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Skin to Skin: Donte and Stephanie's Story

Years ago, when Vegas was little more than a railroad depot for trains between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, prostitution was legal. There were no “entertainment” services that would send a girl to your hotel room, no hustlers handing out lurid sex-show cards. The prostitutes were lodged in a boarding house near the depot, and most everybody knew where it was.

Hookers were eventually outlawed (though prostitution is still legal in other counties in Nevada), but the advent of Bugsy Siegel and the mob’s rule of Vegas made sure that many of them stayed off the unemployment line. Soon the building of the great casino-hotels ushered in the age of the scantily clad showgirl. Revues like “Lido de Paris”—which wouldn’t have passed muster then in New York or Los Angeles—made voyeurism a civic virtue.

Las Vegas went through a flirtation with family entertainment a decade ago. But now, as Time magazine writes, “Vegas has reinvented itself again, returning to vice but sanitizing it by creating the biggest, nicest place to sin ever imagined, a Sodom and Gomorrah without the guilt.”

Some dealers at the Rio, a pleasure palace that caters to the twenty-somethings, wear thong bikinis at night. And as Time noted, one of the Cirque du Soleil shows “is a virtually naked gymnastics event in which men make out and the rest of the cast simulates acrobatic sex.” In an adult show at the MGM Grand, “the dancers’ costumes consist of a stringless G-string, one of the many great new technologies to come from Las Vegas.” At the Palms and the Hard Rock, two hotels that attract the Hollywood set, some suites for high rollers now come equipped with in-room stripper’s poles. You can see anything in Vegas.

So what would you expect to find at ten-thirty at night inside a 350-seat theater in one of the most luxurious hotels on probably the best-known boulevard in the United States? A professional adult show featuring eight women who are about to bare themselves.

Each of them is fulsome, chosen for her beauty and dancing prowess. They wear high heels and G-strings and are outfitted in six-inch-wide rhinestone necklaces and long leather gloves. Partridge headdresses festoon their hair. They cover their chests in the opening minutes with feather boas and dance on various levels of the stage to the up-tempo beat of the music.

Eventually, the score becomes slower and more sensual. One by one, they discard their feathers. Soon, they are fully uncovered from the navel up and are establishing eye contact with members of the audience.

The crowd of about 300 contains more couples than single men. Compared with other adult shows on the Strip, this one’s choreography makes it seem relatively tasteful. There are a few hoots and hollers as the women twist and throw back their shoulders. But the show’s intent is to arouse.

A burlesque-style comedienne and a tap dancer fill breaks when the showgirls change costumes. For the remainder of the show, the girls are topless from the start on some numbers and covered on others. They have all been selected for their dancing skills, athleticism, bodies, and looks.

Before the hour-and-a-quarter show is over, the lead dancer, Stephanie Keene, sits on a chair with her back to the audience and, facing a mirror, performs a highly sensual striptease. Five feet eight inches tall off stage, five-eleven-and-a-half in her heels, she is unquestionably the star of the show. All eyes are on her.

Stephanie works one or two shows a night, six nights a week, fifty weeks a year. It is a tough business, and it usually leaves her exhausted the following morning. A huge picture of her in heels, G-string, and nothing else, taken from her left with her arms folded across her chest, has appeared in the arrival concourses at Vegas’s McCarran Airport. The show emphasizes her long legs, arms, and fingers, and her dark, flowing hair.

This picture and another of her have been spread across billboards next to Interstate 15, just west of the Strip. When she passes by them on her twenty-minute drive to work, she wishes deep down that they weren’t there.

Stephanie Keene is a Bible-reading, 10-percent-tithing church attendee who has been baptized by immersion and given her heart to Jesus Christ.

Several blocks down the Strip at another well-known casino, a second adult show has just begun. Unlike the first, it is designed to appeal to women as well as to men. Besides five women in various stages of undress, this production features three male dancers who wear black leather jackets that expose their chests.

