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Private Dancers

Posted on Saturday, May 2, 2009 in Essays, interviews


“I’m your private dancer, a dancer for money do what you want me to do …
–Mark Knopfler

Jacki Benton is a taxi dancer. If that term doesn’t mean much to you, they used to call them dime-a-dance girls. Except that the price for renting Jackie today is 30 cents a minute, or $18 an hour.

Every city has taxi dance halls. Los Angeles has 12 of them, all located within a one-mile radius of one another. Dance halls haven’t changed much over the years. A man will pick the girl of his choice, buy dance tickets, and for that amount of time, she’s his. He can buy her coffee or a non-alcoholic beverage. Every dance hall has a TV room to which the couple can retire, and where the action gets a little heavier.

Jackie’s been working as a taxi dancer since she was 17. She just turned 21, though she looks considerably older. Taxi dancing was Jackie’s first job in Los Angeles, where she’d moved to from her hometown of Muskogee, Okla. Jackie was escaping not only small-town life, but an abusive father — a man who’d molested her throughout her childhood. When she was 17, Jackie was impregnated by her father, and bore him a child. She declined to elaborate on this during the interview, except to say that she loves her son.

Since moving to L.A., Jackie has rarely ventured outside of the downtown area where she shares an apartment with four other taxi dancers. She’s never seen the ocean. She’s never been out with a man who she didn’t meet in the clubs. Despite the fact that she expresses distaste for the world of the dance halls, she says she’s comfortable there. Asked what she’ll do with her future, she just shrugs. For Jackie, the dance halls are both the beginning and the end of the line.

Jackie, how long have you worked the dance hall circuit?

J.B.: Almost four years, I guess. I sorta lose track of time. I quit for awhile, tried some other gigs. Waitressed a little. Made beds in the Holiday Inn. Worked in a sweatshop sewin’ clothes. Actually, I’ve quit lotsa times, but I always wind up back in the clubs.

How many clubs have you worked?

J.B.: I’ve worked all of ’em except for the Savoy, which is a s–thole. Just in the last two months, I’ve switched clubs three times.

Why do you change clubs so often?

J.B.: You gotta go where the business is. Take this club. The customers are mostly Oriental businessmen. They’re a lot better than white guys. In fact, lately I have been dancing almost exclusively with Orientals. That is, except for Flips. They’re a waste of time.

Flips?

J.B.: Filipinos. I don’t like them much. They don’t spend the dough like the Chinese or the Japanese do.

What have you got against Caucasians?

J.B.: White men are f–ked! They don’t respect women, for one. A typical white male is a guy who beats his wife all day and loves to say, “Hey baby, I’m 12-inches.” Orientals are a lot nicer. They know how to treat a woman. And they really know how to spend the dough. That’s what’s important.

What kinds of things have they bought you?

J.B.: Oh, I’ve gotten jewelry, furs, trips to Vegas, Hawaii. You name it. I almost never pay my own rent.

Do these men want you to sleep with them in return for these … gifts?

J.B.: Well, sometimes, yeah. Other times they just want you to go shopping with them. Orientals get off on having a white chick hanging on their arm. It’s a status symbol for them.

Do you ever sleep with them?

J.B.: Sure. But only if I like ’em. And if I do, they’re gonna pay for it, believe me.

Would you consider yourself a prostitute?

J.B.: No. I’m not for rent. I’m just sleeping with somebody I like for money. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Do you like what you’re doing?

J.B.: Are you kidding?! This job sucks!

Could you elaborate on that?

J.B.: Well, lemme put it this way. How would you feel if some guy with the most horrible body odor, bad breath, spit coming out of his mouth and a hard-on was grinding you all over the floor? Do you think that sounds like fun? Well lemme clue you in. It’s not. And that’s the name of the game here most of the time. No, this is a horrible, disgusting job. I hate it.

It does sound pretty awful.

J.B.: Like I said, it sucks. Still, in a way, it’s better than going to a regular nightclub. I mean, the guys treat you terrible there too. At least here you’re getting paid.

Why don’t you get out of the dance halls altogether if you hate them so much?

J.B.: The thing is, the longer you stay here, the harder it is to quit. I guess I’m stuck. I guess maybe I’m addicted. I hate to admit it, but that’s the truth. Working the dance clubs is like a drug. You hate it, but at the same time, you need more of it.

But surely you could do something else. There must be some reason that you keep coming back to work in these places.

J.B.: Maybe it’s that … here I’m not alone. Here I have friends. Like when a new girl comes in, I’ll teach her the ropes. I’ll show her how to work the room, how to get rid of the creeps. How to deal with the owners and the floor managers. I like to do that … help out a new kid. Makes me feel good about myself.

What are the men like who frequent the dance halls?

JB: The men? Mostly pigs. Pigs and losers. It’s a real sad bunch, believe you me.

What happens in the TV rooms?

J.B.: Hand jobs mostly. Most of these guys just want you to diddle them. Of course, some of ’em want more, but they don’t get it. If you want to sleep with a guy, you set it up for after you get off work.

Are these clubs basically just disguised brothels?

J.B.: Well, I don’t want to get nobody in trouble, but I guess you might say that, yeah. Depending on the club, the girl will either work for herself, or the club will take a piece of the action. In that case, the floor manager will set up the deal.

How does that work?

