The following is an excerpt from the first volume of dancer JA Sapphire’s self-published memoir, Sapphire: Escape. At this point in the book, it’s 1996 and Sapphire has just decided to work as an exotic dancer for the first time. She has escaped from an abusive background and moved to Atlanta from the Eastern Seaboard, and worked a series of jobs, but found herself unable to pay rent, so she made her way to Magic City and has been taken to the dressing room by one of the managers, Nick.
I watch Nick close the door behind him as I place my bag on the table to search for something to wear. I don’t have much. I pull out something that I think is very sexy, something that I bought from the lingerie place in the Phipps Plaza. It’s black, full-lace with thick lace embroidery that covers the real important parts. It has two snaps at the bottom of the crotch, the neck comes up like a turtleneck, and the shoulders are ruffled. I take out a small red pencil and light the tip with a lighter to line my eyelids. I use the black mascara to extend my lashes. I use the black gel called Ampro to smooth my hair’s edges. With curl activator I bring up the waves in my hair. My hair is still cut into a boy-like fade. I pull out some lipstick that cost me about two dollars and paint my lips. I look at my reflection thinking I look great.
I start rubbing my body down with lotion when I notice a medium light-skinned girl with broad shoulders walk in. She’s dressed very conservatively in a white turtleneck, jeans and bootheels. She places her bag on a chair and glances at me but doesn’t speak. She goes in front of the mirror and stares at herself. She has blunt-cut bangs. She untangles the scarf from around her neck and the back of her jet-black hair. I feel that it’s impolite that neither one of us is speaking; therefore, I walk up to her with an extended hand to introduce myself to her.
“Hello,” I say happily. “I am Janel. I’m new here.”
She looks at me disdainfully up and down, then walks out the room. I hear her mumbling to Nick, then laughing. She returns but never says a word. “Excuse me,” I interrupt. “About how much money do you make in here?” She cuts her eyes, looks at me angrily and remains silent. “Excuse me,” I repeat myself. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” she states, “but how in the fuck are you just going to come up to me and ask me how much money I make? I don’t know you. That’s rude as fucking hell.”
“I’m not trying to offend you,” I reply. “I just want to know what to expect. I’m very nervous; this is my first day.”
She looks me up and down, then scoffs. “I make about two hundred.”
“Two hundred a week?”
“No, honey,” she says exasperated. “I make two hundred a day but that’s me; you…I will be surprised if you make fifty dollars.”
“How many days a week do you work?”
“As many as I feel like,” she says. “This is a strip club. We don’t have schedules, but I try to come at least four to five days a week.”
“That’s a thousand dollars a week.” My mouth slightly opens.
“Minimum,” she indicates.
“Excuse me,” I say once more. “What’s your name?”
“Foxx,” she exhales heavily. “You’re new, right?” I nod my head. “Don’t talk to girls when they first walk through the door. They’re still adjusting, and they’re not as excited to be here as you are. Never ask a stripper how they make or anyone else in that case, how much money she makes. It’s just fucking rude.”
I walk back to my things on the countertop and continue to lotion up. Twenty minutes later, Nick returns. “You look nice for your first day,” Nick says. “Come on, let’s go upstairs.” We make an immediate left at the top of the stairs, and he pulls out a chair where another young girl is sitting. She looks to be about fifteen years old. She has my complexion, maybe a little lighter, with hazel-brown eyes. She’s also wearing a teddy, so I think I made the right choice. Her hair is in micro-braids, dyed blondish-brown and pulled up in a ponytail. She looks at me timidly. I look back at her with the same expression.
“What’s your stage name?” she says with a slight Atlanta accent.
“Janel,” I reply. “It’s my first day.”
“It’s my first day, too,” she exclaims. “Janel’s your stage name? I think I am going to call myself Sweet Pea.”
“What is a stage name?” I ask.
“It’s what you call yourself,” she explains. “You don’t want these guys knowing your real name, they could be stalkers or perverts.”
Nick comes back up the stairs and walks over to us. “Why are you two just sitting here?” he says. “You need to check in with the DJ, walk around, and ask these men for some dances.”
“How do you ask for a dance?” I ask.
“Just go up to a man and say, ‘Hi!’” he says. “Then ask him nicely, ‘Do you want a dance?’ It’s not a hard job; the product sells itself. These men know what they are here for. They know what to expect. They know how much it costs. Stop worrying. Not too many guys are going to tell you no.”
He waves his hands to scatter us away then he returns downstairs.
“Well, I am going to walk around,” Sweet Pea declares. “I came to make money.”
She walks to the other side of the room and starts talking to a man. He smiles, nods his head and she starts taking off her clothes. She’s dancing. She has a very tiny waist and about C-cup breasts. She swings her wide hips from side to side along with the music. She puts her one hand in the air and rubs her stomach with the other. The music goes off, then I see the man says something to her and she continues to dance. That’s twenty dollars. Five songs later and she’s still dancing, while I’m still sitting in this chair. I finally get enough courage to get up and ask someone to dance. Each man rejects me. I feel useless and return to the chair.
