When the organizers of New York City's “Stripper Strike,” Gizelle Marie and Panama Pink, needed a place to meet last year, Poletic Justice was the obvious choice. “Why not a pole studio in the Bronx?” the studio’s owner, Mona Marie, said to me with a laugh.
After the meeting, Poletic Justice regulars Marie and Pink took to social media to protest discriminatory practices at a handful of clubs in the city. They called attention to the colorism and racism displayed by club owners, who favor white “bartenders” over the mostly black women who perform. “Most black women are not really speaking out because they’re worried about losing their jobs or getting blacklisted,” Marie told me. Having performed in gentlemen’s clubs for the past decade, she’s aware of the expensive house fees and prejudiced hiring and firing practices today’s dancers face.
Providing support for a movement advocating for women of color isn't weird for Poletic Justice. In fact, that's what Marie had in mind when she opened shop in 2016. The 31-year-old dancer and instructor who's choreographed for Madonna always intended for Poletic Justice to be more than a space for professionals to sharpen their skills. “My studio provides a safe space for women.” To that point, Marie teaches women from all walks of life to love their bodies and embrace their creativity while they build confidence on the pole.
I caught up with Mona Marie recently about creating an empowering space for women and why exotic dancers should unionize.
VICE: How did you get started dancing?
Mona Marie: When I was 20, a friend of mine who was doing security for me as a performer invited me to Bada Bing in Hunts Point. I saw these two ladies, who are now very good friends of mine, at the very top of the pole. I was just in awe.
I went a week later and auditioned, and they hired me. I would stand in the back of the club in the corner and watch the girls and mimic what they did on the pole. Getting over my fear of heights was the hard part, but it all worked out. I fell in love with the freedom of being able to be my own choreographer. I fell in love with the confidence that I saw building inside of me from being able to do a form of dance that was so enticing, and I had that creative freedom.
There’s a misperception that women get into exotic dancing because of some traumatic event in their life. Can you talk about dispelling that idea?
A lot of people think that being an entertainer, we become an exotic dancer because we have daddy issues, or we’re struggling in life and this is our last resort. That may be some women’s stories, but that’s not all of us. I can only speak for my own story. I was in college when I first started. I really walked in there wanting to teach myself how to do the pole. It was a struggle in the beginning because I had to gain acceptance from my family and friends to have to tell them this is what I decided to do.
What were some of their reactions?
My mom absolutely was upset. She was just like, "So now you’re just going to be promiscuous." My grandmother loves me and adores me, so she was just like, “Ah, live your life. If I had your body, I would be doing the same thing.” But the turning point for me was when I did my very first feature performance at a club in the Bronx called the City. It was my birthday performance, and I invited my mom, my aunts, and my grandmother to the club to watch the show. This was the first time they saw me on the pole. My mother literally ran to the stage and yelled at me, “Mona, get down, you’re going to bust your ass.” And I’m like, “No, Mommy, I got this.” Once they saw that I was creating art and they saw that I wasn’t just being raunchy and sluttly, I gained their respect.
Do you think Cardi B’s success has legitimized exotic dancing as a respected hustle?
I think it was legitimized before she even came about. There’s people who came before her: Amber Rose. Blac Chyna. Nene Leakes. There’s a lot of success stories, and it just goes to show you regardless of where a person starts, it doesn’t mean that’s there ending point.
People doubted Cardi and Blac Chyna. But the best thing about our industry is it’s made up of a bunch of individuals who have other things to offer. So it’s a stepping stone. We have full-on access to people that most people don’t have access to. If you’re doing music, for example, when you’re trying to break into the industry, you have access to the DJs, the producers, the big power players. And as an entertainer you get to walk right up. I don’t need to make an appointment; I don’t need to talk to an assistant.
How did Poletic Justice become the de facto headquarters for the NYC “Stripper Strike”?
I got involved because the women who were leading the strike, Gizelle and Panama, needed a space to have their meetings. And I am an entertainer as well. So of course I was going to say yes. I’m all about women connecting with one another and working together, especially when it’s going to benefit our industry overall. I knew that if I was able to provide that space, then a lot of open sessions could happen about what needs to be changed.
What’s the primary goal of the strike?
Becoming unionized. My industry is just like any other industry. While we are part of the sex industry, there still has to be some rules and regulations. Just because we’ve decided to be liberated and chosen to showcase our body, that does not mean that we do not deserve respect or professionalism.
People feel entitled to treat us any which way because of what we’re doing. But we just want to be able to go to work and not have to worry about being discriminated against or being fired for no reason or see other staff not being accountable for their actions. All the women of the stripper strike really want is some rules and regulations and for people to act professional.
The dancers, who are mostly black women, are protesting preferential treatment of club owners toward the “bartenders,” who are mostly white. How is that color line impacting the strike?
Most black women are not really speaking out because they’re worried about losing their jobs or getting blacklisted. The only way this is going to change is in numbers. If we all stand together unified, regardless of skin color, then a lot can happen. It’s the nature of the industry, and it’s sad at times, but at least I’m able to do my part to make sure the women that cross my path are able to work together.
The older generation has to set a better example for the younger generation. Because the younger generation is running amok. We need to lead by example.
Running amok how?
We’re taught to compete against one another from a young age, and we don’t know how to be unified. Especially in our industry, everyone’s trying to get ahead of the next person. If we worked all together, we would get better results. Instead of being out for self, we can be out for self united.
Photography: Maroon World
Styling: Romina Cenisio
Makeup: Wanthy Rayos
Hair: Illy Lussiano
Nails: Naomi Yasuda for LUAR
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here .
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