Friday, April 20, 2012
Dancers Speak Out - Full Report
Dancers Speak Out was a public meeting held in Tower Hamlets on 18th April and marked what in my view may a tipping point in the battle that clubs and dancers have been fighting against prohibitionists and their supporters within local councils throughout the United Kingdom.
The event drew a respectable crowd of around 50 people, comprising local residents, local trade union representatives, club owners and of course the dancers whose jobs are threatened. Sadly I have to report that I was the closest thing to a media representative that attended the event, which is a pity because many important things came out of the meeting.
The first speaker was John McDonnel, MP for Hayes and Harlington since 1997. He was one of the members of the group that helped develop the legislation that lead to the current SEV Licensing structure and consequently his views on the matter have great weight. It is Johns view that the current prohibitionist campaign was not an intended outcome of the legislation and that was happening was, in his words ‘mad’. He expressed the view that the entire situation was clearly about one group imposing their morality on another and that people needed to accept that a city offers a range of things for a range of people.
John also touched upon the consultation, making the observation that after 6 months there had still been no result. He expressed concern that the submissions had been sent to handwriting experts but half the responses were done online. Speculating that the entire affair had probably been motivated by the Olympics, John asked how Dow Chemicals, BP and Rio Tinto Zinc were fine and striptease was not. Recalling meetings with survivors or Bhopal and people from South Africa who'd suffered under RTZ mining projects, he was struck by the hypocrisy of the council welcoming these companies to the borough but then trying to ban striptease.
Perhaps most importantly, John stated clearly that if Tower Hamlets council attempted to push through the ‘Nil Policy’, he will raise the matter in Parliament, possibly in the format of an early day motion. Sadly he had to leave early on Parlimentary business, but he made a great impression on everyone.
Next up was ex dancer and Equity member, Edie, who spoke with expected eloquence and commitment about the prohibitionists and their campaign against the club scene.
Speaking about a job which she found stressful and abusive that gave her terrible anxiety – a PA in a City media firm, she revealed that working as a stripper in the evening was a marked contrast and was one of the few things that kept her sane in this time.
Edie also recalled the rise in anti-stripper articles in the media, particularly those written by Caitlin Moran that in many respects were the first straws in the wind of the situation that we find ourselves in today. Perhaps most importantly, Edie commented about how important it was for women ‘have a space where they are allowed to be sexually expressive’ after centuries of being denied ‘any sexual expression at all’. Throughout the darker periods of history, female sexuality has been repressed, and its exhibition could lead to ‘incarceration or worse’ and Edie quite rightly questioned the motivations of those that would seek to turn the clock back.
Vera Rodriguez (GMB) has been a dancer in Tower Hamlets for 12 years and stated that although her job was seen to be controversial it was nonetheless a ‘real job’ and that she had been ‘grateful to be able to earn a living entertaining people’. Vera then spoke about Tower Hamlets council who in her view are ‘not so good’ on the basis that they do not have the right to tell anyone how to make a living and that ultimately the jobs of 500 to 600 people are at stake on the basis of the Councils views.
Vera argued eloquently the need for dancers and their colleagues to be able to keep a job in todays depressed economy and perhaps most importantly of that everyone is part of a community, a family that must become organised and stand together in order to save the jobs and also to start to look at working conditions as well.
“Those that call themselves feminists – Are you really defending our right to do what we want with our lives? Let is keep the right to work and fight to get better conditions and unionise”.
The above was Veras closing comment and for me it represented the subtstrate of the whole argument. How can anyone that calls themselves a feminist actually try and campaign against an industry that employs upwards of 12,000 women in the UK.
The meeting Chair supported this view and asked….
“…….Are present day feminists defending womens rights? I think not. They haven’t bothered to ask the women themselves. Maybe they should listen to people like Edie and Vera. If you are a worker you have the right to be heard".
……..a question that any Object activist would surely have difficulty answering with any degree of honesty.
The next speaker was arts school graduate and dancer Stacey, who explained that after moving to London she had worked in many different clubs and this experience had helped her define her key criteria for working. Essentially she needed to feel comfortable, protected and unexploited. She also made the perfectly valid point that in some venues the house fees amounted to ‘extortion’. Happily for Stacey, she found in The White Horse in Shoreditch, a venue where she could settle and works there to this day.
Interestingly Stacey wrote a dissertation about UK Licensing Law and stated that she agreed with the change but that was disappointed to see the new legislation abused by councils.
Stacey also made an important point that objectification of a group or a race is the first step toward violence and that reducing people to sub-humanity was in itself a violent act. In my view this is something that Object have been guilty of, they claim to be fighting objectification, but in doing so have objectified dancers as either helpless victims or the root cause of societies ills.
‘Montana’, another dancer from Tower Hamlets explained that she herself used to be part of the radical feminist movement, but along the she realise that it didn’t really represent liberation for women, or even its members…
“…….It created other norms, more limitations and no space to listen to anyone else, for example those joining the group with high heels and long hair…..”
Like Edie and Vera, Montana stressed the point that dancers are ‘not abused, exploited or dehumanised’ and work to support themselves and their dependants, in an environment that is ‘safe, secure and protected’. It was at this point that Montana really got into her stride, with a powerful statement in support of her career choice….
