Athena the snake charmer took the stage at the dance club Mecca at 12:30 Friday night; 50 pairs of eyes were fixated as the young woman carefully pulled a 6-foot-long python out of a straw basket and wrapped it around her body, Nastassja Kinski-style. "The more you put into it," she said to the cheering audience, "the stronger the spell will be."
Just another night on the L.A. dance club scene, where life begins at midnight and the required dress is black. For the uninitiated, this city does not close down when the last moviegoer exits Westwood. On the barren streets of downtown, in converted theaters, hotel ballrooms, a parking garage and meeting halls, the club rats crawl from spot to spot in search of a doorman who will grant them passage.
They follow deejays like Henry of Vinyl Fetish who play music louder than the surgeon general recommends. And they follow the dance clubs themselves, the underground ones changing location week to week to stay one step ahead of the landlords and the fire marshals. Finding out where they are means being plugged into the club scene. Underground clubs are not listed in the phone book.
Performance art has reared its creative and sometimes pretentious head for the past several months. Themes at various night spots have included "safe sex night," where people came dressed as giant condoms; a "salute to communism" that featured bread lines, and "Adam and Eve Love Night" at Neely O'Hara's where dancers interpreted Martha Graham pantomimes.
It is midnight on Friday in Chinatown. The deejay at Mecca is spinning samba records in the deserted Hong Kong Low Restaurant while a uniformed officer stares with the droopy, blank eyes of a hound dog as two people climb the stairs to the club.
"There are 15 celebrities here," Nick the doorman says with more enthusiasm than conviction as he stamps the backs of the customers' hands. In fact, it's a little slow right now, he concedes, but it should be picking up soon. The customers say they just saw Tom Waits and Nicolas Cage leaving, and Nick says with some assurance that they'll be back. "And," he adds, "we're having a snake charmer at 12:30."
Two dozen people line the walls of the club, seated at tables by the window or at the bar. One woman mambos solo in the middle of the room; she is soon joined by another woman in black spandex pants who aerobicizes wildly to the same music.
In the next half-hour more people filter in; they dance to Brazilian music and the theme from "Hawaii Five-0." Cage and Waits return, taking a table toward the back to talk and watch the dancers while the snake charmer prepares her act.
On a makeshift stage covered with old red and black carpeting Athena goes through her act, wrapping Killer around her leopard-print bikini-clad body, dancing, pretending to cut herself while fake blood cascades down her arm and stomach, and eating fire. She runs off after much applause and the crowd quickly resumes its mamboing.
"I call it a specialty act," Athena says backstage as she wipes the fake blood from her stomach. "You can't really categorize it. It's something to do as I try to break into the motion picture industry."
The python's name, she relates cheerfully, is Killer, and he was raised in captivity. "He thinks he's a person."
Asked if there is much demand for this kind of work, she says no; "There isn't a steady market for it. And most clubs want you to take your top off. I try to get away from that. Tonight I made $75. That's kind of low."
As Athena continues to mop up the blood, a woman comes backstage and gazes in mild shock at the smears of red on Athena's body. "Did you really cut yourself?" she asks.
"Oh, no, that's just my little toy," Athena says, pointing to the fake knife.
As the early pair of customers exit the club, they walk by the uniformed officer who stands in exactly the same position with the same melancholy look on his face.
The two customers travel west from Mecca to the outskirts of downtown to Flaming Colossus, a new club in a converted Knights of Columbus meeting hall. Entrance here is by invitation only, so if your name isn't on the guest list you hope the doorman likes the way you look.
At 1:30 M'Bayero and his Congolese dancers are in the midst of their performance. They pull people from the audience onto the stage and everyone dances together, including one young man who does an approximation of a St. Vitus' dance.
A woman named Barbara from New York is mad about the club. "No one is into anyone else's attitude," she says, mopping sweat from her brow. "You don't have to feel constricted about what you're doing. Clubs in New York that are this small, you have to really find them. This is very tasteful, is what I'm saying. And this has been, like, an incredible week here!" she says. "Coming here is like the topping on the cake."