Feature of the Week: Dancer in the Dark

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Feature of the Week: Dancer in the Dark

Pornography has caused a heated debate in Iceland since an adult film industry conference, which was to be held in Reykjavík last week, was canceled. Technically, pornography is illegal in Iceland, although the definition of the term seems unclear - some are wondering why stripping is allowed if pornography is banned. Read Sara Blask’s feature on dirty dancing in Iceland that appeared in the most recent issue of Iceland Review.

Published in Iceland Review 44.04. Written by Sara Blask, photos by Páll Stefánsson.

“Come on, girl!” Dorcile cries out, clad in a black bikini top secured by a string the width of fishing line. “Give me your best! The legs, the legs, I like the legs!”

She sits on a gray cloth stool in front of the stage where half-drunk flutes of champagne, pink cocktails with bendy draws, and black ashtrays overflowing with red-lipsticked cigarette butts are strewn across the bar like props. The haze of smoke gets thicker as the minute hand inches forward, as the time between dances grows shorter, and as more people pack themselves into Goldfinger, one of the country’s largest strip clubs, on a Friday night at 2:30 a.m.

In front of Dorcile and the two men who’ve taken adjacent stools, a six-foot-tall Portuguese dancer with long black hair moves like a snake from one pole to another. Her tight, black, seatless pants are already lying in a limp pile off to the side of the small stage. She’s wearing a clear plastic bustier and a black thong, and moving her lithe body to the undulating rhythm of PM Dawn’s 1991 hit “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” while reaching behind her back slowly – so slowly – to unclasp the series of hooks holding the plastic to her toned body.

“Give me the best! Give me your best!” Dorcile cries out again, extending both her arms towards the stage. “The best!” A handful of other strippers cheer in unison. Some stand, some are busy canoodling on the black leather couches with men who may eventually buy some private time.

The bustier falls to the floor like a piece of fruit leather. With a flick of her six-inch platform heel, she kicks it to a back corner near her pants. Now topless, she grabs the pole and with the strength of an Olympic gymnast, pulls her legs over her head and clutches it between her calves. She contorts her body around the pole, dancing upside down, her breasts facing the bug-eyed voyeurs, the other strippers, the sweaty men, the credit cards, the double wide wallets.

A balding, pudgy man in a pinstripe, long-sleeved shirt swaggers to the far right stool in front of the stage. He sets down a nearly kicked bottle of Moët & Chandon, barely managing to keep his head above his shoulders. Ruffling in his back pocket, he pulls an ISK 1,000 bill (USD 14) from his wallet.

There are hoots and hollers. Whistles. People clap like they’re watching a Real Madrid match. The stage shakes from the bass of the freezer-sized speakers hanging from the ceiling. All eyes, mostly men, but also other strippers lazing sexily over on the couches, and a handful of couples, are glued on the topless dancer in the wafer-thin thong.

She somersaults from the pole, landing squarely on her heels, and dissolves to her knees, where she writhes on the floor on all fours. The X-rated dance quickly morphs into a XX as she forcefully thrusts her hips in sync with the music. The crowd roars.

She rises again to her feet, inching towards the back of the stage. With dexterity she removes her underwear while bending at the waist while the music begins to fade. Now doubled over, her long hair hangs upside down, shielding her naked bottom half from the audience. The underwear falls to the floor, the song ends, and just as quickly as the dance began, she scoops up her clothes, her money, and disappears behind the thick red curtain.

Dorcile’s long, curly hair hangs halfway down her back. She takes a sip from her white wine, leaving behind a thin film of light pink lip gloss, and turns in her stool. “You know, I like to dance Friday nights. I want to have energy when I dance. When there are a lot of people, I have energy,” she says.

The DJ calls her name.

***

Dorcile has worked the stage and the laps of yearning men for six years. Five in Reykjavík, one in Amsterdam. She’s Caribbean, speaks four languages, has a degree in social work, an Icelandic partner of four years, and two children. She won’t disclose her exact age, but is around 40. For confidentiality, her name has been changed.

She emerges from behind the red curtain as an explosive track from Puerto Rican salsa king Tito Puente erupts through the speakers. Her movements are so quick and so precise that her petite 5’2”, 105 pound frame – elongated with the help of six-inch gold platform heels, size 35 – is almost blurred. 

