It’s still light outside at 3 p.m., but Atlantis is dark and windowless. On the dimly lit stage, a beautiful woman shakes and spins her way through the end of her routine. As she lithely walks back down the three stairs to the strip club’s floor, she’s already scouring the small crowd for men who might want a private dance. If she can convince them to pay for just four minutes of her time, she’ll make $15.
“For a half hour private dance, I get to keep $200 of it. I might do three of those or so every shift if I’m lucky,” says Malaysia, tossing her wavy brown hair back over her bony shoulder as she speaks. With her hair swept aside, a wad of bills is tucked under the plunging mesh neckline of her burgundy leotard. A student at the JNA Institute of Culinary Arts, Malaysia—her work name—hopes to become a pastry chef when she graduates in a few years. For now, she might be the only student in University City who’s scoring a larger income from her side job than she will when she begins a career.
Malaysia only exists for three six–hour stints each week, when street clothes are replaced with cutout thong leotards and G–string bikinis in the changing room at Atlantis Gentlemen’s Club. The anonymous woman behind Malaysia’s persona has spent the past year and a half working on and off at University City’s one and only establishment dedicated to exotic entertainment. At 38th and Chestnut, the club is less than two blocks from Penn’s campus, and less than one from Hamilton Court. So it may only be natural that some students possess a sort of voyeuristic fascination with Atlantis.
Malaysia, for her part, doesn’t plan to be seen at Atlantis by Penn students, or anyone else, for much longer. She plans to leave the club as soon as she can afford to pay her tuition.
As she says, “FAFSA doesn’t cover it.”
By 12:30 a.m. on a Saturday night, it’s breasts that aren’t covered.
In the club you know me, I spend it all
My homies gonn get to bustin
Got a quarter million to spend…
Atlantis is in full swing, Gucci Mane’s “Nothin On Ya” pounding loud. Less than a block away, Penn students are just beginning to return to their Hamilton Court apartments after a night out. The university’s academic facilities sleep quietly nearby, just out of earshot of the club’s deafening music.
But at Atlantis, it feels packed, at least two dozen customers crowding the chrome–lined bar. A few are engaged in loud competition for the attention of the solitary bartender, a short woman with a tough cherry red scowl on her lips. Her cropped, low–cut black top clings to her D–cups (a size she announces proudly) as she zips along the narrow space between the T–shaped stage and the bar framing it. Her cleavage is stuffed with crumpled green bills. She won’t accept cash by hand.
On the elevated stage behind the bar, a lean, long–haired dancer slowly begins to shimmy her shoulders out of her neon blue and hot pink thong–and–halter leotard. Her eyelids drop in a flash of pink eyeshadow as she slips the flimsy fabric off of one breast. Then the other. With a diluted smirk, the girl wraps both of her legs around the gold pole in front of her. She hoists herself up with a firm pull, throws her head back, and slides back down to the ground, gyrating all the way.
“Damnnnnnn!!,” hoots a man sitting on the long end of the T. His eyes are obstructed by a red baseball cap.
Customers throughout the room are rooted in place, watching similar scenes. They ogle the three women clinging to the poles onstage. They speak in hushed tones to women rubbing up against their thick layers of January clothing. The women of Atlantis are on display, and in here, they’re in control.
A dancer in white plastic boots approaches a patron at the bar. “How about I take you up onstage over there for a little private dance?” she purrs, gesturing to a line of red upholstered couches on a roped–off platform against the far wall. She systematically works her way around the bar’s edge. “Did you like my dance before? Don’t you want to give me a tip?” Some patron will eventually acquiesce, wincing as the large bills exit his wallet.
As the song changes, a loud and fuzzy voice booms over a poor–quality loudspeaker: “Let’s get Ebony by the stage! Ebony, come to the stage!” A girl wrapped in a thin layer of dark mesh shimmies up the stairs to the pole on the right side of the stage. Her blue and pink clad coworker steps down into the crowd, and the other two girls each shift one pole to the left for the next dance. Before they begin, each girl takes a spray bottle and hand towel from the ground and carefully wipes down the pole in front of her. The men still watch.
Although Atlantis is built underground, it shares no other distinguishing features with the eponymous sunken city of lore. The only trace of a nautical theme is the sign above the door: blue lettering, the “A” with a sweeping tail indicating waves at sunset. Customers trek down a flight of stairs, through an industrial door, and next to—not through—a metal detector to enter a world of sharp reds and cold metallics. Carpets trailing off the main room of the club indicate the entrances to the four private dance rooms: the Leopard Room, the Cheetah Room, the Tiger room, and the Jaguar room. The entire back wall of the club is a row of mirrors, catching each of the three onstage poles and reflecting them back so that a full view is unavoidable from any part of the club.
“This is the strangest, seediest place you will ever be in,” says Sierra*, the club’s afternoon bartender, with a chuckle. Unlike the woman who works behind the bar at night, Sierra sports a black, full–coverage t–shirt with the words, “I love you more than I love pizza.” Although she’s attractive, with olive skin and glossy hair, Sierra wears notably less makeup than any other female employee at Atlantis. “I used to dance here, but I stopped nine years ago,” she says, leaning over the bar. “The assistant manager is a friend, so he got me this gig instead.”
On a Saturday at 3 p.m., Sierra is prepping for a double shift. Atlantis’ daily free lunch service has just ended. The stage is empty aside from a spray bottle and towel. There are about five patrons in the club, and even fewer girls on the floor. A large bachelor party is coming in later, and Sierra expects them to spend a lot and tip big. “It’s a white bachelor party,” she admits. “They spend a lot more.”
