How does one sum up three intense days in a city of twenty million people? I could weave a dozen stories out of my quickie stay in Mexico City last week. Instead I thought I’d zero in on one.
On Friday night, I took a taxi from the posh neighborhood of Polanco, my home during the stay, to visit friends at their apartment in the historic core of the capital, just a few blocks from the Zócalo. I had met Sandra and Pedro when they were living in Brooklyn a few years ago, before they set off for their long trip around Asia and then settled back in Mexico City. I always appreciated their creative energy and the keen interest in what they call Minor Monuments (title of their beautiful book of photography), everyday objects which have been disassociated from their original function and in turn became minor monuments. I knew I had the perfect hosts for my Friday night in Distrito Federal.
Our first stop was Dos Naciones (Bolívar #58A), a small upstairs bar with live music where bleach-haired ladies clad in tight lycra dresses dance with men, for a fee. This was the first destination on our tour of peso-for-dance halls, which are slowly fading from Mexico City. These cabaret-style spots were once the pinnacle of decadence that arose out of the social liberalism movement of the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s, Mexico City was famed for its buzzing dance floors that saw top musicians perform Latin music while celebrities, politicians, artists and bar girls downed tequila and boogied the nights away.
These clubs are known as ficheras – ficha means token – since the dancers collected tokens for the dance with the men who frequented these places. Another token bought a little post-dance conversation too. These tokens were later cashed in for money. Tokens have all but disappeared from these clubs, where the payment is now in hard cash. Just like the tokens, the ficheras are slowly disappearing with the advent of strip clubs that started mushrooming in the 1990s. Now almost a relic of sorts, only a few remain in Mexico City.
What struck me was the seriousness with which the women took their job. They would often get up to dance and proceed to do so with incredible precision and immaculate rhythm yet without a single smile or a twitch on their face. As Pedro explained: “They’re probably thinking about the laundry they have to do tomorrow or preparing breakfast for their children first thing in the morning.”
Indeed, for a lot of these women, dancing has become a side job. In the past, “taxi dancers” (as dancers for hire were once called) could actually make their living with these night gigs, often supporting entire families with their work on the dance floor.
When we moved on to the next dance hall, a garish cabaret called Casa Blanca (Plaza Vizcainas), with lots of kitschy lighting and a more formal atmosphere, I could feel the poignancy of this dying breed of social interaction. Some of these working-class women sat alone at their tables, waiting and waiting for a man to invite them for a dance. Others danced non-stop. There was clear competition between the women, and lots of politics, but also camaraderie.
I sat at my table, surreptitiously shooting video and taking photos, feeling as if I’ve stumbled into a parallel universe. A universe where a simple token buys lonely men a dance, a little romance, and a conversation. With the table dancers and strippers pushing ficheras out of the picture, I was witnessing a touching testament to an almost lost time. A remnant of a social and cultural phenomenon that’s close to extinction, so worth capturing and documenting…
At one point, as we were watching the working-class wives and mothers twirl on the dance floor with the taxi drivers and construction workers on their night off, Pedro said to me over loud cumbia: “If only more people danced with each other, this world would be a better place.”