Dancing for Dollars
A couple of dollar bills are tucked into Pamela Canellas's cleavage. With a flurry of boa feathers sprouting from the base of her ponytail and floating down half the length of her five-foot, three-inch body, Canellas is working her French manicure into the sides of her red-sequined Charo getup. Here, in the privacy of the concierge's storage closet at Hollywood's Diplomat Hotel, she seizes the money, throws it on a rack next to tubs of economy-size Dove dishwashing soap, and peels off a long satiny glove.
"Ah, can you believe this? Some guy out there gave me money -- two bucks," she says, rolling her eyes, the lids of which are dusted in gold glitter. "I mean, I never do this. I don't take money ever. I tell my dancers not to, but this guy was with his wife, and he was old. Like, you know, he was just out trying to have a good time. He was smiling and I didn't want to make him feel bad by rejecting it."
Canellas crinkles her forehead and moves the Velcroed fabric around like a jigsaw puzzle over her torso. "We call this the Britney,'" she says, arranging the outfit to resemble the green belly-dancing bikini Ms. Spears wore during an awards show. "Two dollars, though?" she adds. "If you're gonna try to give us money, I mean, c'mon."
It's hard to argue with her. Canellas deserved more than meter fare. Earlier, at about 11:00 p.m., she and a dancer named Maria had emerged from this concierge closet in these ay mami outfits, throwing attitude around the ostensibly civilized Diplomat, and clicking their Lucite heels across the marble floor. You could just feel the guests' cardigans shrivel as Canellas and compatriot sashayed past, their backsides ballooning out of two teeny red leotards.
Staring at 30-foot scalloped ceilings inside the mouth of Satine, the hotel's swank new lounge, they paused. The bellhops chuckled, and a lone whistle complimented them. In an "It's showtime!" way, they shimmied into the club, mounted two pedestals, and, to a disco beat, made the best of their three square feet. They wiggled and posed like showgirls trapped in phone booths: cutesy turns, winks, hip thrusts, and Vanna White arms.
Suddenly the place went from looking like a rich couple's wedding reception to a real party. The house lights faded and waiters stepped up their pace. Women dressed in sensible black tops and pencil skirts leaned over the bar, waving tens and twenties, ordering Manhattans. Sucking on thin straws, they scoped the suits who might buy their next round of poison. The guys -- all soft-in-the-belly corporate climbers -- floated around, standing behind the club's high-backed chairs, talking absentmindedly while their eyeballs locked on the dancing girls. The DJ spliced some Donna Summer, striking a familiar chord with the patrons, who were now wagging their hips on the dance floor.
"When I go out there, I have to shine," Canellas explains later. "No one cares if you're having a bad day or you're on your period. This is about 100 percent presence. I see people here, like, who probably never let go. We're here to say, It's okay.'"
Canellas isn't the patron saint of good times; she has made a $267,000-per-year business out of helping people get down. Her company, Hot Jam Entertainment, books about 100 dancers and performers at clubs from South Beach to West Palm. With a massive wardrobe, Hot Jam promises to fulfill any fantasy a club owner can conjure. If Miami Beach's Krave wants rump-shakers fit for a Ja Rule video, if Pearl needs model babes, or if Club Space calls for couples dressed like Raggedy Ann and Andy or Han Solo and Princess Leia, a call goes out to Hot Jam.
This is the second year Canellas has held accounts with Broward County clubs, trying to infuse some cool into its pedestrian bar scene. Named after the prostitute in Moulin Rouge, Satine is trying to hook a clientele tired of Saturday night in the suburbs.
Alain Ricci, marketing director for Penrod Enterprises, which owns Satine, is optimistic. "A lot of people say, Why are you opening that kind of club here, in the middle of Hollywood? Why not South Beach, where it's less of a risk?' But there is a market here," he insists.
Cleve Mash, owner of Boca Raton's Club Radius, has brought in Hot Jam dancers consistently since opening two years ago. "I'm not going to hire dancers and have the same ones every week," he reasons. "If you don't have variety, patrons go elsewhere. Pamela can send dancers for a pajama party tonight and a fetish party tomorrow."
There is no definition for club dancing in the Oxford Dictionary of Dance, nor can the term be found in any other tome. The closest listing is à gogo, late Fifties-era American Bandstand chicks doing the jerk on a pedestal. Although history is murky, VH1 -- the most reliable archival source for such digging -- maintains that à gogo went the way of blue eyeshadow as baby boomers preferred to party with Mother Nature rather than remain cooped up in a club.
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.
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."
