She lets her eight or nine regular clients—several Ecuadorans, a Dominican, a Mexican, an Arab, and an Indian—call her at home, “even if it’s time down the drain moneywise.” But she tries not to get involved in their lives. Like other successful bailarinas, she has the ability to space out while appearing to pay close attention. She knows when a pause requires an Umhmmmm or an Ay, Dios mío even if she is mentally calculating the date when she needs to buy a new MetroCard on the other end of the line.
But sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between playing a girlfriend and being one. “These are men who’ve fallen in love with me, which is inevitable after they’ve known me for a few months,” she says. Like the Ecuadoran whose mother forgot his birthday—“He’s head over heels and thinks he’s going to marry me,” she says, looking weary. “I tell them all I can’t commit.”
Rosa met Edgar a year and a half ago at the Flamingo club in Jackson Heights. A 34-year-old from Mexico, he works as a cook at an Italian and Greek restaurant in Queens. He is slim and good-looking, with long black hair that he wears in a ponytail, like a Latin American soccer player. When his wife back in Mexico left him for another man, his friends started taking him to bailarina bars to cheer him up.
The Flamingo is a destination venue, its sign advertising 69 BAILARINAS more than just a coy come-on. Five to seven dozen women are on-site at all times—more, reputedly, than at any other bailarina bar in the city. It was wall-to-wall with customers the night that Edgar first came in. Burly bouncers at the door made sure only men were admitted—mostly young Mexicans or Ecuadorans. By the time they made it to the dance floor, the bailarinas were attached to them. The women were well padded but shapely, wearing high heels, bikini-style tops, and twirly tennis skirts. The D.J. music was deafening and frenetic—escandalosa, they say in Spanish. Bouncy, chaste numbers like the cumbia, corrido, and bachata earned the regulation $2. But the reggaeton, with its groin-and-butt-rubbing, cost a dollar more.
Edgar spotted Rosa out on the floor and was immediately impressed. “She was the only woman who wasn’t throwing herself on men. She didn’t ask for a dance—I did.” And she didn’t play games. “With so many of these women,” Edgar complains, “you ask for their number and they say, ‘Oh, I’m too busy to give it to you now. Come back to the bar and check with me next week.’ You end up spending $200 on dances, drinks, and tables before you can even call them.” Rosa gave him her phone number straight away.
After a few visits, Edgar started paying the $40 an hour to sit at a table with Rosa. They would sit very close, in order to hear each other over the music, their mouths nuzzling each other’s ears. She talked him into quitting drinking. “With my help, he analyzed his life situation. He has no one in his life to inspire him, only friends who push him to stay out all night and drink,” she says. “He’s decided they’re not real friends.”
Soon, Edgar had fallen in love. “Completely, totally in love,” he says. “She is beautiful. Calm. Wonderful company. You can talk to her about anything.”
He thought things might get serious. “I’d say 30 to 50 percent of the men at these clubs fall in love with the bailarinas,” he says. “And some of the bailarinas reciprocate—even marrying the guys.”
Before he immigrated, Edgar never would have considered someone like Rosa for a wife. “I thought women who did what she does were whores,” he says. “And when I first went to bailarina bars in New York, I suspected they were all brothels in disguise. Actually, some are. Like this place in Corona. We’d barely gotten inside when a woman grabbed us and said, ‘Which girls do you want?’ They meet you after they get off work and charge $200 to spend the rest of the night with you.”
This has been the assumption about taxi-dancers—so named because they measure their services by the minute, like cabbies—from the beginning. In the twenties, when dance halls proliferated around Broadway and Seventh Avenue and men paid “ten cents a dance,” as the Rodgers and Hart song goes, the tabloids whipped up a frenzy of moral outrage about the “Devil’s Dance Dens.” From Joan Crawford in The Taxi Dancer to Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity, taxi-dancers were seen as morally at risk or already fallen. Some can be rescued by heroic men; others are hopeless. All inhabit a netherworld of whoredom.