Maria Gonzalez shakes her fully clothed thing to thumping booty music on the giant dance floor. Next to the girls in skimpy bras and even skimpier panties, she looks like a lost canary at an exotic cat show. When the music stops, she gets in line with the other four contestants to be judged under the bright stage lights. She shakes her short, mommy-hair head "no" when the big-bellied, cowboy boot-clad emcee asks her to take off her blue and white polka-dotted blouse and short skirt for the dance club's crowd.
"This one's not going to take off anything," he announces via a microphone.
The audience claps and cheers the least for her, sealing her fate. She's out of the running for the $300 sexiest-girl dance contest prize at Escapade 2001. "I didn't want to take off my clothes...I like having fun, but not like that," Gonzalez says later.
Unlike her competitors, she hadn't gone out to make money. A struggling single mother holding down two cleaning jobs and trying to get over an ugly breakup with her baby's father, she wanted a brief escape and a chance to uncork some stress. She was dancing with her cousins when a male club employee asked her if she'd like to enter the dance contest, she says. Having never been to the club, she figured she might have a chance at bringing home the badly needed $300 prize.
"I don't have a good job. My son's father doesn't want to help me. It's hard for just one woman," says the 38-year-old, who immigrated to Dallas from Morelos, Mexico, 21 years ago and is raising an infant son on some $240 a week that she earns cleaning a bank, plus the $55 she pulls in Tuesdays for tidying up "a lady's house."
"I just want to work real hard for my baby and buy a little house and send him to a school and save him some money."
With a coveted view from directly behind the raised stage area's iron rail overlooking the varnished dance floor, Guadalupe Bartolo watches Gonzalez walk off the stage as the dance music starts up again. "Locas"--crazy girls--she says of the four remaining contestants, then clicks her tongue. "I don't even make $300 in a week."
Bartolo and countless other clubgoers smashed up against each other like passengers on an overcrowded subway watch the four girls prance out of line to the edges of the stage, shaking their rears tantalizingly close to the first layer of the cowboy hat-topped wall that's formed around the stage--so dense, short people unable to elbow and wriggle to the very edge of the floor must climb the stairs to the stage area to get more than an occasional glimpse.
Burly bouncers wearing earpieces attempt to prevent randy cowboys with bulging eyes from copping a feel as one contestant in an almost-microscopic black G-string shakes her rump vigorously. Bartolo notes that the same girl won last week's competition.
"They don't want to work," says the 30-year-old, who works two restaurant kitchen jobs. "They're lazy. They just want easy money."
The music stops and the dancers line up in the center of the stage again. The emcee swaggers, his huge Western belt buckle leading him, from contestant to contestant, pointing to each one and shouting, "Numero uno, numero dos," and so on. The crowd votes after each announcement by cheering, clapping, hollering and whistling.
He can't tell a difference between the level of praise the girl in the disappearing black G-String gets from the applause garnered by another slightly taller, thinner girl in a matching silk bra and panty set. He proclaims a first-place tie, so they each win $150.
A set of ranchera music begins. And when the last of the contestants has her sandals slipped back on and has made it off the floor, the bouncers clear the area to let the crowd flood the space from every direction. One woman visiting from the Rio Grande Valley says as she heads toward the dance floor with a group of friends, "My husband would kick my ass if he knew I was here."
Meanwhile, the two winners wait at the coat-check window to collect their cash. Once handed the bills, they dash into the night through different doors. The black G-string contestant blurts in English--not a trace of an accent--that she's in a hurry and has to be somewhere, as male patrons attempt to congratulate her on her stellar performance.
Welcome to Escapade 2001, one of the most happening nightclubs in Dallas. You've never heard of it? Then who are the thousands who obviously have?
