Macho Dancer: The Underpaid, Exploited Night Worker

THE enduring myth is that the Philippine macho dancers, those bikini brief or skimpy shorts-clad male dancers at establishments called male entertainment bars or mistakenly known as gay bars, make a lot of money, enough to make them instant rich guys.  But the painful reality is the dancers receive only a measly allowance called budget and can hardly make both ends meet.  They seem to live a hand-to-mouth existence.  These macho dancers are underpaid, working only on a commission basis.

A macho dancer’s (MD) standard budget varies amongst the different macho dancer bars in Metro Manila.  A standard budget can be 150 for a few Makisig boys, 250 for some Adonis erotic dancers, and 400 for several Big Papa strippers and non-strippers.  Their earnings are augmented with cuts on drinks when they are fortunate to be tabled and with tip money if the customers are willing to shell out some cash for the tabled performer’s company and time.  Do all customers who table dancers give gratuities to the latter?  No.  Only a few do.  Most customers or guests are content only with buying drinks for the dancers because they get commissions on their drinks anyway.  Macho dancers can also receive cash rewards from customers who are amused, entertained, or who enjoy certain dance shows or performances.  Remember the sabit thing?  Sabit is a cash reward.  Macho dancers who dance with enthusiasm, life, and confidence are rewarded with cash, which the customers tuck into their bikini briefs or shorts.  But then it RARELY happens that a dancer is given tips or cash reward by his customer or customers.  Only generous guests do that.  Most of the time, a dancer gets nothing and relies only on the commissions he gets from the drinks he downs.  Some bars give 100 pesos per macho dancer or male dancer drink ordered, while other establishments grant 80 pesos.  Still others offer only 60 pesos per male dancer drink.  Adonis and Club Maginoo, reputed to be the more popular and more established macho dancer bars, can only give a 50-peso cut on each male dancer drink, to think a single macho drink at either bar costs a whopping 450 pesos.  The painful truth is that a huge percentage of his drink commissions goes straight to the pockets of the waiter who serves the dancer and his guest, the bartender who thinks he should also get a share of the dancer’s meager earnings because he thinks the dancer owes him one for preparing his drinks, and to the manager who sits him with a guest.  The dancer is a milking cow in the macho dancing world.

Then there is the bar fine cut or VIP room charge commission that he is entitled to if and when he is selected but then it happens only once in a blue moon.  Besides, virtually all macho dancers detest the idea of being taken off the bar for obvious reasons or chosen for a private show in one of those tiny units called VIP rooms.

Most self-righteous people including self-styled moralists condemn these nocturnal workers arguing they “always have a choice” to find a better job.  It is easier said than done.  In a Third World country like the Philippines, where people breed like rabbits, jobs for secondary school graduates or college drop-outs are a miracle waiting to happen.  It is even much harder for those armed only with some college education or vocational training.  Discrimination of all sorts is prevalent in that small, impoverished country south of Taiwan.  Do you think these macho dancers wanted to be dancers in the first place?  No.  Circumstances forced them to work as such to earn a living so they could bridge hunger.

Many of these men were duped and lured by floor managers, majority of whom are effeminate or transvestites, who promised them huge earnings each night they came to work and dance naked or half-naked … and dance to no end… before a captivated crowd.  They are amongst the most exploited workers in the so-called male entertainment industry but the bar owners, the floor managers, and the bar operations in-charge counter they do not exploit these workers.  They argue that the dancers are obligated to help generate income for the bars which undeniably stage nude shows involving some dancers who are forced to participate against their will.

It is true that circumstances goaded these men to enter the macho dancing industry.   Abject penury, the desire to improve one’s economic status, the absence of an employable skill, the pressure to support his parents and siblings or his own family, or the difficulty of getting a new job after failing to renew his work contract with a fast-food restaurant or a convenience store forces a young man to try his luck in a macho dancer bar.

Rather than end up as a bystander all his life, an unemployed, out-of-school youth in his late adolescent years (17 or 19), is convinced by a persistent mama sang, who “sees” a potential in the young man, to try his luck as a guest relations officer (GRO) or an MD.  If he is taken as a GRO, it won’t be long before he joins the rest as a dancer.

