Years later, Rosa let herself get close to another regular. He’d come to New York as a teenager, gotten legal immigration status, learned perfect English, and was working in Manhattan as an executive chef. “He was in his late twenties,” Rosa says, “and he came to me with the worst problem you can possibly imagine.” His wife had taken up with his 17-year-old brother. The man was devastated. “He was ready to kill himself. I told him, ‘Keep going. Life isn’t so bad.’ ” They spent months talking, at the club and on the phone. He met her son, and he and Rosa were planning to get married. “I even had a ring from him,” she says.
The chef insisted that Rosa stop working as a bailarina after they married, and she agreed. But in the meantime, her work was complicated. Sometimes her boyfriend would demand that she play hooky from the job, then pay the club her $70 fine. Other times, he would show up at the club, buy table time with her, then spend all of it berating her for being a bailarina. “Once he came up to an Indian guy and said I was his.” The ultimate turnoff for clients is to think a bailarina is already attached. “It showed lack of respect and made me furious,” she says. “Plus, it just wasn’t love. At least, not the love I had with my son’s father.”
The worst part of the breakup was realizing she’d lost the chance to give her son a father. “When he was very little, he would ask, ‘Where’s my dad?’ ‘Your papito is in heaven,’ I’d say. When he got bigger, if he saw me with a man, he’d say, ‘Is this Papi?’ Now he’s nine, and he tells me to get married so he can have a father. This has turned into the hardest thing in my life.”
But she has steeled herself against falling for another client. Edgar’s preference for her was growing into an obsession. He was calling all the time, acting like a boyfriend. He’d even asked her to marry him. Rosa was unmoved. “I don’t love any of them,” she says of her regulars.
As the night wore on, the dancing grew dirtier and Edgar’s declarations grew more intense. “I love this woman!”
Rosa started working at the Flamingo three years ago. The club had a reputation as one of the best bailarina bars in the city, and she’d been looking for a move up. She liked the fact that they opened at 4 or 5 p.m.—rather than 10 p.m. like most clubs. And Flamingo customers tended to go straight to the dance floor rather than sitting around and checking out the women for free. Plus, a phalanx of cameras, security guards, and bouncers put the kibosh on drug dealing, gang activity, and hands venturing too far below bailarinas’ waists. Rosa thought she’d make more money and have a better work environment.
But she quickly found that the Flamingo was not what she expected. Rosa and the other bailarinas had to wear what she thought were degrading costumes, as on “Schoolgirl Sundays.” Club rules also required that she had to stand instead of sit between dances. “I felt like my feet were on fire,” she says. “They got so irritated that four of my toenails fell off.” If the dancers didn’t find their next partners quickly enough, Flamingo owner Luis Ruiz sometimes grabbed them and shoved them toward customers, or poured drinks on them, according to the bailarinas. The women also complain that Ruiz and co-owner Edith D’Angelo would make them stay at the club long after their shifts while they cursed at them and called them putas—prostitutes. (The Flamingo owners deny these claims.)
Rosa was paid by her clients, not the club. Yet the Flamingo controlled every minute of her work life, even charging her $70 for missing a day and $10 for each half-hour she was late, she says. She knew something was wrong—she had never run into a situation like this at her previous jobs—but she wasn’t in a position to make demands. “As bad as things were at the Flamingo,” she says, “my clients were there. I didn’t know how many would follow me to another place if I left.”
Venues like bailarina bars have very rarely been the object of union interest—dancers are hard to organize, and public opinion is often too conservative to support them. But last fall, some young female activists from an immigrant- and workers’-rights group called Make the Road New York decided to reach out to the women at the Flamingo. They handed out business cards at the 82nd Street station of the 7 train. “We’d look at people and try to guess,” says Make the Road’s Julissa Bisono. “ ‘Do you work at the Flamingo?’ We handed out cards for months, waiting for someone to respond.”