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Dance With A Stranger 

Falling in love at 40 cents a minute

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
Photo by Ted Soqui

[T]he taxi-dance hall can never be entirely satisfactory as a substitute for normal social life . . . In its catering to detached and lonely people, in its deliberate fostering of stimulation and excitement, in its opportunities for pseudo-romantic excitements, it may be seen as an epitome of certain phases of urban life.

—Paul G. Cressey,

The Taxi-Dance Hall (1932)

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Priscilla wears a green floral dress that falls to her knees. She looks about 27. Her hair and eyes are brown, and her lips are painted rose-petal red. She has a wholesome, decidedly 1940s appearance — accentuated by her sturdy high heels, which she refers to as "my Ginger Rogers dance shoes."

"Guys say they like me because I look clean," she says as she leads me to the Club Flamingo dance floor. It is dimmer here, screened off from the rest of the hall by a rickety wooden trellis. A string of plastic palm-tree lights hangs from the ceiling. A Journey song blares. Couples sit on leatherette benches along the walls, talking, lightly stroking each other’s limbs, blowing into each other’s ears, sometimes kissing, or just holding hands and staring dreamily at nothing.

Out on the floor, a black man in a white fedora, white suit and crimson shirt stands with his arms raised above his shoulders. He is skinny and tall and undulating in a manner that brings to mind a snake that is somehow standing upright. Two blond Latinas, considerably shorter, reach up, clasping his fingers and spinning slowly on either side as they rub his chest with their free hands.

Most couples have gravitated toward the far end of the floor, as if it were tilted in that direction. A squat pillar with a sign reading "No Lewd Behavior" blocks the darkest corner from view, forming the ideal location for attempts at lewd behavior. Here the dancers grind tightly, or cease dancing altogether and simply lock bodies. I glimpse a tall Asian girl in a long silk dress slit up the side. She stands on one leg. Her other leg is wrapped around her partner, a silver fox in a leisure suit. She hangs from his neck as he pumps intently against her.

"We call those ‘corner girls,’" Priscilla says. Her own style of dance — draping her arms over my shoulders and swaying in a slow circle — is less vigorously sensual, yet there is an inescapable erotic charge. I find myself noticing that her perfume is pleasant. I enjoy the way her hair occasionally brushes my neck. It’s the sort of boy-meets-girl dream a junior-high dance might have offered had I not invariably spent them getting stoned in the parking lot with friends. As her hips slide in my hands, I feel the slip she wears beneath her dress. I shut my eyes and picture her wearing only the slip, and we are someplace else, anyplace but Club Flamingo.

The eroticism of the moment is, of course, highly odd. Not only is Priscilla a complete stranger, but when we finish dancing to a few songs, she clocks me out on a punch card, whispering, "I’m not allowed to ask for a tip, but most customers feel comfortable tipping us at least 50 percent of the bill." The matron behind the counter tallies the minutes. I pay $12 to the house for half an hour and slip Priscilla a $5 plus $1.

She returns to the couch behind the waist-high fence in the viewing area and waits for her next customer. Still feeling the flush of our intimate encounter, I wave to her on my way out. Priscilla scarcely makes eye contact. She engages a swarthy man in a gold shirt in a direct stare. He rises, apparently taken by the sight of a clean-looking girl, and approaches her for a dance.

Sometimes I think

I’ve found my hero,

But it’s a queer romance.

All that you need is a ticket.

Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance!

Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors

Can pay for their ticket and rent me.

—"Ten Cents a Dance,"

Rodgers and Hart (1930)

In 1932, University of Chicago sociologist Paul G. Cressey published The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life, the summation of a five-year study of dance halls in Chicago. This form of entertainment had then, as now, a dubious reputation, but Cressey was more concerned with what he saw as the alienation, loneliness and moral ambiguity of urban life. He believed the taxi-dance hall expressed a fundamental truth about modern relations: A mobile, rapidly changing society produces cities inhabited by rootless, detached people who connect with each other primarily on the basis of mutual exploitation.

The postmodern reader, picking up Cressey’s volume after a visit to Club Flamingo, or Club Paradise, or Dreamland, is struck by the convergence of his observations and one’s own. In a passage that could describe the "corner girls" of the Flamingo, Cressey writes: "At times certain dancers seem to cease all semblance of motion over the floor, and while locked tightly together give themselves up to movements sensual in nature . . . These couples tend to segregate at one end of the hall, where they mill about in a compressed pack of wriggling, perspiring bodies."

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