Rebecca Avalon likes to say she did things backwards: went to college, got a master's degree in science education, became an elementary school teacher, then started stripping. She's quit dancing full time twice but keeps going back.
"When people say to me, 'You have a master's degree, why are you doing this?'", Avalon says, she tells them the truth. "Overall, I felt more respected by the gentlemen I would meet in the club than I ever did by the parents and administration in the public school system. When you say that to another teacher they're like, 'Oh, yeah, absolutely.'"
These days, though, her stripping is limited to a few days a week at The Lodge. She spends her other time running Strip and Grow Rich, a website and series of seminars on financial education and management and long-term career planning. She based her program on Naked Assets, a similar series of classes that she took in Las Vegas; by May 2008, she was a majority owner in the Naked Assets company.
I interviewed Avalon for this week's cover story, on the debate over whether strippers should be classified as employees or independent contractors. The story is based on a recent class-action lawsuit, in which a group of dancers in Abilene, represented by attorney Galvin Kennedy, are suing a Dallas-based club chain, Jaguars, and its owner, Niko Foster, who also owns Plush.
That night at The Lodge, Avalon helpfully explained to me her color-coded system for identifying different types of customers: Type-A businessman are reds; party guys, blues; bargain-hunters, green. The yellows are faithful, quiet regulars. In order to sell the maximum number of lap dances per hour, she focuses first on the reds and blues, who make decisions quickly. If it's busy, she can sell five dances in 20 minutes, or 15 to 20 in an hour -- around $400 dollars in 60 minutes.
Avalon teaches the color-coding tip in her Strip and Grow Rich workshops, as well as a host of other skills for the business-minded dancer: "Setting your goals, having a mission statement, using the cash flow to funnel to other things." One of the most important aspects of the workshops, she says, is working on a way out; dancing is a career with an incredibly short shelf-life, 10 to 15 years at the absolute maximum. "I work their exit strategy with them," Avalon says.
Avalon tries to emphasize the essentials: Keep a log of your expenses. Write off your hair supplies, makeup, heels, house fees, and everything else that independent contractors can legally claim tax-wise. The first workshop she teaches for many young dancers is called Dancer Wealth. "Most girls are maybe 21 and just starting," she explains. Dancer Wealth starts, she says, with a simple question: "How do you make money doing this job?"
From business tricks she transitions into financial responsibility: Dancer Wise, another workshop, teaches "money management and personal finance," she says, including setting up a savings account, an IRA and a money market account. And Dancer Victory deals with "how to use the business to enhance your life so you come out the other end ahead of the game. It's personal development: What's your mission statement, your short-term and long-term goals?"
Avalon teaches these workshops (and the occasional "dancer boot-camp") in Las Vegas, Dallas and Phoenix, three markets where she's worked. In Las Vegas a few years back, Avalon says, "we actually saw a spike in our business as the recession hit." Dancers who used to be able to rake in thousands with very little effort suddenly had to think hard about their branding and selling strategies. "It used to be a no-brainer," she says, back when times were flush.
"If you don't know how to sell, you won't make money," she says simply. "It's a business."
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It's "all negotiation," in other words. But it's also about working smart. In our first phone conversation, I described a trick I'd just seen at the Clubhouse, a genial, vaguely scuzzy rock 'n' roll strip joint off Stemmons Freeway. A dancer climbed, in five-inch heels, to the very top of the pole, then slid down upside-down using only her leg muscles for support. I clutched the arms of my chair (big mistake: they were really sticky) as her head plummeted toward the floor. She stopped just short of a concussion and was rewarded with a huge round of applause from the roadie-looking dudes drinking a case of Bud next to the stage.
But Avalon says she doesn't do cheap pole tricks, for both safety reasons and simple money-making ones. "I have danced for 12 years and I don't climb a pole ever," she says. The risk of injury, she says, just isn't worth it.
"What I say to the girls that I teach is, If you climb up a pole, twirl around, do cool stuff, you'll get a couple dollars and some hoots and hollers. Is it worth it? Which one is working smarter for your money?"
"The job is not about dancing," Avalon says. "It's about talking to someone, making connections, it's kind of like being a topless therapist. You get paid for your time to stop, listen to people and entertain."