“One man who comes in doesn’t like it when I dance because sometimes I’m more busy dancing to salsa than I am taking off my clothes,” she told me during the week I spent visiting her at Goldfinger. “I tell him, ‘Look, I was so deep into salsa that I forgot.’ Because salsa, you know, is salsa.”

Dancing has revved Dorcile’s spirit since she started ballet at age nine. By 13, ballet had turned into jazz ballet (“a little more legs up, the ballroom, the salsa, the cha cha cha”), and by 27 she won the only salsa contest she entered. She taught salsa – clothes on – in the Caribbean, and moved to Amsterdam (her native island is one of the Dutch Antilles) in 1990 to take her trade on the road.

 

“I never thought growing up that I would become a stripper,” she said. “Not until I tried it.” Dorcile had been giving private salsa lessons from her home in Amsterdam when one of her clients told her about a club where she had been working and suggested she try it. She said there was loads of money to be made.

Which there was. And is.

“I have my education in social work, but the reason why I’m here is because I can make more money this way, faster, so I can finish earlier, leave with my family, and make my life again in the Caribbean,” Dorcile says. “We’ll leave when we don’t have to worry anymore. You have to work to get what you want.” She hopes this will be by January 2008, and in the meantime will continue to send money every month to her mother and son in the Caribbean.

Goldfinger is tucked among seedy car repair shops and construction supply warehouses in a drab section of Kopavogur, a suburb near the city. It opened in December 2000 and is owned by Ásgeir Thór Davídsson, a charismatic, fast-talking guy with affinities for women, whiskey and cars. He alternates between his black Lincoln Navigator and 1991 Rolls Royce, and also owns a Hummer limo, used for his other business venture, Goldfinger Limo.

Geiri, as everyone calls him, sits in his office behind a thick oak desk in an overstuffed maroon leather chair. On his desk is a pile of papers, an ashtray flooded with yellow butts, a nude calendar from 1995, and on the adjacent windowsill, sandwiched between a desk organizer and two staplers, is an eight-inch high stack of white, folded paper towels.

A gold chain hangs around the neck of his well-padded frame, and his shirt is always tucked in. He has seven children by four women of three nationalities, and is a man rarely seen without his Bluetooth earpiece.

“Look, this is a lifestyle they choose,” says Davídsson, 55, tapping a Mont Blanc pen on the desk. “This is money, you know, this is all for money. All girls that come to Iceland have the option to work in fish for USD 1,500 a month. This is a very well-paid job everywhere in the world. I don’t find anything wrong with it.”

Strip clubs didn’t even exist in Iceland before 1995. But once they arrived, they boomed like new oil reserves in Abu Dhabi. Today, as they become ever further embedded in Icelandic society, a backlash has been developing against the industry, which opponents argue is flagrantly profane, and can lead to prostitution and human trafficking. As the scene continues to gain traction, it remains relatively unchecked and more women like Dorcile are moving to Iceland, if only for a couple months, where there are big bucks to be made.

It’s impossible to calculate how many exotic dancers there are in the country since they come and go so quickly. Davídsson estimates that he sees roughly 100 women in a year, while the owner of the Champagne Club in downtown Reykjavík estimates he employs nearly 70 women during the year. At the moment, there are six major clubs in the city (some of which are called “champagne clubs”) and the industry appears to be growing and reshaping itself, partially with a nod to new immigration laws that allow people to flow more freely.

“The exploitation of women seems to be uncontrollable, and then again, no one is trying to control it,” says feminist and politico Drífa Snaedal, who conducted extensive research in 2003 about the economics of Iceland’s sex industry. “We have all the laws to address the problem, but there’s no will to do anything about it. It’s not looked at as a serious problem.”

Davídsson says a “normal” month for one of his employees is USD 6,000. A “good” month is up to USD 20,000, and some “much more than that.” He cites a possible figure of up to USD 50,000 a month. And that doesn’t include tips. Dorcile declines to disclose her income.

Davídsson prides himself on the culture of respect and privacy he cultivates among his employees. He doesn’t test the women for drug usage, although he admits it’s “very hard to see if the girls are on drugs.” If caught, they’re confronted and often given the boot unless they can kick the habit. He does, however, randomly drug test the men who work at the club – the bartenders, the guys at the coat checks, the bouncers. “So I don’t have to have the police up my ass because of drugs,” he says.