Some of the women are as beautiful as those in Stephanie’s show. They are outfitted at the start in nothing more than G-strings, straps that form an X in front, and exotic Egyptian-like headdresses. All of them are professional, Broadway-quality dancers, and for a while each performs in an illusionary style, with one arm held horizontally to shield her breasts from view.

Shortly after the men take part in the dance, the women uncover themselves. The theater crowd of three hundred sits grandstand style, almost on top of the stage. The men, who resemble ballet dancers in their movements, have sculpted bodies that glisten under the lighting. The lead male dancer, Donte Harrison, serves as the show’s emcee and sole singer. He has marvelous range and vocal gifts, but it is his slow striptease in the midst of the uncovered women that is the caberet-style show’s centerpiece.

Donte’s show pushes the envelope more than Stephanie’s. There’s more skin-against-skin contact and quite a bit of sensual touching. The lights are red and the stage is frequently mirrored. As the women dance around him, Donte removes his black top hat, cape, and pants until he wears just a pair of thong briefs. Every ripple of his six-feet-two-inch body shines in the spotlight in the midst of the women.

As he says at the start of the show, “This is Las Vegas! It’s all right to get a little rowdy.”

Donte Harrison is Stephanie Keene’s husband. He too has given his heart to Christ. He reads the Bible daily and attends church with Stephanie each weekend. It was he who first pushed to raise their tithe to 10 percent.

What is a Los Vegas showgirl like?

Not necessarily what you’d think.

Stephanie, thirty-five, is sweet, gentle, and transparent. She is shy and retiring around strangers until she gets to know them. If you passed her in her usual jeans and loose-fitting turtleneck in a Vegas supermarket, you would consider her attractive but probably not imagine her profession.

Her path to the Vegas world began at age two and a half. A native of Canada, she had a grandmother who owned a dance studio. She was a natural from the get-go and essentially grew up there. After getting a college degree in theater arts, she sailed the world for cruise lines, appearing in picket-size musical revues based on Broadway or movie themes.

She had taken dance lessons since childhood, so she shot to the lead of most of the shows she was in. The contracts she signed were not lavish—$500 to $1,000 a week. But there was no overhead. She had free room and board on ship, staying in a small private cabin. And the sightseeing, of course, was gratis.

It was a well-ordered life, and Stephanie had her priorities. She herself headed the list. Then came dancing, getting the next job…traveling to new countries, making money…having fun, going out, meeting friends. It amounted to a fairly common, early-twenties feel-good chart. Family was vaguely in the mix, but not within the top five. God, a nebulous concept, wasn’t even on the list.

If God was off her chart, however, Stephanie certainly happened to be on His.

Her path to faith began bumpily.

When she was a senior in college, her mother was hospitalized with endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart membrane that began to attack other vital organs. Jane Keene was desperately ill. And in the vortex of that illness, she turned her life over to God completely and irretrievably.

Amazingly, she soon recovered. And with the evidence of her healing, she became fervent in her faith almost overnight, zealously spreading the word and urging Stephanie and her two brothers to believe. While still in the hospital, in fact, Jane prevailed on Stephanie to pray and be saved right in front of her.

“I didn’t really understand it, and I wasn’t that serious about it for myself,” Stephanie recalls. “But I did go ahead and pray the prayer.”

In reality, the whole idea seemed to be nonsense. “Our family was like, ‘OK, Jane, relax a little bit!’” Stephanie says. “It was just kind of weird.”

For the rest of her twenties, Stephanie could not have cared less about God.

After finishing one of her cruise contracts, she came to Vegas with a boyfriend to check out its show scene. Though there were still plenty of entry-level gigs around, she found there were fewer and fewer dance spots available that paid enough for someone to make a living. Except, that is, in adult entertainment.

One evening her boyfriend suggested they see an adult show downtown at the Plaza Hotel.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, let’s go look,’ although I’d told him I was never going to do a topless show. I felt it was too degrading.

“When I saw it, I was taken aback at first by the topless thing. Then I began to think, Hmm, it’s risqué, but it’s still fairly tasteful. The girls were uncovered, but they were dancers, not strippers.”

