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Two Bucks a Dance


Rosa was one of the first to call, in December 2007. But she was scared. “I didn’t have the nerve to be the first to sue,” she says. “I knew if I became a plaintiff I’d have to quit the job.” A couple of months later, after a few of her co-workers had signed on, she did too. In April, Make the Road filed suit against the Flamingo for over $1 million in back wages and damages. They also staged a noisy demonstration outside the Flamingo, even rounding up clients to attend. Edgar came after Rosa explained to him that his own rights were being violated at the restaurant that doesn’t pay him overtime.

If the bailarinas win their claim, a dancer like Rosa could receive up to $75,000, enough to help her transition out of dancing. “There are women who stay in this work till they’re in their early forties,” says Rosa, “but I don’t want to be in it by the time I’m 35.” She’s not sure what she’ll do after dancing. “Something more calm,” she says.

Very late on a Friday night, I went with Edgar to Rosa’s new club, down the street from the Flamingo. She joined us at the table but her smile seemed tight. Edgar had called her a day earlier, before dawn, crying. He couldn’t sleep, he said, because he’d gotten photos in the mail of his 8- and 10-year-old children in Mexico. Rosa had talked to him for three hours. Now she felt drained and irritated. We were sitting in the back of the club, by the dance floor, but up in the front, she had another client, a middle-aged Guatemalan. The Guatemalan didn’t know about Edgar, and Edgar didn’t know about him.

Edgar had told me how it drove him crazy to see her with her other clients. “I walk into the bar and see Rosa at a table with the guy’s arm around her shoulder. Without even knowing, I’ll do this thing—I put two fingers over my nose and stare. She knows what it means: that I’m feeling jealous. And the reggaeton! When she dances it with another man, she goes off to a part of the floor where she can hide from me.” He desperately wants her to quit her job. “I want to marry her,” he says. “I tell her, ‘Let’s just try it! Life is about taking risks!’ ”

As the night wore on, the noise became louder, the dancing grew dirtier, and Edgar’s declarations got more intense. “I love this woman!” he shouted over the music. “Can’t you see by how I look at her?” Then the lights went dim and the music turned frantic, punctuated with sounds of jackhammers and fire sirens: the reggaeton. Bevies of bailarinas in hot pants and microminis were bent over chair backs and table edges, thrusting and undulating their rumps as men grabbed them from behind. It was a stand-up, reggaeton version of lap dancing.

Rosa took to the floor with Edgar, but she didn’t bump and grind. “She’s different,” Edgar said happily, when they returned to the table. He pulled her hand to dance again and she pulled it back. He stood up by himself, executing little steps around her. “This is not good,” she told me. “It looks like he’s my boyfriend.” The stress of managing the men in her life was getting to her.

“Why? Why won’t you marry me?” Edgar said into the air.

Ay, Dios mío, ten years! Ten years I’ve been single since he died. What will become of me? What?” Rosa said, also to the air.

At 4 a.m., she rose abruptly. “The lights are coming on soon and I’ve got to get away from Edgar,” she said. When she didn’t return, Edgar was upset. “I’m going to call her tomorrow,” he said. “If she won’t agree to marry me, I’m going back to Mexico.”

He did call, just a few hours after she’d gone to bed. Rosa was in no mood for a free talk session. “I want you to leave me alone,” she told Edgar. “I’m having my phone number changed.” That night she’d be back at the club, chatting with a client, stroking his hand while mentally planning her conversation with the phone company.


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