Dancing for Dollars

You've seen them at the clubs. Flamboyantly costumed, gyrating up there on a platform. Chances are good they're working for Pamela Canellas.

In the early Eighties, thanks to Studio 54's trapeze performers and queens on stilts, go-go dancing experienced a brief renaissance. But it was largely upstaged during much of the decade by New York City's club kids, androgynous rats with tubs of Manic Panic and loads of drugs who invited a law-enforcement crackdown, which then led to a more antiseptic club culture. In the Nineties kids reacted to that by creating a nation of ravers; this group fragmented several years ago. Some went along with a corporate drive to sponsor lame, mass dance fests and brand-name, once-anonymous DJs. But many others, joined by hip-hoppers with scads of disposable income for VIP tables and Cristal, returned to the velvet rope.

The result: the renaissance in nightclubs.

In South Florida's mecca of sex and leisure, platform dancing is little more than wallpaper. But the dancers are there, working every night to titillate a crowd, fool their Saturday-night subconscious into believing there's a 50-foot woman in the house, a chick larger than life with her exhibitionistic ass shaking.

Clockwise from top left: Eva is  caged; Canellas preps for a show;  Canellas assumes the pole position at ZuBar in Fort Lauderdale
Colby Katz
Clockwise from top left: Eva is caged; Canellas preps for a show; Canellas assumes the pole position at ZuBar in Fort Lauderdale
Clockwise from top left:  Canellas dons headgear; Danny Danny flanked by his creations; and helping Canellas into costume
Courtesy Wood + Zapata
Clockwise from top left: Canellas dons headgear; Danny Danny flanked by his creations; and helping Canellas into costume

Of course club dancing -- the form -- is far from the Bolshoi, a fact that reveals its social status. In other words, company dancers who build careers on a lifetime of training often dismiss club dancers as mere strobe candy. They allege that clubbers are without technique just as Broadway dancers scorn cruise-ship kicklines. Meanwhile club dancers bristle at the insinuation they are in any way burlesque. "The only drawback to this is that when I tell people I'm a dancer, they want to know where I strip," Canellas says. "We are real dancers, we entertain, we put on a show. Anyone who sees us knows that. It makes me feel bad when someone asks that. I go out of my way to say, 'With clothes.'"

Yet Hot Jam dancers are all sexy, the result of twice-a-day workouts and strict dieting for many. "I expect my girls to look very beautiful," Canellas says. "They have to be very fit, and when they show up for a job, I want the hair done and the makeup perfect. I want the people we dance for to get the whole package."

And the owner demonstrates that by example. The Chilean-born 34-year-old is slim and tan with pillowy breasts and a flat stomach punctuated by a crystal navel ring. Canellas's favorite movie is Flashdance, the story of a stripper who auditions for ballet school. She asks, "Have you seen Flashdance?" when trying to convey the style Hot Jam emulates. So don't come with that arm-pumping, repetitive grinding that passes for dance on the floor. "No flailing," she once told two girls with J.Lo butts and wild hair they kept whipping around. "I want to see extensions, full-out turns, keep it tight. Control."

But practically speaking, there are myriad reasons why girls want to dance for Hot Jam. Some who audition -- the only way to get a spot with the company -- are driven by video-chick envy. Many have just arrived in America looking for a job that favors body language over English. But most Hot Jam dancers are trained performers who want to make extra money.

I worked for Hot Jam for a few months earlier this year and have platform-danced for money in other cities. I took the part-time job because, for me, dance is a singular experience; even ballroom and company dance depends strongly on individual personality. Club dancing is a way to escape into oneself. It is tied up in the need to express oneself physically without consequence. And though I'm loath to say it: gender power. Women are pushed and prodded and hit on and talked to without invite in a club, a place where, sexually, anything goes. Dancing alone, even while perched on some pedestal to be gawked at, is a way to feel physically protected and somewhat superior.

I too told everyone before they asked: "With clothes." My parents, who paid for sixteen years of tap, ballet, and jazz lessons, little more than shrugged: "That's fine, dear. Why don't you send us some pictures or something and we'll e-mail them to the rest of the family." Practical Midwesterners, my mother and father looked forward to my bringing in more money to supplement the lifestyle they had quietly, politely figured was mired in career poverty. To them dancing seemed about as respectable as being a journalist.

Part of Hot Jam's success owes to its partnership with Level nightclub. Likewise Hot Jam dancers are "walking mouthpieces" for his venue, says Level co-owner Gerry Kelly. Last month he paid for the dancers to compete in the first American Go Go Dancing Championship at Manhattan's Webster Hall. "I am critical of people who don't know how to throw a good party, where you show up and there's only a DJ," Kelly sniffs. "What Pamela understands is what makes a party a party. I can tell her I'm having President Clinton in and she will do an amazing show with costumes that, you know, won't embarrass me. People say to me, 'What is it like being Gerry Kelly?' Well, I can say that what I need are people like Pamela who share my vision for a fabulous event."

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