Theme parties or corporate events can cost thousands of dollars; price is typically calculated according to the number of costume changes. Cleve Mash of Club Radius in Boca says he usually pays Hot Jam $600 for three dancers who make three costume changes on a typical night. For the dancers, a typical night means arriving at a venue at midnight, an hour before the first performance at 1:00 a.m. They perform fifteen minutes every hour. "We just want to give a taste," Canellas says. "Besides, any longer and the makeup runs, the girls sweat."
Danny Danny, Hot Jam's costume designer, is a crazy-haired redhead with more fizz than a shaken soda can. On a humid day in mid-June, the designer, who does not have a last name, sits in the waiting room of Hot Jam's dance studio on Thirteenth Street between Washington and Collins. He's wearing royal-blue nylon pants, a fanny pack, and a tank top through which poke freckled skinny arms. Danny Danny is grinning because his mood meter is always tipped on the happy side.
Canellas is holding auditions this afternoon and he's come down to see the new crop. Above Danny Danny's head, on the bordello-red walls, hang pictures of dancers wearing his creations. "Bianka" is dressed in a red, white, and blue half-top and hot pants, flirtatiously waving the American flag. "Elsy" sports a pink, patent-leather cabby hat and rain slicker. And Canellas, curtsying like Shirley Temple, is decked out in a bust-enhancing leotard. Danny Danny has made thousands of costumes for Hot Jam; they fill Canellas's Coral Gables two-car garage from floor to ceiling.
The two met about ten years ago on South Beach; they're now roommates. "I knew Danny was a talent who hadn't yet been tapped," she says. "He used to get in trouble on the Beach -- you know, drugs. So I said, 'Here, come with me.' He was always at my house working on his designs, so I thought, 'Just move in.'"
At first Danny Danny talks softly, with a strong Spanish accent, then builds to a furious, giggling crescendo. I ask him what has been his most challenging design. "My favorite costume is when I design for the girls a beautiful skirt which becomes a giant serpent!" he exclaims, leaping up to mimic a skirt unfurling. "It was so beautiful! Like a big snake, er, that slither up the body. Very sexy. Very sleek." He runs his palm along his torso. "I want to enhance the girls' natural ... ah hum!"
When I laugh at Danny Danny's enthusiasm, he begins laughing too. A kid with Mark McGrath good looks whom Canellas eyed dancing at crobar is sitting in the corner. He asks us what exactly is meant by "training" on the Hot Jam information sheet that all auditioners must fill out. Mark, who has never seen a dance barre, is wearing white tube socks, black shoes, and wrinkled Dockers pants. I stick around and watch him. He demonstrates a male-dance-revue hip-grinding appropriate for any club's gay night.
Across the room stand two young women who are tucked, lifted, plucked, and stuffed into tiny midriff tops and hot pants that reveal a cleft in the rear. They chat busily about West Dade's Dolphin Mall, a club-wear gold mine.
But no matter how much flesh auditioners may flash, it doesn't matter if they can't dance. Later a woman shows up in cargo pants and T-shirt and mentions that she dances with the Miami women's basketball team's "Sol Patrol"; it's an old audition-intimidation strategy. Soon a vigorous debate has begun on whether the Sol dance squad is more talented than the Heat cheerleaders.
Just then Canellas bops out of her office and skips around, embracing everyone like a sorority president. She tugs on her Hot Jam T-shirt, which is tied just underneath her breasts, looks at the list of people to audition, and quickly chooses an unexpected Hall and Oates sample remix. "Okay, let's see what you guys got!" she laughs, drawing red velvet curtains between the studio and waiting room.
One by one, each dances freestyle for Canellas. The Sol dancer's moves are good and make a woman named Ana, whose business cards say she is a singer-songwriter, wonder aloud if she should change her footwear (go-go boots) or hairstyle (a curious Leaning Tower of Pisa up-do). If Tracey Ullman were to impersonate a Hot Jam hopeful, she might borrow Ana's outfit: a tiny black skirt, wide-hole fishnets, and a flowery shirt buttoned up several inches above her navel.
Employed as a singer at several Coral Gables nightspots, she describes her talent as "flamenco with pop qualities." Ana, a recent transplant from Los Angeles, says she worked off and on at various go-go joints on Sunset Strip. "I moved here because I'm Latin and I wanted to get closer to that," she says. "But this is so insane! It's like so crazy, you know, because L.A. has a street with a few clubs. But Miami has a street with twenty clubs! Who ever heard of such a thing? It's like a fantasy."
Ana is cut off when her name is called.
