Pin It
Stevie Verroca and Mada Refujio, Exotic Dancer (2022)
Stevie Verroca and Mada Refujio, “Kyra, Bushwick, New York”, Exotic Dancer (2022)Photography Stevie Verroca and Mada Refujio

In pictures: American strippers share their experiences of dancing

Stevie Verroca and Mada Refujio’s Exotic Dancer portrays the women working in strip clubs across the US

Photographers Stevie Verroca and Mada Refujio first entered the orbit of the exotic dancer community after working on dance-related projects. “I think, initially, we found [exotic] dancers compelling for the same reasons that our society does,” Verroca explained to Dazed. “The aesthetics of strip culture are commonly referenced in art, fashion, and cinema but the stripping world remains elusive and in the dark.”

Fascinated by the elusive nature of the stripping industry and the common misconception of victimhood that blights dancers – a phenomenon which Verroca attributes to “America’s complex relationship with sex” – the pair decided they wanted to create a series of portraits in collaboration with the women who work in these sequestered spaces. The project then began evolving to encompass recorded testimony by dancers sharing their experiences of working in strip clubs across the US, and Verroca and Refujioof intend to turn this project into a book.

“We wanted to take strong, compelling images but, because we are not dancers ourselves, we think it’s important to share the dancer’s voices,” says Verroca. “Stripping in Miami, Florida is pretty different from stripping in a small town outside of Richmond, Virginia. Politics, financial opportunities, and work environments vary from dancer to dancer in each city, which is another reason why we are recording their testimonies and trying to shoot in as many states as possible.”

As an ongoing project, Exotic Dancers is growing into an expansive series depicting a range of dancers approaching their work with a diverse range of attitudes, styles, and aesthetics. “Each collaboration is uniquely different. Once we cast a dancer, we’ll develop a vague concept with stylist Alison Marie Isbell, but walk into each shoot with an open mind,” reflects Verroca. “We encourage the dancers to bring their favourite clothing and accessories. Alison will bring some additional clothing and from there, we play. We provide some direction to showcase physical competencies or personality characteristics that we find impressive or extraordinary relative to each dancer. Dancers will likewise contribute their own choreography and staging to emphasise their physical and creative achievements. Our goal is to make the portraits feel authentic, but not straightforward.”

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of some of the photographs featured in Stevie Verroca and Mada Refujio’s ongoing Exotic Dancers while, below, we talk to four of the women included in the project about their working lives, strip club culture, and their relationships with dancing.


“I wanted these images to portray me as a multifaceted woman. I wanted to express how not one thing, job, or act defines a woman. It seems once a girl becomes a dancer she has that stamped on her like the scarlet letter forever. I believe the best and most interesting people have lived ten lives. Before I retired from dancing, people would judge me… I’ve had relatives, employers, and friends treat me differently. But I’d rather take all the scrutiny of being a dancer than being boring. I’m young and I’ve already lived so much. That’s a beautiful thing. Some people live their lives but never truly live at all – that’s the real loss.       

“My relationship with dancing was kind of like that of an abusive ex that forces you to realise your worth. It’s fun at first, then you dread it, then one day you wake up and you’re like, ‘OK, I need to do something and fast to get away from this shit.’ It was hard work, but it allowed me to make something out of nothing. I turned being a dancer and not having many connections in NY, into being a full-time costume designer working alongside people I respect highly – people I look up to, people who see my past as a dancer as endearing, not tragic. 

“Dancing gave me a sense of control when things were confusing and uncertain. I could go make my money, come home, support my lifestyle, and pursue my dreams. It was not easy, I will never promote it as something fun and sugar-coat it to make myself look better. It was hell but it got me to heaven.

“I’ve had relatives, employers, and friends treat me differently. But I’d rather take all the scrutiny of being a dancer than being boring” – Sara

“My alter-ego, Sapphire, was a demon that could take anyone’s dad’s checking and savings with a smile on her face. Whereas, Sara is an anxious, normal person whose every day is just trying to figure shit out and succeed so she never has to dance again.

“A misconception is men thinking that the club experience will be carried on outside club walls. I wish men could understand that most of the time, what happens in the club stays in the club. No, you can’t have my number. No, you can’t take me out. No, I will not be your date for your family dinner. And I sure as hell won’t be coming home with you after the club closes, Jeff. Think of a dancer as a mirage, I simply do not exist in human form outside of the walls of the club. Every time the clock strikes closing time, I simply dissolve into glitter and I get sucked into the ozone layer.

