Once legendary, Mexico City’s famed dance-for-peso halls fading
MEXICO CITY - Mirna Torres salsas with a gray-bearded man for $1.50 a dance in the Barba Azul, a dark yet garish cabaret decorated like an erotic carnival fun house.
The place is nearly empty, looking as neglected as its bas-reliefs of voluptuous naked women, some with broken nipples and missing feet.
Once the bohemian underbelly of a legendary nightlife that saw Fidel Castro plot his revolution and Pancho Villa fire a bullet in a bar, dance-for-peso clubs like the Barba Azul are dying.
The cabarets marked a Roman Catholic nation’s emerging social liberalism in the 1930s and 1940s, with revelers, celebrities, senators, and artists twirling tequila-chugging bargirls on packed dance floors.
Torres put her daughter through medical school with the money she earned from this subtle sort of escort work, where a token bought a little romance as well as a dance.
Now the clubs are being wiped out by gringo-style strip joints, where surgically enhanced 20-year-old table dancers squirm near-naked on men’s laps for $20.
“The table dancers are shameless, naked. We still had innocence,’’ said Torres, 54, whose white top hugs an ample figure and whose enhancements don’t go beyond a little collagen in the lips and a perm.
They were Mexico City’s version of Parisian cancan cabarets or “taxi dance’’ clubs in the United States, immortalized in the Rogers and Hart song, “Ten Cents a Dance.’’
Mexico’s top musicians played the cabarets, known as ficheras because dancers collect tokens - or fichas - worth $1 to $2 for each dance or drink a man buys. At the end of the night, they cash in their fichas for money.
From more than 50 in central Mexico City in the mid-20th century, perhaps a half dozen true fichera clubs remain today - the latest casualty being the Bombay, where Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos, painter Jose Luis Cuevas, and Ernesto “Che’’ Guevara supposedly graced the dance floor.
The phenomenon was so popular it even spawned a film genre, with fichera movies titillating Mexican audiences in the 1970s.
“It is a relic of a different era in the history of pleasure in Mexico City,’’ said local historian Armando Aguilar, who gives tours of the downtown cantinas and historical night spots. “Both the table dance and fichera clubs are based on sex, with a seamy underside. But with ficheras, there is the expectation of romance, dance, and conversation.’’
The downfall of the ficheras began with Mexico City’s earthquake and economic collapse in the 1980s, which battered the capital’s nightlife and forced all kinds of clubs to close. But it was the arrival of hundreds of table dance clubs beginning in the 1990s that was most devastating.
Strip clubs have become so common, they’ve spawned the Spanglish words “teiboldance’’ for the dance and “teibolera’’ for the dancers. In the capital’s historic center and Zona Rosa tourist districts, swarms of street promoters in cheap suits chase down passing men offering “teiboldance, chicas, chicas, no cover.’’
Ficheras didn’t strip in the clubs but were notorious flirts. Dates sometimes led to sex in the love hotels that popped up around the dance halls. But not always.
In a recent book profiling Mexico City, one fichera dancer told the author that a man paid her to do nothing more than eat rose petals in the nude.
Today the dancers look like the worn-out, working-class wives and mothers they are, their short skirts stretched over plump thighs.
Rocio Jimenez, a 57-year-old grandmother, claims to be Mexico City’s oldest fichera dancer with 32 years on the job - most recently in Dos Naciones cabaret.
She says she began dancing to feed her 5-year-old twins when the factory she worked at closed down.
Her hair is defiantly gray and her lower jaw bruised purple from cheap dental surgery. The decades of late nights, tequila, and hours spent fending off aggressive hands have left their mark. She gets up slowly from her chair with the help of the table.
But her eyes are still sharp and moisten when she recalls the good old days.
“Before it was romantic, bohemian,’’ she said. “The man would offer the woman a flower and a dance.’’
Torres agrees that fichera work can be harsh and tiring, but she had few other options when her marriage fell apart.