Partners for Pay

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

While May continues in her mission for the girls, patrons of the dance clubs embark on their own missions for what is in effect rental romance.

Two of those customers, Antonio and Carlos, arrive at their destination shortly after 10 p.m. in an '80-something Oldsmobile. They have finished their warm-up forays through the small Second Ward bars resting in the chaos of Canal Street. The two allowed a reporter to accompany them if no last names were used.

Antonio, 33, announces, "We want to go to los gran chingones," -- loosely translated as the "big fuckers." He refers to La Luna and Fiesta Ballroom, near the corner of Jackson and Franklin in the northeastern part of downtown. The dance halls are indeed big, bold and macho -- with dance floors large enough to turn partners during the corridos, and combined interior space to accommodate a few hundred patrons. Even the neon lights outside the clubs are dancing.

Brightly illuminated Fiesta and La Luna are contrasts in the midst of abandoned buildings the drab color of decay. Fiesta, which has been in existence for over 15 years, is a light blue structure with a rainbow-colored neon sign overhead. It's impossible to ignore its loud presence. Outsiders might mistake Fiesta for a rental hall for family events. But look a little closer, and the pool table and lamps with beer advertisements reveal that this isn't a place to bring children.

La Luna, formerly called El Tipo, is surrounded by a wire fence with a gate that is only opened an hour before the clubs let people in. Unlike Fiesta, La Luna stays open for business until 6 a.m.

At these clubs, Antonio and Carlos know women and girls who won't turn them down for dances, as long as they pay them. As a DJ or live band plays, they find plenty of females to talk to and dance with, never mind that some of them have just entered their teenage years.

The ages of the dance partners hardly bother either man. "Back home [in Mexico]," Antonio says, "they can get married at that age."

In the hour and a half after my arrival, Carlos and Antonio are two of nearly 100 men who make it through the front door of Fiesta. Others come from all over the greater Houston area -- Rosenberg, Sugar Land, Conroe, Lake Houston and as far away as Bryan and College Station. Most are migrant workers, with or without immigration papers. Most are of Mexican descent, although it isn't uncommon to see a few whites, blacks and Asian men in the club.

Like other men who have traveled miles to Fiesta, Antonio and Carlos did not come to eat at its second-rate lobby taqueria or to shoot pool at the small table. They stream in -- wearing their tight jeans with large belt buckles and cowboy hats -- carrying $20 bills in their quest to dance and socialize.

A quick glance shows that male patrons range in age from about 21 to their late 40s. They are men with low metabolisms, rough faces and a few gray hairs.

Antonio is a native of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. His hair is combed to the back of his head, where it dangles in a long ponytail. He travels from place to place to train and take care of horses. His current job is on a ranch five miles south of Rosenberg. Every payday, he wires money back home to Mexico. After saving enough for food and rent, Antonio takes what is left and heads to La Luna and Fiesta with a group of friends.

"There aren't many girls where I work," Antonio says.
Carlos, more private about his origins and his job, says he is from northern Mexico, somewhere near Reynosa.

At Fiesta, Antonio and Carlos buy $2 beers and listen to their favorite conjunto and norteno. In an hour span, no females the two ask out on the dance floor turn them down. The women accept as if they had been waiting for Antonio, and gracefully allow themselves to be led to the dance floor. They laugh, smile and touch his face when he says something they might deem to be witty.

Diana, Jess and Maria are three of the females Antonio and Carlos dance with while at Fiesta. Diana and Jess are high school students; Maria is in middle school.

"I always walk in [to Fiesta and La Luna] with no problem," says Diana. "They never asked [me] for ID."

The others say that they are also never asked for identification upon entering Fiesta's club room. They pay no cover charge and merely wave at the door woman as if they were old friends.

Once inside, the women stand at the dance floor to wait for someone to ask them to dance, or they sit down close to the bar to attract men who have just bought drinks.

Unlike the men, they are not searched for weapons. Maria says she and her friends would be insulted by such a gesture, because it would mean their appearances were too masculine and might repel potential customers. It's important to have desirable appearances if they are to make money. In fact, women who frequent La Luna and Fiesta often go overboard in the effort to make themselves look "feminine." Some of the young women have eye shadow layered heavily on small eyelids. They wear tight black dresses.

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