The red neon light flickered boldly with the sign “Indian Dance Bar”. With a mixture of trepidation and curiosity I stepped in and was greeted by pitch black walls that seemed to create an odd cavernous atmosphere, a massive television screen playing an IPL match, a confused manager glancing at me suspiciously and then smiling at my friend V before leading us to a table set up with whisky and vodka bottles, flustered servers hurrying about with bowls of olives, nuts and fruit platters. And of course the main reason I was there- the dancing women. They were on a podium with spot lights and a backdrop of mosaicked mirrors. The dance floor was a cluster of illuminated squares that changed colors with the pace of the music. In a corner a printed paper sign “DJ Booth” was pasted on a glass door.

Some danced and others sat on cushioned benches. They took turns to twirl about but were clearly conserving their energy for when the club filled up. It took me a while to be able to look at them properly as I was too self-conscious (The irony right?). I nursed my surprisingly decent tasting red wine and diverted my eyes between the cricket match that I was the least bit concerned with and talking to V. He’s been a regular at dance bars for a while. While the dancing women do form a part of the allure, there are other reasons pulling men like him here. Drinks are affordable as these bars allow patrons to buy bottles and return to finish them, service is exceptional with the ever-ready waiters and managers rushing to refill half empty glasses and light cigarettes, the food is the right balance of spicy and delicious. With exorbitant cover charges at clubs and the hassle of adhering to strict dress codes, these dance bars are simple and appealing to men who just want to spend all night drinking in a familiar, comfortable atmosphere. But V represents a minority of the male audience here. We’ll get to the others later.

The first thing that surprised me about the women was their outfits. Not sure whether it was the imprint of the Hindi movie ‘Chandni Bar’ in my mind but being that it was Indian bar, I expected to see midriffs in lehengas and backless sari blouses. But here they were in a variety of costumes; mini skirts and fishnet stockings, tiny off shoulder dresses that barely covered bottoms, long mermaid gowns slit till the thighs. It was sequins and spandex galore.

While most of them either avoided my gaze or threw me half-formed smiles, one of them seemed genuinely excited to see me there and waved out to me, the only woman in the audience at that point. Paro was stunning; eyes sparkling with joie de vivre, wavy tresses pulled messily to one side, pouty maroon lips. I found myself mesmerized by her effortless moves accompanied by a twinkling smile that felt so out of place on that podium.

The remuneration system at this bar works like this- they loan the dancers a sizable amount of cash that is meant to be worked off (sort of like the traditional geisha system). The women do not earn a fixed salary. Patrons visiting the bar request songs to be performed by a dancer of their choice with each song having a price from which the women earn a percentage from. It is their ability to build loyal clientele who repeatedly visit with generous wallets that contributes to their income.

While each one possesses a unique style of seduction, adopting their own ratios of naughty, nice, the-girl-next-door, they’re all chasing the same goal- how to hook the men. Their livelihood depends on their sensuality and how successfully they can put on a charade of availability and attainment.

The performances all begin the same way; lights are dimmed, dancers have their back facing the audience, building the anticipation as men sip their Single Malt and beer and wait for the beat to drop. Then they turn and the show begins . Mehek, in a heavily bejeweled anarkali with the mandatory ghungroo, dancing to ‘Salaam-e-Ishq meri jaan‘, being coy and graceful as she swirls about. Sonia with her black snug rexine pants, low enough to show us her beautifully dimpled lower back, hopping about to ‘Ankhiyon-se-goli-maare‘. Paro spinning about madly for the tragic “Awaari” in loose harem pants and a fitted black netted blouse, heaving her abundant cleavage as she writhed on the floor. Arushi belly-dancing with hips I’d kill for to ‘Mashallah’ in a skirt resembling tattered tissues strung together. Most of these women could very easily give Kaif and Padukone a run for their money.

Each of them have their own persona; their body-type, outfits, hair-length, smiles are all fit together to suit a variety of male fetishes. How brazen they choose to be depends on the sort of men they’re targeting. After all, it’s all about milking that testosterone-loaded audience. What was most alarming to me as a woman in the audience was the blatant call to subservience. When a dancer begins performing,  the manager brings out a silver tiara on a velvet cushion to the patron and then motions to her to acknowledge with a grateful salaam. She then spends the rest of the song showering said patron with her undivided attention, unabashedly singling him out with her eyes to prove that her moves are for him. More than the skin-show and sexy jhatkas , it is this act of having someone pay homage to them that the men seem to derive gratification from. No matter how seedy or glamorous dance bars are, this is the purpose of their existence, to satiate a desire to feel powerful in owning someone else, even if it is just for a song.

The other dancers sit on the stage benches, waiting their turn. There is a sense of camaraderie co-existing with wicked desperation as they’re sitting behind cheering each other on. With high stakes and debt to be repaid, the tension is palpable at times when someone who hasn’t been requested for the whole night begins to look worried and stares restlessly. Chanda, with her aquiline nose and thick lashes, scans the crowds loftily, settles her gaze somewhere in the dark sea of men and throws a wistful smile. Paro plays with her hair and giggles while toying with the zip on the edge of her bandage dress.

I watch these women, an assortment of taut bellies and wigs in stilettos and boots, a spectrum of luscious wonders, working while the rest of the world is tucked in bed. I want to tell them so many things- “You are so lovely.” “You deserve better.” “It’s not too late.” I want to reach out and wipe off all the layers of paint hiding their skin, scrub the smoked kohl off their eyes, feed them burgers and ice-creams that they don’t appear to have touched for years.I want to know the songs they love dancing to for their own pleasure.

Later I got to speak to one of them- Heena. She told me about how all the women live together like family, celebrate birthdays and each other’s targets achieved. Some of them receive extravagant gifts like mobile phones, perfumes and watches from generous men. The bar covers their rent and food expenses and places several restrictions on their outings but let them chat with patrons at the bar. She tells me bluntly, “No, we do not sleep with the men.” And with a quick giggle adds, “But if they want to believe we might, we let them.”

Heena was a Martial arts champion in her school. True to this, she is sculpted with perfectly toned muscles and there is immense strength and grace in her poise. Her parents thinks she works at a bank and only her sister knows the truth. When I asked her about her life and if she had any regrets she simply laughed and told me, “I dance, I sweat and I earn. What more is there to living?”

Indeed, what more?