I WAS TASKED last weekend to visit the Steel House Restaurant’s nightclub in Kingston’s Rondout area to look into (up at?) the Steel House Dancers, a troupe of cocktail waitresses who rotate through butt-wiggle duty in a small balcony alcove above the bar.
So how sleazy is it?
Most people wouldn’t blanch at a woman who wears a skirt that happens to flip up to reveal her underwear on occasion. And if a woman were to walk over a grate that happens to blow up her dress to reveal the same, that’s probably acceptable, too, by the much-celebrated Marilyn Monroe standard.
But to create a strobe-lit space over a bar with a silver-painted pole and an upwards-pointing fan meant to showcase young women who agree to dance there, wearing micro-mini skirts that flip with the wind?
Two of the Steel House Dancers I interviewed called it “hot.”
Who do the dancers attract?
Even before the strobe lights were fired up at 11 p.m. that Saturday, the fun was underway for a foursome who shared two chairs not far from my party. We all were seated in the mezzanine area, above the larger dance floor and adjacent to the Steel House Dancers alcove. While the men in the foursome were as nondescript as 30- or 40-something men get, the women with them were dressed in skirts, one shorter than the other. One of the women wore a schoolgirl-fetish outfit very similar to those of the paid dancers.
Well before I pulled out my own digital camera to attempt to capture some stop-action images of the paid dancers, one of the nondescript men produced his own digital cell-phone camera. Amid guffaws, he pulled open his date’s shirt and took a photo of her left breast, the same one he had just digitally manipulated with his right hand.
As far as I know, the woman wasn’t … working, and even if she were, it seemed clear she knew the nature of her date’s interest in her, so I shrugged off the preshow show and sipped my $3.25 beer.
When I did get around to taking my own photos, I had to be careful to wait until the more prim of the dancers took her turn at the silver pole. While most of the dancers did little circuits back and forth in the alcove, others mostly planted themselves over the uptilted fan and agitated their thong-bisected cheeks. The fan, inches below them, stuttered surreally to the beat of the strobe, seemingly turning backwards.
THE FRENCH SAY the American male has been neutered away from the honest appreciation of the female form. They say we have been abused into political correctness and away from potential sexual harassment claims. They say we can’t even openly gaze upon a beautiful woman walking down the street.
Well, that’s not true!
A few years ago, a female coworker noticed a man staring at her as she walked down Clinton Avenue in Kingston. She smiled at him, assuming he was looking her way because they knew each other. Startled by her acknowledgment, the driver did a double-take and rear-ended the car in front of him.
I’m not sure that proves anything, but it is my favorite story about the ills that befall the gawking sinful. I am sure my coworker’s mother — should she realize I’m talking about her daughter — will probably be glad the wandering-eye-man’s auto insurance probably spiked after the event.
That the Steel House would use sex to sell drinks is so unshocking as to be boring. I was somewhat warmed to hear that a Freeman reporter could not produce anyone who would go on record as being upset or offended by the dancing “girls” at the Steel House, even though the reporter interviewed women, conservatives and the usual grumpy people.
Shucks, some feminists have suggested that the legalization of prostitution would empower women.
BUT THE STEEL House wasn’t visibly promoting prostitution during the eight hours I spent there last weekend, despite the bright red lights that illuminate the top tier of the restaurant’s windows at night.
Steel House co-owner and manager Keith Slifstein played dummy this week when I asked him about the association between red lights and women of ill repute. Steakhouses and red lights, on the other hand — that he said he’d heard of.
“It makes you hungry,” he said.
Slifstein did acknowledge that the red lights and the restaurant’s tall clear windows on the west side do have a way of drawing traffic off the street. It is easy to see from a quarter mile away the strobe lights in the alcove freeze-framing the dancers in mid-wiggle.
A friend of Slifstein’s likened it to one of those sizzling backyard bug zappers. “You’ve got the lights flashing and you’ve got people walking down the street heading towards it. It’s quite amusing,” Slifstein said.
Amusing all the way to the bank.
While the expensive entrees at the restaurant have been panned by many, Slifstein said both the restaurant and the nightclub are covering expenses and then some.
“Right now, the restaurant covers the cost of the entire kitchen staff plus the food, plus the advertising,” Slifstein said.
THE NIGHT I VISITED the Steel House with my wife and two of our friends, Slifstein said some 600 meals were served and around 350 people paid the $10 nightclub cover charge. The kitchen closes around 9 p.m., and the club opens at 10 p.m. but doesn’t feature dancers until 11 p.m.
The posted dress code for patrons didn’t really do much more than keep baseball caps out of the joint. I didn’t really see many of the men dressing up for the evening, although some of the women did put in some effort. I certainly did not feel like I was transported to the atmosphere of a Hamptons club, Slifstein’s stated goal.