Why the discrepancy in treatment? He pauses. “Everybody would be mad if I [drug tested the women]. These girls are sensitive if they have the feeling that I don’t trust them.”

All-night shifts can take their toll. Dorcile’s nights begin at 9 p.m., after she tucks her daughter into bed, and end as late as 6 a.m. Or later. 7 a.m. 8 a.m. Six, sometimes seven days a week. When asked about her vices, Dorcile holds up her cigarette and wine glass, adding that sometimes her nights don’t end until she’s consumed as many as three bottles of champagne.

“Especially in the beginning it was difficult. This work is not easy, not easy. Your body. You feel, sometimes you see customers come in and you know you should walk up to them – say ‘Hi, how are you, my name is this, what is your name?’ – but it’s like you’re just too tired to stand up. You just think, ‘Oh my god.’”

In Holland, Dorcile started “slowly” – at first just on weekends, but soon it became a full-time job. It wasn’t until she had been working a year or so when another stripper told her that she’d been to Iceland and thought she should try it there.

“She said the conditions were better and that they like dark skin,” Dorcile said. She spent several months off and on in the country before deciding to move permanently. The first club where she worked is now defunct, and in July 2001, she began working the poles at Goldfinger.

***

Bóhem, the first strip club in Iceland, opened in 1995. By 1999, there were 13, an astonishing number for the country’s then-280,000 inhabitants (now there are 306,000). The bulk of this generation of clubs closed by 2002, including Maxim’s, Davídsson’s former strip club, or went bankrupt after new laws were passed by the Reykjavík City Council in 2001 forbidding private dances. (It wasn’t until 2004, however, that the new regulations were officially adopted by police.)

Private dances were, of course, one of the allures, not to mention one of the clubs’ major moneymakers. So Davídsson relocated from Reykjavík to the suburb of Kópavogur, where the city laws are more liberal and greyer, at least in practice.

“The high court of Iceland says that private shows for dancers are not legal in a closed surrounding,” Kópavogur Mayor Gunnar Birgisson said in a phone interview. “The police are supposed to enforce all rules and regulations.”

However, the regulations that prohibit private dancing do not define what “private” means. Furthermore, although the ban is issued by the Minister of Justice, it functions in accordance with proposals from the individual municipalities. In other words, there are articles from the specific municipalities stipulating their own conditions for nude dancing, for instance to secure a certain distance between the dancers and the audience, and how lap dancing or private dancing is regulated.

“It [Kópavogur law] doesn’t say that private shows are forbidden. It just says that private shows in a closed area are forbidden,” Fridrik Björgvinsson, Chief Superintendent of the Kópavogur Police Department, said in a phone interview. “It’s, I don’t know how to put it. It’s very fuzzy.”

Davídsson has built Iceland’s most successful strip club on this technicality. There are 16 private rooms in Goldfinger, each furnished with an overstuffed black leather chair and a cheap four-legged stool that serves as a table. A dim sconce illuminates the three garnet-colored walls that enclose the cramped space. A thick red velvet curtain with a gold tassel provides the fourth and final veil of privacy. Because it’s a curtain (as opposed to a door), Davídsson says he’s legit by law.

“In my opinion, I say this is enclosed, but the owner of the club says it’s not closed because there’s no door,” Chief Superintendent Björgvinsson said. “This is something that I think will be taken to court at some point.”

Why this rule hasn’t been enforced is another question. A few hours after I spoke with Kópavogur’s mayor, I talked again with Davídsson. At the end of our phone call, he said, jokingly, “So I heard you’ve been talking to the town office?”

Dorcile says an average week is between 20 and 25 “privates.” A five-minute private show is USD 86; an hour is USD 860. And this doesn’t include the booze or champagne. She receives 50 percent of every private show she sells and 30 percent of every bottle of champagne, plus tips, which are under the table.

 

“In this work, you have to convince the customer to buy a drink for you and to buy a private show. You have to convince them. You have to talk. Some [customers] tell us that we’re very good salespeople,” Dorcile said, puffing on a Winston Light as another stripper in tight red satin walked by. “And I always, always ask for a tip. If I get something behind the curtain, that is mine.”

