Two Bucks a Dance

Rosa getting ready for work.Photo: Alessandra Sanguinetti/Magnum Photos

Rosa left work at 4:30 a.m., slept a little, woke up to get her child ready for school, fell back asleep, snoozed through daylight and day noise, pulled herself out of bed again, heated some beans and rice, and put on her bangle bracelets and her face.

Now it was three o’clock and the phone was ringing. “HAL-lo!” she answered, the way people from the Dominican Republic do when they take a call in this country. It was a man she knew. Rosa rolled her eyes but quickly switched her voice to the audio version of molasses.

“Hola, mi amor,” she cooed, hunkering down into the phone. “Umhmmmm, umhmmmm. You sound kind of solemn,” she continued, in Spanish. “Tired, hmmm? You’re gonna cook? Spaghetti? Well, watch it, I think you’re getting fat! I am, too! Ha ha!” She laughed from far back in her throat, the way a new girlfriend laughs, though she didn’t consider this man her boyfriend, nor even, exactly, her friend. The man talked and talked. Rosa kept pace with more umhmmmms, a few cheerful “Oh my Gods,” and several strategic, low-toned giggles. In the middle of one, she heard the front door open—her 9-year-old was home. She laid the phone down and went to the living room to kiss the little boy and plant him in front of after-school cartoons. Then she returned to her “¡Ay, Dios mío!” Before long, a half-hour had passed.

“When are you coming to the club again?” she asked. Not right away, he said; he was broke. But as soon as he could. And when he did, Rosa would be the exclusive recipient of his time, and money.

Rosa is a bailarina. For a couple of dollars per song, she dances with strangers in a bailarina bar. It’s a job held by many immigrant women in Spanish-speaking New York, filling a need created by many immigrant men. The man on the phone is typical of her clients. He’s in his twenties, doesn’t speak English, and immigrated to the United States by himself—no mother, no girlfriend, no wife. He works six days a week at a restaurant and sends his money back home to Ecuador. Most of all, he’s lonely.

“He came in to the bar not long ago, really depressed,” Rosa says. “It was his birthday but his mother forgot. All she did was ask him to send home more money.” He paid Rosa to spend the whole night at his table. The dancers charge $40 an hour for that kind of exclusive attention, and that’s where the real money is made. That night, she netted more than $200. Another time, she spent an entire twelve-hour shift with the same man, making almost $500. All in all, she brings in about $35,000 a year. “That’s more than I’d get as a waitress or a store clerk,” she says. “I’ve got nice furniture, a clean apartment. I support my son. I pay my bills.”

Rosa is 31 and petite, with eyebrows that she pencils a little too far toward her nose, giving her a vaguely stern appearance. That image is offset by her generous but tidy cleavage, which she has accented with two tattooed stars on her left breast. She’s considered pretty, but she learned early on that it’s the gift of gab more than good looks or dance skills that makes a bailarina successful. What the men are buying, by the song or by the hour, is a tiny, metered chunk of girlfriendship. Rosa mainly hears long disquisitions about “how he managed to make it into this country and how he’s suffered.” Or about his job: He’s afraid of losing it or he can’t find one or it doesn’t pay enough or he got fired. He’s worried about his immigration status. He thinks he’s got a heart condition. He’s feeling unloved, insecure.

Not all of the men are lonely immigrants. Some are Orthodox Jews, whom a bailarina bar worker described as “pinguinitos, because they stand there in their black coats and white shirts just looking around, like a scene at the South Pole.” And some of the men have significant others in New York. “They tell me their wife or girlfriend turned them down for sex because she was jealous or too tired,” she says. Rosa advises them to “Bring her flowers! Take her to a nice restaurant!” She admits that they’re spending money on her that they could be using for flowers and dinner. “But they’re making a good investment, buying my advice.” Only about one man in five, by Rosa’s estimation, tries to grope her while dancing or uses what she calls “gross, inappropriate love talk.”

A Sunday night at the Flamingo club.Photo: Michael Hicks

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.

Photo: Alessandra Sanguinetti/Magnum Photos for New York Magazine

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.”

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.”

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.

Two Bucks a Dance