Dancers struggle to find work as Eastern WA’s last strip club closes

“Clubs shutting down may not immediately lead to trafficking,” says one advocate. “But it immediately leads to all sorts of other vulnerable situations.”

A photo illustration of a person with green hair looking to the right superimposed on images of signs that say "Showgirls" and "Deja Vu"

Ashe Ryder in front of an image of the now-closed Deja Vu strip club in Spokane Valley. (Photo by Erick Doxey. Photo illustration by Val Osier/RANGE Media)

This article was originally published by RANGE Media.

When Montana heard the club she was dancing at was about to go under, she started to apply to other jobs immediately, wanting to get ahead of the unemployment looming in her future if she didn’t find something else. The stakes were high, not just for her, but for the two children Montana was raising alone as a single mother.

The benefit of dancing the day shift at Deja Vu in Spokane Valley was twofold: paying her more on average for every hour of work than other service industry jobs, and giving her more time and flexibility to be around when her kids needed her. She’d considered looking at careers outside of stripping, which most dancers define as sex work, but struggled to find anything that worked as well for her family.

“It’s hard being a single mom in this economy,” she said. “There [aren’t] many jobs that would allow me to be at my kids’ events and doctors’ appointments every time I need to be there. Being the sole provider and being a good parent do come with a cost: stripping.”

Until its closure in September 2023 (and subsequent sale to Christian anti-trafficking organization Helping Captives), Deja Vu was the only strip club in Eastern Washington, and one of about 10 in the entire state. The day the club — which dancers lovingly called “The Vu” — shut its doors, around 30 dancers were left unemployed and with limited options in an economy and culture that isn’t friendly to people with a background in sex work. (Montana asked us to only use her stage name for those reasons.)

Montana first applied to two bikini-barista coffee stands: 2nd Base Espresso in the Hillyard neighborhood, and one of the stands owned by Black Sheep Coffee Co., which owns the other six bikini-barista coffee shops in the county.

With her background in stripping and seven years of experience in the service industry prior to dancing, Montana thought she was an ideal candidate to work in one of the stands. She had the server experience to pick up the food-handling elements of the job quickly, and she was comfortable doing that work in lingerie. Perhaps most importantly, she knew how to make customers feel seen and desired while maintaining safe boundaries.

“I feel like dancers are the perfect people to hire for that industry, just because at the end of the day we know way better ways to be flirtatious with men without getting anywhere near a level that a lot of girls would think they have to,” Montana said. “Out of everybody that you’re going to have as an applicant, there aren’t a lot of girls that are going to be great at making sure that they’re keeping themselves safe.”

She didn’t hear back from either stand.

Still, Montana was persistent and “kind of buggy.” She called the manager at one of the Black Sheep stands and treated the phone conversation like an interview, highlighting her background in serving, her dancing experience, her open daytime availability and her bubbly personality — which Black Sheep management says is the key quality they look for in candidates. At the end of the call, the manager told Montana they wouldn’t be moving forward with her application.

According to Montana, the manager told her that “strippers aren’t usually a good fit” and that Montana’s appearance wasn’t right for the stands either — she’d had to include a photo in her original application. Montana acknowledges that she doesn’t have “massive boobs,” which she thinks may be important for working at a bikini-barista stand, but it seemed to her like there was a larger problem: “They seemed really hesitant about hiring people with dance work.”

Her impression wasn’t wrong.

Bikini-barista blues

While working in one of Spokane’s bikini-barista coffee stands could be an effective vehicle for upward economic mobility, that opportunity isn’t afforded to everyone. Sarah Birnel, the owner of the Black Sheep chain, said that it’s not very often a stripper is “a good fit” for her stands, because she sees stripping as “a little bit seedier of an industry.”

“I think there’s a lot of girls, not in their right mind, stripping,” Birnel said. “And I am going to offend so many strippers out there, but the girls that work for me … have their head on straight.”

Shay, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her safety, is Birnel’s current general manager. She said hiring strippers made it hard for stands to enforce boundaries with customers.

“If we had a girl that had been stripping and then came to work at the stand, if the customer is used to seeing her or used to having that physical relationship with her in a sense, and she says, ‘No, she can’t do it in the stand,’ it’s just hard to make sure that she stays safe in those situations,” Shay said. “I think a lot of our current girls would not want to work at the strip club, just because they want to avoid that physical aspect with customers.”

