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.

Like most dancers, Hot Jam performers are generally just happy to be employed. Muñoz, like all Hot Jam dancers I spoke with, maintains a loyalty to her boss that includes an assumption she is paid fairly. "Of course we'd like to get paid more, but Pamela pays us what she can, I'm sure," Muñoz reasons.

Canellas says she takes a minimal share of what her dancers make. Percentages vary according to the job. "I charge based on costume changes," Canellas says. "If Level wants three costume changes, then I charge a percentage cut of that. But the girls always get $100 per night. If we have rehearsals, then I pay them a little more, like 50 bucks or something. If there is some money left over, I try to give it to them. My girls are my family and I try to take care of them."

Of the approximately $270,000 Hot Jam grossed last year, Canellas says she took home only about $20,000.

Colby Katz

"It's hard enough trying to get booked by someone as a performer without wondering about the specifics of that," says Eric Davis, one of a small group of male dancers Canellas employs. "We are a family, and I believe we love each other as a family."

Although Davis sounds a bit sugar-coated when he says "family," he's hit on a basic principle of Hot Jam: security. Just as ravers created their own safe space, so do club dancers. They literally dance in a space protected from the crowd. Unlike strippers they don't have to engage anyone for money. And with rare exceptions, they are never supposed to touch or be touched. Figuratively speaking, they've gained some kind of special acceptance in an often-finicky, snotty subculture. They get inside clubs through the back door, never mind that velvet rope. And that to many is a privilege.

Thomas Frank's opus on the Sixties counterculture, The Conquest of Cool, reasons that "consumer society" relies upon "unrestraint," which he defines as freedom in spending time and money to achieve and take pleasure without shame. So when someone raises an eyebrow after I say "club dancing," I don't invoke the tired argument that we're turning a sexist society on its head by getting paid to bump and grind on a pedestal. It's as simple -- and unrealistic -- as the grunge-era feminist ideology proposed by the riot grrrls. Whether they're strippers or scientists, women should support women no matter how they make a living.

The night I danced at Level, I walked back to my car, about five blocks from the club, at 4:30 a.m. Anyone who's ever been on South Beach at that hour on a weekend night understands the false sense of safety. I wasn't thinking about anything; I was tired and just wanted to go home. It was spring-break time and the night air was unusually breezy. To curb the chill I felt from my sweat-soaked neck, I wore a sweatshirt that covered my shorts. I was still wearing layers of makeup and tan fishnets.

As I rounded a corner, two frat boys leaned out of their pickup truck. They shouted to me something like "Wooh ... ass ... yeah ... fuck!" They did the same thing to another woman who was also walking to her car. On my last block, a guy on a bicycle leered at me and slobbered a Spanish catcall. I flinched and found my keys.

I started the ignition and drove, feeling safe inside my car. Once I got to the MacArthur Causeway I rolled down the window to breathe in the last few hours of darkness and let the wind cool me.

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