Private Dancer: Crystal Tassels reports from the front lines in PDX
~ by Crystal Tassels, BSP Contributing Writer
Back in June I had the sincere pleasure of exploring some of the best strip clubs in Portland, a city that boasts the highest number of strip clubs per capita in the country. For a place that prides itself on having bespoke everything, it’s not surprising that the massive number of strip clubs does little to dilute the quality of performance or ambiance if you know where to go.
I was accompanied on this mission by my sex-positive partner-in-smut, Press. Before arriving in Portland, I sent out a call to my friends in the burlesque community asking for suggestions on where we should go. In the 36 hours we had, we visited:
2. Lucky Devil Lounge
3. Kit Kat Club
4. Casa Diablo
5. Union Jacks
6. Hawthorne Strip
7. Devil’s Point
8. Black Cauldron
9. Club 205
As a fellow performer and striptease artist, I am interested in the ways strippers command space and attention, how they move, and how they entertain. I watch strippers with the same analytical eye I study ballerinas and rock stars with (because if you really want to see someone strut in heels, watch Tina Turner). That’s not to say that I’m immune to the artful presentation of a nude body for my viewing pleasure – or that I wasn’t hot under the collar during the one exquisite lap dance I received – but I’m watching for performance, so that’s what impresses me. I don’t hold it against working performers when they go through the motions instead of throwing themselves in 100%; everyone has a day when that’s necessary. But that’s not what makes Portland strip clubs famous and it’s not what makes me hungry for more.
For those of you in Cyberland who have never been to a strip club, here’s how it works: the stage (or stages, depending on the club) is surrounded by a slim counter called the “rail” or “rack,” where guests are required to tip at the start of each new song in exchange for front row seats. In between sets, performers sell private dances (usually for $20 a pop) that last one song. Just like in burlesque, guests are not allowed to touch the performers, though dancers may, and often do, straddle/grope/twerk on their audience members. In Oregon, state liquor laws require that food be served at every bar, so many of the strip clubs compete via food gimmicks, like the 10-egg omelet at Acropolis ($7.50) or the all-vegan menus at Casa Diablo and Black Cauldron.
The performances we witnessed on our strip club safari ran the gamut from high production value narrative pieces to brand new dancers doing yoga on the stage. Without a doubt, the three best clubs we visited were Devil’s Point, The Kit Kat Club, and Lucky Devil Lounge.
1. The Acropolis
Tagline: Who needs glitter when you can have gristle?
Why it Sparkles: giant food portions, like the two-pound Colossal Burger, which comes on a 14-inch bun ($10)
Pros: apparently the best strip club steak in town ($6 for an 8 oz. sirloin)
Cons: uninspiring performances, sticky furniture
Press immediately recognized the blue and white façade of this club, which looks from the road like someone draped a giant Greek flag over a warehouse next to the highway. We paid a $5 cover (the only cover we paid all weekend) and walked into a dim, sprawling dive with multiple large stages. Vinyl table tops, lots of wood paneling, and a crowd of mostly middle-aged men made the “A-crop” feel more like a sports bar than a strip club. On the inside, the only thing that matches its patriotic Greek exterior is the enormous and achingly 1970s statue of Zeus (and attendant nymphs) gleaming in the corner. We slid into two sticky plastic chairs and watched the dancers undulate and giggle with the men sitting at the tip rail. As performances go, these were heavy on humping and light on dance, and the blasé looks on the performers’ faces made it clear that they were going through the motions. Motley Crue and AC/DC blared as the dancers switched shifts, taking turns plugging their iPhones into the stereo. Rumor has it that the club’s famous sirloin is sourced from the owner’s private cattle ranch. I wasn’t particularly inspired by the A-crop, but maybe it’s because I’m a vegetarian.
2. Lucky Devil Lounge
Tagline: Where red velvet wallpaper feels classy
Why it Sparkles: two fireplaces (one on the patio) and a poker table
Pros: laid-back, mid-century vibe, an even crowd of men and women
Cons: for some reason the whole place smelled like pancakes
Lucky Devil seems like the kind of place where you could catch up with friends over a Manhattan after work. The red velvet walls, copper-topped tables, and back patio make this a casual whiskey spot that wouldn’t feel out of place in Mad Men. Of course, the mirror-backed stage with dual stripper poles and dancing ladies in garters only adds to the Don Draper-approved atmosphere. Unlike the haphazard gyrations of the A-crop dancers, much of what we saw at Lucky Devil was polished choreography with a good sense of musicality. Given a relatively limited performance area, the dancers used every inch of space by crawling on the rail and hip-bumping into the mirrored back corner of the stage (which, visually, was a very neat trick…two mirrors facing each other means hip bumps for days).