Montana didn’t think that was fair. “I tell probably 30 or 40 men a night that I’m not going to go home with them,” she said. “I could definitely handle the occasional person asking for something extra and being able to say, ‘No,’ because that’s a very easy thing for me to do at this point.”

RANGE found a few other dancers who had applied to bikini-barista stands in Spokane. Those dancers, as well as others who chose not to apply to bikini coffee stands, pointed to a word-of-mouth warning among dancers that stand managers don’t like to hire strippers.

Ashe Ryder, a former dancer at The Vu and activist with the advocacy group Strippers Are Workers (SAW), said that though she had never tried to get a job at a stand, she’d heard from multiple co-workers that stand managers cut off job interviews at the first mention of dancing experience.

Back in 2017, though, Ryder’s friend Lila got a job at one of the Black Sheep stands (it was called Devil’s Brew at the time, but still owned by Birnel) through a recommendation from a friend.

Lila, who is also referred to by her stage name, was on maternity leave from The Vu and needed a less physically demanding job in the meantime to recover from her pregnancy.

On Lila’s first day, she said the woman training her remarked that she was in really good shape and asked where she’d worked beforehand. “I danced my whole pregnancy,” Lila responded. The trainer advised her not to tell anyone else she had danced.

After that conversation, Lila mostly kept her dance background to herself, but she worked only five shifts, which she claims were unpaid, before she was fired. A former customer of hers from Deja Vu came through the drive-thru, and her co-workers asked where she knew him from. She said from a club she used to work at.

“That’s when they started treating me differently,” Lila said.

The next day, she showed up for her scheduled shift and was told she had the day off. Then, she couldn’t get hold of the manager or anyone else to tell her when she was scheduled to work next. After a few weeks of texting, she went through the drive-thru and talked to the manager. Lila said the manager told her, “No, you just don’t work here anymore.”

According to Lila, during that conversation, the manager accused her of selling her breast milk out of the coffee stand. Lila was shocked, and when she asked for clarification, she said she was told, “This is why we don’t hire strippers.”

Lila was never paid for any of her labor, she said. She said she messaged her manager asking for payment so many times over the course of two months in the fall of 2017 that the manager blocked her number.

Birnel said she doesn’t remember Lila or Black Sheep’s exact payroll processes in 2017, but the day-to-day hiring and firing was handled at the time by a manager who is no longer with the company. Still, she said it’s never been their practice to have unpaid training shifts, and that hours were clocked by individual baristas, submitted by managers, and then reviewed by a general manager, so she thinks Lila’s story is unlikely.

Eventually, Lila says she gave up on getting paid and went back to work at Deja Vu until its closure in 2023.

Dancing across state lines

When it became clear her persistence was getting her nowhere with bikini-barista coffee stands, Montana started to look elsewhere, and quickly found a new home at State Line Showgirls, a club in Post Falls, Idaho, about 20 miles east of downtown Spokane.

“The day that Deja Vu closed, I went and applied at State Line,” Montana said. “I got hired that same day.”

She wasn’t the only one, she said: “Quite a few of us came over here.” Montana said State Line, which dancers call “The Line,” is cleaner than The Vu, with more stage maintenance and showers available onsite. Beyond cleanliness, Montana also makes a lot more money at The Line.

“It’s just a more promoted establishment. They actually make sure to post on Instagram and keep it updated,” she said. “I did alright at the Vu, but now I’m making at least twice as much.”

But that extra income comes with tradeoffs, meaning The Line isn’t a great option for everyone, either. When the Washington club closed and some of their dancers started driving to dance in Idaho, it created what Ryder called “dancer saturation” at “The Line.”

“The amount of dancers working there has gone up since we closed, but it doesn’t mean the customer count has gone up,” Ryder said. “Some of the Deja Vu clients will travel to State Line, but for some it’s too far out of the way.”

Instead, Ryder started “travel dancing,” the practice of taking trips to dance at clubs in other states, sometimes for weeks at a time.

The dance bag of former Deja Vu dancer Ashe Ryder, who has had to pivot to “travel dancing” after the closure of the club. (Erick Doxey/RANGE Media)

During various interviews with RANGE over the past few months, Ryder has called in from Portland, Dakotas (South, to be precise), Wisconsin and Las Vegas, where she was preparing to dance in clubs for Super Bowl weekend.