Dorcile props her leg up on the coffee table, bent at the knee, to illustrate how she allows a man to touch her legs if he purchases an hour, but she vehemently denies that any amount of time ever leads to sex. “I refuse to put myself down,” she says. Dorcile slapped a man once who tried to touch her and didn’t stop, and pinned another customer’s hands to the wall. “By me, a no means no,” she says, tapping her long, fake nail on her index finger on the table to emphasize her point. For security, a bouncer stands outside the curtain during every private show.

But for some women, what goes on behind the curtain remains a mystery. “Other girls? I don’t want to go in that direction,” Dorcile says, clamming up. “I tell you only about me.”

A private show could be a fully clothed lap dance, but rarely is. At Goldfinger, it’s partially to fully nude, depending on how much time is bought. The common rule is that no customer is allowed to touch the dancer. He is expected to sit with his legs spread apart while someone dances in between them.

What goes on behind the curtain for Dorcile requires strategy, like solving a proof. Calculation. Thinking ahead. This is a woman who dances for the buck. And this is also a woman who whiles away time before she removes her clothes behind the curtain.

“For me, in a private show, if I get a half-hour or an hour, I always try to have a drink or a cigarette during the show with the man because that buys time. This is to protect myself, to have a little modesty. If you go into a private show and then shuck, shuck, shuck, take everything off, they say ‘Ok, thank you’ and they go. If they want more, they have to pay for more.”

When asked whether she believes her job is degrading towards women, she takes a long drag off her cigarette and contemplates. “If you’re a woman who doesn’t have respect for yourself, then you won’t have respect for the things that happen here and around you. This is just my work, and I’m not ashamed.”

***

On any given weekend night, Davídsson says he has “35 or 40, up to 50 women” on the floor. Fifty seems unlikely considering the physical smallness of the club – one small stage, 16 cramped private rooms, and two V.I.P lounges. At Scores West, one of the largest strip clubs in New York City, which has two expansive stages and 12 posh private rooms, a maximum of 70 dancers are employed on any given weekend night.

Regardless, in any club there’s always competition among the dancers for customers. You mark your territory, or you get worked. What does it take to make the most bank in this business? “Being a bitch,” says Davídsson. “When I ask girls why they make more than another, they say it’s because ‘I’m a bitch, and they’re not.’”

Dorcile says that she and the other women keep mum about personal earnings, but that generally everyone has an idea of who’s making what.

Critics of Iceland’s erotic dance industry say it’s this highly competitive aspect of the job that encourages women to cross the line from dancing to selling sex. “You have the pressure of who gets the most money, who gets the most clients for private dances,” says feminist and Leftist-Green party secretary Drífa Snaedal. “There’s huge competition between the girls – who will give the most during these privates dances and earn the most money. The environment is made for prostitution.”

Davídsson also acknowledges stripping can be an easy gateway to prostitution, though his methodology in preventing it isn’t exactly scientific. “If a girl is dating a guy two or three times, I can be quite sure that this guy is not paying her every night,” he says. “It’s as if you live next door to a woman and you see first comes a doctor, then a lawyer, then a priest. You know what’s going on in the house…And look, like I say, that’s something I cannot do anything about.”

Icelandic law states that prostitution for a person’s own “upkeep” is punishable by a maximum sentence of up to two years. However, it is not punishable to pay a prostitute for his or her “services.” The legislation regarding prostitution has only been amended once since the General Penal Code was established in 1940, and Drífa Snaedal calls the current law’s criminalization of the prostitute “primitive.” However, a bill is now under discussion in Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, intended to increase the protection given by the law to women charged with prostitution by shifting the criminalization away from the seller.

Only once in modern times has a woman been convicted of prostitution in Iceland. The case was brought before the district court in Reykjanes in fall 2003 and she was sentenced to three months in prison plus a USD 7,100 fine for having engaged in prostitution for a living.

Although Iceland is looking at more progressive legislation for prostitution, the rights of erotic dancers like Dorcile are not very well-protected. Today, if the human or working rights of a dancer are violated, she has practically no legal recourse. They aren’t unionized and have only formally challenged their employers regarding their wages and treatment on ten occasions. Only four of those cases, says attorney Atli Gíslason, have been brought to court (Reykjavík’s lower court). All four were won and the women appropriately compensated.

Gíslason believes that sex workers would be better protected if they were unionized, but has so far been unsuccessful trying to persuade any unions in Iceland to welcome them.

No case has ever been brought against Davídsson, but Gíslason says pressed charges only tell part of the story. “We just got the worst cases. Others didn’t complain. They only left Iceland after three or six months because most of those dancers are foreigners.”

