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TAXI DANCERS : It's No Longer 10 Cents a Dance, But Lonely Men Can Still Hire Partners by the Minute in Dim Downtown Clubs

July 15, 1990|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

The stags are also barred from the TV room, where a half-dozen couches allow couples to snuggle and become better acquainted. Between the dance floor and the TV room, there's a snack bar that serves soft drinks and fruit juices and fills the air with the acrid smell of microwave popcorn--a staple of the girls' diets. The clubs are prohibited from serving alcohol. "The ones who dance with me keep coming back because they like talking to me," says Toni, the hostess at the Flamingo. "I'm the one they tell their problems to." She lives in a downtown hotel with her husband and 3-month-old son, pays her rent week to week and claims that she has made a $17,000 deal to become a surrogate mother. She also unspools a confusing personal history involving the Mafia, multiple personalities numbering in the double digits, a pregnancy by rape and her flight to the West Coast because her father wanted to sell the baby. If half of it is true, there is no God.

Toni, a former stripper who now aspires to be a flight attendant, came here 10 months earlier from her native New Jersey, and she's been dancing for four months. She figures she can last another two, until the surrogate deal comes through. "I can't wait to get out of here," she says.

Most of the taxi dancers, who must be 18 to work in the clubs, say they would rather be doing something else. The majority of those who try dancing don't make it past the first week, and it's rare to find anyone who's worked longer than six months. Sometimes dancing is their sole means of support. The girls earn minimum wage and a commission based on how much they dance. The real money is in the tips. On a good night at the Flamingo, a girl can take home $100.

Tuela, a dancer at Roseland on Spring Street (before it was temporarily closed last month), gets minimum wage, only a $75 commission for each 1,000 minutes she dances, and the tips aren't very good. She wants to quit, but she's stuck working nights because during the day she looks after the children of her brother and sister. Carolina, from Guatemala, cuts hair during the day and works at Club Paradise on Olympic at night.

At Club Starlight on Broadway, frequented mostly by wealthy Asian men, aspiring models and actresses try to keep their days free for auditions. Most of them are blond, in their early 20s and range from attractive to beautiful. Ritzier than most of the other clubs, the Starlight has valets who rarely go the night without parking a Rolls or two. The girls, decked out in slinky but generally tasteful dresses, wait behind a glass partition. Janine, a 20-year-old would-be model, sits in a booth and sips a cafe au lait that seemed to appear out of nowhere and would wind up on her customer's tab.

"Some of these girls support boyfriends. Some support children. Some support drug habits," she says.

Janine's pretty, with chestnut hair, though her eyes seem somehow vacant. She might be a model yet. But she overslept yesterday, missed an interview with an agency and hasn't done much lately to advance her career.

"I've just got to get motivated," she says mopishly.

She started out dancing at the Flamingo and remembers her first night vividly. "I locked myself up in the manager's office and wouldn't come out for three hours. I was scared to death."

She turns her head to watch her colleague, a blonde wearing a tight black skirt, a black blazer and a pink halter top, tug the venerable Ed to the dance floor. Suddenly, the music shifts from a dreamy ballad to hyperpaced rhythm and blues, worthy of an aerobics class. The dancer wiggles her hips, arches back her shoulders and kicks up her heels. All for the benefit of Ed, who the girls say is 78. He tries to jump start his feet, but the best he can do is zigzag them across the floor. He wears a gray cardigan, a white sport shirt and gray slacks and is bald as an egg.

He is also known to be a good tipper.

WERE IT NOT FOR the fragility of the male ego, taxi dance clubs might never have been invented. "I'd say about 80% of the men who come here are single guys who don't like being rejected," says Larry Jones, a 55-year-old electronics salesman who is single. "Here, your ego doesn't get hurt." Jones can be found at the Flamingo or one of the other clubs about four nights a week, a custom he's been observing for nearly 10 years. He comes by himself, and he pulls up a chair close to one of the benches where the girls wait for dance partners.

"It's just something to do, a way to get out of the TV rut," Jones says with a shrug. He's a bald, friendly man who favors shorts and white socks under leather shoes. He sits there most of the night with his arms folded, head cocked, occasionally striking up a conversation with one of the girls or another customer.

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