Escapade 2001, along with its next-door sister club Escapade 2009, is where the local lawn cutters, hedge trimmers, construction workers, maids, restaurant cooks, dishwashers and other minimum-wage laborers--in other words, the backbone of the region's blue-collar economy--congregate in droves to let loose. Many of 2001 and 2009's patrons struggle with English; some speak none at all. So with their soothing swirl of Spanish, 2001, better know as Dos Mil Uno, and 2009, Dos Mil Nueve, offer the members of Dallas' largely illegal Latino immigrant population a temporary escape from their hardscrabble existence outside the city's mainstream.
The majority of the clubs' clientele are Mexican immigrants, though some are recent arrivals from Central and South America as well as second and subsequent-generation U.S. Latinos. Together, these groups account for about 36 percent of Dallas' population, an estimate that includes newcomers as well as several generations of the U.S.-born, according to the 2000 census.
Escapade 2001, which resembles a gigantic country & western club, features ranchera and cumbia music and attracts recent Mexican immigrants along with a smaller number of Mexican-Americans. Club 2009, which features techno and rock en espanol, among other types of dance music, attracts a more diverse group of Latinos, a mix of first- and second-generation Mexican immigrants as well as some Guatemalans, Salvadorans and a smattering of immigrants from other Latin American countries.
While few Anglos have ever peered inside the spectacularly busy clubs, they top the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission numbers for alcohol sales at local clubs. Of the approximately 1,000 establishments licensed to sell alcohol in the city of Dallas last April, the most recent month for which liquor sales records are available, 2001 and 2009--though open only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights--together racked up about $66,070 in booze sales, more than any other Dallas club. Generating $41,620, Escapade 2001 alone ranked in Dallas' top 10 for liquor sales revenue. Among the elite group of businesses to top 2001's liquor sales was Gaston Avenue's Far West (formerly Cowboys), one of a growing number of warehouse-sized nightclubs catering to the swelling local Latino immigrant population. You may never have heard of the clubs, but Escapade 2001 and 2009 have no problem getting their message to Latino Dallas through tens of thousands of dollars in advertisements on local Spanish-language radio and television, says Escapade manager Dario Ferdows.
Escapade 2009 opened in 1998. Before that, the cavernous space hosted a popular country & western club called Country 2000. As the country-music dance scene trendy in the early and mid-'90s began to fade, Country 2000 slowly lost its draw. So with the booming economy and a steady stream of Latino immigrants coming to Dallas to fuel the minimum-wage labor market, Country 2000 metamorphosed into Club 2009 and, by catering to Spanish speakers, helped fill a local dance-club void. The new club was so successful that another club of similar size, Escapade 2001, opened right next door in 1999.
City records list Schahrouz Ferdows as the custodian of both Escapade 2001 and 2009's liquor licenses. Schahrouz didn't return phone calls to the clubs' office. The clubs' attorney, Jim W. Lee, identified Ferdows as president of the two corporations listed as owning the clubs. "It's a private business, and we just don't talk about it. It's nothing sinister," Lee says, declining to name the clubs' owner. A club employee, however, refers to Ferdows, who goes by Schane, as the owner of both venues, as well as the owner of Arlington Latino club Escapades 2001 and a Latino club in Houston.
Dario, Schane Ferdows' son, says the Dallas 2001 and 2009 have about 20 investors. They're considering opening another Latino club in Phoenix, Dario says. "We give them the nicest place to go," he says. "Some other places they [immigrants] go to used to be an old Wal-Mart that someone's decked out and put lights in...We dump a lot of money back into the clubs. That's how we're trying to differentiate ourselves."
It's half past midnight on a recent Saturday, but just off the Northwest Highway-Stemmons Freeway intersection it looks like rush hour on a workday. Cars and trucks of all colors and sizes creep north along the freeway access road into a lit parking lot big enough to accommodate a shopping mall. A tall electronic billboard bathes the vehicles turning in to the lot in yellow commercial messages. A couple of men in orange vests at the two entrances direct traffic with flashlights. White Dodge pickups occupied by black-uniformed off-duty police officers man posts throughout the lot, their yellow lights spinning and flashing for no apparent reason other than to emphasize their presence.
