Angela Gzowski

Best of EDGE: If You Can’t Have Fun Here Give Up – Harley’s

A (mildly X-rated) photographic essay about Yellowknife's only strip club: a close-knit community of dancers, regulars and staffers.

EDGE is taking some holiday time, from December 20 to January 4. While we’re off we’ll be re-running some of our favourite stories from the year, and some hits from deep in our archives. Here’s a look inside the North’s most (in)famous nightspot:

Its wooden walls filled with mining-inspired artwork and memorabilia, Harley’s Hardrock Saloon feels more basement rec room than strip club.

It occupies a unique spot in Yellowknife’s tiny nightlife landscape. To the regulars, it’s an unpretentious, no-nonsense place to down a beer or 12. To more than a few citizens, it’s a slightly spicy final stop after a night of carousing. To others, it’s a den of iniquity. straight-up.

Love it or hate the place, its habitués are fascinating. The dancers, independent contractors who travel thousands of kilometres for two weeks of work, many of whom love the place and regularly return. The staff, who — in a town where people constantly change jobs — have worked there since just after it opened. The regulars, a cast of characters you won’t find in any other city nightspot.

It’s a community and it’s really beautiful. That’s what I found, anyway, and these are the photos I took, along with some conversations I had while taking them.

Here comes a regular:  “Cominco” Greg Loftus and friend
Nikki Darling: “If you’re going to spend that much money at a strip club, you’re kind of a bit socially awkward in my opinion.”

Savannah Cruz, dancer

This month, it’ll be five years.

What got you into it?

I just took it as a challenge, because… I’m older, right? Five years ago when I decided to become a dancer I was 36 already. In this industry most of the girls, they’re young. So I took it as a challenge. I was in the bar industry for most of my life. My first job was modelling, and then I quit when I was 20, and then I jump in the bar industry. The last place I worked as a bartender was in Grand Prairie. In a strip club, Showgirls, at that time. And I met a lot of the dancers, ‘cause I was the main bartender. And they used to say, when they were a little tired or whatever, “Hey, you can do my show.” As a joke. And I’m like “No, no, never.” I’m old and you don’t wanna see an old lady there. That was my mentality.

And then one day I’m like, “You know what? I can do it.” And here I am.

How did you hear about Harley’s?

From the booking agency. And also from coworkers. They would say “Oh, I was just in Yellowknife last week,” and I would be “Where is that? I never heard of that.” And they told me it was up here, and I was like “It’s so far away” — I live in Edmonton. Just to fly up here, it’s expensive. You gotta be here for two weeks straight, just to make it worth it. The agency asked me a few times “You wanna go to Yellowknife?” And I said “I never been there and I don’t want to.” But one day I said “Okay, I’ll go.” And now it’s one of my favourite places.

Where are you from originally?

I was born and raised in Mexico City.

You seem pretty confident. Did you get that from dancing? Or have you always been like that?

My background is Italian and Greek. So, we have an attitude. And in this industry, if you have no confidence, if you’re not strong, this industry can drag you down. We deal with a lot of stuff. But yeah, I’ve always been this way, all my life.

What’s your favourite part about dancing?

Meeting people. That’s the best part. For me. Because I’m just a person who likes people. I just meet them today or yesterday, and they coming back because they have a lot of fun with me, you know? I’m a good person to be around with.

What makes you feel uncomfortable about dancing?

Guys who are rude. Because we are “strippers” or because we take our clothes off, that means we are… easy girls, you know? They don’t realize that behind this, we have lives. Like, I’m married. I’ve been married for 16 years, so… In my opinion, regardless, a woman is a woman. They have a mother and that’s a woman. So they need to show respect, in all the situations. They gotta realize, number one, they have a woman in the house, which is their mom. And they probably have a wife or a girlfriend or a sister or a daughter. You know what I mean? That’s why I always encourage that. If you don’t have respect for a woman then just get out of my face. Because I don’t tolerate that.

That’s what I don’t like about the industry. But at the same time, I like to educate them.

How does your husband feel about what you do.?

He knows what I’m capable of. I mean, we’ve been together for 19 years. Legally married for almost 17. So he knows I can take care of myself very well. He knows. This industry, there are some girls who, you know, drugs, alcohol, sex. Each to their own. It’s not my business, but my husband is… Sometimes it’s hard, right. Right now I’m away from home for two weeks. But he knows that I’m okay and in a safe environment. And number one, he knows the kind of person I am. He has absolutely 100 percent confidence on his side for me to be able to do this job and be away from home and not damage our relationship.

Have you ever had any customers fall in love with you?

