NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–In Queens bars, semi-naked women wearing G-string bikinis and, at times, without the top, parade up and down a small platform alongside the bar.
Their work consists of dancing and attracting clients who, sipping their drinks, observe the dancers’ performance. Every now and then dancers stop to receive dollar bills from clients, which is the way they make most of their money. On a regular night’s shift–from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m.–about 10 to 15 dancers take turns performing onstage. Each stage performance lasts 20 minutes.
When not dancing, a woman is supposed to socialize with clients on the floor and encourage them to buy her drinks, from which she receives a small percentage. Some bars also offer lap dances in which a woman dances for a single client, usually in a corner of the bar or in a separate space. In Queens gentlemen’s bars, a dancer can make between $100 and $400 per night, and sometimes more, depending on her performance, the day of the week and the mood of the bar.
Contrary to the common belief that erotic dancing is a form of prostitution, there is no exchange of money for sexual intercourse in gentlemen’s clubs and, in fact, strict city and state laws define the border between prostitution and erotic dancing.
From the beginning, I was particularly struck by the presence of Brazilian women from the middle class. Being a Brazilian middle-class woman myself, I could perceive their class markers in their ways of speaking and moving, in their gestures and mannerisms. I identified with these women on a variety of levels. Often when I went to a new bar, dancers I did not know, clients and management would see me as a potential dancer. I was of the same nationality, age and body type as most of the women working in the bars.
Soon after I started visiting gentlemen’s bars in Queens, I was lucky enough to meet Barbara and Clara, two women from the same part of Brazil as me. I became close to Clara sooner, as she has an outgoing and friendly personality, and after our meeting in the bar she was the first to call me. Clara is a lawyer and one of the 18 women from her extended family who live in New York, most of whom work as erotic dancers. Through them, I met an extensive network of dancers from the Brazilian middle class.
More Appealing Option
Contrary to public debate that often links migrant sex workers and human trafficking, poverty and oppression, this association does not by any means apply to the women in my research. In fact, throughout my fieldwork, I met mostly middle-income Brazilian women who for many reasons had chosen to work as erotic dancers rather than as domestics, the other most common job available to migrant women.
Some women told me they found working in another person’s house demeaning to their class status. Brazilians from the middle classes usually grow up being served by maids, often women of African descent. Indeed, to have maids in Brazil is a marker of class status and is felt as a basic need for the maintenance of a middle-class family dynamic.
To work as a domestic servant in the United States would subvert a deep-rooted class and racial habitus of the Brazilian social structure, perhaps painful for many Brazilians as a signifier of their social downward mobility. In addition, in tune with their modern middle-class tastes, these women find the bar scene and New York’s nightlife more appealing and exciting than the isolation of domestic work, as well as better paid.
Excerpted from the new book, “Transnational Desires: Brazilian Erotic Dancers in New York” by Suzana Maia, published by Vanderbilt University Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. For more information: www.VanderbiltUniversityPress.com.
Suzana Maia is a professor of anthropology at the Universidade Federal do Reconcavo da Bahia, Brazil. She received her Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center.
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