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The Complicated Relationship Between Bailarinas And Their Clients
November 12, 2008 11:32 AM   Subscribe

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.
posted by jason's_planet (43 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
She's your private dancer, a dancer for money. She'll do what you want her to do.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:44 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Same world different planets. I could see paying $2 for an experience dance partner for a dance, but $40 to have one sit with me, pointless (in my world).

And doing this job for 35k a year seems kinda crappy as well.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:54 AM on November 12, 2008


What is "tidy cleavage"? Or, more worryingly, what is messy cleavage? (Ladies: do you have messy cleavage? Cleavage-B-Kleen can help!)
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:11 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wow. Good job, New York You taught me that a job I'd never heard of exists and completely sucks in one article.

"Anyone who is not technically a prostitute is a prostitute." -Roger Ebert
posted by roll truck roll at 12:13 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


How's this compare to the cost of dance lessons?
posted by orthogonality at 12:21 PM on November 12, 2008


Rosa is 31 and petite, with eyebrows that she pencils a little too far toward her nose, giving her a vaguely stern appearance.

Oh, how I long for the ability to post images.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 12:22 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Taxi dancers used to be very common in the 20's and 30's, when good young women didn't go to dances or socialize with men. But I'm surprised that it's still around. I'd have thought that it would have long since passed on in a world where people date and flirt all the time. It's an odd, half-light job: less explicitly sexual than stripping, much less soul-stripping than prostitution, but still depressing. She's providing an emotional, not a sexual, service. Aren't there Spanish bars and clubs where single people can go to meet someone?

Or are her clients paying for the quick fiction of a girlfriend without the emotional price: they pay 40 bucks an hour and have someone pretend to listen, pretend to care. She makes no emotional demands, doesn't object if you become obsessed or nasty, and never expects you to care about her, really. If her kid gets sick or she's tired or her landlord's evicting her, she'll still hold your hand and make nice noises. That's what you pay for, and that's what you get. Maybe, for some guys, that's all there is to a relationship.

Somehow, that's even more depressing than the job itself.
posted by jrochest at 12:23 PM on November 12, 2008


Just for the record, I was not trying to be glib above, that song really does have some pertinent lyrics, plus everyone's gotta love a little Tina Turner from time to time. In my work, the dancers, bar/k-tv/snack bar hostesses, and the strippers are the top of the food chain. This is what the lower eschelons aspire to. Can you possibly imagine an existance where Rosa is your career goal?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:23 PM on November 12, 2008


Or the cost of therapy?

The article pointed out that bailarinas aren't all "sex workers" under some guise. The article followed Rosa, who seemed to keep away from the side of the business, and instead cater to the more emotional wants and needs of men.

A girlfriend or wife is more than a sexual partner. There's emotional and physical support through rough times. How many prostitutes, or even pole dancers, talk men out of drinking? It seems as a bailarina, you get repeat customers from being supportive. These aren't women you take out of the bar as some surrogate girlfriend to the world, but a personal support.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:27 PM on November 12, 2008


Eh, should have previewed. My post was a follow-up to orthogonality's question.

jrochest - I have a feeling that some of these guys might work too much, or have too low self esteem, to have a "real girlfriend." To them, the attention isn't fake. Or at least they can believe it's real enough to fall in love with these women.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:31 PM on November 12, 2008


Ten Cents a Dance
posted by The Whelk at 12:33 PM on November 12, 2008


Maybe, for some guys, that's all there is to a relationship.

Maybe, for some guys, that's all they can get. Are you going to fault others for wanting some type of physical and emotional contact, desperately so?

But hey, there's bars for singles, so that solves everything. And if someone tries and fails again and again, well, they don't deserve a dance or a hug, not even if they're willing to pay for it.

What a lovely, lovely world we live in. If you can't get it, you get derided for being desperate enough to pay for it. Double-whammy.
posted by splice at 12:34 PM on November 12, 2008 [10 favorites]


I don't know, it seems kind of sad, but on the other hand there is something quaint and almost wholesome about tending to the simple human need for physical contact.
posted by Mister_A at 12:34 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Nina, pretty ballerina, the queen of the dancing floor. Dammit... this is a bailerina. My parents played too much Abba.
posted by crapmatic at 12:35 PM on November 12, 2008


Metafilter: a netherworld of whoredom.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:40 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, a fun fact: Billy Wilder was a taxi dancer in Berlin in the 20s.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:41 PM on November 12, 2008


It sounds like a pretty tough life but I feel bad for her clients too. Edgar, with two kids in Mexico that he seems to care about while he ekes out a living in New York. Sad. Good post.
posted by GuyZero at 12:42 PM on November 12, 2008


thanks for the post jason's_planet.
posted by Stynxno at 12:48 PM on November 12, 2008


talk men out of drinking?