“There is no space for oppression against women. It is the time that I choose to be objectified and it is my choice to work in the club, on my terms and conditions, reclaiming the power of my body and myself”.
Perhaps Montanas’ most thought provoking comment was when she made the observation that if lap dancing clubs cause violence toward women, then on that basis religion should be banned and for good measure violent films as well.
She also touched upon the issue of womens safety, because the inevitable consequence of prohibition would be illegal, unsafe venues, something that Object vehemently deny as being even remotely possible.
Montanas summary encapsulated the whole campaign….
“….Within contemporary dance and art, the body is sexualised. If this is my body it is my right to decide what to do with it….”
The meeting was very fortunate to have Keith Henderson of the GMB. Keith is a Regional Organiser of the Entertainment Section who stated that the GMB will seek advice to mount a legal challenge to Tower Hamlets Council if they decode to proceed with their Nil Policy. This one statement was perhaps the most important of the meeting, as it means that the council will be facing challenges from not only clubs, but one of the most powerful and influential unions in the country.
The role of local religious institutions was briefly discussed as well and Edie recalled the Lapdancing – Choice or Exploitation debate held last October, where many speakers admitted that they had no idea that strip clubs even existed in Tower Hamlets but nonetheless resolved that they must be banned.
Thierry Schaffauser, the GMB London Entertainment Branch President made the point that to win the battle that people have to fight and to do that within the context of a union. Recalling Hackney and the protest activities that fought Object and Hackney Council to a standstill, Thierry stated that the same model needed to be employed in Tower Hamlets.
“…We can win, we will win by organising together and joining the GMB and Equity….”.
Links to the membership pages for GMB can be found here and for Equity, here.
A member of the public made an interesting observation about Tower Hamlets Councils increasing need to control its environment and the businesses that reside in the borough, recalling how the difficulties faced by the owners of The Troxy were being reflected today by the situation facing strip club owners.
Finally, there was much discussion about the issue of self employed workers rights and whether maybe all dancers should be directly employed by the clubs that they work for. This point was made by some representatives of the NUT, who maybe failed to appreciate the advantages that self employment brings and also maybe weren’t fully up to speed about the strip tease industry. Maybe the best observation on this matter was from Catherine Stevens, GMB Branch Secretary who said that ‘If I am self employed, I expect to be treated as such’ and that the key focus should be on transparency of dancers terms and conditions.
In summary it was an outstanding meeting and virtually every contributor made valid points. As for the future, there was talk of meeting to formulate strategies and I for one hope this takes place as a matter of urgency. It is my view that the strategy should focus initially on ensuring jobs keep open, then and only then can we start to work on conditions.
After listening to the trade union speakers, I must say that I strongly urge dancers to join the GMB and Equity. Without large scale support, we may win the odd battle such as Hackney, but the war itself is a different prospect. Dancers and club owners have to be lucky everytime, Object only have to lucky once and it is vital that a blanket Nil Policy that empowers a council to close every club in their borough never happens.
On behalf of the speakers, I want to thank everyone that contributed to the ‘jug round’ for meeting the cost of the hall, particularly Whites Gentlemans Club, the Nags Head and Metropolis who themselves put in £100.
The full text of the speeches will be published on this blog in the coming week.
As I wrote in a previous posting about Object, I never imagined that we would ever have to fight for right of clubs to exist. It was always my fear that the legislation would be abused and with gay venues being targeted along with strip tease and lap dancing clubs, we can see that sadly I was right. That said, it could be that out this conflict comes something good, maybe that is for everyone to never take things for granted again.
Anna Van Heeswiijk was interviewed recently in The Guardian and as always there were many comments about the article. A surprising number were from people critical of Object, that said there was one comment, that I found quite chilling…..
“…..studies that take into account the opinions of women who are still stuck in the industry are highly suspect because so many will be in denial about how traumatised they are and how that trauma manifests itself……”
In other words, the public shouldn’t listen to dancers who defend their jobs because basically they are crazy and need help. It reminds me of Joseph Hellers Catch 22. The only sane dancers are those that denounce the profession and therefore they must be listened to. Those that defend the profession must be insane and therefore must be ignored. They may act normal and present reasoned arguments but all really that demonstrates is that they must be incredibly insane to be so normal.
These attitudes and justifications seem to be becoming more commonplace among the prohibitionist community as they struggle to justify their behaviour. Furthermore, what kind of people denounce their opponents as insane and try to legislate against them? I think we know the answer from history.
I hope this marks a new stage in the recognition of strip tease and lap dancing as legitimate employment activities. Stacey stated her support for the SEV legislation, if she meant that it would result in a new and better understanding between club owners and dancers, an understanding that is supported and defended by union expertise and muscle, then only good can come from it.
We know we have union support and also a prominent member of Parliament essentially condemning a prohibitionist council. We must not allow momentum to slip or allow ourselves to be caught up with other issues or side agendas. This is about working, we can worry about how to work when the jobs have been saved.
It is my view that the choices and ways forward are clear…