Sergeant Lawrence Smith of the Dallas Police Department's Northwest substation says law enforcement problems at both clubs generally don't go beyond cars getting broken into and people getting into fistfights. "Somebody gets mad at somebody for dancing with somebody, or someone gets mad at somebody for pushing someone," he says.
Most clashes occur at or outside 2001, largely between recent immigrants and English-speaking Latinos, often Mexican-Americans, Ferdows says. "They hold themselves above the working-class Hispanic," he says.
Packs of teen-agers and twentysomethings pile out of their vehicles onto the concrete. Some hover in the half-open doors of pickup trucks to risk a few last swigs out of a beer can or a plastic soft-drink bottle filled with a mysterious alcoholic concoction only underage drinkers would consider ingesting. Most head directly toward their choice of the side-by-side 40,000-square-foot buildings with bland, beige exteriors. Some hold hands in couples; others prowl, swaggering and strutting, in musky-cologned and sweet-perfumed clusters. A pair of security guards in a white SUV topped with twirling security lights attempts to herd stragglers like cattle toward the clubs, yelling at everyone to keep moving. A low-flying, Love Field-bound jet rumbles overhead.
Everyone waits a minute in lines outside the tall double doors in the humid air. Bouncers holding security wands make sure nobody has a gun or any other objectionable item tucked away. A burlier pair of bouncers evaluates a group of young guys singled out of a line for showing up in below-standard dress. All have baggy pants, and a couple had the nerve to don tennis shoes. They're turned away.
"We have standards," Ferdows says.
A couple of more bouncers give everyone's various identification cards the once-over with the aid of a flashlight. Those over 21 are tagged with thick wax-paper wristbands, while both the right and left hand of those too young to buy alcohol receive the traditional nightclub mark of the beast--a giant black X.
Loud music and cigarette smoke beckon from the dark, propped-open doorway. Everyone digs in his or her pants pockets, skirt pockets and purses to pay the $7-$10 cover charge. One by one, they step across the thinly carpeted threshold into a temporary, intoxicating world of freedom and fun.
After another long summer day of heavy construction work, Benito Ruiz is losing himself in the luxury of darkness for a few hours.
"It's nice to get out and meet people, to just have fun," he says, dark eyes gazing out from under a black cowboy hat, fingers wrapped around a wet Budweiser bottle, a boot heel tapping the base of an Escapade 2001 bar stool.
The tall, lean 23-three-year-old, who has lived in the area about four years, spends almost every Saturday night and early Sunday morning at the Northwest Dallas venue. Although Ruiz doesn't know it, it's the Fourth of July tonight. An illegal immigrant from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, he isn't sure why his boss said he doesn't have to show up for work in the morning.
"I know it's for something you guys celebrate," he says.
Whatever the case, he's taking advantage of his holiday from the grind. He came to 2001 tonight to meet "chicas," he says with a smirk between slow scans for potential candidates to tap on the shoulder, lean in close to and ask to dance.
Letty Hinojosa, 35, visits 2001 every Friday and Sunday night. The first time Hinojosa's sister suggested they go she felt uncomfortable because her English is a lot better than her Spanish, and she knew Spanish was spoken here. Hinojosa, who crossed the Rio Grande into the United States when she was a child, is an American citizen. She thoroughly enjoys meeting Mexican men at the club, however. "The guys in here are a lot of fun, and they're gentlemen," she says, holding hands with her current love interest just off the dance floor during a break. She met Jesus Martinez, 30, here about three weeks ago. Martinez, who has lived in Dallas illegally for about 11 years, doesn't have a phone, so they arranged last Friday to meet at a certain time at the club for the Fourth of July.