Talk men out of drinking? Sir, I would not buy that for a dollar.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:49 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Good post.

thanks for the post jason's_planet.

Thanks! I'm glad you guys liked it!
posted by jason's_planet at 12:51 PM on November 12, 2008


If you can't get it, you get derided for being desperate enough to pay for it.

Man, everyone in this article is so sad. Any kind of kindness seems vanishingly rare: like finding a tropical bird in the arctic.
posted by The Whelk at 12:56 PM on November 12, 2008


see also: Hostess bars in Japan. And New York.

I brought a friend to one of these places - he called it "emotional prostitution," and said it was more compelling than the physical kind. Basically you pay for someone to listen to you like you are the most important person in the world, for a couple of hours.

But they don't dance in the Japanese places.
posted by bashos_frog at 1:29 PM on November 12, 2008


The corpse in the library: (Ladies: do you have messy cleavage? Cleavage-B-Kleen can help!)

When I read that, I was in the process of eating sauce-laden bucatini.

Now I'm cleaning it off my screen, thank you very much.

On a more serious note: this article is one of an ever-growing collection of essays that make me both sad about how difficult "just getting by" can be—and yet inspired by what people are capable of in those circumstances.
posted by LMGM at 1:54 PM on November 12, 2008


I read about this in the Times a few years ago and I remember feeling very bad for the men who visit these places. Having read this, I feel just as bad for the women who work there.
posted by puckupdate at 2:17 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Rosa probably isn't flying first class, but she's probably making more $ than a lot of hookers.
posted by rageagainsttherobots at 2:26 PM on November 12, 2008


Rosa probably isn't flying first class, but she's probably making more $ than a lot of hookers.

Maybe, in this particular neighborhood, the demand for emotional "services" -- I don't know how else to describe what she does -- is greater than the demand for simple sexual release.

And she does take calls at home, which most hookers probably don't. I'd want more money for that alone, if I were in her position.
posted by jason's_planet at 2:34 PM on November 12, 2008


Maybe, for some guys, that's all there is to a relationship.

Maybe, for some guys, that's all they can get. Are you going to fault others for wanting some type of physical and emotional contact, desperately so?

But hey, there's bars for singles, so that solves everything. And if someone tries and fails again and again, well, they don't deserve a dance or a hug, not even if they're willing to pay for it.


No. But I'm going to say that it's sad that the guy needs love and attention so badly that he's willing to pay for a simulacra. Because that's what it is, and it's damned sad.
posted by jrochest at 3:46 PM on November 12, 2008


The article pointed out that bailarinas aren't all "sex workers" under some guise.

it *is* a form of sex work, no matter how you slice it. just like phone sex is sex work, and being a dominatrix is sex work. you are being paid to act a certain way, exactly in the way that the client is demanding. or you don't get paid. (i'm thinking about how this is different from any other job, but it has something to do with deception and how the lines so often blur between your real self and the bailarina-self. it's very *personal* and demanding work.)

having done phone sex, i can tell you that this article feels just like that to me, except that these women have to be present in person, and thus have be just as "on" physically as they must be "on" in what they say and do.

in phone sex, there is this same quandary ethically speaking: how does it feel to take the money of someone who can ill afford to pay you what you cost, while at the same time doing everything you can to persuade them to spend more. when you are poor and dependent upon the work, it is an emotional minefield.

there is guilt, and there is resentment, because this man does not really see you as a real person--you are, after all, exactly what they are paying for. and you will do anything to keep being that person, as long as it doesn't cross the line of comfort for you.

where that line is gets more and more fuzzy as you think more about the money than you do either your own emotional well-being or the feelings of your clients.

in any case, this job sucks. i'm glad they're getting unionized, potentially. because that would be the best thing to happen to this sort of work. too many who live in these fuzzy places at the edges of "real" sex work are stuck in prisons their bosses create for them.
posted by RedEmma at 3:49 PM on November 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


I was going to mention to that article puckupdate linked; it has also been the subject of other Times articles over the years. That one is particularly interesting, because it talks about an attempt by the women to organize for better pay and conditions.
posted by Forktine at 3:53 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


there is guilt, and there is resentment, because this man does not really see you as a real person--you are, after all, exactly what they are paying for. and you will do anything to keep being that person, as long as it doesn't cross the line of comfort for you.

Thank you for writing that and sharing your experiences, RedEmma.
posted by jason's_planet at 4:08 PM on November 12, 2008


Basically you pay for someone to listen to you like you are the most important person in the world, for a couple of hours.

