WILLISTON, N.D. – When stripper Susan Shepard started dancing in Williston in 2007, men were often surprised to see attractive women at the small-town strip club.
But even as North Dakota’s oil boom was in the beginning stages, Shepard had friends from all over the country traveling to Williston to spend a week dancing for workers who had cash to spare and were lonely for female company.
“It’s all but guaranteed money, same reason everybody else is up there,” Shepard said.
Shepard shares her story, Wildcatting: A stripper’s guide to the modern American boomtown, on the website BuzzFeed.
In an interview this week, Shepard said topless dancers in Williston don’t make thousands of dollars in one night, as one national news story reported, but a slow night in Williston could still bring in $400.
A gig at Whispers in Williston, where Shepard danced off-and-on for more than six years, meant working six days in a row, nine hours at a time. Dancers who travel to Williston typically earned $300 to $800 a night on average, with some reporting their best nights as $600 to $1,600, Shepard says.
“The appeal was that it was always pretty consistent out there,” she said.
Shepard hasn’t danced in Williston since February, but she still keeps in touch with several women she met in North Dakota.
“It’s like you went through boot camp together,” Shepard said.
Shepard, who has an English degree, writes in her BuzzFeed piece that she’d leave Williston richer at the end of the week, but she felt like she’d earned every dollar.
“The tough schedule, isolation, travel time, and mood of the town and club wore me down to the point where by the Wednesday of each booking, I fantasized about leaving early,” Shepard writes.
Williston’s housing shortage was one of the challenges for the dancers.
During most of the time she danced in Williston, Shepard lived in Missoula, Mont., and would drive a travel-trailer to North Dakota. In the winter, she would rent a basement apartment from the club’s blackjack dealer. Whispers later purchased a house where dancers would stay.
Shepard said staff would walk dancers to their cars at night and the club had someone keeping an eye on the dancer housing. Shepard said she avoided grocery shopping late at night and had friends who were followed around.
“Those guys don’t even necessarily realize how threatening it feels,” Shepard said.
In her BuzzFeed story, Shepard writes that one friend went on a date with a guy and had to escape from his moving vehicle on U.S. Highway 85 when he tore off out of town instead of going back to the Vegas Motel.
Shepard, 37, now lives in Austin, Texas, and doesn’t have any immediate plans to return to Williston.
“I really do believe that everyone who winds up out there has a bit of an adventurous spirit,” Shepard said. “I feel for the locals who have watched this incredible thing happening to their town.”
She writes that many of her friends are done with Williston because of recent police crackdowns, including a suspension of the clubs’ liquor licenses this year, and the clubs’ tendencies to let as many dancers work as possible.
But even though she recounts the panic attacks she had about going to Williston, Shepard said she’s glad she could witness the transformation of the boomtown.
“Going to Williston is an experience you would rather have than not have had because you’re not going to see anywhere else like this,” Shepard said.