The business of bare: Inside Ralph's Place | The Coast Halifax

The business of bare: Inside Ralph's Place

How Khalil Nasrallah keeps his money squeaky-clean, his morals in check and Nova Scotia's last strip club thriving.

The business of bare: Inside Ralph's Place
Riley Smith

She is on hands and knees, naked. Below her a man slumps over his beer bottle. He is nearly alone in the club on this bright afternoon.

She crawls towards him, stopping three feet away–as close as the law allows. Her movements are almost languorous, but she lacks the confidence and practice of the other girls.

Rolling onto her side she rests her weight on a thin wrist and a full thigh, rolls onto her stomach. Then she folds her legs back, stretching upwards. The man has not moved and his face has not changed. Have they even made eye contact?

Now she rises, getting tangled in legs weighted by chunky platform shoes. Her hand gropes for metal. Then she is suspended in the air, the pole pressed between pale knees. Her spine arches out and away, her arms held out on either side.

Head hanging a foot from the ground, she touches the floor to steady herself and slowly lowers her body. She almost loses a shoe in the dismount. Knocking her heel back into the black plastic slab, she gives it an extra tap to make sure her foot is secure. Composed once more, she walks calmly behind the curtain.

Sometime during the performance a $5 bill has appeared on the stage.

The business of bare: Inside Ralph's Place
Riley Smith

The girls—inside the club performers are nearly always called "girls," regardless of their age—are not allowed to touch their money. Between performances the DJ steps out to pick the bills off the floor. Then he upends a bottle of rubbing alcohol onto a sheet of paper towel and wipes the pole from top to bottom. On comes the next girl.

Each performance is divided into two acts. By the end of the first the girls must remove either their top or bottom garment. Then they slip backstage just long enough to check themselves in a mirror and catch their breath before going back on. In the second act they must be fully nude. The kicker is always the same: Their fingers linger, crowning their genitalia, implying masturbation. It is illegal for the girls to actually penetrate themselves. Then the show ends.

During this whole time the DJ hustles the crowd over the music, telling them to "bring up your bills bills bills." For his services each girl pays five dollars a night, plus tip.

• • •

Tucked behind the club's coat-check is a door with a buzzer. Behind this door is a tiny pitch-black passage. At the other end shines a strip of light. Back here all noise is muffled.

Khalil Nasrallah reclines in his chair. One hand holds a cigarette while the other absently arranges loose papers on the edge of his desk. In the centre sits a glass ashtray and stacks of money. A gold crucifix peeks from beneath his polo shirt. He is reserved, he is quiet. When he stands, he towers. Nasrallah has owned this club for 10 years.

His father Ralph founded the place in the late 1980s after immigrating to Canada from Lebanon. It wasn't always a strip club. At first it was a music bar, specializing in tunes from the '50s and '60s. But business wasn't great, so it became a country and western bar. But that was losing money. Finally in 1992, after noticing that the handful of other strip clubs in the city were thriving, Nasrallah's father decided to try his hand at the adult entertainment business.

Back then, the city of Dartmouth held public hearings for businesses that wanted licences. In this case Nasrallah's father needed a Zone 6 permit. Without it he couldn't legally have strippers in his bar—and the public was set against him. An hour before the hearing, a crowd assembled to protest adding another strip club to its city.

But after listening to a few complaints, one thing became clear. People weren't opposed to the strip club itself–they simply feared what other activities it might encourage. They were worried that pimps and prostitutes would convene there, that it would become a hub of narcotic and other criminal activity. Finding this insufficient reason to deny a permit, the judge ruled in Ralph's favour. Nasrallah believes it was his father's reputation for integrity that influenced the court's decision, and the reason that Ralph's Place is the only strip club still open in Nova Scotia more than 20 years later.

• • •

Of seven children, Nasrallah was the only boy. He was teased at school for his ethnicity, his size, his stutter. "All my school years I had a speech impediment," he says. "I was automatically an outcast. Plus, I was of a minority. I was Lebanese. At my school they thought I was Muslim, no matter what. They thought that because you're Arabic, you're Muslim."

He never liked school.

At 16 years old he wanted a car, so he asked his successful father. His father said no. If he wanted a car, his father said, he'd have to earn it. Instead his father loaned him $37,000, with which Nasrallah bought several ATMs. He started his first business leasing them to apartment buildings, pizza joints–any place where people needed fast cash and were willing to pay extra to get it. A year later he repaid the loan and bought a black Pontiac.

"You're Ralph's son and you drive a Pontiac?" he remembers people saying in disbelief. And he would answer, "Man, I'm Ralph's son and I bought this car myself."

Now Nasrallah owns five cars, including a black Mercedes that he drives to work.

At 18 he graduated from high school and his father insisted he try university. After one year Nasrallah left to work at Ralph's.

"We are family-oriented people," he says. "Just because we own a strip club, we are not different people."