Before the month was out, she wound up auditioning for Nicholas Griffin Productions. Griffin was a former cruise-line producer who had recently begun to stage musical revues as well as topless shows in Tahoe, Reno, and Tokyo. He immediately saw Stephanie’s talent and offered her a prime role in the Tokyo show. Although she had never dreamed of being in an adult production, she signed up for three months.

“I never told my parents what kind of a show it was. And for me, it was uncomfortable the first two or three nights. But then after a few shows, I’m dancing, I’m doing difficult, challenging choreography, the production was of high quality, and the topless thing just kind of faded into the background.”

Returning to the States, she spent a few more years in cruise-ship work. But soon, she was back in Nevada, working the Laughlin, Reno, and Lake Tahoe circuit for none other than Griffin.

He was quickly changing the way show business worked in Nevada, locking up a small group of players and having them perform both a family revue and an adult show each night. It was a two-for-one deal that kept down both his costs and those of the hotel-casinos. But for many of the dancers, it meant edging into adult work or risking unemployment.

The troupe performed in the family show each night at seven-thirty—usually a revue such as “New York, New York”—and then a topless show, “Skin to Skin,” at ten-thirty. Stephanie was soon the best at what she did and was making two to three times what a schoolteacher brought home.

For all her success, though, Stephanie was headed for her first heartbreak.

She had hooked up romantically with a singer and dancer in the company. Within a few months, they were married. Almost immediately afterward, she developed a vague uneasiness—a sense that Brian was being unfaithful to her.

Brian finally confessed that he’d been cheating—and the infidelity was with one of her friends, no less. Stephanie tried to stick it out, but marriage therapy didn’t work. She and Brian were divorced in a year and a half. Like tens of thousands of others from Vegas to Reno, she was far from her family, broken and feeling totally alone.

She filled the void with constant dating, which led to several new relationships. All were short and painful. “I guess I believed in God more than I thought because I’d sometimes ask Him, Why am I in this mess?” she recalls. “Why on earth are You putting me through this?

A few months later, a lead “New York, New York” cast member took sick and Griffin had to quickly find a substitute. He had a player in his identical revue in Atlantic City fly in to Reno and fill the part.

The new guy was Donte. He says, “As soon as I saw Stephanie, I was taken, and she was taken. I remember thinking, Whew, it’s good I’m here only for one performance because I’d better not look at her ever again!”          

Donte Harrison is confident, open, and extremely articulate—the Bryant Gumbel, if you will, of the Vegas adult-show world. He can not only dance with Broadway ability but also sing and hold a show together with the microphone at the same time.

He was a military brat, the son of an army lieutenant who rose to become a colonel at the Pentagon. He grew up on an endless succession of military bases—Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and others. He was always the new kid on the block, settling down only when he was in high school.

Donte was a born singer, an obvious talent by age four. Attending James Madison University in Virginia, he wanted to major in theater arts and begin a singing career. His dad nixed the idea, so Donte got a bachelor’s in broadcast communication.

Donte’s father, the son of a preacher and a deacon, commanded that all five members of the family attend church on the military base every Sunday. But in reality, they all practiced religion by rote. Not until his folks’ faith came alive in their late forties did God even climb within Donte’s frame of reference.

“I use the totem pole analogy because it’s so relevant to my life,” he says. “I believed there was a God, and I knew there was a Jesus, but faith was so low on the pole it wasn’t even close to a priority.

“I was first, then my career, then singing or auditioning for something, then a girl. Family was kind of in there, but faith was not even close. Kind of pathetic when I look back on it.”

Like Stephanie, Donte went straight into cruise-line productions after college. The average showbiz career on cruise ships is five years. Perhaps because of his ability—he was always the star—he put in upwards of ten.

From time to time, Donte’s mom sent him Christian tapes or books, similar to those Stephanie’s mother was mailing to her. He wasn’t interested in religion or preachers. He had seen the scandals that brought TV evangelists down. He had become hardened, even hostile, to anything dealing with faith.