As the crowd began streaming in around midnight, I was wary that I’d see the code pressed more assertively against black men than white, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Baggy pants were pretty common, actually, as was the supposedly verboten athletic wear. That the code seems to be directly counter to the de facto uniform of hip-hop (baggy pants and heavy gold chains) does seem a bit silly since the music was mostly hip-hop.
The dancing public at the Steel House leaned heavily toward female, and among those on the floor, it seemed the women were more likely to stare at the dancers in the alcove.
Smiles lit up the room when the club’s only male dancer, Dan Wirzbicki of Wappingers, moved into the alcove. Granted, some women were disappointed his rear end was thoroughly covered by tattered jeans, but as Slifstein said to me later, “You see his belly.”
Wirzbicki said he loves the job, the tips he said he gets from “old ladies” who like his body and the pay. “I’m getting paid to dance.”
At 18, he is too young to sell the $4 test-tube drinks in between sets as the other dancers were doing. A riding instructor, horse trainer and show jumper when he isn’t dancing, Wirzbicki graduated from Roy C. Ketcham High last year. He has some dancing experience in gay clubs — wearing a lot less than what he wears at the Steel House.
He is accustomed to being stared at, not shooed aside.
Not long after 1 a.m., a patron objected when Wirzbicki moved to the mezzanine rail to dance, but the objection was to no avail. Wirzbicki, who had changed into a Hooters T-shirt, didn’t seem to understand that he was obstructing the man’s view of the female dancer in the strobe lights. After the man made several attempts to communicate his relative interest in watching the thong-clad dancer, Wirzbicki finally moved and peace was restored.
THE OTHER DANCER I interviewed, Neena Pressley of Marlboro, was matter-of-fact in describing her job.
“Look sexy and dance. Walk around and mingle a little bit.”
She certainly wouldn’t call herself an exotic dancer.
“I’m not stripping or anything,” she said. “I waitress.”
When we talked, Slifstein called Wirzbicki and Pressley “motivational dancers,” not cocktail waitresses.
Kingston Police Chief Gerald Keller calls the dancers part of a triangle of influence that breeds trouble — flesh, booze and dance music. Dancing girls lure drinkers who get drunk and bump into those who are themselves bumping and grinding on the dance floor. Drinks get spilled, common sense evaporates, and before anyone focuses on it, fists are flying.
Fists, but not bottles … anymore.
Early this summer, a 47-year-old woman, apparently unprovoked, picked up a bottle and beaned a customer. Ever since, bottles stay behind the bar after 10 p.m. Patrons on the mezzanine can still order $72 bottles of sparkling white wine, but the bottles themselves are to be handled by bartenders only, Slifstein said.
The bottle-beaning event was one of two incidents that earned the Steel House two complaints to the state Liquor Authority in the club’s first month of operation, but Slifstein shrugged off the reports as “common” during any club’s opening phase.
This from a former hockey player once drafted to play for the Rangers. Slifstein has had a hand in some 12 nightclubs, including at least one strip joint.
THE STEEL HOUSE is what it is. To write about outrage at how demeaning it is for female butt flesh to be exposed to the naked eye would serve only to bring yet more people to the club. Allowing school groups to raise money by putting teens in bikinis or wet T-shirts to wash cars seems sleazier to me.
Media analysts are still scratching themselves and chuckling about Alexandra Kerry, the bawdy daughter of that Democratic presidential-candidate guy. Several weeks ago, she had the nerve to wear a dress that — when under klieg lights — was sheer enough for gawkers to clearly see the outline of both her areolae.
Well, those giggling Googlers who have gone online to find the clearest possible photos of the incident should remember where Alexandra Kerry was during this too-much-talked-about photo-op. She was at Cannes.
(That’s in France.)
HERE IN DOWNTOWN Kingston, the Rondout neighborhood long has been host to plenty of churches, but it hasn’t been a bastion of purity since humanity first arrived. While the Steel House website has a “history” page that is conspicuously blank, I do know that the Cornell Steamboat Co. built the structure more than a century ago at a time when not all Kingston residents were churchgoers. Sort of like today.
With the odd hiccup of prohibition the only exception, Rondout bars almost always have been full of people like the brickyard workers of Ponckhockie — men who were not averse to a little catting about.
So, to have the grand old Millens Steel building doubling as a go-go club isn’t out of character for that part of town. Just as people get used to this, however, they should know change is on its way.
One tidbit I snared late in my interview with Slifstein would probably be of interest to those watching Steel House developments. Come fall and winter, the schoolgirl fetish outfits will be replaced with a uniform that includes long pants. Radiant heat flooring will keep the patrons toasty, Slifstein said, but in the Steel House Dancers’ alcove, the air will be much nippier.
I predict the next controversy won’t be the site plan or what’s happening behind the fence on Steel House property, but what the dancers will be wearing north of their belly buttons as compensation for the lack of flesh showing to the south.
And will any of that flesh react to the cool air in such a pointed manner as to shock once again?