The level of skill and acrobatics we saw on the pole was high, but the most impressive aspect of these performances was the interactivity. The dancers at Lucky Devil were social, upbeat, and extremely inspiring hustlers. (Both Press and I purchased lap dances, the only ones of the weekend, from the incomparably sexy Elle.) When faced with a table of gentlemen that seemed interested in her performance but were seated back from the stage and not tipping, Elle spun up the pole and onto the counter, then strode over the rack, never once breaking eye contact with her targets. Smirking, she swaggered to their table, took one of their beers, nearly full, and glided back to the stage. Making eye contact once again, she saluted the men, downed the entire beer, and then slid the empty glass down the deserted tip rail. The gentlemen, on their feet at this point, rushed the stage, throwing handfuls of dollar bills. Press quipped, “So she steals HIS beer, and then he pays HER. That takes talent.”
3. The Kit Kat Club
Tagline: Like burlesque, but naked and with poles!
Why it Sparkles: upscale and vintage, feature dancing, accepts BitCoin
Pros: high production value burlesque and pole performances
Cons: parking downtown is tough
The Kit Kat Club topped my list of “Sexy Things to See in Portland” for quite some time before I ever had the opportunity to visit. Owned and managed by local smut mogul Frank Faillace, who also owns Lucky Devil Lounge, Devil’s Point, and Sassy’s among others, Kit Kat offers a high-quality mix of burlesque-y striptease, pole dance, and rail humping. Many of the strippers are also famous burlesque stars, including headmistress of All That Glitters Burlesque Academy Tana the Tattooed Lady and electrifying danseuse Sandria Doré, who is also Russell Bruner’s duet partner. The club is right in the heart of Old Town Portland, next to Voodoo Doughnuts. Tucked beneath street level, the club is spacious with surprisingly high ceilings and an enormous main stage complete with smoke and stage lights. A smaller, mirror-backed second stage lit entirely in red takes up a small corner, and curtains above the booth seating reveal an elevated, backlit catwalk with multiple stripper poles for additional drama and ogling. The club was a bit mellow when we arrived at 11:30, but the crowds trickled in after midnight and the atmosphere changed palpably.
Kit Kat is known for doing themed performance nights, including their weekly Nerdgasm cosplay feature. Our strip club tour happened to commence on Friday the 13th, so the Kit Kat was celebrating with a night of horror-themed feature dances. As we got our drinks, a dexterous stripper wound up and down the pole to tune of “Suddenly Seymour” from the musical Little Shop of Horrors. Keeping with the theme was the ever-evocative Layne Fawkes, who appeared in a disheveled Victorian gown and trussed herself to the pole with a slender rope that ended in a noose around her neck. She revolved effortlessly around the pole, miming her own slow death. At the close of Layne’s macabre work of art, the emcee came on stage and bellowed, “Give it up for these hotties on stage!” While I was more than willing to “give it up,” something about his announcement irked me, as though this guy was oblivious the level of artistry that we had just witnessed. His comment snapped me out of Layne’s entrancing act and brought me back to the strip club I was in, where skilled performance runs the risk of being boiled down to mere “hotness”.
4. Casa Diablo
Tagline: More gimmicks than a used car lot
Why it Sparkles: all vegan strip club (no fur/feathers/leather/silk)
Pros: the food is actually pretty tasty
Cons: remote location, expensive, interior looks like a 1990’s Roy Rogers
When you enter Casa Diablo, the long, ski lodge-looking interior comes to a point up near the rafters, where a giant painted portrait of the proprietor hangs beneath the vaulted ceiling. With his long, scraggly grey hair and pointed goatee up in lights, Diablo’s creepy portrait sets the mood for this oasis of sleaze in the otherwise deserted Northwest Industrial District. Casa Diablo is exceptionally gimmicky. Everything is strictly vegan both on the menu and on stage, so no feather, silk, leather, or fur costumes or props are allowed. All change is doled out in $2 bills, and the prices for dancer interactions reflect that. At $2 per song at the rack and $40 for a private dance, Casa Diablo is exactly twice as expensive as all of the other clubs we visited on our tour (with the exception of Diablo’s other venue, The Black Cauldron).
