Rosa tries hard to distance herself from her profession’s reputation, and rails against the bailarinas who don’t meet her standards. “Instead of having their liquor watered down with juice, they drink straight alcohol at the tables. They talk dirty with the customers and do dirty dancing. They encourage the men to act like boors and treat us rough.”
The occasional unsolicited gift notwithstanding, she also draws the line by not letting her clients pay for anything other than dances at the club. When Edgar invited her to celebrate his birthday with him, they went out to dinner. “We took a taxi to a great Chinese restaurant in Long Island,” he says. “We had sushi, crab, and fish.” Rosa paid the whole bill, including the taxi fare. It was her way of thanking Edgar for being a client—and of reminding him that that’s what he is.
After fourteen years as a bailarina, Rosa still seems mildly amazed that this is her profession. “When I was a kid my dream was to become a detective,” she says, sitting at the formal dining table in her airy apartment in Jamaica. She grew up in the Dominican Republic, where her mother was a maid and her father worked a number of low-paying jobs. “My father and mother tried so hard for us. There were times when my sisters and brothers and I—there are nine of us—literally went hungry.”
To help the family survive, her father immigrated to New York and worked in bodegas. When Rosa was 17, she followed, thinking she would live with him and study for a GED. But when she arrived, her father announced that he’d met another woman and was breaking with the family. “Now it’s your turn to support them,” he told her. Distraught, Rosa called her mother, who ordered her to come home. But Rosa said no. “There’s no way to get ahead there,” she reasoned. “But maybe there is here.” She was staying with a girlfriend at the time, who suggested that she join her as a bailarina at a club in the Tremont section of the Bronx. The pay was $35 a night not including tips.
Still just a teenager, she was frightened by the drinking and the men. She remembers being a terrible bailarina, mainly because she didn’t know how to talk to the customers. “You have to follow their conversation and pretend to be enthusiastic. Like, if one says, ‘You are so beautiful! What are you doing here? Do you need a boyfriend?,’ you’re supposed to encourage him, but don’t out-and-out say you want a boyfriend. Instead, answer something like: ‘Well, sure, I’d want one if he was a good guy, and if I liked him.’ That makes them want you to get to know them.” But Rosa would giggle and go mute. The customers thought she was cold, and she made very little money.
The bar’s seasoned bailarinas gave her three important pieces of advice: One, if you elect to rub your pelvis or rear end against the man’s groin when you do the reggaeton, learn how to think about something else so that the dancing doesn’t feel sexual (even if it does to him). Two, act like you understand what he’s talking about, even if you don’t—and never talk about yourself. “The minute a bailarina starts telling a client her own problems,” Rosa says, “he gets turned off.” And three, let your clients call you at home.
What they didn’t stress was the occupational hazard of falling for the men with whom she carried on these pseudo-relationships. When Rosa was 21, she fell in love with a client, a 30-year-old Dominican who was a partner in a bodega. “My God, he took such good care of me,” she remembers. “He made me feel like a little doll. He was the love of my life.” She moved with him to an apartment in White Plains, got pregnant, and quit working as a dancer. They planned to get married after the baby was born.
When Rosa was five months pregnant, her fiancé was shot to death by his business partner during a fight about money. Talking on the phone about what happened next, Rosa fades into long, bleak silences. “I wanted to die,” she remembers. “I felt totally hopeless.” After her son was born, she didn’t want to go back to the club: “I had clients there who were a little bit crazy. It would have insulted his memory for them to touch me. But I had no money for rent and no one to help me. When my son was 6 months and my stomach barely down, I went to another bailarina place, also in the Bronx.”