There are quite a few more men than women in both clubs. Recent male immigrants are all over the place, but it's not as easy to find recent female arrivals. It seems like more of the women than men, especially in 2001, are like Hinojosa--U.S. citizens with recent Mexican roots. There are 1.5 times as many Latino men between the ages of 18 and 29 in this country, according to the 2000 census.
Hinojosa, who spends her days as a rehabilitation technician in a local nursing home, says she ventured next door to check out 2009 once, but wasn't at all impressed with the guys. The Mexican men in 2001 are more traditional, more respectful. They know how to treat a woman, she says.
"They are cute over there [at 2009], but I don't like the way they think. They want to see if they can get you drunk and see if they can get you to a hotel. These guys are different," she says, placing her hand on Martinez's shoulder. "They buy you drinks here, but then they ask you out to dinner."
"Cumbia!" an announcer's voice suddenly booms over the speakers perched throughout the high, black-ceilinged building.
Pairs filter to the middle of the space from the ranch-style oak walls, the handful of bars, the pool-table room in a back corner, and the raised table and stool areas at the far ends of the room. They file onto the giant floor by the hundreds to dance cumbia, a kind of music as well as dance originally from Colombia but also popular in Mexico.
Shiny cowboy boots begin shuffling to the hectic um-pa-bum beat; blue jean-clad and miniskirt-bare knees bend. The dance floor becomes a sea of crisp-collared shirts and shimmering, tight blouses; thin, groomed moustached mugs and made-up complexions (no shortage of red lipstick); bobbing black Stetson hats pulled low and in perfect sync with dark, styled, gradually disheveling heads of hair.
Another Fourth of July party unfolds next door at Escapade 2009, where Spanish trickles off most tongues and the clientele's Latin blood runs just as deep. But the 2009 scene is markedly different. An ATM is positioned near the main entrance. Red, white and blue electronic images of the U.S. flag occupy a giant screen stretching above and across one side of the dance floor, a stark contrast from the green, red and white Mexican banner dangling prominently from a high oak beam near 2001's entrance.
Digital photos of female patrons and flashing reminders of the $500 raffle prize alternate on 2009's screen with the Stars and Stripes. (Both clubs' Friday and Saturday-night raffle prize has since changed to a full car-stereo system, given away every Sunday at both venues.)
There aren't many cowboy boots here. At the edge of the floor, a guy wearing jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and Doc Martens twirls in circles to a throbbing techno tune--arms out, curly, brown hair flopping just above his shoulders in the smoky air. A few feet away, a mixed-sex circle of clean-cut, wholesome-looking revelers steps in place to the rapid beat. Not far from them, closer to the center, a number of couples in sleek, dark clothes dance connected to their partners, bumping and grinding to the music.
The huge dance club reminds 23-three-year-old Jose Luis Rodriguez of the venues he used to frequent back home in Guadalajara, Mexico's third-largest city--only 2009 is bigger. "I like to dance, and I like the music they play here. I live in an apartment and we can't play our music loud there," the construction worker says between turns in a laid-back pool game upstairs with a friend. The girls they came with are downstairs dancing. "You don't have to have a partner here," he says. "You can dance how you want...It's modern." Rodriguez's look is decidedly hipper than the cowboys in 2001; his hair is slicked into a neat, straight ponytail, and a tiny cell phone dangles from a belt loop. "In 2001, I can't dance by myself. They're going to look at me like I'm crazy."
Not far from the pool tables are a couple of double doors. They lead to Club Arriba, the flashy new salsa and merengue dance space within Club 2009. A frantic, clopping merengue beat blasts on the other side of the doors. A subtle mix of smoke, sweat and cologne is more noticeable in the smaller, packed space. Along the wall across from the entrance, a row of multicolored leather booths curve around little round-topped tables. A thin, white curtain runs behind the booths. An elaborate lighting system manipulates the brightness and color of the light that shows through the curtain.