Malaysia agrees that customer spending varies somewhat demographically, with age being the strongest indicator. Older men pay more; They’re generous with tips and indulge in more private dances than younger crowds. Partly because of this, she only works shifts during the daytime. At night, the crowds tend to be more “amped and hyped up." She has no desire to be a part of that.
Nighttime also happens to be when the most students come into Atlantis. They amuse Sierra, who can always tell them apart from Atlantis’ standard older patrons. “We get a lot of students," she admits with a chuckle. “They look like starving artists.” Though she can’t tell them apart from one another, she’s sure that groups from Penn, Drexel, and Temple all come into the club frequently. Matriculation aside, there’s one significant complaint about student customers that each dancer emphasizes. They rarely tip, and almost never pay for dances.
College senior Amine Sahmoud has been to Atlantis exactly once. Late last semester, he and two female friends found themselves searching for an exciting weekday night out. “We wanted to go to a male strip club,” Amine clarifies, “but all of the ones we found were like, 20, 30 dollars cover. We saw that Atlantis was only seven dollars, so we figured we’d check it out.”
According to January’s issue of Unveiled, Philly’s monthly magazine “dedicated to exotic entertainment,” there are 4,000 strip clubs nationwide, 67 of which are in and around Philadelphia. The high concentration of clubs creates serious competition—dancers at Atlantis are skeptical of female patrons who come in without men, fearing they might be spies sent from other clubs. Even within a club, the high financial stakes for each individual dancer can instigate competition, leaving a sour sort of intensity in the air.
Amine and his friends all had the same first impression of Atlantis. “We were like, ‘Wow, we’re never going to come back here.’” They turned down offers for lap dances from every girl who approached them, but the club was packed, and men all around them were accepting gladly. At 10 p.m., they’d found themselves in the middle of the raunchy night crowd that Malaysia prefers not to dance for. Amine’s group didn’t stay for long.
Josh*, a College senior and member of an on–campus fraternity, stresses the discrepancy between “nasty–ass, ratchet” Atlantis and the strip clubs he prefers to visit. “It’s a pretty wretched place,” he says. “I’ve been there two or three times this year. I go at the end of the night, when I’m usually pretty destroyed.”
Josh admits that he enjoys bringing his fraternity’s rushes to Atlantis and buying dances for them, describing their reaction as “a mix of excitement and absolute shock." He’s been to “better” clubs elsewhere, including Magic City in Atlanta, Georgia, where he spent a night out with fraternity brothers during the organization’s national convention. “An actual nice strip club is really fun,” he insists.
So why, then, do so many Penn seniors list a trip to Atlantis on their pre–graduation bucket lists? Perhaps the idea of crossing the line between our world and Atlantis is fun because it is “other.” “I feel like it’s a very college thing to do, like it’s wild,” says Amine of his rationale. “We figured we’re seniors, why not do it just to do it. But honestly it’s only really exciting until you walk in. It was a little bit sad.”
As a student, Malaysia lives on both sides of this dichotomy. Aside from her, she says, there are only two or three other students who dance at the club, girls who are using this job as a means to an end. “The other women are all older, and this is their thing, like this is just what they do. They have no real goals in life.”
This past July, a patron named Errick Epperson alleged he was stabbed in the neck by one of Atlantis’ dancers. According to the lawsuit Epperson filed in October, the woman grew angry and attacked him with a shard of broken glass after he refused her proposition for a paid private dance. Epperson’s laceration was stitched up in the emergency room, and the dancer was never arrested. Within months, Epperson had filed his lawsuit against Atlantis, claiming that they knowingly overlooked past assault convictions when hiring the dancer in question.
Malaysia and Sierra openly acknowledge that they don’t feel protected by the establishment they work for. The four cat–themed private dance rooms have no panic buttons, a safety feature found more frequently in upscale clubs. Not one Penn student or other Atlantis patron can recall walking through the metal detector at the club’s entrance rather than around it.
Most dancers are careful never to disclose their real names or other personal information. Both Sierra and Malaysia have had their share of obsessive patrons. When Sierra was still a dancer at Atlantis, one of her coworkers had one fan in particular who would show up during the majority of her shifts, paying to watch her dance and talk to her. “Then one day, this guy just showed up at her house,” Sierra says nonchalantly. “They were friends on Facebook, so he knew kinda what area she lived in, then one day he showed up and started knocking on her neighbors’ doors and asking which house was hers.” She looks up and grins. “When the guy found the house, her dad answered the door.” The club didn’t get involved, adds Sierra. “The next day, that guy came walking right back in here like normal.”
Josh, on the other hand, maintains that Atlantis is “the type of place you only wanna go to once,” even though he has wandered in drunk six or seven times throughout college. “When you see the people who frequent it, it becomes this dark weird thing,” he says.
For Malaysia, it isn’t fear of her workplace that bothers her—it’s the fear of never moving on. Her time at Atlantis is limited, with a clear end in sight. She reiterates this stance multiple times in a single conversation, almost as if to remind herself: she’ll only work there as long as she absolutely has to. In the final days of January, as she and Sierra wait for the bachelor party to arrive, Malaysia is still at least a year away from declaring her resignation. She fidgets with the wad of cash tucked into her cleavage absentmindedly, repeating herself one final time.
“I can’t be thirty and be here. I can’t be twenty–five and be here.”
*Names have been changed