The business of bare: Inside Ralph's Place
Riley Smith

Ralph's Place is in a small L-shaped strip mall at the foot of Main Street, in Dartmouth. The surrounding plots are also strip malls and warehouses. Across the street is a garage, a payday loan office and a vacuum repair shop.

The parking lot is bare gravel with only a lit sign, bearing the club's black-and-pink logo of a woman's leg, as ornament. The entrance is nestled in the crook between a pizza joint and another Money Mart payday loan office. Inside the transparent doors, a girl with thick winged eyeliner reads a glossy fashion magazine behind glass as she waits to check IDs and take coats. Another door, heavy and black, prevents any passersby from seeing the performers inside. This is required by law.

The place is worn but impeccably clean, smelling faintly of detergent. At the front of the room a wooden stage is raised. On it two metal poles reach up to the ceiling, circled by scuff marks left behind by the dancers' shoes when they perform with their feet in the air. Apart from the stage, Ralph's Place looks like a typical North American diner—complete with VLTs at the back, dispensers for candy and peanuts and vinyl seating. Just add a few couches and a bar that rents hookahs.

A bartender is wiping her counter. She has a pink bandana wrapped around her forehead and two stars tattooed on her neck. A bikini is visible under her tank top. A newcomer to Nova Scotia, she was surprised by the province's no-contact policy at strip clubs.

"I've worked at strip clubs in Alberta where you can touch, and I think no-contact is great. I mean, you don't want some stranger putting their hands all over you!"

Here in the middle of the day the handful of straggling patrons, sitting quietly alone or in pairs, hardly look capable of such a thing, absorbed by their beer and French fries. The girls make their rounds between performances, saying hello and stopping to chat at tables.

The tattooed bartender is pouring a drink for the last girl to come off stage. Her bottom half is completely bare, save for black string wrapping up her legs and merging into a thong. She wears black platform boots and a referee shirt. One of the patrons, a middle-aged man with a weathered face, comes to buy her the drink.

• • •

"Manipulating people for their money is still something I need to get used to," says Hope. The 21-year-old university student, who favours dark retro lingerie and red lips, has only been stripping for a few months. Already she's got her regulars. On her worst night she left with only $50–hardly worth the hour bus ride to work her seven-hour shift and the cab fare back home. On her best night she earned $800.

Strippers don't have normal salaries. Ralph's Place offers minimum wage during the day when business is slow, but at night their income comes almost entirely from tips they collect on stage.

Sometimes the girls get hired for private dances. Slipping into grey office cubicles at the back of the bar, the customer is seated behind a desk while the girl mounts a low platform. Undulating beneath their gaze, she earns $10 per session, plus whatever the customer cares to tip.

Slim, with dark ringlets framing prominent cheekbones, Ariana is among the highest-earning girls at the club. Before sitting down she carefully unfolds a square of fabric, not much bigger than the lace bikini she's wearing, onto her chair "for hygienic reasons." She sits with straightened spine, neatly crossed legs and prim hands clasped in her lap.

She began stripping in 2007 because she needed money. Lots of it, fast. Her boyfriend was out of work and they had bills to pay. More importantly, they had a four-month-old daughter.

But now it feels like the job that saved her skin is turning the world against her. "People, they have the misconception that dancers are prostitutes," she says. "I'm a performance artist. I'm strictly visual. When I go home I want to put my head down to sleep with dignity. I'm a very morally strong individual."

Stripping can also be an emotional shock for newcomers.

"I drank when I started," says Ariana. "Just to get over that speed bump. One bad comment would send me home in tears. You have to be strong not to get swallowed up in this industry."

But in the long list of jobs she's held—including selling bingo cards at game halls and directing traffic around construction zones—she says stripping is one of the best. She considers herself lucky to work in a city where physical contact with dancers is prohibited, and the rule enforced.

Ariana is currently embroiled in a fierce custody battle over her daughter, now six years old, and believes the misconceptions about her profession are hurting her case. "It's my job. It's not me. It doesn't define who I am as an individual."

Her daughter is not aware of her mother's profession.

"I'm not ashamed of it," she says. "Though I would never want her to do this."

Stripping can be fun, she says, but is hard work. It's physical. You move, you sweat. And you're always on alert because it's not particularly safe.

• • •

Nasrallah can't help getting worked up when discussion turns to fair treatment.

"The Canada job bank, they denied us from posting 'wanted' ads for jobs. For waitresses, for bartenders, coat check, DJs, doormen," he says. "Why? Because of the type of business we are. That's a government website!

"We're not doing anything illegal. This is a proper business–we pay taxes! The taxes to run that website! So you can understand why I get animated sometimes, because we're not treated fairly. People don't realize that we have morals and we have a sense of proper business etiquette."

To him, owning a strip club is nothing more than business as usual, and it doesn't prevent him from holding traditional values. In fact, he makes a point of running his business in a way that he considers to be socially responsible.