It’s six p.m., and I still haven’t gotten my first dance. Our shift ends at nine. This is a mistake. How am I going to pay rent?
“I asked everybody, but they all said no.” He looks around the club.
“What about those two?” he points to the two men standing a table away, next to the wall.
“No,” I reply. “I didn’t ask them.”
“Well, you didn’t ask everybody,” he snaps. “Why didn’t you ask them?”
“They’re talking. They’re not even sitting down.”
“So what? They’re not in here to talk.”
“I’m not used to interrupting men when they’re speaking.”
“Why, is it the 1930s?”
Nick playfully nudges me out of my seat to walk over to the men. My heart begins to race, and my breathing becomes heavy. I’m scared of the rejection.
“Excuse me, sirs.” I look down towards the floor. “I was wondering if you’d like a dance.”
They stop talking, and give me a long stare. One man is taller than the other. He has full lips and high cheek bones. He’s wearing a navy blue jogging suit.
“No, not right now,” he states. “We’re talking business.”
I drop my head, exhale deeply and slink away. “Oh, ok then.”
“Is that it?” he hollers. I turn back around.
“You’re not even going to try?” he suggests. “You’re going to accept my answer and walk away?” I look at him puzzled. “Just because I’m talking to someone doesn’t mean that I can’t get dances, too. I know how to multi-task. You must be new.”
“It is my first day.”
“How many dances have you gotten?”
“None. Everyone keeps telling me no.”
“Maybe because you’re giving up too easily,” he indicates. “Next time talk you go up to a guy, first start talking to him, joke with him a little and get him interested. Don’t give up so easily. Go ahead and dance. You’re cute.”
I smile but I keep looking at the floor. I take a deep breath and start to take my clothes off. I become flushed. I can’t look him in his eyes, so I focus on the ceiling. I shake nervously off beat as I feel his eyes burning into me. I’m a whore! I start stumbling. I can hear their laughter as they cover their mouths.
“Oh, we got new booty on duty!” the shorter man shouts.
“What?” I whisper.
“New booty on duty,” the man I’m dancing for repeats. “It means that you’re new to the club. No one has ever seen it. No one has ever touched it.”
“It’s no disrespect,” his friend interjects. “It’s what you are, and men like that.”
I don’t know how to dance, so I begin to imitate Sweet Pea by swinging my hips from side to side with a blank expression. I think that my body is moving exactly like Sweet Pea’s but I can tell by the laughs that I am not doing it. The song is over, the two men exchange looks.
“Really, we do need to talk,” the man notifies me. I take a deep breath and begin to place my clothes back on. “What are you doing? I didn’t say stop. We can talk while you dance, but go over there.” He points to the empty tables. “Dance for the chair and practice.”
“Yes, the chair. Stand in front of that chair and dance. Pretend that the chair is me.” I walk over to a chair, put my outfit in the empty chair and start dancing. He whistles, I look up and he waves me over further. “No, go over two more rows. Stand over by the table near the V.I.P door.” I walk over to the last table by the door to the V.I.P., put my clothes in the empty seat and begin to dance.
“Now do the two-step,” he cries out. “No, like this.” He pulls his arms close to his sides, snaps his fingers to the beat and steps from side to side. “Like this. Do it with me.”
I stand in front of the chair imitating him. It’s hard to stand in these heels but I find a balance in these shoes on this carpeting. I look up, but he’s no longer paying any attention to me. The song is over. I pick up my clothes, then he notices that I have stopped dancing.
“Did I tell you to stop dancing?” he hollers. “Do you not want to dance? Keep dancing until I tell you to stop.”
Ten songs go by. I have to listen for where the songs stop and when they begin. It’s hard because they’re being mixed in by scratches and beats. I am paying more attention to what I am doing than to the half-naked women that are walking past me. I see them take off and put on their clothes between dances, but after thirty seconds, I see skin, not nudity. I forget that I am naked.
Ten more songs go by when I see the man place his hand in the air to call me back to him. My feet sting with an unfamiliar pain and I can barely walk. I mean, these heels are really killing me. He and his friend chuckle at the way I walk back.
“Ok, how much do I owe you?”
“It’s twenty songs, sir.” I am afraid to tell him the price because it’s so much money.
“Sir?” he scoffs. “Twenty songs?” He and his friend exchange a devious look.
I become nervous. Then he pulls out a knot of money that he gets from his right pocket and peels off two hundred dollar bills and places them in my hand. My eyes widen in amazement and he smiles showing me his pearly-white teeth. I’ve never seen a man with so much money before.
“Hope that this gives you a great first day.”
“Thank you,” I say with a smile. “It’s nice meeting you.”