There aren’t many Icelandic women strutting their stuff in the country’s strip clubs, but there are some. Davídsson named women from no fewer than 15 countries who work for him, including Russia, Romania, Portugal, Brazil and France. Most come from EU countries since they may enter the country and stay for up to three months without any permit, or for up to six months if they’re looking for a job.

So some dancers come to make a killing, stay two or three months, take their money and run. On the other extreme are a handful of those like Dorcile who’ve worked for Davídsson practically since he opened. Somewhere in the middle are those who’ve worked “for around two years” and are, according to Davídsson, on the books. 

Changes were made to Icelandic legislation in 2004 in order to postpone the opening of the job market to new European Union and European Economic Area (EEA) member states, including Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. During this time, citizens of the new EU and EEA countries were required to obtain both a residence and a work permit, prohibiting them from moving as easily across Iceland’s borders. The laws changed again in May 2006, and now EU and EEA citizens only need a residence permit if they’re staying longer than six months.

Prior to the change in laws, several women working in the industry sought refuge at the Women’s Shelter of Iceland, most of whom were of foreign origin, says Snaedal who was manager of the shelter from 2004 to 2006. Now, she says, the rapid rotation of women in and out of the clubs and the country has significantly decreased the number of women seeking help, which is “a symptom of this kind of business – to rotate them so they don’t get attached to clients or to others.”

Dr. Teela Sanders, an expert on the sex industry and a senior lecturer in sociology of crime and deviance at the University of Leeds in the U.K. says that because of Europe’s increasingly fluid borders, the global movement of people has increased, including among migrant sex workers. “More women are poorer across the globe, and women will always migrate to work,” she said in a phone interview. “Women recognize that there’s a huge global sex market, that they have commodities that can be sold.”

Which raises larger questions about the origins of these women, why they’re here, and if they’re being trafficked. Because of the trade’s close association with organized crime networks, global trafficking statistics for sex industry workers are nearly impossible to generate. A 2002 report commissioned by the International Organization for Migration estimates that anywhere between 120,000 and 300,000 women a year could be involved in trafficking into and within Europe. No one knows exactly.

Opponents of the industry in Iceland have strong suspicions that there are trafficking problems related to strip clubs in the country, but so far lack hard proof. It’s feared that some women arriving at the clubs’ doors aren’t coming of their own free will. “They come, but owners don’t know if someone’s behind them. And they’re not asking,” Gíslason says. “They’re only looking at the woman who’s coming and checking if she’s on drugs or has problems. And how she looks, of course.”

Dorcile, who’s fully legal and on the books, is here of her own free will, and from the get-go has chosen this profession for herself. But it’s unlikely that all of her colleagues in the industry are in the same boat. “Some girls, they’ve been dancing longer than I have. And start younger. They have their own reasons for getting into this but I never ask. That’s something very, it’s hard to go there.”

When given a thumbnail description of Dorcile’s life, Gíslason said, “You could maybe talk to 100 dancers and find no one like her.”

At least on the surface, Dorcile appears to lead an eerily normal life by day. She lives in a third-floor apartment in Reykjavík filled with fresh flowers and photos of her family in the Caribbean. “You see, I am myself here,” she says while grating carrots for a dinner salad. “My hair, my glasses, my clothes. I am the real person. My job is like that. We have to play with the customer and talk so that we get our money. We can’t be ourselves there.”

At the club the following night, the women parade in and out of the dressing room, preparing for another evening of late night dancing and persuasion tactics to lure men behind the velvet curtain. One of the women has brought her laptop to check email on the wireless connection before business picks up. It’s pouring rain and gusting so hard that the mail slot in an adjacent room bangs open and shut. It’s still early, 10 p.m., and Dorcile looks tired.

“Look, everybody gets old. You can’t do this when you’re 80 and standing and shaking on the bar. You have to think about your future,” she says on my last night at the club. “But I never say never because you don’t know what can happen. I hope, though, I hope that I never have to be sitting so late again.”

She pauses.

“And I’ll tell you one thing. Every day I pray. Every day I light a white candle after sundown and I pray that everything goes okay at work and that I make money. I pray for my family and for all the people who are good to me.” She ashes her cigarette. “Sometimes I say, ‘God, I’m sorry for the job I’m doing, but this is for my family.’”