A recent high school or a vocational training graduate finds it extremely difficult to land a good-paying job and decides that a stint as a guest entertainment officer (or relations officer) or a dancer/model would be a better option, a move supported by a friend/dancer and a bar manager to whom he is introduced for audition.

A young man who has run out of money with which to pay his college tuition and has a tough time getting a job which imposes no restrictions on acquired college education or prior work experience, on the applicant’s height, appearance, or even background is convinced that his only way out of his current situation is by working as a macho dancer.

A roast pig store worker, who happens to have good looks, the height, and an athletic body, is “accidentally” discovered by a macho dancer bar floor manager who happens to be a customer at the shop where he works.  The manager hands him his business card, encouraging and convincing the shocked guy to no end that he can earn double, or even triple, the amount he earns monthly in his current employment.  The young guy seems impressed and, after much thought, he quits his job, contacts the manager, and shows up at the establishment one evening for an audition.

A country boy thinks that he can earn more as a macho dancer than as a farm help or as a full-time tricycle driver.  So he sets out for the metropolis (Metro Manila) in search of a macho dancer bar which may take him in as a performer.

The manager employs the same tactics while window shopping, hoping he can spot or bump into someone he thinks has what it takes to be a macho dancer.  He lies to the innocent man, he flatters him, he impresses him, he convinces him, he nags him, he tries to win his trust, he dupes him, and if he can hypnotize him, he will not hesitate to do so.

It seems there is no job in sight that pays a minimum wage, prompting a man in his early or mid-twenties to turn to his friend hoping the latter can help him get a job, even if the pay is low, as long as he earns.  Little does he know that his good friend turns out to be a bar dancer and he convinces the job-seeker to give macho dancing a shot despite the meager income he gets.  It is better this way, than go hungry, he tells his unemployed pal.  Hesitant at first, the desperate young man finally says “yes”, and on a scheduled evening, he will show up at the bar for his baptism of fire into the world of macho dancing.

Never mind if he is not “macho” at all when he starts working.  Never mind if he is small or lanky or a bit flabby.  Never mind if he is not pleasant looking.  He can “reinvent” himself along the way.

It is true those gifted with great looks and endowed by the Gods have an advantage over those who are not fortunate enough to be attractive.  The gorgeous and the hunky guys are the luckiest amongst them since they are going to be an instant hit and earn more dough.

The naive or uninitiated soon realizes that everything works differently in the establishment he joins.  His earnings, acquired through hard work and constant shedding of sweat (it is terribly hot on stage thanks to the numerous lights on the ceiling), are not all his to keep.  He is obligated to share them with different persons he works with in the place.  He “owes” it to them, as they say.  If he does not give them something, he is certain he won’t be introduced to guests on the succeeding nights and they will despise him.  He has no choice but to share some of his meager earnings, leaving only a small amount for him to take home and whatever is left of his income is not even enough to make both ends meet.  Now, he realizes he is dancing so others can earn since the bar owner does not give them fixed salaries.  He labors for others to survive.   He does not only tire his body to feed himself and the family members dependent on him, but he also feeds the floor manager, the waiter, the bar tender, and even the props man or woman.  He unknowingly allows himself to be exploited by the bar owner who continues to rake in more and more money at the expense of his workers. Such is the reality in the macho dancer world.

It won’t be long before he finally grapples with the shocking, heart-breaking reality that besides his own family, some extended family members, and himself to support with his meager income, he has to help the following folks survive in this dog-eat-dog world:

Floor Manager (FM).  The term “floor manager” is synonymous with “pimp”, since he “parades” and “offers” the macho dancers to interested guests for their selection.  A successful attempt to let a dancer sit at a guest’s table means money for the persistent floor manager who does not only employ flattery, lies, and a lot of convincing, but who also will try to move heaven and earth to get a guest or customer to “table” (or invite) a dancer to join him or her.  The dancer is now “obligated” to give the floor manager a share of whatever he earns for spending time with a guest who may sexually harass him, if he turns out to be a perverted customer.  In the event the dancer declines to give the manager some cash, he is on his way to loosing favor with the manager.  The manager will label the dancer “ingrate” for not “recognizing” and “appreciating” the former’s “so-called efforts” to get him a customer.  The “disappointed” manager will now have a “valid and a justifiable reason” to NOT introduce and “offer” the same dancer the next time guests come to get dancers to spend time with them.  The manager will likely destroy the dancer’s image and reputation as a performer by making up baseless stories about him and his work attitude.   This is to the disadvantage of the innocent macho dancer whose only fault is not sharing his measly earnings with the floor manager on one particular night.  When this “black propaganda” intensifies, the poor dancer will lose customers, and regular and potential ones, brainwashed and duped by scheming floor managers, will now table new dancers.