Our visits to both of Senor Diablo’s clubs were timed poorly, as we arrived just as the clubs were opening around 11:00 AM. I’ll admit that although it was lovely to eat breakfast in the presence of several undulating naked women, the lack of crowds and lineup of burgeoning dancers looking for practice time really did the clubs no justice. (Especially considering that Autostraddle dubbed Casa Diabo, “The Cadillac of Strip Clubs.”) We slid in behind a greasy wooden table and watched a dancer straddle the lone man at the rail to Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” We ordered food ($4 vegan burgers and house-made tortilla chips) and watched the inexperienced but enthusiastic dancers practice pole tricks, do yoga, and try and entice the few patrons eating breakfast to step up to the rack. At one point, a dancer straddled the head of a woman at the rail and was swiveling her vagina around her face when the Lana Del Rey song that had been playing abruptly ended. The dancer continued swiveling for an awkward 15 seconds of silence as another dancer fumbled with the iPhone plugged into the speakers. I’m sure that had we come in the evening, we would have seen a very different show.
5. Union Jacks
Tagline: Something for everyone
Why it Sparkles: diverse range of dancer aesthetics and abilities
Pros: leather captain’s chairs, no gimmicks
Cons: not a lot of seating that’s not at the rack, inexperienced performers during prime hours
Walking into Union Jacks from the bright of day is kind of like entering the red-lit harem grotto of a cave-dwelling ‘70s playboy. The club is comfortable, and the well-worn leather captain’s chairs and copper-topped tables give the impression of being in someone’s living room (especially if your friends are like mine and often have naked ladies prancing around). The most striking feature about the place was the range of ability and presentation seen in the dancers. The club prides itself on maintaining a variety of aesthetics and styles in the dancers it hires, unlike many other clubs that tend to focus on a particular “type” (i.e., tattooed and pierced Suicide Girls, garter-clad vintage vixens, etc.). This makes Union Jacks an excellent destination for large groups with a range of personal tastes or affinities.
I did, however, find it odd that there was such a dichotomy of physical and dance abilities in the dancers we saw. One performer, clearly an expert and lover of her craft, socialized merrily as she flipped upside-down, spinning by her ankles, before landing fluidly in a full split. (With gracious politesse, she placed her own spectacles on the face of a man at the rack before this inverted trick. Very inspiring.) Moments later came a slim performer with hunched shoulders, minimal makeup, and lank, straight hair. She was clearly anxious as she stepped up to the stage, her eyes shifting to and from the faces seated around the rack. She clambered up to the top the pole, then reached behind with her left hand and tried to unclasp her bra. Unable to get the thing off, she slid back down and used both hands to unhook it as she bowed her shoulders, giggling nervously. Why book such an inexperienced performer on a Saturday night?
6. Hawthorne Strip
Tagline: Your local watering hole, with strippers!
Why it Sparkles: friendly establishment close to the hip Hawthorne neighborhood
Pros: pinball in the back, very casual, easy to talk to dancers
Cons: ghastly bathroom, dive-y place
Flanked by smudged mirrors and Christmas lights, the one tiny stage at Hawthorne Strip is shoved into the far corner of the bar and surrounded by rack with space for eight. The bar was mostly empty when Press and I arrived at 9:30 on Saturday night. A few arcade games took up one corner on the other side of the bar, and several beer-sipping patrons watched a soccer game on a plasma screen instead of watching the dancers. The strippers themselves were energetic, serene but not bored looking, and happy to chat with us while going through their circuits of intermediate pole moves. (The most common: spinning around the pole while holding on with one hand, arm extended, then ending the spin and starting to strut towards the rack with a compact pas de bourée.) Hawthorne Strip was the least fussy of all the clubs we visited, and although that was relaxing, I wouldn’t go out of my way to drop in again.
