Tucked in the alley between Sage’s Wellness Lounge and Fuzzy’s Taco Shop is a portal to another dimension. Beyond its threshold, framed pictures of female anatomy adorn the walls of a lounge lit dimly by colorful bulbs. A woman in lingerie has the stage, her barely-concealed hindquarters aimed squarely at the audience as she dances. Over the noise of billiard balls colliding and beer glasses clinking, the men cheer and applaud.
The bar sits across the room from the stage, managed by a small woman in her mid-50s smoking a cigarette. Most wouldn’t even expect to see this severe-looking woman working here, and she doesn’t just do that — she also owns the place.
Karen Summers is a subversion, a wrinkle in the image most people have of strip clubs. The more she and the dancers talk about the story of Suger’s, the more wrinkled that image becomes.
‘A decent place to work’
Summers opened Suger’s 30 years ago in 1984 shortly after resigning as a dancer at Walter Mitty’s, another strip club on Campus Corner at the time. Suger’s became the only club of its kind when Summers outperformed her former employer and survived the strict zoning restrictions on adult entertainment facilities adopted by the City of Norman in 1987.
Suger’s owes much of its success to Summers’ initial vision. She says she set out to “give girls a decent place to work.”
“In this business, people have ideas about what goes on in strip clubs,” Summers said. “And I wanted to provide a decent place for dancers to be able to go to, where they don’t feel like they have to do things that they may feel like they have to do at other clubs in competition with other dancers.”
One dancer called Savage said she was attracted to Suger’s for precisely this reason. She started dancing 10 years ago at an Oklahoma City club called Playhouse, which she left to avoid a toxic environment.
“There was a lot of drug use at the time and that was a huge turn-off for me,” Savage said. “A lot of girls going home with customers and doing what sometimes can be referred to as private parties, which was also not something that I was ever interested in doing.”
After only a few months at Playhouse, Savage went with a date to Suger’s and was impressed by how much “cleaner” it was. As someone who doesn’t like to be touched, Savage also liked that customers weren’t allowed to grab dancers.
Physical contact between dancers and customers is technically illegal, but as Suger’s dancer Lexie Bay said, “Just because they’re not supposed to doesn’t mean they don’t.”
Before Bay came to Suger’s four years ago, she also danced in Oklahoma City, where she says sexual contact was encouraged. Bay said people would sometimes find used condoms while cleaning a place at the end of the night.
“When I worked at Red Light Nights, I saw a girl sucking dick in the lap dance area,” said Lexie. “That was my last night there.”
In addition to the stricter enforcement of rules, Summers said dancers are attracted to Suger’s because it’s owned by a woman — and because of her background in the industry.
“There’s not very many female strip club owners,” Summers said. “So girls feel more comfortable dealing with a female. I’ve been told that over the years. And I know what it’s like to be a dancer.”
Savage knows dancers at other clubs are sometimes harassed by the owners, and said the Suger’s dancers don’t fear that kind of sexual pressure under Summers’ management. In fact, some affectionately call her “momma.”
“She knows every aspect of this business,” Savage said. “She’s been where we are as dancers. She’s had to put up with the same shit that we’ve had to put up with.”
’The only bitch in this house is me’
Summers is a moralist at heart. She’s a self-identified Christian who bemoans the new generation’s lack of respect and tendency to stereotype. She’s also a no-bullshit businessperson with little tolerance for people denigrating her property.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” Summers said. “When I get a young man in here that wants to put his cigarette out on the floor or spit on the floor, to be disrespectful, that’s what I’ll call it. I get aggravated, because I want to walk up to him and say ‘How would you like if I came into your home and spit on your floor or put a cigarette out on your floor?’ This is my house.”
Summers enjoys running a unique club for her customers’ enjoyment, but she said some mistakenly think they can misbehave in the setting, as if standards are lower there. She recognizes this image of Suger’s as a moral-free zone is shared by many outsiders as well.
Summers knows people naturally assume Suger’s is the site of heavy drug use and prostitution, but she says that’s “not even close.” It’s a stereotype she commonly encounters, sometimes even from protesters.
