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.

Ana is cut off when her name is called.

Canellas: Thanks for coming. So you're a singer, huh?

Ana: Yes.

Colby Katz

Canellas: Do you always wear your hair like that?

Ana: [Silence]

Canellas: Well, since you're a singer, why don't you sing?

It turns out Ana has a wonderful voice, God's make-up gesture for her Mr. Roboto moves. As Canellas leads Ana to the door, she reassures her: "We sometimes get calls for cabaret singers." Ana smiles widely and runs to her car to get a demo tape.

The rest of the afternoon is rounded out with two male ballroom dancers and a woman whose bikini tan lines jut up from the rim of her low-slung Brazilian jeans. Amazingly she moves with ease in her Lucite high-heel clogs. She says she's a regular at a Fort Lauderdale beer bar. Her eleven-year-old daughter shows up about halfway through and watches. At the end of mom's audition, Canellas says gently: "You need a little more training."

Back in the late Eighties, when South Beach began taking off, Canellas's life was very different. Raised by strict parents who had emigrated from Chile in the Seventies to escape Gen. Augusto Pinochet's reign of terror, Canellas spent much of her adolescence alone. Her mother and father worked long hours at Miami factories to earn half the income they earned in their homeland. "My father was an executive with a telephone company and my mother was a housewife," she recounts. "When we came here, we couldn't afford dance lessons anymore."

Despite her honor-student status at Miami Sunset Senior High School, she wasn't very street smart. Indeed it came as a shock to her when, at age sixteen, she discovered she was five months pregnant. "I really had no one to talk to about sex," she says. "I really did not have a clue about why I was getting so fat."

To her surprise, Canellas's parents supported her. She married her high school boyfriend, gave birth to daughter Nikki, moved into an apartment, and got her GED. At age eighteen she divorced. "My ex-husband is a Cuban guy, and so, you know, he thought I should be only a mother and wife," she recounts. "I was like, 'No.' I mean, I wanted to be a star! You don't understand, like when he would go to sleep, I would put headphones on and move around a little and just groove."

A single mom, Canellas moved back into her parents' Hialeah home. A friend told her about a club called Stardom in Kendall that was looking for dancers. She auditioned, got the job, and began bringing home $50 per night, five times a week, while her mother baby-sat Nikki. "The sets were twenty minutes each and I had to make my own costumes," she remembers. "I would fall asleep every night driving home because I wasn't a night person."

Canellas moved to South Beach in the early Nineties to get better gigs. She was living hand-to-mouth. Court records confirm that she had to sue her ex to get years' worth of unpaid child support. "The money didn't hurt me -- I was working all the time to make ends meet," she explains. "What hurts me is that he left Nikki out of his life. I've seen that child have a Father's Day gift and wait for her dad to show up, and he never does. She has birthdays and he doesn't call. I told him I would waive the backed-up child support if he just started paying more attention to her."

Canellas's experiences as a mother and a struggling dancer have made her sensitive to employees who are mothers. "I danced until I was seven months along," says Angelike Lapiere, a top Hot Jam performer in the Nineties. "I remember one night at Level. I was a flying mermaid and everyone loved it because I had these enormous boobs and no one could tell I was pregnant!"

Lapiere says Canellas understands that club dancing is a job that caters to a woman's sexuality: "There is this side that's sexy and wants to show off and the other side that needs to feel safe. I suppose it's like wanting to feel in control in an atmosphere that is not always under control."

By the time she was 22 years old, Canellas stood out among South Beach dancers, who were often zonked on drugs or liquor. (Hot Jam dancers are forbidden to drink or do drugs while working.) Despite being a clearly focused self-starter, she wound up in massive credit-card debt from buying new costumes. "Some of the promoters would say, 'Bring one of your friends to dance,' so I would stupidly bring someone and pay them out of my own pocket. That all ended and I got wise about how this should be a business when a club manager didn't pay me. I lost a lot of money and decided that wasn't gonna happen again."

Over the next ten years Canellas struggled to become a star. The closest she came was singing with the Merenbooty Girls, Sony Latin's answer to the Spice Girls. The group sang "Venus" and "It's Raining Men" at state fairs, and managed to sell records in Latin America. But fame was elusive. The label dropped them at the end of 1997, the same year they were signed. In 1998 she incorporated Hot Jam. "I went to Barnes & Noble and read every book on how to start your own business and followed [them] point by point." Her experience as a legal secretary -- a day job she kept for several years -- also helped. Starting with six employees, all dancers, Canellas sewed and washed costumes. She didn't make a profit until 2001, when she began regularly booking 30 dancers and hired Danny Danny and an assistant for herself. She advertised her business for the first time this year. "I never needed to advertise," she says, "because word-of-mouth took care of me."

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