In a VIP room of the strip club where Hustlers takes place, Destiny (Constance Wu) is dancing while a man begs her to touch him. Sleazy patrons abound in the film—it’s about a bunch of women scamming Wall Street guys, after all—but this one instance stands out. The man isn’t threatening Destiny or trying to use his clout to make her do what he wants; he’s pleading with her, saying “please” over and over, sounding more like a toddler deprived of ice cream than an adult man trying to negotiate a deal. He doesn’t resemble the typical movie strip club patron, who’s often loutish but rarely pathetic. That’s because, according to Jacq Frances, the film’s strip club consultant, he sounds like a real strip club patron. “I just can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had a man beg me in a VIP room,” she says.
The first take of this scene looked a little different than the one that made it into the movie. Rather than pleading with Destiny, the man was trying to force her into touching him. Watching from the sidelines, though, Frances felt that something was off. She pulled director Lorene Scafaria aside and told her: “He would be begging more. The way things go down, it’s not forceful, condescending manipulation. It’s usually a man begging you to do something.”
Based on a true story, filmed in a real strip club, and populated by actual strippers, Hustlers is tethered to reality. It’s a movie about strippers that’s supposed to show what strippers’ lives are actually like. And it gets a lot right, thanks in large part to two people: Johanna Sapakie and Frances. Sapakie was the pole consultant for the film, the architect of (among other things) J.Lo’s horny-for-money, Fiona Apple–soundtracked pole dance and Constance Wu’s newfound skills on the pole. Frances, meanwhile, was both a comfort consultant and strip club expert who made sure actors simulating sexual contact felt at ease while also answering questions about how a strip club actually runs. Both women are experts in their respective fields: Sapakie is a lifelong dancer who came to pole dancing when she worked at Cirque du Soleil and now teaches and choreographs pole for everything from music videos to aerial acrobatic shows; Frances is a stripper (and comedian and artist) who’s danced for 10 years and worked in New York clubs for eight.
Together, they made sure that every inch of Hustlers’ club scenes felt real. Frances ensured that, in group scenes when the actors were all onstage at the club, they danced like strippers and not “like Mouseketeers.” Her first rule: no jazz hands. “One of the most important things is to touch yourself,” she explains. When an actor didn’t know what to do with her hands, Frances would advise, “Touch your ass! Grab it! Shake it!” Sapakie, meanwhile, trained Jennifer Lopez, who plays Ramona, to dance like a veteran stripper in less than three months. And the two women teamed up to choreograph scenes in the VIP rooms, where the actors were dancing and chatting up their clients at the same time.
Pole dancing has intermittently appeared in movies for decades, featured most heavily in ’90s relics Showgirls and Striptease—but having a “strip club consultant” is less common, and other films have suffered for lack of one. Frances cites two major issues that plague most movies about strippers: First, the tendency to feature violence against sex workers—she cites a gratuitous rape scene in Showgirls that makes the movie impossible for her to watch; second, the way many movies about strippers pathologize sex work. “There’s always a ‘What awful thing happened to you to make you want to do this?’” she explains. When she signed on, she already knew Hustlers wouldn’t show violence against women—which is why she signed on in the first place—but to make sure it avoided other regretful tropes of movies about strippers, she did as much as she could to guarantee that it wasn’t just a movie about strippers, but a movie by them.
In one of the scenes Frances helped shape, Diamond (Cardi B) and Ramona teach Destiny how to give a lap dance. They tell her to slow her movements—“Like a sloth,” Ramona says—to run down the clock on the lap dance while not actually doing that much work. “You’re just trying to exert as little as possible in order to get the 20 dollars,” Frances explains. “You’re biding your time.” It’s a moment that creates genuine senses of character for Destiny, Ramona, and Diamond, but the behind-the-scenes look at lap dance training also removes some of the sexual charge from the stripping scenes that follow it; after it, the viewer becomes aware of the grift at the heart of the act (a concept Destiny and Ramona take to its extreme as the movie goes on). The dancers are trying to titillate, sure, but they’re also doing as little work as possible. In moments like this one, Hustlers makes sure to remind you that stripping is a job, and that those who do it get to control how they do it.
Frances’s expertise means that she wasn’t just choreographing movements and supplying lines: She could actually explain how strip clubs work and why strippers act and talk the way they do. Frances says she did most of this kind of coaching with the film’s stars, Lopez and Wu, whose roles were informed by their relative positions at Scores. Destiny looks to Ramona, a veteran of the club, for guidance on everything from how to dance to what bag to buy when she starts raking in cash. “I think explaining the backstory and the logic behind the inner workings of a strip club really helped them flesh out what their identity would be in it, as the new girl, as the veteran,” she says.
Frances remembers being the new girl. When she started stripping a decade ago, she says she thought “that you showed up and danced the way somebody wanted you to dance. You showed up and were like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And then you realize pretty quickly … your body is yours, your boundaries are yours, and you can do what you want with that.”
Sapakie also made sure to recognize the agency strippers have to make choices about what they do at work, particularly onstage. She wasn’t just trying to teach the actors to dance in a vacuum. “The pole dancing was just a tool for you to know and understand who these women were and what lives they led, how they embodied this environment,” she explains. For example, in teaching Wu, whose character is new to stripping and has less pole experience, Sapakie says the most important thing to learn was confidence. She advised Wu, “Listen, lady, whatever you do, as long as you own it, it’s going to look and it’s going to read correct.”
Of course, Sapakie spent time teaching not just confidence but impeccable technique. The lengthiest and most ambitious pole scene in the movie belongs to Ramona, decked out in a bedazzled G-string bodysuit and dancing to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Rather than just teach Lopez the sequence of moves from start to finish, though, Sapakie decided to give her a crash course in pole dancing, taking just a few weeks to teach her all the moves a real stripper would learn over the years at a club. Once Lopez had a tool kit of moves like the one a real stripper would be able to draw from, she and Sapakie sat down and choreographed the routine. The final product is mesmerizing and deeply athletic, a feat that melds Lopez’s acting, dancing, and pure muscle. Sapakie stresses that Lopez pulled off moves—like turning upside down—that a pole novice would never be able to. “That’s not a beginner move,” Sapakie says. “She’s doing this highly acrobatic movement in that particular moment and she’s just riding it. There was no effort there.”
Frances and Sapakie threw themselves into their duties because they wanted to help make a great movie, but for both of them, Hustlers’ success could mean far more than box office numbers or industry opportunities. Sapakie has seen far too many people attend pole dancing exercise classes and post photos captioned “#notastripper” on their Instagram afterward; admiration for pole dancing is tempered by stigmatization of the people who invented it. Sapakie says she explained to Lopez early in their coaching process, “Because of the stigma around the content, this movie can’t just happen. It needs to be earth-shatteringly great, so that there’s no reason for people not to give it the credit it deserves.” Ramona’s pole scene isn’t just good cinema; it’s good press for strippers, whose athleticism, artistry, and agency often goes unrecognized.
Frances and Sapakie seem to realize the unique opportunity Hustlers gives them to put a real look into strippers’ lives in front of a large, mainstream audience. They know that Hustlers isn’t an activist documentary; it’s a glamorous Hollywood movie that just happens to be compassionate to its subjects. But a commitment to portraying strippers as they actually are, grappling with the issues that really plague them—unstable working conditions, casual misogyny, stigma—within a movie that is also glitzy and exciting can only be a good thing. “As a stripper and a comedian,” Frances says, “I can confirm that sequins and laughter are a great way to get people’s attention.”