Oh! Oh yes! I don’t know what to say. I don’t wanna say “Oh, what a dummy” or whatever. But to go to that extreme… I do have a few customers in Edmonton, they send me flowers. One time I was in Fort St. John and every day for the full week I had a new set of flowers. I have another guy who send me chocolates. Cute things, romantic things. But trust me, I always say “I am married.” I don’t hide my relationship and say “Oh yeah, you and I, we’re gonna get married.” I don’t, like, punk people. What you see is what you get. I love to perform, and you know, nudity is an art. And if you do it with class it’s nice. But yeah, you know, these people, unfortunately… And then some of them are psycho. I had one psycho, he’s thinking I’m gonna get divorced and he’s gonna buy a house for us and he’s talking like I’m his girlfriend. Yeah… I have those situations where they get totally fascinated and in love with me, yeah.

What’s the last crazy thing that happened to you?

On Monday, there was a girl, this local girl here, very nice girl, whatever, and she just, I don’t know, decided to, out of nowhere, smack my ass hard! And I turned around and I’m like, “You’re lucky you’re a woman because otherwise I’d punch you in the face.” Don’t ever touch me. Just because we’re having fun or whatever, you can’t jump inside my bubble. This is my bubble. If I invite you, you’re good to go, if I don’t then don’t. So that situation give to this other guy the permission to grab my ass! And I turn around and I fucking smoke him in the face. And I say it straight and I say it loud, whoever wanna come around me and try to grab me, be aware that I’m gonna punch you in the face. Don’t even think about it. And I will go toe to toe with a guy. And I have. I’ve punched faces, broken noses. My husband is an MMA fighter so I’ve been trained. By him.

How long are you going to keep dancing?

I’m quitting next year. Yeah. I’m gonna be 42. I’m getting tired. I broke my ankle a  year ago and had surgery. They had to put many screws on it. So I lost 10-and-a-half months. I always said I was gonna retire when I turned 40… and then, here I am. If that accident didn’t happen to me I’d probably be retired right now.

Nikki Darling, dancer

How’s your work environment?

I love it here. It’s a small little family. I love the staff and most of the people that come in. It’s really friendly and fun to be here.

You can just have fun, you don’t feel pressured. You can hang out, drink, relax and get along with people. You’re not forced to be working all the time.

Anyone give you a hard time because of your job?

My family likes to make some jokes once in a while, but that’s about it. I’m the different one of the family, so I’m used to that. Before I started dancing, I was in musical theatre, a drama student and everything, so I was always the loud, obnoxious one. It didn’t really surprise people when I told them “Hey, I’m a stripper.”

How do you spend your time here when you aren’t working?

I like to just relax. It’s one place we don’t start till later, so it’s a bit of a vacation. Most places, you start a lot earlier and it takes you more than five minutes to get to work. So I like to sit around and watch TV, and go out and visit a couple people. I’ve been here enough times that I have some friends.

Ever have trouble with other dancers?

Oh yes, of course, you get a bunch of girls in a room and what do you think is going to happen? It’s common. There’s always girls that don’t like each other. And girls talk behind each others’ backs instead of finding out what actually goes on, so of course there’s so much drama. For the most part here, it’s not like that because you only have two girls. But in the major cities you get 10 girls in a change room together, there’s always some kind of issue.

Have you ever had customers fall in love with you?

Oh ya. After you’ve spent a certain amount of money on a girl, of course there are guys that are like “Oh my god, you’re my girlfriend now.” If you’re going to spend that much money at a strip club, you’re kind of a bit socially awkward in my opinion, and you’re probably going to expect you’re getting something more out of it than you actually are.

I had a guy that was a bit of creepy stalker for a while. He’d always come into the bar and bring me flowers. He went from being super nice, then I was like “I’m not interested in you in any way,” and he completely turned around and was like “You stupid whore,” and lost his crap on me and just went crazy. That’s somewhat normal.

Are you in a relationship?

I’m engaged. He met me this way, so it might not be the greatest. Obviously he’s not like “Hey go be a stripper for the rest of your life” kind of thing. But like I said, I’ve had a lot of relationships in five years of doing this. Unless you’re willing to accept somebody the way they are and trust them it’s never going to work. He accepts that this is what I do, and realizes that it’s nothing more than a job for me. I don’t go around trying to make friends with everybody and going out partying with guys I see at the bar. So that makes a big difference.

Do you have customers with ‘expectations’?

Because I travel so much I know when somebody comes and is like “Oh, I’m from Montreal, I want a dance.” I already know what I’m going to get into: they’re either going to ask me for sex or they’re going to try to grab me. You have to explain it’s not the same, each province has different rules. Alberta and Yellowknife have the same rules, you’re allowed to give lap dances with no contact. B.C., a private dance is the same dance you’ll see on stage but closer, you can’t touch them, they can’t touch you. Certain places in B.C. do allow the same kind of lap dances here. Manitoba is no full-contact whatsoever on stage or off-stage. Ontario is where it varies from bar to bar. You can go somewhere and it can be just a lap dance and the next place it can be way, way more than that.

This is my last couple years, this is enough. There’s only so much of drunken people you can handle.