“I think the perception has changed slightly but we have a long way to go. Personally, if I still tell the wrong person I have a history of dancing they still will need a minute to collect their bearings. Pre-COVID, when ride shares were still a thing, I’d be dropped off in front of my club and the other passengers would realise I was a dancer going into work. And just seeing the expressions on their faces… they would look at me as if a unicorn with a dick for a tail just climbed out of the car. Like, ‘What? One of THOSE was just in the car with me? I’m texting all my friends to tell them we just dropped off a STRIPPER.’

“What would make working conditions safer for us would be men worldwide getting therapy; men having to fill out a waiver every time they enter the club that they need to follow said rules or their dicks get cut off. I’m kidding, but there’s a lot of work men need to do internally on a global scale. That’s the real pandemic.”

Follow former-dancer Sara Lukaszewski here for updates on her emerging career in costume design


“The issues that exist in the industry are the same pressing issues that exist in today’s society. Women are not looked at as equals. If more respect was given to women, if we had a fair opportunity just the same as males, we could move forward in society and start focusing on more pressing matters. But the industry is changing every day, especially since COVID shut down half the world. It exposed the people and industries that were really keeping our economy afloat. Sex work is being normalised more and more every day. 

“The beauty of this industry is that you get to find yourself, and there’s a crowd of people here to support just that. My image changed numerous times throughout the year. But I am the same person, in and out of the club. What you are will always be what you get, minus someone else’s sick intentions.

“Most people assume that being a dancer-entertainer requires sexual interactions. This comes from women, in general, being overly sexualised. In reality, I can make smoking sexy. Hell, even eating can be sexy. You only do what you’re comfortable with. If that doesn’t include sexual interactions, you can still be part of the industry. It takes more than a pretty face to be an entertainer!”


“My work has saved my soul on a few levels, so my personal relationship with my work is profound. I am authentically myself always, both on and off the stage... I don’t have an alter ego. I believe that is one of the main reasons why people connect with me, my energy and my shows.

“I would say that five years ago and beyond, dancing was very cutthroat and competitive with an element of a mean girls club. Over the last few years, I myself along with another feature entertainer, Natasha Nova, have been setting a new precedent of an elevated sisterhood, where we build each other up and help one another with our show ideas – this was unheard of. No feature ever wanted to give away her secrets or spill the beans on how she created props or skills – and that is it OK to appreciate and give support to other women and how amazing they are. Recognising and validating another woman’s beauty, talent, and strengths don’t take away from your own, they only amplify your confidence and unity within the community. I even coined the hashtag #yesyouCANsitwithus to promote inclusion, oppose to exclusion. We are now in a new era where we have the opportunity to empower the matriarch and work together to create a more positive community of support.

“My work has saved my soul on a few levels, so my personal relationship with my work is profound’ – Janine

“One of the most common misconceptions towards us is that we are not human or don’t have values. I recycle too! I care about the environment! I am a community volunteer and have causes that I am passionate about and contribute to. I am educated. All of my friends within the stripping industry have other careers… one woman is a nurse, another flips houses and has an animal rescue. I also am a dancer because I love it, not because I ‘have to’ do it or was forced into this industry. I was managing a gym and was a personal trainer before trading in dumbbells for stilettos and rhinestones. I love owning my feminity, my sensuality, and my female essence and exude that through performing. It’s empowering, not exploitation.”


“I love dancing and feel like it is my art form and true expression of myself. I see it the same as any other form of art. 

“I never had an alter ego… the only difference between how I am at work and how I am at the club is that at the club I have the license to flirt with everybody without feeling bad for being a tease. And I have never had any control over how I am portrayed, everybody is going to make up their own story either way. I am just doing an interpretive dance to songs. I may not even be interpreting the song the way the songwriter intended but, just like I don’t control how others see me, songwriters don’t control how I perceive the song.

“A lot of people who think they have never known a stripper actually have –  strippers are everywhere” – Malice

“I have always felt at home in the strip club. I usually took on the role of a sort of house mum. Mostly because I have been sober the whole time and I often hid out in the back dressing room to avoid doing lap dances unless there was a lot of female customers or couples because I prefer to dance for them.

“Seems like most people think all strippers are the same but there are so many different kinds of dancers and reasons for dancing. Also, so many women in what people have considered ‘real’ jobs have used stripping to get through college. A lot of people who think they have never known a stripper actually have –  strippers are everywhere.

“There is still a horrible stigma attached to strippers. Take a look at Alexandra Hunt who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania. The media treats her admission that she stripped to get through college as a stain on her character. Even though it’s 2022 and celebrities and artists are celebrating strippers more and more, we still can’t say we’re strippers if we want to be taken seriously in other jobs.”

Follow Stevie Verroca and Mada Refujio here for updates on their ongoing project, Exotic Dancer