ANGELES CITY, Pampanga – The dressing room is cramped and chaotic. Girls and guys are elbow to elbow on a bench, each busy with his or her own reflection in the mirror.
Emmerson puts on his make-up quickly, surely. He knows exactly how to apply it so his light skin doesn’t look too pale under the lights but still matches the rest of his body which will be exposed when he goes on stage.
The transwomen performers wiggle into their tops to dress up before going on stage. Emmerson takes off his muscle shirt to strip down to tight-fitting boy shorts, and knee-high cowboy boots. The knee pads he is wearing look odd in this ensemble, but they are a safety accessory more than a costume adornment.
The sound of blaring music adds to the chaos, with the DJ, who sounds like he’s annotating a live horse race, providing the only signal of order.
Emmerson hears the familiar introduction that is his cue.
He struts in front of the mirror for one last check of the lavacara (towel or tissue) that adds a suggestive bulk between his legs. He slowly steps out from behind the curtain. On stage, his moves are deliberate, the swivel of his hips just a bit exaggerated. Holding a steady and heated gaze with an audience, he gets down on his knees to arch his back and sensuously run his hands down his chest, stopping to suggestively tug at the top of his boy shorts.
He could imagine performing for someone, but 14 years of dancing have been enough practice to hold a steady heated gaze with the audience. He has memorized this routine of scripted movement that has become somewhat of a cliché for a macho dancer or “hosto” as they are commonly referred to.
“I started dancing when I was 18 back in Manila,” recalled Emmerson.
His girlfriend at the time was working in a bar. She came home with wads of bills each night and he became envious. When her uncle opened a gay bar in Quezon City and was looking for dancers, Emmerson signed up, lured by the prospect of easy money.
And the money came, as much as P2,000 a night in tips and cuts from drinks customers ordered.
Furiously blushing young women would slip a bill into his jock strap and run back to her table of giggling girlfriends out for a bachelorette party. But the real money came from the gay men and the older women with means.
“The matrons,” Emmerson called them, would come in looking for a distraction, or on occasion, company. These were the ones who were heartbroken, newly separated and vengeful. Some were lonely.
The gay guys would keep the drinks pouring, while he kept busy deflecting wandering hands. If it was a guest who he was fond of, Emmerson would tease and say, “Not here. Later.’”
The more aggressive ones are met with a playful rebuke loaded with meaning. “Sinasabihan ko sila pero pabiro. Hindi porke't ganito trabaho namin, pwede kami ganyanin. Namimili din naman kami.” (I tell them off but in a joking way. Just because this is our job, they can do anything they want. We're also choosy.)
Occasionally, a guest will come in and become a benefactor. Emmerson once stopped dancing when a former gay guest gave him P100,000 to start a business.
“I was maybe 19 then,” he recalled. “I was young and not good with finances. The money was quickly gone and the lover disappeared soon after.”
Emmerson went back to dancing, the only other job he had. Dancing was his only skill – that and entertaining both men and women who would seek his company outside of the bar. He learned early on that each clientele needed to be handled differently.
“With the women, you have to court them first. When we meet up outside, we watch a movie, eat out, hold hands – there are feelings.”
The more generous ones take him shopping and buy him clothes. But no money is exchanged. So Emmerson asks that she come visit him in the bar to see him perform.
“Give and take, right? I meet her outside and she comes here where we will sit and order drinks.”
Emmerson gets a P100-cut for each P310 drink she orders and his bar manager gets the impression that he is a marketable asset to the bar.
“The female guests are not as galante (generous) as the males,” said Prezie, the bar manager. “With the women, parang may naka-budget lang para sa bar at ito lang ang gagastusin nila.” (With the women, it’s like they have a cap on what they’re willing to spend at the bar.)
“Our jobs don’t make us bad people. We’re entertainers, we entertain all the people who come through our doors. We make them happy,” said Emmerson.
But he admits getting attached to guests. “Relasyon yan. May feelings, hindi maiiwasan,” he says. (It’s a relationship. There are feelings, you can’t help it.)
Feelings are an occupational hazard. There is the angry cuckolded husband, the jealous rivalries with other dancers from the other bars when they find out they have been keeping the same guest “company”, the one upmanship when comparing gifts and favors.
Now, on a good night, he can make as much as P1,000.
It’s a lot less than what he used to get in Manila, but he considers himself lucky to still have a job. “In this business, the name of the game is face value. At 32, I know I’m getting too old for this. I’m lucky my manager still gave me a chance here,” a grin creeping up on his boyish features.
Emmerson has set a cut-off for himself. He’ll stop dancing at 35, before his body gives way to the forces of time, before he feels the curse of the dancer who refuses to retire when his time is up. “Ayoko makarinig ng, ‘Ay, and tanda naman nyan.’” (I don’t want to hear, "Oh, but he’s so old already.")
He is not sure what he would do when he gets to 35, but insists he only has one regret: not getting a diploma. “I didn’t even finish high school,” he said.
“But you never know, I still might get lucky. I might still meet someone who will take me away from here.” – Rappler.com