Waiter.  They move around on the look-out for raised hands, which gestures mean new or additional drink/food requests, the check is needed, they need to go on errands for the guests, or they need to handle inquiries or complaints.  They race up and down if the bar is a two-story establishment.  They shuttle between the guests’ tables and the kitchen or the bar area, they buss plates and eating implements, they move or lift tables and chairs, and they check on each occupied table.  The waiters claim they are the second most overworked macho dancing bar workers, after the macho dancers themselves, yet they do not receive a regular and standard pay, except a nightly allowance of 50 pesos (an allowance is referred to as budget).  However, some do get 100 pesos a night.  No different from the floor managers, they indirectly demand a share of the dancer’s earnings, explaining they wait on tables and serve guests and dancers, whose every possible request the waiter will act on.  Both the waiter and the floor manager assume that a dancer earns a lot from tips every time he gets tabled by a guest.  Such is a myth and the reality is far worse.  The painful truth is that the dancer’s drink commissions go straight to the pockets of the waiter who serves the dancer and his guest, the bartender who thinks he should also get a share of the dancer’s meager earnings because he thinks the dancer owes him one for preparing his drinks, and the floor manager who picks him for a customer to table.  The  dancer is a milking cow in the macho dancing world.

Bartender.  There is not a night that you do not see a bartender with a frowned face.  The man behind the bar-counter seldom grins as if to say it is the end of the world for him.  But he tries to smile back or actually reciprocates your gesture when you flash a friendly grin.  His job is pretty easy, just making sure he prepares and serves the right drink or the requested beverage and logs each drink ordered.  Whatever the waiter requests as long as the product is available, he grants it, preparing drinks for the customers and the “tabled” dancers.  He seems relax standing or sitting behind the counter, sometimes with a kitchen staff, but most of the time, all alone.

Because the dancer engages the services of the bartender through the waiter, the former is now obligated to “pay” the bartender by giving him whatever the dancer can possibly spare for him.  That is the unwritten rule.  Anyone amongst the dancers who dares to challenge this rule is, in effect, “wasting” his chances of getting “tabled” by customers as the bartender, the waiters and the floor managers will now connive to paint a bad image of the dancer and fabricate malicious and damaging stories about him, which they will relay to any customer who may fancy that particular dancer. The dancer will be rejected and the brainwashed customer will choose a new and different dancer with a supposedly “clean” image.

Disk Jockey (DJ).  The disk jockey or DJ is the man responsible for playing the music and songs when the dancers perform one after the other.  The DJ and the dancers coordinate with each other, making sure that the performers are not behind schedule as far as stage presentations or performances are concerned, that the dancers know who dances next, that copies of the songs are submitted to him.  Occasionally, you hear a disk jockey kind of berate a dancer for a sloppy performance or for even a simple mistake, like the failure of the dancer to take off his shirt before he goes on stages.  The former receives instructions from the dancers concerning their choice of songs, when such option is available or granted, though almost always, the dancers dance to the tune of whatever songs the DJ plays even if such songs sound detestable and bad.  When a guest requests a dancer to dance for him, the DJ readily grants such a request so long as he is informed ahead of time, and before the requested performance is carried out.  Most of the time, dance requests are coursed through any of the floor managers or the floor manager himself overseeing the guest and the tabled dancer, and he, in turn, informs the DJ of the request.

The disk jockey has no salary and relies only on an incredibly small allowance given by the bar management.  And how small is small? We are talking about 50 pesos here.  His earnings are augmented by “donations” from the dancers who feel obligated to help him.  The former, along with the floor managers, the waiters, and the bartender, is a financial burden to the dancers who barely survive on their nightly earnings.