Canellas: Thanks for coming. So you're a singer, huh?
Canellas: Do you always wear your hair like that?
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."
At Level on a late-March night, I sit with three girls in the club's dank bowels. It's 1:30 a.m. and we've been waiting almost two hours for Canellas to deliver costumes so we can dance the required three sets and get out of here by 4:00 a.m.
Thirty-one-year-old Elsy Barrios is asleep on a ratty couch. Her black mane is swung across her face to block whatever sliver of light makes it through the door. A lithe pixie named Mary, just off a plane from her hometown of Paris, is chatting in French on her cell phone with her boyfriend. A woman dressed in ripped jeans and a knit tube top bursts through the door with the fierceness of Grace Jones. "Where are the costumes?" she asks, lighting a cigarette. "We're going to go really soon, right?"
Elsy swings her legs over the edge of the couch, flips open her cell phone, and calls Canellas. Her sunglasses hang on the edge of her nose as she speaks in Spanish to the boss. She hangs up. "They are on their way," she says, rolling her eyes. "I tell you," the former Venezuelan ballet dancer says in broken English, "this happen all the time. It is frustrated. Very, like, annoying."
A member of Miami's New Century Dance Company, Elsy has little patience for the lowbrow world of club dancing. "I like Pamela. She helps the girls, and she helps me," Elsy says. "But to me, she is -- how should I say -- a baby. In the ballet it is a military, very strict. Here it is too loose for me. It seems unprofessional. She is trying, but to me she is still a child."
A suitcase filled with plastic bags that contain costumes is thrown into this makeshift dressing room. No can tell who tossed it. The girls devour the case. Elsy and Mary wiggle into bright yellow-and-green skirts with hems held straight out by wirelike hoops. They pin giant butterflies in their hair and grab glittery wands, then quickly make their way through Level's packed crowd to dance atop an opera booth.
Up next: me and Ms. Jones. We are wearing J.Lo body suits with black, fingerless gloves, which I guess make it easier to grip the checkered racing flags I'm handed. I'm not quite sure what I'm supposed to be, perhaps a sexy NASCAR babe. Grace lowers the zipper that runs down the front of the bodysuit and lifts her breasts into her black, push-up bra. She pulls a black wig over her cropped white afro and brushes it out. I lacquer my lips, smooth my hair, and sprinkle glitter between my breasts (a trick that is supposed to make me appear a cup-size bigger).
Grace takes another drag on her cig and motions for us to go. We push through the crowd and she helps me climb a dilapidated wooden ladder to a stage platform. Careful not to trip on thick cables snaking across the platform, I dance. Grace is snarling. She's holding onto a thin metal pipe, which is supposed to keep us from falling off the edge of the platform and into the swarm below. She's thrusting her pelvis and whipping her checkered flag. I notice that she is consciously not looking at me. So I don't look at her. I stare into the strobe lights and they blind me. Occasionally I break my aloofness and fixate on some guy in the audience who is staring at me. My next fifteen-minute set is spent wrestling a two-and-a-half-foot-tall feathered headpiece that catches a strong blast of air from a vent and nearly knocks me over. I wear a sequined skirt and a matching bikini top.
The DJ is spinning house, a music genre I don't much like, but I hear from other dancers that I should be thankful for these four-to-the-floor beats because I'm more likely to get groped in a hip-hop club.
As required I have purchased the things Canellas requires of new dancers -- short black dance pants, black-and-flesh-colored fishnets, one black and one white padded push-up bra, a wig cap, and two pairs of go-go boots: one white, one black. Total cost: about $300.
That night I earn $100 and decide not to quit my day job. Most dancers keep their daytime gigs because Hot Jam rarely provides a dependable schedule; they are usually on-call as promoters make last-minute party decisions. For dancers to earn anything resembling a decent living, they must be in demand at several clubs and work more than one place per night each week.
Dilcia Muñoz is a regular at Club Space and Level. The twenty-year-old began dancing two years ago to pay her way through Miami-Dade Community College. Trained at Salsa Lovers dance studios, which is owned and founded by her brother-in-law, she was a natural fit at Hot Jam. She often performs in more than one club a night, making ends meet by also appearing on a Spanish-language television show called Wet and Wild twice a month. Recently Muñoz beat out hundreds of other women for a spot in a Lenny Kravitz video, a job for which Canellas acted as her agent. "I got paid $300 for the video and Pamela, I think, took $60," Muñoz says. "But I really don't honestly know what the numbers are. There are some dancers who are curious about that."
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.
"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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