Partners for Pay

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

"We have an obligation to protect our kids," says May. "If we do not, we will have a generation of young women who will amount to nothing."

May said her other counselors at El Centro de Corazón confirmed the reports that middle school and high school girls were dancing for money. "The way some of them look when they put on makeup," says May, "you can't even tell [their ages]."

She said the motivation to dance for dollars is simple, considering the "easily exploitable situations" confronting them in the Second Ward. Schools are poorly run and have limited resources for after-school activities, she said. Conditions breed "low self-esteem and purpose. They are in "dire need of attention."

"Most of the girls who dance at [these clubs] come from abusive situations at home, either with their boyfriends or family," says May. "Dancing at the clubs gives them a sense of belonging, even though they are being used."

"These guys [owners of the clubs] know exactly what they are doing to these young women," says May. The most frightening aspect of the clubs is that they become a place for runaways to support themselves, sometimes leading toward prostitution, the former nun said.

The girls are "the poorest in the city," she said. Many come from single-parent, working-class households and have limited job skills. A number of the girls are below the legal hiring age. Needing quick cash, they are drawn to sources ready to offer it, she said.

That assessment mirrored the background of one dancer who was killed in an auto accident after leaving the Fiesta club in 1992. Documents in a lawsuit filed by the relatives of Laura Ann Robali described her as an unmarried 19-year-old woman with three children. She had dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and existed on welfare and food stamps, together with occasional earnings working at a hot-dog parlor and fried-chicken outlet.

The wrongful death suit, later dismissed, said Robali was "lured and enticed to come to Fiesta to make money dancing and drinking with men."

According to Dr. Nester Rodriguez, associate professor of sociology at the University of Houston, taxi-dancing clubs, such as La Luna and Fiesta, are hardly unique to Houston. They have been an "institution in Mexican-American communities for generations." He says that many of these clubs and their patrons, often diverse in age, can be found along Canal Street near downtown.

"You see taxi dancing predominately in areas where women, who are marginalized in the labor market, have limited means of income," Rodriguez said. "Their work is not a career, it is not attractive, but it is a necessity."

Rodriguez says that many of the women who dance for cash are single mothers with little education. Men are drawn to these clubs looking for companionship and the opportunity to dance with women who won't turn them down. The combination makes for a thriving underground business.

"This occurs all over the world, not just in Houston or Latin America," says Rodriguez.

Such worldly enterprises seem far away from the light brown hair, shyness and occasional wit of Joanne. Her appearance, at the young age of 17, belies her past as a taxi dancer. She has already lived on her own and has known her share of abusive boyfriends. She agreed to an interview if her last name was not revealed.

Joanne said that a year ago, she heard from friends that she could earn from $50 to $150 a night from drunk men paying her up to $5 a dance at the La Luna and Fiesta clubs. Other friends were already doing it, so Joanne could easily find a female companion for trips to the clubs, which would sometimes last until 7 a.m., she said.

"I started going [to La Luna] with my friends and stuff," says Joanne. "But I would go just for the money. Some of the others would go for the attention."

Joanne says that at the clubs she would often encounter viejitos (little old men) who "thought they could do anything to me since they paid money to dance." The men would try to "get close" and offer to pay more money if she left the club with them.

"I would just ignore them and not dance with them the next time," says Joanne.

Competing for the men's attention were older women without immigration documents, who also taxi-dance for needed cash. Unlike Joanne, they come from south of the border and speak mainly Spanish. Like her, they lack job opportunities.

Joanne said that even at age 16, she was older than some ex-classmates she recognized dancing at the clubs. Men would often try to take her home after the sessions, she said.

May discovered Joanne's dancing-for-dollars trips and set up counseling sessions for her and her father, but he refused to believe what he was told.

The community center director advised him to see for himself at the clubs. May said he returned, shocked at what he had witnessed.

Joanne has left her moonlighting work at the clubs, saying the men "got on my nerves." She is now a student in a program to get her high school diploma, and is learning art and job skills at the center. May says the regimen is a method to instill self-worth in the young women to counter the "exploitation" by the clubs.

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