Donte eventually saw a couple of Griffin’s topless shows in Nevada. He signed on as the lead singer of one of the productions that shifted between Tahoe and Reno. The music was high-energy rock, pop, and rhythm and blues. The content, from the dancing to the comedian’s humor, was, for him, highly sexual.

“You just rationalize that it’s really okay,” he says. I’m not saying it was so okay that I told my parents about it right away. At first, it was sensual and arousing, and it was a challenge to get used to it. But once you cross over the bridge and get a little detached, it’s just a gig. After a month or two, it becomes routine.”

One night a pal of Donte’s brought two women to the show. Just for fun, the friend asked him to bring one of the women up for a cameo on stage—dressed, of course. Her name was Candace, and Donte was struck by the cocktail waitress and schoolteacher. At thirty-one, after a decade on the stage, he found it liberating to be with someone from outside the business.

Soon the two of them were married.

Candace thought they would get a house with a white picket fence while Donte found a nine-to-five job. Donte assumed he would stay on the stage. They married blind—“like changing costumes in a show,” he says. It was over in a few months, and when he got the divorce papers, it was the lowest point in his life.

Within months, he got involved with another woman from outside the business. He and Keena were talking about having children. He was not going to make the same mistakes with her that he had with Candace. He would leave dancing. He had already picked out their wedding rings.

But a few months in, he felt deader than ever and walked away from the relationship.

He was tumbling now, running up big-time debt. He wanted a wardrobe that befitted his position as a lead performer, so he put it on his card. He charged a home studio in which he could record new songs. He bought a new, fast car on credit every six to nine months.

“You can get upside down in debt in a hurry that way,” Donte says. “After the divorce, I was just a mess. I’m the lead, and I’m making money, and I’m getting all this applause, yet I’m empty. My mom was sending me Christian tapes and a devotional magazine, and I started saying to myself, ‘Lord, what am I doing? This can’t be what you have in mind.’”

Today, Donte considers the low points of his broken marriage and follow-up relationship the moments God first began to work in his heart.

He also thinks it was more than coincidence that Stephanie, whom he had met the previous year, was now appearing with him twice a night in Reno, in the family show at seven-thirty and the topless one at ten. They had been taken with each other at first. They had watched each other from a distance as they each went through divorce. And now they were simply becoming friends.

In reaction to declining revenues at the gaming tables in the 1990s, Las Vegas tried to make the Strip a family affair. Circus Circus built a mammoth enclosed arcade. New York-New York opened with a roller coaster. There were pirate battles every thirty minutes at Treasure Island.

But by the end of the decade, it was out with the kids, in with the showgirls.

Denise Jones Productions lured Stephanie to Vegas for the adult show she would make famous—one reviewer likened it to “Playboy meets MTV.” Two years later, Griffin brought Donte to town for the show that pushed the envelope a little further.

Friends in Reno, Donte and Stephanie were at first strangers in Vegas.

“We had been dating other people in town for a while and had kind of lost touch,” Stephanie remembers. “Finally, I e-mailed him and said, ‘Sorry, I’ve been a little out of it. I’ve been going through a lot. I had another relationship break up on me.’”

“He e-mailed me back. We each knew about the other’s marriage that went bad, but neither of us had known about the second relationships we both had that didn’t work out.”

Donte recalls, “We had a lot to talk about.”

The e-mails led to phone calls. There were talks about how they tried to will their latest situations to work, but they both felt empty one month into them. One night, Donte came over to see Stephanie’s show, and afterward, they went to the Shadow Bar at Caesars’. They each had a drink. They had had drinks before, but this time it seemed different.

They talked about their emotional deadness. It was a strange topic for them.

Finally, Donte heard himself saying, “Steph, you know what? I really want to start going to a church, but I don’t know where to find one.”

While in Reno, Stephanie had visited a nondenominational church for two years. She found it in the phone book and had begun attending during her marriage, when she realized her life was short of something. Whenever she went, it gave her a sense of meaning and belonging. But she needed someone to discuss her feelings with, since faith was increasingly stirring her interest.

“Oh, I go to a church sometimes,” Stephanie said. “I was thinking of going tomorrow.”