Twenty-one-year-old Yolanda Sanchez kisses and cuddles with a new acquaintance in a booth with red background lighting. Many of the young women lived exclusively with their parents before immigrating to the United States, and they're experiencing their first tastes of freedom here. Sanchez, who came to Dallas from Mexico City about five years ago, hits 2009 with her roommate every Saturday. They usually stick around, dancing and meeting guys, until the club's doors close. When asked over the telephone what type of guys she looks for, she immediately responds, "The cutest ones."
Twenty-two-year-old Brenda Cruz, who works at a liquor store, has been hitting 2009 with her girlfriends almost every weekend since Club Arriba opened. Tonight, the four of them--all Thomas Jefferson High School graduates--are decked out in slinky black ensembles. They're taking a conversation break, standing in a circle in Arriba's bathroom.
"It's pretty big, so you get to see lots of different faces. When you get bored downstairs, you go upstairs, and when you get bored upstairs, you go downstairs. When they play salsa, we usually go downstairs. That's not most Mexicans' thing," says Cruz, who immigrated to Dallas from Guadalajara when she was 7 or 8.
She and her friends have tried 2001 but aren't as enthusiastic. "If you go with a partner, that's cool. But not to look for no guys. It's not the way I like guys to dress. I don't like them with the hat. I like them looking preppy."
While 2009 is similar downstairs to many a Dallas 18-and-up club, Arriba is a Miami-flavored venue. The dance floor is a collage of trendy black shoes with zippers, buckles and straps; the girls wear black Lycra pants, slinky dresses and pleated slacks; midriff tops and tight, ribbed shirts. The light catches lots of glittery eye shadow and dark, gelled hair. Hips swivel and arms swing to an incessant, pulsating merengue beat.
By the time last call rolls around at 2 a.m., the guy who had been twirling in euphoric circles by himself downstairs at 2009 is now twisting, turning and spinning, both physically and mentally. He has stripped off his long-sleeved T-shirt and is using it as a dance prop, moving across the now less-crowded floor in a white, old-man undershirt with, of all things, a dance partner. The piece of clothing is stretched like a piece of baby-blue toffee between their sweaty bodies.
The performance doesn't last long. He soon stumbles--then falls--on the hard floor. His partner pulls him up the first time. The second time, he pulls her down with him. He manages to roll on top of her before a couple of acquaintances pull him off.
A number of brightly colored balloons, festive decorations tied in clusters here and there at the beginning of the night, have floated to the black ceiling, their once-dangling ribbons caught in the intricate lighting system overlooking these dancers' closing act.
Shortly before 3 a.m., both venues start shutting down. Patrons begin the long process of trickling in pairs and clusters into the night. Bartenders clean their prospective stations and close down the registers. Other employees stack chairs and stools, wipe off counters and tabletops, sweep the deserted dance floor and lock all the doors.
With the disc jockey done for the night inside, the noise floats outside with the crowd. Telephone-number swaps and goodnight smooches abound. A guy in a tight yellow T-shirt asks a group of girls in trendy, open-toed dress sandals where they're from. They all chat briefly, then one with straight, bleach-blonde hair lingers while the others head toward their car.
"Are you coming?" one of the friends hollers in Spanish toward the straggler.
The guy doesn't want the party to end. "Where are you going now?" he asks.
"To bed," she says, and heads toward her ride.
A man in a white pickup truck vrooms out from the back of 2001, nearly mowing over another girl walking across the parking lot. New, bright lot lights shine through a rolled-down window and catch a bloodied nose--presumably the product of a fight.
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More than one patron stumbles. Car doors slam, engines start, radios blast.
Dallas' invisible population, illuminated in the club lights for one night, morphs back into the night. Most will wake up in cramped apartments, many to a crying baby, ticked-off spouse, snoring roommate, noisy neighbors or street traffic. Most will wake up facing a day of hard work.
Back to reality.
Cheryl Smith is a Dallas-based freelance writer who has worked in Mexico and on the Texas-Mexico border as a journalist.