7. Devil’s Point
Tagline: Like the circus, if the circus oozed sex
Why it Sparkles: rock and roll theme, Stripparoake Sundays
Pros: pole gymnasts and acrobats with serious skills
Cons: gets crowded and the rack is often full
Of all the places we visited on our safari of smut, Press and I agreed that Devil’s Point was the juiciest. That isn’t to say that it was the most explicit, but it had a certain decadence that carried it from merely sexy to Dripping (with a capital ‘D’). The performers that we saw here were among the most skilled acrobats and pole artists of the weekend. Though the performances didn’t possess the storytelling elements or costumes that we saw in the feature dances of the Kit Kat Club, the gymnastic musicality and sheer muscle control made for a riveting show. The dancers spun and swung in every possible direction, often landing in splits or backbends. One lithe, tattooed dancer walked the length of the stage on her hands before spilling her body over backwards in a perfect arc. An enthusiastic crowd filled every seat at the rack surrounding the single stage as we watched from a high cocktail table. The punk and classic rock blaring out of the speakers complemented several Bettie Page posters and (unsurprisingly) retro red and black décor. On Sunday nights, Devil’s Point hosts Stripparaoke, where audience members sing karaoke and the club’s talented dancers work their magic on the pole next to them. We were told repeatedly that we should have extended our time in Portland to include this unique and totally fun event.
8. Black Cauldron
Tagline: Fake fur, painted castles, and witch on witch action
Why it Sparkles: live witch sex, racy raffles, and free (vegan) tacos
Pros: silly medieval witch theme, dancing, witch sex
Cons: rack and private dances are twice as much as other places
As I mentioned earlier, Press and I visited both of Johnny Diablo’s establishments far too early in the day to do the clubs justice. We arrived at the log cabin-looking Black Cauldron at 11:15 AM and found the place deserted except for one bartender and the lemony reek of disinfectant. Taking the opportunity to look around, we found the club to be sprawling, much larger than Casa Diablo, with a long corridor of private dance rooms, a separate space for private pole dances, two central pole stages, a poker table, and multiple platforms for dancing or other nefarious activities. In the center of the main dance hall is a wide, round platform topped with green faux fur. When the morning’s sole dancer arrived – a spritely thing called Neptune – she explained that the ‘witch on witch sex shows’ happen on top of this ‘cauldron’. Although our stop at Black Cauldron was poorly timed, I was able to enjoy a cup of tea and a fairly tasty taco (free with any drink purchase) for breakfast. Adding to Diablo’s usual litany of gimmicks, the club raffles off a free lap dance from one of its “nude bewitching beauties” every hour. As resistant as I am to cheap marketing ploys, I’d like to give Diablo’s two shtick-laden clubs another go during a more appropriate time of day.
9. Club 205
Tagline: Your average American strip club
Why it Sparkles: blue collar club with “the hottest young strippers in PDX”
Pros: $1.75 well drinks and drafts during happy hour
Cons: not really anything special, lots of Lynryd Skynryd
After exploring the deserted Black Cauldron, we were about ready to pack up and bring our exploration to a close. As luck would have it, we wound up driving right by Club 205, which the Cauldron’s bartender described to us as “a rough joint, biker bar.” Inside the grey rectangle of a building are three stages, each a freestanding octagon with lots of neon up-lighting and diamond plated steel finishes. When we dropped by, it was noon on Sunday and the bar was packed with middle-aged men. Only one of the stages was occupied by a dancer, but there were several men sitting at the rack. The dancer smiled politely down at them from the height of her impressively tall heels (seven inches, and yes I asked) before slamming her slim pelvis down onto the rail, looking dreamily off into space. The atmosphere in the bar was polite and jovial; not at all what I was expecting after the description we had heard. The blaring classic rock was complemented by the truck stop glamour of corrugated metal and neon, and the dancers themselves were cheerful and vigorous girl-next-door types with tans and curled hair. Although it was a bit run of the mill after our other strip club adventures, Club 205 was a pleasant Sunday morning stopover.
Thus ended our adventure through the best of undressed Portland. On the ride back to Seattle, we tried to estimate how many dancers we saw through the course of the weekend. Our best guess is 40, which means that we had the pleasure of being exposed to 80 individual breasts. If that’s not a weekend well spent, I don’t know what is.
(Author’s Note: A HUGE thank you to all the performers, bartenders, and club owners that we met and interviewed during our trip. You are all gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous.)