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Deja Vu Dancers Unveil Their Dreams Club Workers Say Nightly Revelations Keep Families Fed, Career Goals In Sight

The Boy Scout took an oath to tell the truth. But he lies when asked how his mother makes a living.

He tells people he doesn’t know or that she doesn’t have a job.

He lies, he said, because he doesn’t want people to judge his mother, Angela Johnson. Not because he’s ashamed.

But that’s a lie, too.

“I actually hate her job,” said the well-mannered 11-year-old. “It’s not a good place to work. There’s a bunch of men who want to touch her.”

Johnson, 30, is an exotic dancer at Deja Vu Gentlemen’s Club in the Spokane Valley.

At least three times during an eight-hour shift, she strips to her platform shoes, earning perhaps a few dollars in tips for that work.

When the music stops pounding, she squeezes into a too-small outfit, steps out of the strobe light and into the audience, hoping her dance was erotic enough to entice men to pay $12 for a closer look.

The money - Johnson’s primary income for everything from rent to soccer uniforms - buys a couch dance, also called a lap dance because that’s where the gyrations are performed.

A new county ordinance would keep dancers out of men’s laps and mandate at least 4 feet between entertainer and customer. County officials say the rule will prevent prostitution. Dancers say it will regulate them out of jobs that can pay $30,000 or more a year.

The recent debate over the ordinance at a county commission meeting focused a spotlight where it seldom shines, on people who work or seek enjoyment on the dark fringes of societal mores. But there was no illumination of the private lives of the women who remove their clothes in public.

The four strippers interviewed for this story live in tidy houses decorated for the holidays. They have one to three children fathered by men with whom they are no longer involved, and get little or no child support. None collects public assistance, and all said that would be more degrading than removing their clothes in public.

“I’ve worked for everything I have,” said Alicia Erickson, a 24-year-old single mother who in May put a down payment on a modest home in a nice North Side neighborhood.

Erickson and two others plan to earn college degrees and get jobs as a teacher, a stock broker and perhaps a lawyer before they are too old to make money with their bodies. Between caring for their children and earning a living, none of them has completed more than a year’s worth of college classes.

Setting limits

At a Deja Vu nightclub in Tukwila, Wash., undercover police made arrests that led to 70 convictions for prostitution in the summer of 1994. Police said the illegal acts typically started as lap dances.

There is no evidence of widespread prostitution at Deja Vu in the Valley since it opened eight years ago. Sheriff’s detectives report seeing little that’s illegal when they go into the club, but say that’s not often enough to provide a good gauge.

“It takes a lot of money” for thorough investigations, said Patti Walker, the deputy county prosecutor who wrote the ordinance. “You have to become a preferred customer to get that kind of (illegal) treatment.”

Johnson said she’s often propositioned by customers, but has never accepted money for more than dancing. She said she doesn’t know any dancers who have sold sex, and insists they’d be thrown out if they did.

During lap dances, the women wear skimpy clothing and are never naked. Club rules say customers can’t raise their hands from the couch, and bouncers watch for offenders. But dancers are the primary enforcers, and each sets her own standard.

Johnson said she’ll allow customers to caress her legs below the knees.

“I’ve never, ever let a guy in my thong area or my top area,” she said. “Blowing in my ear is OK. Kissing my neck is not.”

Another dancer, Michelle White, said that until recently, some of the women met for Bible study before their shifts.

Ex-dancer Kimberly Drake told a far different story at a Nov. 4 county commission hearing about the regulations.

Drake started dancing in 1993, the same year she and her husband declared bankruptcy, owing $32,000. The two events are unrelated, said Drake, who would say little else during a telephone conversation.

Drake told county commissioners that drug use was common among performers, including herself, and managers.

Her story was corroborated by a county sheriff’s lieutenant who reported in a memo that “it is not uncommon” for dancers to use marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine in the dressing room. Lt. Chan Bailey reported that he got his information secondhand.

Drake’s testimony about couch dancing was among the most riveting at the hearing. Some dancers allow customers to touch their breasts, she said, and some are bitten. Some customers expose their genitals to the dancers, she said.

Drake said customers masturbate in “fantasy booths,” where they watch movies or dancers in private.

Although she could offer no proof, Drake relayed rumors about one case of prostitution.

“This ordinance must be adopted to keep these women safe and help protect our community,” she said.

Walker said it’s likely that competing businesses will move into the county eventually. Without strict regulations, she said, dancers facing competition from another club might feel pressured to perform activities that are taboo now.

Indeed, several Spokane dancers said that heavy competition in Seattle and its suburbs has led to more risque lap dances there.

“I was appalled by the things that happened in Seattle,” said dancer Candie Blanchard, 30, who started her career in Western Washington 12 years ago.

“The girls had no scruples about how they were making their money, like they do here.”

‘I didn’t have a choice’

Ask Johnson what she does for a living, and she’ll answer “counselor,” “psychologist” or “public relations” - titles she thinks describe her job well.

But the Internal Revenue Service is more picky. To the government, she’s a “self-employed, independent contractor in the entertainment field.”

The women who dance at Deja Vu are not employees. They get no medical benefits. The company doesn’t offer a 401k retirement plan.

Instead, dancers pay $65 a shift to lease stage space. They give Deja Vu $5 for every lap dance they sell and get $5 credit every time a customer buys them a $10 nonalcoholic drink (state law prohibits clubs with nude dancers from serving alcohol).

Prospective dancers must audition, on stage, with customers watching. They dance through two three-minute songs, and must be naked when the music ends, said White, 26.

Managers judge prospective dancers on performance, appearance and poise, but expect first-timers to be nervous and shy. Most are desperate for money.

“The first time, it was scary. But I knew I had a 10-month-old son at home and needed money,” Blanchard said.

White’s ex-husband pressured her into dancing about five years ago. He had a business degree but little ambition, she said.

“I thought I was too fat. I’d been a housewife, and didn’t know anything about being sexy,” said White, a mother of two, who performed her audition in a borrowed costume.

“But I didn’t have a choice. When your husband quits his job, welfare won’t help.”

White went home with $62 after her first night on stage. It was far from the $500 her husband said she’d earn, but more than enough to entice her to return.

“I hadn’t held $60 in a long time,” she said.

Now a veteran, White watches the club for older men she thinks will appreciate her quiet conversation and few extra pounds.

“I can easily talk to someone who has a career and family. We have something in common,” she said. “Younger kids stare. They never take their eyes off you and that makes me nervous.”

White’s longtime boyfriend, Lonnie Harris, said he’s never considered asking her to stop stripping. But he does admit to occasional jealousy when she talks too much about her regular customers.

“Once she walks out that door, I don’t want her thinking about their needs,” he said.

‘Jesus loves me’

Religion is a part of life for three of the four dancers interviewed for this article. Blanchard’s father was an Eastern Orthodox priest; White attended a community church in Longview, Wash.; Erickson says she has a “relationship with God.”

The dancers were repelled by Christians who cheered when county commissioners adopted the new rules. Many Christians supported the regulations as a way to fight immorality and social decay.

After the hearing, Susan Neumann, a pastor’s wife and Drake’s distant cousin, offered to baby-sit for dancers who quit the business and find another job or go to school.

Erickson heard the offer but wasn’t impressed.

“I will not have religion pushed down my son’s throat. I won’t have anybody telling my son that what his mommy does is wrong,” said Erickson, who believes that “Jesus loves me” and judges her dancing no worse than gluttony.

“If I’m sinning then all those people at Granny’s Buffet are sinning, too.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

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