I can’t remove the smile that’s plastered upon my face. I’ve never made this much money before, so fast, ever. I return to the table where Sweet Pea and I were sitting. She’s waiting for me and I can’t help but grin.
“I just made two hundred dollars; what time is it?”
“A little after 7:00 p.m.”
“Really? It’s only been an hour?”
“Well, don’t sit down now,” Sweet Pea cries out. “We have two more hours to go.”
We go our separate ways to obtain more dances and the club starts to fill up with men. It looks as if we’re in a dance club. Everyone’s happy, talking and drinking. These people are not what I am expecting. These are regular guys, not deranged perverts and psychopaths. They walk in with suits. They converse, buy me drinks and treat me like a lady. Some give me dances, or just give me money but none of them touch me. Is this all I have to do? Why did I think so horribly about the strip clubs and the dancers? Who made me ashamed of my body and for what reasons?
About 8:30 p.m. Nick walks up to each of us. “You all can go down stairs; the night shift is about to begin and I can’t have you all on my floor, not this new.”
When we reach the locker room, there are females walking everywhere. They’re beautiful and confident. Their hair and nails look as if they just came from the salon and they look as if they’re ready for a photo shoot. These women are Amazons, especially the ones that are in their shoes. Their costumes glisten with feathers and rhinestones fitting their bodies perfectly. It’s intimidating and I feel as if I am a freshman back in high school. Sweet Pea and I exchange an insecure looks then look at our clothes. We know we’re not ready for this. We quietly hide ourselves in the back room on an empty bench and wait for the girls to go upstairs so that we can go home.
A light-skinned girl who’s about six feet tall turns towards us giving us a cold stare. My eyes grow big, because I’ve never seen fake breasts. They look horrible; well, maybe not horrible, but they just don’t look real. Her body is thick, toned but soft. She has a six-pack, horse-like thighs and a perfect butt.
“What the fuck is this?” she yells out ferociously. She waves her hand in disapproval. “Why is it that every fucking new girl thinks we wear FUCKING lingerie? That’s some shit that a church bitch would wear for her husband. A bitch with no imagination.” She turns back to the other women, “Look at that bullshit. Niggas don’t want to see that shit.” Strippers have standards? Who knew?
“Honey Love, stop! You’re being ignorant,” a light-skinned girl yells out. She’s about 5’3”, with breasts that look as if they are just starting to grow; they’re very small and perky. Her stomach is shaped in a soft six-pack and she has a huge, round butt. Her hair is very thick, curly and hangs down her back to her ass. Her face is narrow, she has no makeup on and doesn’t need it. She has a natural glow and her high cheekbones are a naturally blushed pink. She puts on a strapless costume bra with rhinestones.
“No, Morgan,” Honey Love scolds. “If we start letting girls like that in here, the quality of the club will go down, and the level of our customers will drop.”
“They don’t know any better,” Morgan shouts. “This is obviously their first time in the club. To them sexy is what you see on television. We all thought that way once.”
“Asia’s new,” Honey Love adds. She points to a very light-skinned girl with short curly hair. “At least she has the sense to bring a bathing suit.”
“I only knew because I worked in a bikini bar in Kansas City,” Asia yells.
“Well, look at this shit!” Honey Love hollers. “They look like they came from the projects. Her hair is smashed down with black Ampro gel? They don’t have any class.”
I look down embarrassed, because I am from the projects but the way she’s talking, it seems as though she’s the one without any class. Morgan pulls up matching shorts with rhinestones that fit her butt as if they were underwear. This is when I notice that everyone’s pubic hair is trimmed to a tiny strip and the rest is bare. She’s very feminine. She sprays on very expensive perfume that smells heavenly.
“Niggas don’t want to see that shit,” Honey Love repeats. “You need to get a fucking bathing suit!”
She pulls up cutoff denim shorts as little as panties and storms away. Sweet Pea and I exchange a look that says we can tell the difference between them and us. There’s nothing else to do but to get dressed. We walk back upstairs, and Nick stops me.
“How did you do?” he asks.
“One, we need outfits and two, the girls are mean.”
“Yeah, you do, but right now you need rent. I told you not to worry about them. The costume ladies will be here Friday. You’ll need about fifty dollars. Did you make what you needed for rent?”
“Yes, yes I did,” I answer. “I’m so grateful.” A satisfied smile comes over his face.
“Ok, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Nick says.
JA Sapphire was born in Wilmington, Delaware and raised in the projects on 26th and Locust Streets as well as 9th and Pine Streets. She graduated from Newark High School. She has studied the arts, international economics, and modern language at Georgia State University. She speaks and reads four languages: English, French, Spanish, and is a beginner of Mandarin. She received her BS in Business Administration with a minor in Computer Information Systems from DeVry University. In addition, she is a published model in Jet and Playboy Magazines. She worked in the corporate world for ten years before entering the entertainment business.