In the rest of New York, we call this "therapy."

I've often thought about "emotional prostitution" in relation to nannies. If you have a live-in nanny, you are basically paying someone to love your child. If a nanny doesn't love-- or at least produce a really good facsimile thereof-- a child, he or she isn't doing the job right. But there are many issues around that, not least separation issues if the person leaves for any reason.

I've written about a child who became a sociopath after the mother fired one nanny after another-- 18 in total in the child's early years-- because the child started acting more affectionate towards the nanny than towards the (in this particular case) completely absentee mom. The constant shift in caregivers helped produce a child incapable of empathy.

I'm not arguing this to demean nannies or people who rely on them-- I don't have a problem with that in ordinary cases, nor do I think people should.

But I'm simply saying that people pay for love in a socially acceptable way all the time that we rarely think about.
posted by Maias at 4:35 PM on November 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


In the rest of New York, we call this "therapy."

I've been to therapy, and I've been with a hostess for a few hours. Seriously, it is hard to tell which is the better value. I do know I've walked out of that bar feeling a lot better than I've walked out of the shrink's place. And for someone with no insurance, I think it was cheaper, too.

I've never had a therapist make me feel special. And a hostess will never, ever, say "I'm sorry, that's all the time we have."
posted by bashos_frog at 4:43 PM on November 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


More seriously, regarding the nanny issue, that is exactly why I could never see myself using one. Or at least not in order that I could be absent more.
posted by bashos_frog at 4:46 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Seems a lot of Mefites have walked on the dark side.
posted by shockingbluamp at 5:22 PM on November 12, 2008


(i'm thinking about how this is different from any other job, but it has something to do with deception and how the lines so often blur between your real self and the bailarina-self. it's very *personal* and demanding work.)

I had a female pornstar roommate for a while and it was interesting to see this sort of blurring or tension, because she's doing the "solo amateur" sort of thing, including having a livejournally blog on her site. When she talked about her life or day it was generally based on real-self truth but with pornstar-self modifications. There was fake name, obviously, but also for example her boyfriend was mentioned as a person when he entered into the narrative, but never as a boyfriend.

Another interesting facet - she, at least, actually was about as horny as her site claims. All the time there were "discreet" (funny how the shady ambiguous labeling gives it away) packages of porn for her own consumption coming in...
posted by Sockpuppet For Naughty Things at 6:32 PM on November 12, 2008


Ah, nannying. Yeah, nannying is completely bizarre.

"Here, care for my child for 10 hours a day, but don't eat any of the good snacks."
posted by sondrialiac at 6:36 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


plus everyone's gotta love a little Tina Turner from time to time.

I beg to differ.
posted by pompomtom at 7:44 PM on November 12, 2008


When I was in grade two, another (older) kid and I got in an argument about the video for Bat Benetar's "Love Is A Battlefield". It was my position that the girls in the video just danced with guys, while he maintained that they did "other stuff". "What other stuff?" I asked. "HAW HAW, if you don't know I'm not gonna tell you!" Well, Danny...I hope you're reading this thread.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:09 PM on November 12, 2008


*L* Make that Pat Benatar...
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:14 PM on November 12, 2008


Good article! At first I was put off (especially with the "generous but tidy cleavage" imbecility), and feared a sort of breathless Latina Magdalena, intellectual rubbernecking/sexual tourism sort of thing... and, oh well, there is a bit of that, but the gritty details of employment practices and the effort toward unionization helped to balance that aspect, and of course the touching personal narrative of her family life and lost love makes it thumbnail filmic - sort of Silkwood meets Ghost meets Dirty Dancing.

Thanks for pointing it out, jason's_planet!
posted by taz at 11:25 PM on November 12, 2008


You're welcome, taz!
posted by jason's_planet at 11:51 PM on November 12, 2008


The classic 1932 study of the taxi dance hall (mainly in Chicago) has just been reissued, and is highly recommended for its insight into the forces that brought women and men into that mileau, and what they found there. In downtown Los Angeles, the taxi dance halls have lasted 70+years, though the music has changed with the popular tastes. There is some talk of reopening the Fenton Brothers' original Roseland on Spring Street as a taxi dance hall, but the city will have to agree to the license. In the interest of historical continuity, and the kindness of strangers, I hope it does.
posted by Scram at 4:38 AM on November 13, 2008


I can't really find these places completely "touching" since there's always an element of exploitation to them. It might be the "best thing under the circumstances" but the "best" is so limited. I can't imagine anything lonelier than needing to go to a taxi dancer, except being one myself, and having to pretend to care all day long, but never be cared for in return.
posted by emjaybee at 10:23 AM on November 13, 2008


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