Wardrobe Man.  In certain macho dancer bars, management maintains a wardrobe man or woman, whose responsibility is to take care of the dancers’ costumes, including the dancers’ scheduled performance.  For this job, he receives any amounts of cash the dancers are willing to give him.  Instead of the bar management giving him a basic salary, it is the dancers who are “given” the responsibility of “paying” him for his services.

Bar Owner.  The Bar Owner, too, is a financial burden to the dancer.  Through the bar in-charge, he collects monetary contributions to defray the costs of production props, securing work permits and the drinking water supply.  One Quezon City-based macho dancer bar does not offer free drinking water to its dancers.  Everything seems to come with a price.  He not only complicates a dancer’s life, he also deprives him of what is legally due him:  no Social Security benefits and state health insurance membership, for instance.

Instead of the owner owing the bar dancers a debt of gratitude, it is the other way around.  He wants that the macho dancers “worship” the owner as a god or goddess, and what better way to show such homage to him or her than to plant a kiss or two on the opportunistic bar proprietor or proprietress, short of porking him or her.  He or she does not fail to impress upon the dancers the false reality that without him or her they, the dancers, won’t earn.  What an evil thing to say to the very people who labor from mid-evening until after sun-up, or worse, until almost 8AM at one particular Quezon City-based macho dancer establishment, just so the bar generates revenues.  The macho dancers allow themselves to be exploited by bar owners and floor managers in exchange for a small work allowance, which sadly and disappointingly cannot even allow one to survive on a single day.  What can you get with a 200-peso nightly work allowance?  At some macho dancer bars, 150 pesos is the basic nightly work allowance given to the poor dancers.  And if you think 150 pesos is the smallest amount one can get paid for dancing all night, think again.  At Quiapo-based Apollo 14th KTV Disco Bar and Resto, a sprawling, dark and hot place located in the basement of an old building, 75 pesos is what a few dancers receive each night.

The owner, upon the constant advice of his OIC, stands pat on his decision to not grant a salary to the bar dancers, waiters, and managers.  The only salaried bar members are the OIC and the doorman.  The rest rely on drink commissions and on gratuities.  Standard monthly salaries are frowned upon because giving such will only affect the owner’s monthly net income and he does not want to incur additional operating expenses, a large chunk of which is the regular police protection payment.  The lesser the expenses, the better it is for the owner to earn more and continue to be rich.  The no-salary-for-the-macho dancers-policy is justified as “legitimate.”  The proprietor does not care about the welfare of the dancers.  His law is plain and simple: you dance, get “tabled”, drink and drink more when the guest agrees to buy him drinks, and earn money for the bar, and if you don’t like your job, by all means, pack up and leave for good.

The owner owes the macho dancer a debt of gratitude for the latter works and enslaves himself for the establishment to earn.  It is not the other way around.

How much is left of the dancer’s earnings?

Maybe 200 pesos, 250 pesos, 300 pesos, 350 pesos, or 400 pesos.  If he is tabled and given a tip money of say, 500 pesos to 1,000 pesos, he goes home with his budget and tip money while his drink commissions are left with the floor manager who sits him with the customer, the waiter or waiters who serve him and the guest, the bar tender who prepares his drinks, and the disk jockey who plays his songs.  If his tip money is not secretly given to him, that is the floor manager or waiter sees how much is handed to him, the FM and the waiter will get a large chunk of his dough.  If he happens to be a dancer at a particular Pasay City-based male entertainment place, he is expected to share at least 500 pesos with the floor manager who gets him a customer.  Whew!  500 pesos means much to the dancer and the floor manager has the nerve to demand that he be given that amount.  If he gives anything lower than 500 pesos, the floor manager will feel bad about him.

A macho dancer’s life is tough; it’s full of hardships and challenges.  Each night that he is outside his home, he faces danger and uncertainties.  In his work place, he projects a happy disposition but behind that happy face are sadness and worries brought about by the circumstances he is in.  He has several mouths to feed and expenses to shoulder like a sibling’s tuition or his own tuition fees if he is studying, electric and water bills, and installment payments for his motorcycle loan.  He is bogged down by all these things, yet he has to work just so he can earn a measly amount and, in the process, is exploited.  If he is lucky to be tabled by a generous customer who tips him, he knows for sure he has something on the table for the next two days.

He is a human being, too, and deserves to be treated as such and with respect and dignity.

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