"The club, it's like a whole 'nother world," says Ronnie, the founder of Shakedown, an underground Los Angeles striptease dance party run by and for black lesbians. Director Leilah Weinraub has spent eight years filming Shakedown and its key players.
Weinraub is originally from Los Angeles, but studied in Ohio. An artist by trade, she became fascinated with Shakedown when she moved back to the city after college in 2002. She asked Ronnie if she could work there, and soon, she was documenting the black lesbian striptease scene with photography and video. Her burgeoning fascination with the party led her to want to tell the stories of the dancers and the club-goers, the economics of stripping, the sexual and identity politics of this kind of striptease; her resulting documentary is called Shakedown. Weinraub is looking for $25,000 to help complete production of film — which, if the clips she's released so far are any guide, promises to be a sort of Paris is Burning of the subculture. Photographer Ryan McGinley and musician Kim Ann Foxman are among those who have already contributed.
I talked with Weinraub about her project, the mostly ignored history of lesbian striptease (especially black lesbian striptease), and why she believes her film deserves support.
How did you first hear about Shakedown?
One night I was on Santa Monica Boulevard at two in the morning after the club let out, I was just watching all the girls be banji in the middle of the street. And this lesbian handed me a flier, and was like, "Come to my graduation party!" On one side of the flier was a picture of her in a cap and gown, all cute from UCLA. And on the other side was like a row of naked butts — well, butts in thongs. And the address was for a venue in Inglewood called A Current Affair. I was like, "I will be there!" I went, and that was Shakedown. The show was so amazing, like big costumes and back-up dancers and routines and like so much money. But it [was] also like everyone knew each other.
Was it hard to get the women who became your subjects in the film to trust you with their stories?
No, not really. First of all, they are entertainers, with really big personalities. They want to perform and entertain people and they also want to tell their stories. Also, when I started to make the film I was 23, and much younger than the people I was filming, so they really had a lot of control. I feel like they were very generous with their honesty and openness.
Talk about where this kind of stripping comes from — is it connected to drag shows or other gay revues? Is there a whole history of black lesbian striptease out there, that people just don't know about?
Yeah, definitely, [and] I try to track black gay performance history in Los Angeles. Jewel's Catch One Disco is the oldest black owned and operated club in Los Angeles, [it's] still running now. In the '80s, that was the place to go to see vouguers, and it became a very popular spot. Like you would go there and dance next to Madonna or Sharon Stone. Anyway, L.A. had its own style of vougueing, and the outfits were very nude! There were a lot of lesbians that were walking the balls there. That place was very integral to AIDS activism in the '90s, and also at the same time lesbians started to make their own nights there that were like balls and burlesque shows. This film puts all of these events in a row, and shows the evolution of this culture via interviews and the actual footage from those nights. Shakedown is the third generation of these nights; it's like the faster, bigger, younger, more underground version.
Another clip from Shakedown, plus Weinraub's video pitch.
How do you think the act of stripping changes when it's a queer woman performing for an audience of other queer women, versus the more usual kind of stripping, where it's women performing for straight men?
The whole entire vibe is different. The dancers are stars, and stars that you have access to. Its all about anticipation, the audience really gets into the whole illusion or the fantasy story that the performer is giving. And they show that appreciation and love with a lot of tips.
You mentioned "following the dollar" — using the film to explore the economy that the party fosters. Can you trace that economic (and kinda political, and performative) cycle for me?
There are no poles or elevated stages, so the circle of women patrons, grooving to the music themselves, have to step into the center of the room to tip the performers. They shower dollar bills on the dancers, giving payment and appreciation. The film tracks the dollar that's spent at the club. It goes from patron to dancer, to the dancer creating all the things that contribute to the illusion of her show, which is her weave, her nails, her outfit, her CD, and her sound effects. It also tracks the dollar to the behind-the-scenes action. Not specifically preparing for the show, but her life, which is about paying the bills and supporting her kids. So the dollar gets tracked back into the club as the woman recreates the show each time with that dollar. Nobody gets rich off of performing there. It's just that the dollar gets re-circulated. So the idea is to recreate the show. The patrons come and then contribute more money and the cycle continues.
Lastly, why do you need the Kickstarter money — what's left to do, and what does it mean to you as a director to get your film financed this way?
Shakedown is a self-funded, independently made film. And I have been working on it for the past eight years. Filmmaking is extremely expensive, the goal we set for Kickstarter [$25,000] is a third of our actual finishing budget, but it will definitely get us on our way and definitely insure that this film is completed. To be successful we need to complete the edit, do a color and sound correction, and then begin the process of promotion and distribution. This film was extremely hard to fund because of its risqué content. And when I say risqué I'm not referring to the nudity. I mean its risqué for black lesbian, women, to have their own amazing thing. The film is a window into that world. It is a documentation of a micro-economy and that is really powerful, and, to some, risqué.
So that's her pitch. Because of how Kickstarter works, Weinraub's $25,000 goal has to be met in entirety in order for her to receive any of the pledged monies. (If the donations go over $25,000, that money will go to the film, too.) Currently, Shakedown is at $22,477, with four days left to reach the goal. Far be it from me to tell anyone how to spend their hard-earned cash, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fascinated by Weinraub's project.
The party Weinraub is documenting is like no other kind of stripping. The performances may or may not be explicit, but they have a kind of frankness and an element of sexual self-expression that sets the party apart from traditional burlesque and striptease. Most of the dancers are professionals — they make their living from stripping at Shakedown, and are welcomed as the party's stars. And the costumes are truly elaborate, and mostly custom-made by a woman named KIM, who, Weinraub says, does costumes for most of the high-end black strippers in the Los Angeles area. (If you contribute $1,000 to the film's production budget, you'll be the proud owner of a custom-made creation by KIM herself.)
If you're as interested in Shakedown (and Shakedown) as I am, you can join the director herself in the comments section, where she'll be fielding your questions for the next hour.