Mallice Vixxen, dancer

What do you do when you’re not working?

I play video games. I don’t really go out much. Order a pizza and play my games… I keep to myself mostly. I haven’t really seen too much of Yellowknife, just the bar and the house and my video games, that’s it. But to me, it’s the staff here. It’s amazing staff, there’s not one cranky person or people who don’t get along.

Anything freak you out?

Just when guys get too grabby, or get up walking around the stage, pacing. It’s weird.

Do you ever get looks that make you feel uncomfortable?

Mostly from women, women that come in here and you can tell they don’t like dancers, and they glare at you and talk down to you or make fun of you. They try and find something to make them feel better about themselves, I guess, because I couldn’t care less about my cellulite, but if somebody wants to point it out to make themselves feel better, that’s fine.

Do you get a lot of judgement?

When I first told my mom, she, like, shit herself. She was like “Oh my god, you’re one of those girls, sucking dick!” And I was like “No mom. If you’re gonna disown me, do it now, but I would like to show you what I do.” And I was in a big contest, and she was able to see the girls, some of the best in Canada, do their thing up on stage and she was like “Oh my god, you guys are like ballerinas.It’s so beautiful!” And then she realized it wasn’t so bad.

I think [the people who judge] are under-educated. No one takes the time to ask us “How did you get into it?’ or “Why do you like this?” A lot of guys come up to us and say ‘You’re so pretty you should be doing something else,” and I’m like “If I wanted to do something else, I’d be doing it.”

You get paid to work out, you get to dance to your own music, you get to perform, it’s kind of nice, it’s different. People are watching your performance. Sometimes the judgment is not good, but sometimes people actually appreciate the show and say, “Wow that was amazing.” I like that part.

Jordie Bezaire, bartender

I hung out at Harley’s before I started working here. It felt like the place to be. All the people are friends, and it’s all like family. Even though you were just a customer, they treated you nice and made you feel at home and welcome.

Any crazy experiences you can tell me about?

Tons of crazy experiences, none that I could say on the tape. Nothing that would not get us in trouble.

There’s tons of regulars that come in here. I’m born and raised here in Yellowknife, so I know a lot of people too, and most of the people I know come in here, even if they don’t come in here regularly I do know them. We get tons of regulars, they like it for the same reason: it’s home, it’s friendly. You can always find good conversations, you don’t have to necessarily know the people in here, you can talk to a complete stranger.

The dancers get here at eight o’clock, and usually the first dance is at 8:30, quarter-to-nine and they go till 2:00, Monday to Saturday. Every week there’s a new dancer, and they’re staggered, so every week we have a new dancer and they stay for two weeks at a time. We have an apartment rented for them that they stay in.

They’re here to work and we treat them as such.

Do you get dancers who regret coming up?

All the time. They’re like “Jesus, I don’t know if I should have taken this dance or took this gig.” It’s because of the cold and the weather and the fact that we don’t got all the big amenities of the city.

Most of them fly, but there’s a few who drive. The repeat girls, they drive up if they have opportunity or the schedule gap, so they can have a day to drive up. Because most of them work down south, they work Sunday in the bar there, then get on a plane Monday morning and show up here.

Devoted patrons: Michael Handley and his dog Mahwah

Chris Flanagan, owner 

I worked for the original owners for almost ten years as a bartender and then the last eight of those as a manager, and then they retired and I bought the place seven years ago. I just love it.

Any positives or negative reactions when people find out you’re the owner?

I’ve had the both, from my daughter’s friends saying “Your dad’s the coolest person on the planet,” to little old ladies screaming at me, telling we’re putting women to work unlawfully. A spectrum of everything.

Do dancers like working here?

In my whole time there’s been one girl who, after two nights, said “I have to go, this is not my kind of place, not my town.” They’re usually the super feature girls who only dance at home so they can sleep in their own beds at night. They don’t like travelling. And this is a longer gig than most. Most are a week, but we have them for two weeks, because they have to travel so far.

Any interesting stories?

I’m not going to comment on those. You can catch my memoirs when I retire.

I’ve been contacted a couple times by reality shows, I’m just not interested in it. I don’t want to turn into Mikey McBryan. I love the guy but…

Most of my staff have been with me for almost ten years, pretty loyal staff. Pretty tight knit family, and we have a lot of respect for the girls. The reason a lot of girls come here is because we’re not like clubs down south, we don’t fine them for every stupid little thing. It’s the North, you got to learn to get along and make things work.

Harley’s was just a miner’s bar; ‘Harley’s Hard Rock Saloon’ is for hard rock mining, that’s why everything has drills on it and mining stuff. Because the owner worked at Con Mine and it was a place for the miners to come drink after work… Before the dancers were here, we used to have bands.

It’s just the ultimate rec room, I always wanted as a kid. Who doesn’t like cold beer and naked women?