The lights are dimmed, and a mess of chairs and tables form a circle around a makeshift dance floor. It’s primed for the arrival of twins Tyga and Raw Dog, two impressively sculpted dancers who emerge shirtless, bodies bulging for a night of female-organized bacchanalia. Intense gyration and mock cunnilingus are but a taste of the pleasures in store for a raucous New Jersey crowd of women. The scene will look familiar to any Magic Mike fan. But Gene Graham’s humanizing, scrappy, documentary portrait of the black men and women of exotic dancing offers more than mere titillation.
That’s not to say it’s absent—far from it. This One’s For The Ladies wears its NC-17 rating without a hint of shame. Meaning, yes, full frontal penis is featured in all its natural glory, or otherwise prettily covered up with a sequined dick-sock and nothing else. According to Michele, the only white woman interviewed, it’s the bolder, more sexually comfortable communal atmosphere that separates these racy Newark festivities from the more squeamish-friendly “white girl” equivalents of erotic entertainment that Channing Tatum might provide. “It’s like game night at your friend’s house,” she explains, with a hint of devilish delight.
Graham goes through a carousel of lively characters, sticking his camera straight in the middle of the action on the dance floor. Because licensing popular songs is expensive, he’s forced to sync largely unrecognizable music to the footage of the dance routines; it mostly works, though these needle drops might have hit harder with the original hip-hop bangers. Anyway, the filmmaker is perhaps more interested in the backstories of his dancers and the women who hire, tip, love, and live with them. Tyga and Raw Dog, shown to be pioneers of the industry with old footage from routines and bright, campy costumes dating back to the ’90s, tour the projects they once called home, and explain how their success in exotic dancing is an extension of their entrepreneurial spirits. Then there’s the gentlemanly Mr. Capable, who lends his services to an autism fundraiser; Fever, the dreadlocked high school graduate with an impressive collection of Superman memorabilia; and Blaze, a lesbian stud with her own set of problems as a woman working within a boys’ club.
Though still taboo to many, exotic dancing is an honest living for the film’s subjects; so many others in their community have turned to drug dealing and robbing to get by. Overcoming the stigma of sex work is a large part of their success, but it’s clear from the dancers’ glistening, Adonis-like figures, gymnastic somersaulting, and rhythmic contorting that no mere mortal could do the job. It’s part of the reason these men and women are so overwhelmingly in demand—booking gigs, appearing on calendars and T-shirts, accruing fans and new lovers with each show. They’re practically celebrities for the women that welcome them into their lives and fantasies; the dancers’ routines offer some not-so-guilty pleasure, a boozy, exuberant respite from the daily grind and harsh realities of their underprivileged community, where schools are severely underfunded and family members suffer from crippling drug addiction.
The interviews with the stars and the regulars (like C-Pudding, a youth choir director) lead us through the peculiarities, joys, and difficulties of these lives. Gradually, the spectacle of naked bodies bending over backwards for the shock and awe of an excitable audience fades into the background, as the film shifts to Raw Dog and Tyga’s rambling, highly energetic rapport; the party-mode howls of C-Pudding (who admits to “turning gay” whenever Blaze performs); and Fever’s thoughtful recollection of voting for the first time in 2008 for President Obama. Graham has arguably too many interesting, often hilarious characters to profile—interviews are cut short, leaving the viewer hanging. A viewer might end up feeling like the women gathered around the stage, intensely experiencing their favorite dancers without ever fully “having” them, in the improper sense. This One’s For The Ladies is as authentically joyous and messy as one of the nights on the town so eagerly awaited by its characters. If only the lights stayed low for a little while longer.