150-$250. Bartenders don't pay house fees.
Since this new type of bartender has entered the industry there's been a "drastic difference in dancers' wages," said Panama. She used to make thousands in a night but now usually averages $400 a night. "No dancer in New York City is making $1,000 a night anymore."
Dancers rarely stay in one club anymore. Many travel to Connecticut, Atlanta and Miami where the money is better.
A dancer named Gizelle Marie is one of the strike organizers. "The [New York City] bartenders tell the customers not to tip us. They block us from the customers while we dance or they are sweeping our money off the stage while we dance," she told The Post.
Several videos taken from inside different clubs posted on Instagram appear to support her claim.
Gizelle Marie says most customers can't tell bartenders apart from strippers anymore because they all basically dress the same and "the club promoters and owners encourage the behavior."
Gizelle Marie got the idea to mobilize the NYC Strippers Strike after she traveled to Washington last month to dance at a club during Howard University's homecoming. "I made a lot of money. It made me think to myself that a lot of the great dancers aren't dancing in New York anymore. They moved away to other cities to work or they just completely stopped," Gizelle said.
Within a couple days, she posted the word out on Instagram and 30 strippers gathered last week at Poletic Justice in the Bronx for a meeting.
Panama said, "The dancers used to be the most respected in the club and now it's like the dancers are at the bottom of the barrel. And the dark-skinned dancers are all the way at the bottom of the barrel."
Labor disputes in these clubs face a number of obstacles, the main one being that everyone who works in them is an independent contractor. There's no labor law to cover them.
As the owner of Poletic Justice, Mona Marie, told The Post, "There's no union or HR but at the end of the day it's still a job and they just want to be respected."
And there are risks for the women. Before the strike, Gizelle Marie said she danced in the clubs almost daily, but since organizing the movement she's been blacklisted. "I've received a lot of backlash from the promoters so I'm not allowed to work in these clubs," she said.
In the past, the dancers have mostly been silent about their issues out of fear, she said. "People were in fear of losing their jobs if they spoke out. A lot of these women have other careers, are parents, are putting themselves through school so that fear factor absolutely played a part in it."
They want their house fees reduced. They want bartenders to pay house fees, too. The black dancers want the opportunity to be hired as bartenders. And they want the bartenders to stop stealing their money.
They wish as well that management would stop pitting the strippers and bartenders against each other. The dancers believe everyone can work together harmoniously if rules are established.
"All we want is respect at the end of the day," Gizelle Marie said. "If it doesn't change by us going to the owners we'll take further matters legally."
Club promoters are not sympathetic to the strippers' demands. Sean Simmons, promotional director for Aces New York, said the strike is "nonsense." He said there is no racism in the nightclubs and that he employed "all ethnicities" as dancers and bartenders at his club before it was shut down a couple months ago.
"The whole industry itself has changed," Simmons told The Post in a brief phone interview. "Some clubs are bartender driven but that's just because the bartenders are beautiful women." Simmons said that there should be rules and regulations between dancers and bartenders but said, "Nothing will come from the strike."
But the women have vowed to keep fighting.
As Panama said, "No matter how people may perceive your work environment, a work environment is a work environment and everyone needs to be respected and treated equally. If there's something you can do to help or change your establishment, you should do it."
Author Information: Amber Ferguson is the Morning Mix video editor at The Washington Post.