In pheasant country, exotic dancing 'goes with the territory'
WINNER, S.D. - Vassie Alston returns to South Dakota in October most years.
The Milwaukee resident doesn't come to Winner and other small towns to hunt pheasants, but she is in search of something: dollars. Alston, whose stage name is Denise Goudy, takes home a nice bundle of cash for stripping in bars during the pheasant-hunting season.
"I've been dancing up here for years and years and years," Alston said on a recent afternoon, a few hours before she took the stage at the Peacock Bar in downtown Winner. "It's slow now, but it will pick up when the pheasant hunters get here."
Exotic dancers have long been a part of the South Dakota hunting experience.
In Winner, at least two bars will offer topless dancers during the hunting season, which opens today to out-of-state residents. Exotic dancing clubs also have operated in many other places in South Dakota's pheasant country through the years. Area casinos have gotten into the business, too, by hosting scantily clad female dance troupes.
Both local residents and big-money visitors from outside the state come to Winner and other towns to hunt, drink and let loose. Dancing women are part of the package, some say.
"It's a good time," said Sue O'Donnell, who has been a co-owner of the Peacock for the past 32 years.
'Forty years in a bar'
Alston, 53, said she has been dancing for 35 years. She moved to Sioux Falls when she got married, but when her husband drank too heavily and abused her, she moved out and took to the stage, she said.
Alston said South Dakota customers are friendly and, for the most part, polite. Few try to get too touchy, she said.
"They really don't. They're pretty nice," she said.
Alston sees some of the same customers year after year, even though she has danced at a lot of different clubs. She is at the Peacock this fall but has danced in nearby Dallas in the past and resided in Mitchell for five years, where she danced at the Kongo Klub. Alston declined to say how much money she makes from dancing.
O'Donnell, meanwhile, said her bar makes plenty of money during the hunting season, but she is ready to sell it. Anyone who wants to come up with $500,000 or so can strut around as the new owner of the Peacock.
"Forty years in a bar is a long time," O'Donnell said with a sigh. "Forty years in a bar."
'Goes with the territory'
Winner Police Chief Paul Schueth said the town of 3,200 people has calmed down a lot compared to years past.
"It's a good time for everybody and enjoyable," he said. "It used to be 10 years ago, there was more drinking, more fights and DUIs.
"We want people to come here and have a good time. But we don't want them to drink and drive."
Connie Schramm, who manages the Buffalo Trail motel, grew up in Winner and returned home a decade ago after 40 years away.
She said dancers, high-stakes poker games and drinking have been linked to pheasant season for as long as she can recall.
"It goes with the territory," Schramm said. "It always has."
Drink, eat, be merry
John Halverson owns two bars in Winner: Dick's and the Holiday House.
Dancers will perform in the back room of the Holiday House this season. They help bring in business, Halverson said, but people who want to see the strippers have to go into the back area.
"You don't even know they're there unless you want to go back and see it," he said.
Halverson said the struggling national economy may mean slightly slower business this year. Not as many multi-million-dollar corporate jets will come to the area this fall, he said. But pheasant hunting still has a "huge impact" on the area, he said, and will again this year.
Two side-by-side bars in Dallas, S.D., a tiny town in Gregory County, offer totally nude dancing.
Frank Day's Bar has been a local landmark for decades. Frank Day is no longer living, but his daughter, Shelley Day, now runs the businesses. She emphasizes the bar's historic nature, with an extensive collection of cowboy hats and boots.
Nude dancers perform in a back room of the bar, but Day didn't want reporters to see. "I like to be low-profile," she said.
Day said the business merely offers something customers want and what hunters have come to expect.
"Drink, eat and be merry," she said.
'Their private business'
Winner Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amy Moe said hunters come to Winner for the "hometown atmosphere" and outdoor opportunities.
Moe, 30, was born and raised in Winner. She said hunting season has "absolutely" been a major draw for as long as she can remember and for many years before.
Moe said most locals accept exotic dancing as a traditional part of the hunting season.
"I wouldn't say it's a huge part of it," she said. "I just think it's part of the experience."
A lot of that money comes from high-rolling and, in some cases, high-profile hunters who come to the area.
Numerous movie stars, pro athletes and other celebrities have passed through over the years, according to locals. Actor Kevin Costner, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, former football and baseball all-star Bo Jackson and many others have come to the area to shoot some of the state's game birds, according to locals.
Hunting guide "Big Mike" Winckler leads locals and out-of-state visitors on hunts. He said most hunters come to the area to shoot pheasants and enjoy the pristine outdoors.
Some also like to drink, party or watch a woman dance, Winckler said.
"Some do; some don't," he said. "They bring a lot of money in. They're our business, and that's their private business."