En Español Know Your Rights
Source: New York Magazine
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Two Bucks a Dance

In bailarina bars, you can rent a girlfriend by the song. For $40, she’ll sit with you for an hour. For $500, she’s yours for the evening. That’s when the relationship gets complicated.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.

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.

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.

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.