The naked truth: Inside Catwalk club

For Dan and Phil, former high school buddies now living in different cities, East Street’s Catwalk club provides an ideal setting for a quiet reunion. They can bring their own booze. The music, though loud, isn’t deafening. And yes, there are naked women.

Make no mistake: Catwalk — recently recognized as the city’s top adult entertainment spot in the 2006 New Haven Advocate’s Readers’ Poll — is a strip club. For most of the night, dancers on a stage in the back room shake their breasts and spread their legs for club patrons’ dollar bills. You can buy a lap dance in the VIP room; you can stare at the off-duty dancers — clad in bikinis or exposed dressing gowns — milling by the bar. Naked bodies abound, but for many of the club’s patrons, dancers and staff, Catwalk offers much more than bare flesh.

On this particular Friday night at around 10, about a dozen customers are in the club, either seated around the bar or surrounding a stage upon which a lone dancer performs, twisting and writhing to Justin Timberlake’s “My Love.” This is a strip club — an announcer on a loudspeaker alerts the patrons to each dancer’s entrance and exit — but the dark wood paneling is more redolent of a New England hunting lodge. It’s an eclectic atmosphere, one that attracts a motley crowd of solo pleasure seekers, couples and old friends like Dan and Phil.

For the two friends, who asked to be identified only by their first names, the strip club gives them a chance to enjoy each other’s company without running into people they do not want to see.

“There is a stigma to coming to a place like this, but the stigma is what brings us here,” Phil said. “We can go to the local bar in our town and bump into 20 people we know, or we can come here and have a quiet conversation, and [not be] worried about running into that guy.”

Though a strip club carries stigma, Dan said, he finds it much easier to shun temptation at a place like Catwalk than at his other hangouts. Dan said he has a girlfriend — “a good woman” — at home, and wants to avoid the lures of the single and searching females of his local bar.

“If I’m at a regular bar, some girl comes up to me and wants to talk or something — that’s not going to happen here,” he said. “There’s no chance you’re ever going to get laid here.”

Laid? Maybe not. But there is plenty of eye candy for the Catwalk customer. On the main stage, a rotation of dancers entertains the crowd. Each dancer performs for three or four songs at a time and will do several sets in one night. This Friday night, as Dan and Phil chat at the bar, Alexis, Tatiana and Rebecca dance for the early crowd.

Tatiana’s routine begins with a swing around one of the stage’s tall metal poles. She then shrugs off her loose robe and kneels before one customer who has placed a thin stack of singles on the stage. Tatiana spreads her legs and rests them on the shoulders of her grinning patron, a young man with a blond goatee and an Abercrombie sweatshirt. For a moment, she runs her finger along her thigh, and then she is crawling off to entertain his neighbor.

Like other Catwalk patrons, Dan and Phil don’t deny that girls like Tatiana are part of the club’s allure. Strip clubs in Connecticut must choose between serving alcohol and having below-the-waist nudity; Catwalk’s owners have chosen the latter.

The club’s patrons, it would seem, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“They show vagina here,” said Dan, a North Haven resident. “Other places, they don’t show vagina.”

He said the lack of alcohol also makes coming to Catwalk more economical. If he brings his own booze, he just has to pay the cover charge, making the club cheaper than others where he would have to buy drinks.

In spite of — or perhaps because of— the club’s teetotalism, the atmosphere is relaxed. At the bar, patrons trade jokes with Mel, who works behind the counter.

“Hey mamita!” one patron calls to her.

“Who you calling mamita?” she yells back, throwing her customer a playful look.

Beside the bar, one of the dancers, Rebecca, 34, sits at a small table, chatting with another club patron. Catwalk’s congenial atmosphere and mostly friendly clientele has made the club an enjoyable place to work, she said.

“To me, this is like another home,” she said.

Rebecca, who has worked at Catwalk for almost 13 years, said in spite of the difficulties of her job — inebriated patrons, “peeping Toms who don’t pay to look,” conflicts between the dancers, and long hours — she still looks forward to coming to work every day. She said she likes the club’s owners and has become close friends with a few customers.

“You can meet the greatest person in the world,” she said, pointing to the man sitting next to her. “I know several girls that met their husbands here.”

Rebecca said she thinks Catwalk appeals to men because it allows them to feel more comfortable and confident.

“You can be the ugly guy, the shy guy, the fat guy, the whatever guy and no matter what, we will give you attention,” she said. “This place makes them relax, and they can actually be themselves.”

Catwalk may make men feel right at home, but on this Friday night, few women seem to be enjoying the view. One woman sits near the stage with her boyfriend; another stands alone by the bar. But while women used to be loath to frequent Catwalk, Rebecca said, she thinks there has been a shift in women’s attitudes toward the club over the past few years.

“Years ago it was hard to get a woman in here,” she said.

A few feet from Rebecca, at a counter by the front door, club bouncer Steve Iezzi keeps the peace. This Friday, though, it does not seem to be a monumental task. A trickle of patrons enters and exits through the club’s tinted doors, and Steve accepts cover charges and answers patrons’ questions.

When Steve first began to work at Catwalk, he had never been to a strip club in his life — “it doesn’t do anything for me,” he said. A former construction worker, among other past occupations, Steve is married with a child and said his wife does not mind his current job. Altercations are rare at Catwalk, Steve said, and he tries to defuse tense situations before they get out of hand.

“When we have a problem here, it’s always alcohol-related,” he said. “I try to catch it before it gets worse.”

When an issue does arise, Steve said, he tries to deal with it without being confrontational.

“It’s all about how you talk to people. I’m good with people, and it causes less problems for me,” he said. “I get compliments and tips from customers; they feel safe when I’m here.”

Customers who tip the bouncer? Dancers who talk with patrons on their own time? A bar that doesn’t serve alcohol? Catwalk is a strip club — no doubt about it — but it is probably not your average strip club, and it certainly doesn’t cater to your average clientele.

“There is no particular kind of people here,” said Mic, a New Haven resident who has visited the club for four years. “There’s anybody from Yale professors, to businessmen, to anybody.”

Comments