Partners for Pay

Young women taxi-dance for dollars, at the price of innocence lost

At first glance, the Fiesta Ballroom might seem like almost any other Houston Tejano club on a Saturday night. There are the lights, the ear-scorching sounds from the conjunto accordion, and the hybrid Spanglish being spoken by patrons and employees.

In the dusky atmosphere of cheap cologne and cigarette smoke, unattached men with romantic cravings go in search of mates, even if it's only for a brief turn on the dance floor. In groups of anywhere from two to 14, they flock through the doors after a week of intense labor, hoping for a night of pleasure.

At the Fiesta, many of those young and middle-aged men are finding partners, however temporary. Couples keeping time to the recorded music move across the crowded dance floor amid the clattering of beer bottles, the cowbell of the cumbia and the hum of conversation, in a room of silent male-to-female gazes.

Substitute different songs and another socioeconomic group, and the action would seem to parallel similar scenes in Southwest discos, country bars and the blues havens of the inner city.

But when the last note of the accordion is played and a dance ends at the Fiesta, dramatic differences emerge. Men pull out their wallets or reach into their jeans pockets for wrinkled folding money. The women, or girls, reach politely toward the bills and stuff whatever amount was given into their bras or back pockets.

Partnership at this dance hall, and others like it, is a pay-as-you-go proposition. Coupling up for a tune costs cash, anywhere from $1 to $5 per song.

"I always have a good time when I come," says Carlos, 29, a laborer who makes his way here whenever possible. "There are so many chicas here."

The most startling difference, however, is not that dances come at a price. Among the females, heavy mascara and makeup hide a more startling secret -- some of these available dance partners are not women at all. They are girls. A few of them are no more than 14 years old, still at what would seem to be a tender age.

Rather than hanging out with their classmates or engaging in the courtship of young lovers, these middle school students are moonlighting -- making extra money by dancing, and sometimes romancing, with men older than their fathers. Regulars say an evening's work, sometimes stretching to sunrise, earns the youngest and most desirable of them up to $150. And the only cost, it seems, is innocence lost -- a price big enough to prompt some Second Ward activists to protest such clubs.

Law-enforcement and regulatory agencies say they periodically review the dance halls and find no violations, and club operators deny improprieties. They say this is only a clash of cultures. Community activists insist underaged females frequent the clubs, and several girls could be seen entering the premises on recent evenings.

So the peculiar customs of the clubs continue. On this night, young women take the dollars from their partners and put them away in the brief interlude between dances. Then the music resumes, and so does the unusual ritual unfolding at these places.

In late spring, Mary Jo May convened what she thought would be another routine counseling session for girls at the El Centro de Corazon community center in northeast Houston's Second Ward. As the center director, May, a popular former nun still called "Sister Mary Jo" by residents, believed she was familiar with the usual problems of the young females here -- troubles with boyfriends and romantic relationships, and family disputes common to growing up.

But this would be no typical counseling session for her.
"I was halfway through a therapy session when I noticed that some of the girls were yawning," May said. She turned to a 12-year-old girl, the youngest in the group, and asked what she had done the night before.

Went clubbing, she told May.
The others claimed the same.
The counselor asked for the places. The group of girls reeled off names of clubs, large and small -- Henry's, Fiesta, La Luna and more.

What type of dancing? she asked. All kinds, one told her.
When May told them they were too young, she said one of them replied, "Doesn't matter. They let us in."

She told of hiding her disgust while delving deeper into this revelation by the girls. Stories emerged that paralleled those of "taxi dancers" from Third World cities catering to nearby military bases, not unlike the U.S. practice from the Great Depression through the world wars, when men paid for dances. But these accounts flowed from her middle school students right in the heart of Houston. In 1998.

"I was so enraged with what I heard," says May. "I had to do something."
May is no stranger to causes. Catholic Church members and community activists sometimes consider the new warrior "an angel sent to the Second Ward by La Virgen de Guadalupe."

"She is always active in our community," says one resident. "I don't know where this place would be without her."

The founder of a number of shelters and soup kitchens, May comes across as a selfless person pursuing what she believes is just.

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