"People across the city, they ask me if I want to sponsor a children's hockey team, or put an ad in a book that goes to high schools. And they don't care that we're a strip club," he says, waving a lit cigarette to the world at large. "I do," he says, tapping his chest. "I cannot market myself to kids. I refuse to put an advertisement for Ralph's Place for a publication that goes to high schools. Could you imagine a hockey team for 13-and-under that was sponsored by Ralph's Place?

"But these people, they don't care. They want money! It's funny, the guy with the most morals in the room is the strip club owner."

So why own a strip club?

"There are two things you can never take away from society," says Nasrallah. "Alcohol and women. They are recession-proof."

• • •

By 11 o'clock on Friday night the club is full. The clientele is 70 percent men, interspersed with a few gaggles of women. Waiters in shorts and sequined tops flit past holding trays with shots poured into neon plastic cups. Money gets thrown onto the tray too, getting soaked with sticky liquor as the drinks are lifted and spilled.

On stage is crowd favourite Cara. Hoots and barks fill the room, though she hasn't even taken anything off. She smiles widely and blows kisses. Much of her success, it seems, is due to charisma rather than eroticism.

A flower seller walks into the club with a bucket of roses. Several get thrown onto the stage along with money. Customers sitting at tables make a show of pulling the vendor aside to buy roses for the dancers seated with them.

The DJ emerges to give the poles a perfunctory wipe and to collect the money, then a new girl takes the stage. It's her third day on the job. Terrified eyes stare from beneath a cascade of chestnut waves. The audience feels her tension and the tips that were flowing freely suddenly dry up. The crowd becomes unresponsive, waiting for the show to be over.

The new girl gives two more performances before the night is over. Between them she meanders between tables smiling nervously, unsure where to go or what to do. She drifts to the edge of the room, where a female couple is loudly vocalizing their lust for the performers to a table of friends. The girl makes brief eye contact, and one of the women uses the opening to invite her over.

After a brief exchange, the woman presents her with a pink laminated slip, showing that she has pre-paid for a private dance, and rises from her chair. Crossing the entire floor, the girl leads her client over to the private dance area. A few people glance as they pass, shrug and turn back to their drinks.

At two in the morning everybody goes home. The manager, George, doesn't let the dancers hang around. He says that unless the girls leave, the clients won't.

It's only now that Nasrallah arrives in his black Mercedes. He and George recede into the back room in a haze of cigarette smoke. All of the tills are brought to his desk.

Silently they count. Occasionally, without looking up, Nasrallah will ask who was responsible for a certain till. He punches at a plastic calculator yellowed with age. They've been using the same one for 15 years, he says: "We're just used to where the buttons are placed."

"It's funny, when George first started working here, he literally thought that my only existence in life was to count money," says Nasrallah. "That's all he ever saw me do. It was a running joke."

They count by hand, then run the bills through an electric counter that drops the money into tidy stacks. The men tie the money into bundles with thin elastic bands, then toss everything into a large black safe.

"We're very fortunate, knock on wood. We're very lucky," says Nasrallah. "A lot of people respect us in a certain way. I've been here for 10 years. A lot of the businesses around us...they've gotten robbed. Needless to say, no one's ever attempted it here. It's not something that I think people would try. It's our reputation. It's how we carry ourselves. We don't create enemies, and we don't disrespect people who don't have money. We welcome everybody."

When the bar money arrives, Nasrallah grunts in disgust. "Those girls," he mutters to himself. "If they don't wash their money they won't get any."

The bills are covered in sticky liquor, making them difficult to count and dirtying his hands. Normally his staff wipes the bills with a damp cloth, but one of the new bartenders has forgotten.

"I don't like sticky money," says Nasrallah "I'm very particular about my money. The heads have to be facing up"—stacked on top of each other—"otherwise I can't look at it."

The offending bartender steps into the room–looking like a child called into the principal's office–where she is gently chastised.

When she leaves, he says, "I got it from my father."

Nasrallah picks up a bundle of bills. "I used to just shove money in my pocket. He taught me. He said, 'Take your money and put the big bills on the outside'"–he holds up the bundle, pointing to the reddish $50-bills facing outwards–"the small bills on the inside." He points to the centre, a wad of green 20s. "You fold it once, then you put an elastic around it.

"You keep your money organized," he says. "We're here for one reason, so you might as well organize that one reason the best you can."

• • •

Late work hours like these make Nasrallah question whether running the club should be part of his future.

"I hope that when I have kids I'm not a part of this business. For the sake of my family, because I want to be home every night with them," he says. "My father worked so hard we'd never see him....He used to come home while we were asleep. I don't want that for my kids."

He absently rearranges the receipts in front of him. At the edge of the desk now stands an assembly of empty mugs. It's about 3:30am.

"I would rather not give them anything I had," says Nasrallah. "I would rather help them with a professional career, let them go to school and have a clean-cut business where they could go home every day at five o'clock."

In the hushed darkness of early morning, he lights another cigarette.

Ariane Hanlon studies journalism and psychology at the University of King's College. She believes the most important question you can ask about someone is “why?”