In recent years, pole dancing, once the preserve of the strip club, has been given a much larger stage — from the 2020 Grammys, when FKA Twigs performed a routine during a tribute to Prince, to the floors of major gym franchises, where the practice has become a fitness mainstay.
But there remains a cultural fascination with what goes on behind the club’s closed doors that has led to scripted takes like “P-Valley,” the critically acclaimed Starz drama that delves into the lives of dancers in a fictional Mississippi town.
In New York, photographer and director Adrienne Raquel is featuring monumental portraits of the real women who dance in her first solo museum show, “ONYX,” at Fotografiska. Shot at the famed Houston nightclub of the same name, which has been namechecked in songs by Drake and Megan Thee Stallion, the exhibition celebrates the Southern Black women who have long been a driving force in music and visual culture.
Raquel sees the changing attitudes around exotic dancing as indicative of a larger cultural shift. “I definitely feel like exotic dancing is not as much of a taboo as it used to be in the past,” she said in a video interview. “Women in general stepping into their confidence and really expressing their sexuality… has become way more normalized in our society.”
Raquel, who is based in New York and has photographed Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Nas X and Travis Scott in her gauzy style, started her career in Houston about a decade ago. She’s had the show on her mind since around 2017, when she visited Houston for her aunt’s birthday and suggested they hit up Onyx to celebrate. “Onyx is one of the only strip clubs that I’ve actually been to where I feel it’s welcoming,” Raquel said. “It feels like home.”
Her images in the darkly lit club project the fantasy that Raquel’s imagery is known for, with velvety pink and red lighting, and deep, sensual shadows cast across the dancers. The photographer plays into the enchantment of the setting, while focusing on a sense of intimacy between the women.
“When you walk into the strip club, there’s a bit of a shock value to it… At first, you’re in a little bit of awe, but then it’s also kind of debaucherous,” Raquel said. “Once you get beyond that, I really started paying attention to the dancers — not only their athleticism or their sex appeal, but the relationships they have with one another.”
“ONYX” pays homage to the heyday of hip-hop music videos of the ’90s and early 2000s, adopting their aesthetics and alluding to the seductive power of the video vixen. Raquel says she was particularly inspired by “Belly,” the only feature film from Queens-born music video director Hype Williams, who was responsible such iconic videos as Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” TLC’s “No Scrubs” and “Big Pimpin'” by Jay-Z. The Nas and DMX-led crime drama from 1998 was critically panned at the time, but remains influential for its slick visuals and surrealist overtones.
“I just love the way (Williams) treats the colors and the lighting,” Raquel said. “Everyone looks so Black and beautiful.” At its core, “ONYX” is a showcase of beauty, from the way light bends around silhouettes and lucite heels, to the contemplative, quiet moments of the women backstage. But for Raquel, the intrigue goes beyond their appearances alone.
“I think that there’s outward beauty, for sure,” Raquel said of the dancers. “But the way they move, the way they walk, the way they talk — they’re just innately confident.”