“They’ll come stand out in the alley,” Summers said. “And they’ll call the dancers sluts when they’re coming in here, telling the customers, when they’re coming in or going, that they’re going to hell and they’re going to be damned and, you know, stupid stuff like that.”
Summers usually lets judgment and criticism pass over her. For the most part, she said she doesn’t concern herself with what people think. But this sort of vitriol can get to her. In the case of protesters, she will have the police remove them from the alley because “it’s just not right.”
“People need to know what they’re talking about before they talk about it,” Summers said. “Understand it fully and don’t be so judgmental. I’m a Christian. I’m going to go to heaven. You’re not going to go to heaven if you’re so judgmental.”
It’s Summers’ brutal honesty that makes her who she is. It makes her a somewhat intimidating figure, as some dancers note, but it also makes her the subject of admiration.
One dancer called Lyric said Summers is the best boss she’s had anywhere.
“She knows what she wants, and she’ll get what she wants,” Lyric said. “She’s very strong. I look up to her because of the way she runs her business and wouldn’t put up with anyone’s bullshit.”
Summers’ intolerance for bullshit extends to interactions with the people she works with. She likes the dancers, but she won’t sugarcoat her opinions for them.
“If they have a new outfit and they want to know if it looks good, if it looks like shit, I’m going to tell you,” Summers said. “I’m not going pussyfoot around and make you feel better…”
Summers said she also keeps an eye on the dancers’ etiquette. She doesn’t tolerate bad behavior from them any more than she tolerates it from customers. After all, part of their job is to create a welcoming atmosphere.
“The only bitch in this house is me,” Summers said. “I tell everybody that.”
’A job like anything else’
Why do women dance at strip clubs? Some say it’s because they’re dysfunctional. Nix Marie, a Suger’s dancer for four years, tells a different story.
“There’s a misconception that all dancers have issues with their father and stuff like that, [that] they’ve been molested or raped or degraded in some kind of way that makes them feel like they have to show their body for acceptance,” Nix said. “That’s really not the reason that most dancers even dance. They do it because it’s good money.”
In addition to it paying well, Nix said dancing is appealing because the schedule is flexible. Most of the dancers at Suger’s are mothers, and the late shifts allow some of them to spend the day with their kids. Also, being independent contractors, dancers choose when they want to rent Summers’ stage.
Some dancers like it for a different reason — it’s empowering.
“I think it’s empowering because not in any other job can you tell a customer to fuck off when they’re being inappropriate in a way and still have your job the next day,” Savage said. “So it’s kind of like the customer isn’t always right here.”
This also encouraged Nix when she applied little more than two years ago. Some clubs don’t like dancers responding to disrespect. Suger’s is different.
“I told [Summers], ‘Look, I’m not someone who likes to be touched. I’m not dirty,’” Nix said. “’I will beat the shit out of the motherfucker who gets out of line,’ and she just looked at me like, ‘All right.’”
In addition to being able to rebuke foul customers, the dancers at Suger’s are free to plan their own routines, dress themselves and choose the music. It’s highly improvisational, and that’s part of the appeal.
Of course, it’s not perfect. These women face particular challenges, and mainstream society’s judgment is foremost among them. Sometimes that means receiving weird looks from cashiers when they pay with all $1 bills, and sometimes that means taking criticism from loved ones.
Savage has danced for ten years now against her parents’ wishes, but she’s learned to shut out what other people think of her career. She said people who judge that aspect of a dancer’s life don’t really understand it.
“We see dancing as just a job like anything else,” Savage said. “A lot of people don’t treat us with respect … Not everybody does, but we try our best to kind of correct any misconceptions by treating ourselves with dignity and self-respect, and carrying ourselves with as much class and grace that we can.”
While the dancers can expect condemnation from a lot of people, they don’t expect it from their children when they grow up. Savage said her kids will learn to appreciate how she supported them. They’ll also be raised not believing it’s OK to judge people as their mother is judged.
“My boys are going to be taught how to respect people, especially women,” Savage said. “I’m not going to be secretive about it, because they’re boys —they’re going to go to strip clubs when they get older, and I’m not going to hide it.”