“You mind if I go with you?” Donte asked.

And so their second date happened to be at Central. It was roughly at the lowest point in Donte’s life.

“It came at a time when I had finally started listening to the tapes my mother had been sending me for years,” he says. “I felt I was such a disappointment to everybody. I was ashamed, I felt guilty, I was upset, I didn’t know what to do or where to go.”

It was an unusual service. At the end of his message, Pastor Jud told the congregation to bow their heads and close their eyes. Then he said that if any people wanted to have a relationship with God, the first step was to raise their hands, and he would pray for them.

“My hand shot up immediately,” Donte recalls.

He now realizes it was the moment he connected with God. He had literally reached out. It was also his first real date with Stephanie, the moment they began growing beyond mere friendship. Instead of going to the Shadow Bar for brunch, they went to Blueberry Hill, a pancake house in suburban Henderson.

To use Donte’s totem pole analogy, God had just jumped from the bottom to very near the top for both of them. But they had no one at their jobs to talk with about God—at least they didn’t think so at the time. And they had a gorilla of a question hanging over them: They performed in topless shows…how was this going to work?

Stephanie and Donte decided to take what was happening one step at a time and to put that question aside for the moment.

They enrolled in a two-month class at Central to learn the basics of the Christian faith. Then they decided to get baptized—in a pool in loose-fitting clothes in front of bright lights and before hundreds of onlookers. Stephanie can’t pinpoint the moment she first believed, but she knows Jesus was in her heart by the time she was dipped into the water.

Two friends were suddenly seeing each other through entirely different eyes.

Stephanie had found her spiritual center and had someone to share it with.

Donte had found not just faith but another gift—as he says, the gentlest and sweetest woman in the world.

They fell head over heels in love.

Stephanie and Donte were married in 2003. They bought a home on a cul-de-sac in the Vegas suburbs. Just your everyday couple. Two adult dancers in a one-level ranch house with a pool and spa out back, a gym in the garage, a golden retriever for company, two red SUV’s in the driveway, and a very strict plan to retire their debt.

They plan to start a family soon. At their ages, they can see the day coming when they won’t be the top dancers on the Strip. Stephanie hopes to find a part-time job and become a mom. Donte plans to be a dad and a TV journalist. They have embarked on a lifetime adventure together.    

When Stephanie’s final curtain falls, it will be both sad and something of a relief to her. The truth is that Stephanie’s job, as well as Donte’s, has increasingly represented a conflict for her since they became believers and started growing in their faith.

Make no mistake, she still relishes what she does. She views herself as a dancer, not a sex object, and she is not playing in Hoboken. She is one of about ten principal dancers on the Strip and perhaps the most critically acclaimed. The athleticism, the lights, the split-second timing of the routines, the electricity backstage just before the show starts—all produce highs for her.

“But the conflict is still there,” she says. “I experience it with my faith every night to some extent. Some nights, it’s not bad. Some nights, it’s really, really strong.

“The fact is I’m dancing topless. I’m performing for other people in a sensual and sexual manner. I can see the audience, and I try to focus on the couples who are smiling and enjoying themselves. But I’m still performing for people out there who are thinking lustful things.

Donte, who has emceed telethons and hopes to segue into a career as a TV entertainment reporter, says, “I’m ready yesterday” to change careers.

“When you feel embarrassed about what you do, that’s a conflict,” he says. “I’d love to sing at church, and Steph would love to become part of the arts ministry there, but neither of us would feel comfortable doing that if we’ve been in a topless show the night before.”

But who would have thought the premier adult dancers in Sin City would turn out to be believers? Donte and Stephanie now believe God brought them together in these shows for a reason.

What have they learned from their remarkable journey?

That He met them where they were.

And that He holds their future.   

by Jud Wilhite
Central Christian Church
Jud Wilhite lives in the Las Vegas area with his family, where he serves as Senior Pastor of Central Christian Church. He’s the author of several books, including Uncensored Grace and co-author of Deadly Viper Character Assassins.

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