The Majestic Ballroom

How Working as a Dance Hall Hostess Led Me to a Life Counseling Cops

I’m often asked how I got started in police psychology.  I grew up in the 1950’s, anticipating a life like my mother’s full of frustration and self-denial in the service of others. My job prospects were limited to teaching and secretarial work.  I thought to escape this fate by becoming an actress. I started acting lessons with a teacher well known for playing Macbeth.

“Acting is physical,” he roared as though still on stage. “Think of Macbeth roaming the halls of his drafty castle in a reeking bearskin cape.  He didn’t wander with furrowed brow in an agony of emotion. He was cold and hungry, his eyes were blurry and his back ached.”

My first acting assignment was to observe people at work.  Observing didn’t come close to satisfying the intensity of my ambition. I wanted more. I wanted to be the person I was observing.  That’s what drew me to the Majestic Ballroom on Times Square. It was the only place I knew where I might get a job the same day I applied for it.  Down the stairs I went, following the neon arrows and the aging photographs of buxom women with sullen, pouty faces. 

The manager, a mousy looking guy with a surprisingly trusting attitude, hired me on the spot after asking if I was a reporter and accepting, without question that I just needed a job. He introduced me to Dorene,  the supervising dance hostess for training. Dorene looked me over, concluded I owned nothing sexy enough for a dance hall hostess and handed me a floor-length strapless tube of stretch jersey with a padded bra that catapulted my bosom into a fleshy shelf.  I squirmed into it, trying not to think about the health habits of its last occupant.

My training was short and to the point. “Tease the clients. Promise something while promising nothing. The longer you hold a customer’s attention, the more dances, drinks, and cigarettes he’ll buy. The more he buys, the more chits you earn. String the guy along until closing time, then have the bouncer throw him out on his ass.” 

I started the day I was hired.  Waiting with the other hostesses in an oval holding pen separated from the dance floor by a low railing. We were a cast of female archetypes. An avatar of Marilyn Monroe smiled provocatively as she shook her pearly blonde wig. Cleopatra assumed a regal pose, clucking disapprovingly at an aging siren with deflated breasts who stood near the door blowing obscene kisses and making juicy smacking sounds to our patrons as they came down the stairs. To one side, a forlorn and disheveled Ophelia talked to no one but herself, her endless babbling an apparent comfort to the steady stream of silent men who paid for her company.

The only woman who talked to me was Marissa. Small, dark-haired and younger than the rest, she wore a simple cocktail dress that zipped down the front so that she could run to the dressing room at breaktime to nurse her baby under the watchful eye of the child’s grandmother. She pointed to the other hostesses.

“Don’t sleep with anyone you don’t love, like those putas,” she whispered with the saintliness of a Madonna and the sad traces of firsthand experience.

Our clients were a motley bunch. Morose and somber, some were barely able to make small talk or eye contact. Others didn’t speak English. Many seemed caught between loneliness and fear, scared of the human contact they had paid for.  No one seemed to be having any fun except for the occasional drunken frat boy who fell through the door on a dare, laughing and shouting obscenities.

Mike was unlike the soggy-faced shufflers who had been stepping on my toes and breathing in my face. He was young and talkative.

 “I chose you,” he said, “because you look different from the other girls.”

I was so elated to be recognized for what I was, not for what I was pretending to be that I poured out my tale.  Dedicated-young-actress-embarked-on-a-meaningful-but-dangerous-venture-into-the-skin-trade-for-the-love-of-theater. My confession must have pierced the armor of his anonymity and scared him into thinking I wanted something in return. An eighth note after the music finished, he bolted across the dance floor and made for the stairs. With his hand on the door, he turned and shouted at me:  “Hey you. My name’s not Mike.”

At closing time we changed into street clothes.  The manager escorted us to the street where a few sleepy security guards watched us drift away. Cleopatra rode off in a  Cadillac with a man who looked to be half her age.  Marilyn Monroe hailed a taxi.  The old siren stuck a cigarette in her nearly toothless mouth and headed to an all night bar. Ophelia skittered off into the darkness. Marissa left with her mother and baby. At the end of the week I tried to transfer the chits I had earned selling drinks to her account, but I was told it was against the rules.

Police officers and dime-a-dance hostesses are very different and I hope I’m not insulting either when I suggest, after years of counseling cops, that they share some similarities. Both need to protect themselves emotionally and psychologically from an ambivalent public that wants them and rejects them in equal measure. The occupational personas they are forced to adopt are tools of the trade; virtual masks that simultaneously crush them and free them to do their jobs. Emotional control is vital to their ability to function in uncertain, potentially explosive circumstances. And social distance is their bulwark against the misery and despair they see everyday. 

The Majestic Ballroom no longer exists, probably replaced by on-line porn sites. Cleopatra,  Ophelia, Marilyn Monroe, and Marissa have gone on to do other things that are, I imagine, less gratifying than the opportunities and experiences I have had. It makes me sad that they will never know how much they influenced my life and for how long.