Blue-Collar Nights

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.

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Cheryl Smith

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