J.B.: What happens is, a guy goes to the floor manager and says, “Who can I get what I want from?” The floor manager asks him what type of girl he wants. He’ll describe her. Then, the floor manager introduces him to a girl that looks like what he wants. The guy dances with her, buys her a drink maybe. He’s already dropping money on her. Then, after the club closes, he’ll take her “out to breakfast.” That’s when the real business gets taken care of.

What kind of girls work the taxi dance halls?

J.B.: You name ’em, we got ’em. Some girls are bad. Some are everyday people. Some of ’em work day jobs. Some hook. Some are here to make their coke connection. Some are just plain crazy. There’s all kinds. One of my roommates is 45 years old. She works here at night, and in the day she works at a factory. She came here from Seattle just to find her a man, but so far she ain’t had no luck.

What reasons do girls have for working the dance halls? Surely the money is not that good.

J.B.: All kinda reasons. Some are lonely. Some think they’re gonna meet a man. Others are just tryin’ to pay the rent.

You mean some girls actually think they’ll meet the man of their dreams in the dance halls?

J.B.: Oh yeah. You’d be surprised how many of the girls working these places are just waitin’ to be swept off their feet. The Cinderella deal, y’know? I used to feel that way myself.

Isn’t that unrealistic, considering the type of men that frequent these places?

J.B.: Yeah, but you gotta dream, right? There’s always that slight possibility that Mr. Wonderful’s gonna come in and, you know, you’re gonna pay him to sleep with you!

What was it like for you when you started working?

J.B.: When you first come here it’s horrible. Your checks are tiny. They bulls–t you when they tell you you’re gonna make $500 a week. That’s only if you get good tips, and in the beginning you don’t. They tell you they’ll teach you the ropes, but they don’t. They don’t tell you the most important thing, which is what to do if the guy gets a hard-on. They don’t give a s–t about you. You’re just a piece of meat.

What happens to a girl when she works these clubs?

J.B.: You get hard. A girl will change physically in six months. Also, once you start working here, your relationships are finished. I had a boyfriend for awhile, but no more. I don’t want a boyfriend now. All they do is hassle you. It’s like … you dance with a buncha jerks all night, then you come home and you have this guy putting his hands all over you. You don’t want that when you get home. You just want to be left alone.

What about the men who own the clubs? What are they like?

J.B.: They’re a buncha pimps. They think they own you. If they get a hot chick, they work her till she’s used up. Me, I don’t go for that. I’m my own boss and I let the owners know it. They like me ’cause I’m good for business … I’m still young and fairly good looking. Let’s face it … a lot of the chicks that work these places are dogs.

Is the world inside the dance halls different from the outside world?

J.B.: Well, it works two ways. As far as men go, yeah. Only creeps come in these places. Creeps and losers. I’m speaking of the white clubs now. Like I said, Orientals are different. They’ve got more class. But as far as white guys, what’s great in the dance hall, I wouldn’t look at out in the street. So in that way, it’s two different worlds. In another way, it’s all the same.

How do you mean?

J.B.: It’s all a gigantic hustle. The world outside the clubs, the world inside. It’s all the same. That’s why I stay. In here, I’m the one doing the hustling. I’m in control. Out there, everybody’s a victim. In here, the men are the victims … and that’ just the way I like it.

Why are the men victims?

J.B.: Because … what you do here is what they call the dry hustle. You make a guy think you’re going to go to bed with him, but you never do. You keep him dropping his money. I mean, if you wanna go to bed with him, and he’ll pay good money for it, that’s up to you. But the name of the game is that you just keep him horny, and he keeps coming back night after night and dropping more money on you.

Don’t you ever feel guilty that you are conning these men?

J.B.: No. It’s all part of the game. They know that it’s a game. They might not act like they know it, but somewhere inside they know. And like I said, if a guy makes the right moves or says the right thing or catches me on the right night, maybe I’ll go to bed with him. I just want it to be my choice, that’s all. So, no I don’t feel guilty. There’s a lotta things worse you can do to a man than to dry hustle him.

What have you found is the best technique for working a customer?

J.B.: Sympathy. You tell ’em a sob story. Tell ’em you can’t pay the rent, or that your mom’s in the hospital. You just use stuff from movies you’ve seen. It’s amazing how good it works. That’s why I like movies. They give me ideas.

What other methods are there for keeping a man on the line?

J.B.: If you get a hot one — a guy that comes in and spends a lotta dough — you get his phone number. Then you call them up periodically and let them know you’re thinking about them. That always keeps them hooked.

Do you ever bring somebody back home with you?

J.B.: Well, I live with five other girls, and so we try not to bring business home. But every so often, one of us will. But if my roommates started bringing home different guys every night, I would say, “Hey man … this ain’t no motel!” I really try to keep my business and my home life separate.

Don’t you ever want to have a committed relationship?

J.B.: I don’t make commitments because I don’t keep em. Hey, I’m 21 years old and you know what? Nothing is gonna last forever. Why should I get my feelings built up when I know it’s gonna be over?

You seem awfully bitter for someone your age. Don’t you have dreams?

J.B.: I used to have lotsa fantasies about how wonderful my life would be, but no more. My last real fantasy was with my ex-boyfriend. But that was the last real dream I had, and it ended when he beat the crap out of me and then tried to stab me. I don’t have dreams anymore. I figure this is about as good as it’s gonna get.

Do you hate men?

J.B.: Of course I hate men, why else would I be working here?

Do you ever think about getting out of this world altogether?

J.B.: I think about it, yeah. But here I am. That’s reality. That’s just the way it is, I guess.

©Stuart Goldman

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