"When I first began dancing, Shoreditch felt a lot freer and more openminded," says stripper and activist Edie Lamort. "Social media didn't exist. Now it's easy to quickly whip up moral panic. People seem to be much more conservative."
Lamort is part of the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC), a group of dancers who've joined forces to fight against the stigma and poor working conditions that plague their industry. It's to this end that the group is putting on a ten-day stripping festival in October, the first of its kind in the UK.
Based in Red Gallery on Rivington Street, the Art of Stripping will involve an exhibition, academic symposium, workshops, talks, film screenings, pole dancer life drawing classes, and a program of performances. There will be a stripper-wear sale, stripping classes and, on the final night, a Tarantino-themed From Dusk 'Til Dawn Halloween party, featuring performances by members of the ELSC. The group is crowd-funding the event.
The festival will be a chance for dancers to take back some control over the way they're represented. As with other forms of sex work, people outside the industry are intrigued by stripping and are likely to have opinions. A popular format is this: journalist trots along to a strip club for an hour or two and reports back on their important and enlightening feelings, failing to give dancers themselves space for more than a cursory quote.
Few other industries are subjected to such regular fact-free outpourings, and the ELSC are sick of it.
"Stigma is increased by all the incredibly damaging media representations of our world, which do us absolutely no favors and make our work-lives even harder," says the collective's Stacey Clare. "I hope people go away from our festival realizing that strippers are humans, with creativity and agency."
ELSC member Sassy agrees. "I'd like people to realize the joy in stripping," she says. "I'd also like people to realize that the industry is full of smart, empowered women who just happen to use their sexuality to pay the rent."
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The festival will show stripping in a positive light; these particular dancers love what they do and will argue convincingly that stripping is an art form. Work by ELSC members—Chiqui Love's bizarre, beautiful costumes; Millie Robson and Vera Rodriguez's photography; Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's elegant films—will attest to this. However, no one's pretending that all is sweetness and light within the industry, that every stripper is or should be an art school graduate or that everyone in the industry skips to work each day with joy in their heart. A ten-day exercise in respectability politics is not the aim.
As with the media, so with the entire legislative framework in which strip clubs exist: dancers' opinions come second.
"Somehow, basic human rights and employment protections never made it as far as the strip club industry," says Stacey. "Dancers continue to submit to highly questionable business practices: club owners who bully and threaten us, sack us without notice, give us no contract of services at all, no job security. We have no recourse to take legal action against strip club owners and bosses because our current legal definition is 'self-employed,' despite the fact we are treated as employees in almost every respect."
Strippers also have to contend with increasingly punitive decisions by local authorities. In Hackney, where the festival will take place, the council has imposed a nil limit policy—much the same as its policy on night clubs—meaning no new sexual entertainment venues will be granted licenses and existing ones may be turned down when they apply for renewal. This, despite the fact that more than two-thirds of local residents were against the plan.
A spokesperson for Hackney Council told VICE that the stripping festival has been allowed to go ahead as it's an "art event" and because it will only take place for ten days.
"It's an artistic event, so there wouldn't be any reason for us to stop that," the spokesperson said. "They wouldn't be able carry it out on a regular basis, but legislation does allow for [a] limited number of strip tease events under these circumstances."
The ELSC question the council's stance.
"The nil policy pushes strip clubs further to the edges of social acceptability, leaving us more vulnerable and marginalized than before," Stacey says. "I'd like the council to realize that and engage in genuine dialogue with us about how licensing could be improved to protect us, rather than creating a situation where strip clubs are a perceived hazard which the rest of society must be protected from."
Like bars and clubs, strip clubs are being targeted on the grounds of causing noise and anti-social behavior, although studies suggest that takeaways are more frequently seen as a source of nuisance. If there is a moral agenda at work, the ELSC hope that their festival will chip away at it. Lamort sees the clamp-down on strip clubs as a part of wider intolerance.
"There's value in subcultures and a need for creative space," she says. "The East End strip pubs were unique in the fact that the emphasis was on stage shows and the focus was on performance and costume. This fed massively into the neo-burlesque and burgeoning pole scene at the beginning of the millennium. It's vital for subcultures to exist, to nurture the next thing in art, dance, music, and fashion."
The Art of Stripping exhibition will open with a private viewing on Thursday, October 22, and will remain open to the public until Saturday, October 31. You can help support the event here.
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