Welcome to the Club

A small sign directs you off the main road, between two faceless industrial buildings, down a snaking drive to a parking lot where a broken-down camper van holds court. A second sign points up a ramshackle plywood walkway, to a backdoor hidden among a maze of fire escapes and exposed wires.

Getting into Scores this way is intimidating, or, as owner Peter Forchetti puts it with characteristic candor, “People come here and they’re scared. They think it’s a shithole.”

Part of the problem is zoning restrictions. “As a strip club, you can’t just open wherever you want,” Forchetti says. But once you’re inside, Scores isn’t sleazy so much as playfully seedy. 14,000 square feet is a lot of space, and Forchetti has divided it into three sections: a nightclub called The Room, where house music plays and blue lights flash; a steakhouse with silk orchids on the tables and flatscreens on the walls; and, between them, the strip club, dominated by a catwalk with several poles and lit by pinwheeling candy-colored disco lights even at two in the afternoon.

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Forchetti says New Haven isn’t the ideal city for a club like his—one of a small chain of Scores locations across the country—in part because it doesn’t have a civic center to draw traveling businessmen, apparently a key customer demographic. Despite that challenge, business is robust, he says, because “people always celebrate. They celebrate if they get fired, they celebrate if they get hired, if they have a child, if they get divorced, if they get married.” It probably sounds strange to want to celebrate the birth of a child or a new marriage with a round of lap dances, but strip clubs are a sort of Rorschach test: many people would never be caught dead at one, while others would have their funerals there.

Claudia—just Claudia—is one of this club’s 60 dancers and has been a performer at such intimate celebrations. She considers her job to be part stripping, part acting, part therapy. “We’re here to listen to the customers and entertain the customers,” she says. Forchetti agrees, chiming in with a list of increasingly dubious roles he ascribes to her: “She’s a psychiatrist, she’s a mistress, she’s a wife, she’s a sister, she’s an aunt. She’s everything she has to be to keep these guys happy.”

Claudia smiles, laughs, nods. “You have to read the man,” she says. Most of her clients are shy and need “liquid courage” before paying for more personalized dances, and while Claudia is a masterful listener—warm and encouraging—she’s careful not to meet her clients’ disclosures with her own. “I don’t want to talk about where I’m from, where I live, if I have a husband or kids,” she says. After nearly 20 years in the industry, she’s keenly aware of how and where to draw lines, and she’s passionate about not being misunderstood. “Strippers are entertainers. We come to work. This is a regular job. We come here, we go home and we have a different life,” she says. “This is just dancing.”

On the stage, a dancer who goes by Venus is practicing a particularly impressive move on the pole, raising herself high in the air before leaning back and twirling down, head first, supported only by a leg wrapped around the metal. She lands gracefully, poses on all fours on the stage, tries it again. Venus just started dancing in August, working at another local club before coming to Scores. Her outfit—a school-girl uniform—is a cheeky nod to her life outside the club, where she’s putting herself through college, earning a degree in psychology.

While Claudia insists on a divide between the personal and the professional, Venus says that her own willingness to talk about her personal life, as well as her self-promotion on social media, is shared by many young women who are just starting up in the industry, bolstered by relaxing social attitudes about stripping and encouraged by a new framing of sex work as subversive, even radical. When asked if she considers stripping to be feminist, she answers “totally, totally, totally… Pole dancing taught me a strength and a sexiness I didn’t know I had.”

She insists that the dancing itself isn’t as hard as it looks. “Nothing on the pole is complicated,” she says. “You just need to let go of the fear. Anyone can do it, but the fear stops almost everyone.”

Scores New Haven
5 Saint John St, New Haven (map)
(203) 782-6900
www.scoresnewhaven.com (NSFW)

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook. Image depicts Scores New Haven dancer Chianne.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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