Misery Bars

Published in the Op-Ed section of The Kathmandu Post on November 9, 2010.

In the UK the terms ‘dance’ and ‘bar’ are synonymous with a good time. When I first saw the ‘Dance Bar’ signs dotted around the grubby streets of Kathmandu, I was intrigued. Perhaps the signs advertising scantily clad women, gazing alluring into the eyes of anyone walking past should have been an omen of things to come.

My first challenge was finding a person to accompany me as according to friends, it would be dangerous to go alone. That said my friends were very reluctant to play chaperone for the evening. I eventually persuaded a friend to come with me, ignoring his protests that they were vile, disgusting and immoral places (despite his having never been to one) and after promising, of course, not to tell his parents.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Having kept my research to a minimum beforehand (for the element of surprise, you see), I was expecting, rather excitedly, mostly boozing and dancing as an ending to my busy week at work—something many of us do ritually in the UK. It was with much anticipation we descended down the dimly lit staircase with me expecting a night club atmosphere and hoards of hip, young people dancing.

My excitement was short lived. I was initially struck by how eerily quiet the place was. A large stage occupied a significant proportion of the club to the right of the entrance. There were poorly painted 1970s disco dancing figures adorning the walls, some chairs and tables and a few sofas. All the seating was covered with white fabric that clashed violently under the UV light. Like a cheap British strip club, I suppose. There were a few cursory glances in my direction as my Nepali friend and I occupied a table close to the stage and ordered drinks (which, by the way, were absolutely extortionate). As we sipped our over-priced rum and I took in the less than classy surroundings, the unobtrusive music changed and a Hindi film song began blaring out of the speakers.

A petite, curvy woman, perhaps about 20, appeared on the stage through a side door clad in particularly skimpy hot pants, a revealing vest top and white stiletto boots. She smiled mechanically, working her way through the choreography with an air of indifference, ignoring the drunken men dancing on the floor below occasionally throwing rupee notes in her direction.

On the table next to ours, a guy was slumped in a drunken stupor as his friend kissed a girl who appeared to be about sixteen years old. Across the room, a dancer smiled at me knowingly through a mask of makeup, as though trying to express: ‘Men are such idiots’. I smiled back in agreement. She came and sat on the sofa near us discreetly, under the watchful eye of a young man I assumed to be the manager. I introduced myself in very shaky Nepali. She seemed a lot more relaxed when I told her I used to work in one of the UK’s infamous lap dancing bars to help fund my initial trip to Nepal to teach English. That proved to be quite the ice-breaker.

Again, the music changed and a woman appeared on stage performing more of a belly dance than the characteristic bumping and grinding that the previous ladies had treated us to. A man appeared on stage and the couple began a badly choreographed performance, with smiles fixed on their faces.

At this point, I could clamber onto my feminist soap box and discuss the social evils of dance bars (and their shadier brothers—cabin restaurants) or condemn the desperation and poverty that coerces these women (and men) into wearing skimpy clothes and gyrating on stage in front of men (or indeed praise the great NGOs that spread awareness among these women). Instead, I was bitterly reminded of my first bar job at 18 serving drinks in a lap dancing bar. I was encouraged to wear revealing tops (for extra tips) and had drunken ‘clients’ make insalubrious comments about my body. Was I coerced into working there? I needed the money and as an 18 year old enrolled in college full time who needed a weekend job to earn good money in a short space of time, it was a good option and luckily my parents were very liberal.

I was fortunate, that aside from irritating men, it was quite a pleasant atmosphere to work in. The women who danced were a mixed bunch, too: a few single mothers pole dancing to support their children, one woman because it paid well (she joked about her friend who was a teacher who worked ridiculous hours and ended up with less money than her) and another did it because she enjoyed keeping a horse (a rather expensive hobby in the UK). When my friend asked the girl he was sitting with about her earnings, he was astounded. ‘She earns more than me!’ he exclaimed, shocked that an engineer could make less money that a woman working in a dance bar.

Obviously, the reality of the situation isn’t quite so rosy. I remember being 18 and feeling uncomfortable with the crowds of drunken men staring unflinchingly as women twirled unceremoniously around a metal pole and occasionally disappeared into private booths to give provocative lap dances, virtually simulating sex. The situation is all too familiar in Kathmandu. Occasionally, the odd man would proposition the women where I worked for sex. Whether any of the dancers did that, I’m not sure. However, I would assume many do (whether through force, coercion or choice) and I’m sure many do here, also.

My trip to the dance bar left me feeling depressed at the lack of employment options available for girls and women in both the UK and Nepal. Unfortunately as the effects of the recession are felt in the UK and many people lose their jobs, it’s something more women may consider. It felt depressing to realise that women in both the developed and developing world have to dance under the male gaze to make ends meet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s