This model works well for her: Ryder can set her own schedule, decide her own hours and go wherever she wants to dance. She usually travels with a friend — sometimes that’s Lila — which makes the excursions both cheaper and safer. 

“This job allows me to have so much freedom over what I do, and it gives me all that autonomy over myself and my own life,” Ryder said. “And it financially supports me and allows me to financially climb.”

It isn’t perfect. It requires a lot more planning than when she was performing solely at Deja Vu, and can pull dancers away from their homes and families for weeks at a time.

“When you’re traveling, you’re working harder because you’re going to have to work every single day that you’re there in order to maximize … your net income,” Ryder said. “It’s physically demanding, but it can be emotionally demanding too, being away from your family and your kids, if you have kids.”

And while all dancing comes with financial uncertainty, travel dancing heightens those risks. “The thing with dancing is that it’s so variable,” Ryder said. “In the PNW, [pay] can range from zero dollars to two thousand. There are some nights when not a single customer would come in, and you can walk out owing the club or need to go to the ATM to pay [the club].” When a dancer takes that risk away from home, a rough few nights can mean you don’t even earn back your travel expenses.

But Ryder makes it work. Compared to stripping at “The Vu,” Ryder says she makes an average of about 30% more a week travel-dancing, even after her travel expenses.

“The job can only be beneficial long-term if you save adequately and have a financial plan,” she said. “Short-term, it allows you to pay bills, but that money can go just as quickly as it came to you.”

Still, she dreams of a day when she’s able to open her own club in Spokane and won’t have to do the “traveling thing” anymore.

Getting out of the industry

While all the former Deja Vu dancers RANGE interviewed for this story are all still stripping, Ryder said others got out of the industry altogether.

She said it is common practice for dancers to use the money from stripping to supplement income from other work — even careers — they were doing part-time. When The Vu closed, it was the push some of them needed to take those careers full-time. Ryder said she knows dancers from her old club who are now tattoo artists, estheticians and hair stylists. Others went back to school.

But getting out of the industry can be tricky, she said.

“Unfortunately, because the industry is stigmatized, it does create a barrier to switch careers the longer you’ve been in it,” Ryder said. That stigma creates a catch-22. “If you choose not to disclose [your employment as a dancer], it could look like a large gap in your resume that you can’t explain,” she said. “If you do disclose it, you run the risk of not being hired because of the work you did.”

Earlier this year, RANGE spoke with Amy-Marie Merrell, co-executive director of The Cupcake Girls, an organization that provides resources and support to members of the adult entertainment industry and those affected by sex trafficking. Merrell’s organization connects folks who have been sex-trafficked or who are trying to leave sex work industry with resources: new job connections, emotional/mental health, financial support and career counseling services.

“When the shutdown happened at Deja Vu, people were out of jobs, and when you have a job that’s so highly stigmatized, it’s hard to get other work,” Merrell said. She added that after the closure, multiple dancers from The Vu reached out to her organization for support. “Clubs shutting down may not immediately lead to trafficking, but it immediately leads to all sorts of other vulnerable situations.”

Ryder agreed that the closure of Deja Vu eliminated a safe place for dancers to work.

“Now that we don’t have that space to practice our work safely, it puts us at more risk for being trafficked or taking up additional forms of sex work that are more risky or that [dancers] aren’t comfortable with,” Ryder said. “It puts us at more of a risk of actually being trafficked.”

Ryder hopes her ongoing work with SAW will continue to make dancing easier and safer for strippers in Washington, destigmatizing the perception of strippers and other sex workers and easing strict zoning requirements that make it difficult to open a new club in Eastern Washington.

Both Ryder and Montana are hopeful. When Montana thinks about her future, she doesn’t see limitations.

“I think that [dancing] is just a stepping-stone for my next adventure,” she said. “It helps me prepare myself and my kids for a better future. I’m just using this job to get up so I don’t have to struggle.

RANGE Media, a worker-owned newsroom in Spokane, originally published this story on May 24, 2024. To learn more about their civic engagement work and accountability reporting, click here.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Erin Sellers

Erin moved to town from Idaho to attend Gonzaga University, fell in love with Spokane and hasn’t left yet. They are a queer storyteller, and when they’re not pounding Red Bulls (not sponsored) and typing frantically, you can find her on and off stage at a few of the theatres in town. She is passionate about increasing accessibility to public meetings, telling stories from underrepresented communities and pitching funny merch ideas.