MEXICO CITY – Mirna Torres salsas with a gray-bearded man for $1.50 a dance in the Barba Azul, a dark yet garish cabaret decorated like an erotic carnival fun house.
The place is nearly empty, looking as neglected as its bas-reliefs of voluptuous naked women, some with broken nipples and missing feet.
The cabarets marked a Roman Catholic nation's emerging social liberalism in the 1930s and 1940s, with revelers, celebrities, senators and artists twirling tequila-chugging bargirls on packed dance floors.
Torres put her daughter through medical school with the money she earned from this subtle sort of escort work, where a token bought a little romance as well as a dance.
Now the clubs are being wiped out by gringo-style strip joints, where surgically enhanced 20-year-old table dancers squirm near-naked on men's laps for $20.
"The table dancers are shameless, naked. We still had innocence," said Torres, 54, whose white top hugs an ample figure and whose enhancements do not go beyond a little collagen in the lips and a perm.
Mexico's top musicians played the cabarets, known as ficheras because dancers collect tokens — or fichas — worth $1 to $2 for each dance or drink a man buys. At the end of the night, they cash in their fichas for money.
From more than 50 in central Mexico City in the mid-20th century, perhaps a half dozen true fichera clubs remain today — the latest casualty was the Bombay, where Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos, painter Jose Luis Cuevas and Ernesto "Che" Guevara supposedly graced the dance floor.
The phenomenon was so popular it even spawned a film genre, with fichera movies titillating Mexican audiences in the 1970s.
"It is a relic of a different era in the history of pleasure in Mexico City," said local historian Armando Aguilar, who gives tours of the downtown cantinas and historical night spots. "Both the table dance and fichera clubs are based on sex, with a seamy underside. But with ficheras, there is the expectation of romance, dance and conversation."
The downfall of the ficheras began with Mexico City's earthquake and economic collapse in the 1980s, which battered the capital's nightlife and forced all kinds of clubs to close. It was the arrival of hundreds of table dance clubs beginning in the 1990s, however, that was most devastating.
Strip clubs have become so common, they have spawned the Spanglish words "teiboldance" for the dance and "teibolera" for the dancers. In the capital's historic center and Zona Rosa tourist districts, swarms of street promoters in cheap suits chase down passing men offering "teiboldance, chicas, chicas, no cover."
Ficheras did not strip in the clubs but were notorious flirts. Dates sometimes led to sex in the love hotels that popped up around the dance halls. But not always.
In a recent book profiling Mexico City, a fichera dancer told the author that a man paid her to do nothing more than eat rose petals in the nude.
Today the dancers look like the worn-out, working-class wives and mothers they are, their short skirts stretched over plump thighs.
Rocio Jimenez, a 57-year-old grandmother, claims to be Mexico City's oldest fichera dancer with 32 years on the job, most recently in Dos Naciones cabaret.
She says she began dancing to feed her 5-year-old twins when the factory she worked at closed down.
Her hair is defiantly gray and her lower jaw bruised purple from cheap dental surgery. The decades of late nights, tequila and hours spent fending off aggressive hands have left their mark. She gets up slowly from her chair with the help of the table.
But her eyes are still sharp and moisten when she recalls the good old days.
"Before it was romantic, Bohemian," she said. "The man would offer the woman a flower and a dance."
Torres agrees that fichera work can be harsh and tiring, but she had few other options when her marriage fell apart.
"There were stories of love here," she said of the place where she has worked for 15 years.
The Barba Azul, or Blue Beard, in the gritty Obrera district seems an odd place to find love, with its sky-blue walls sporting 3-D reliefs of nude women, the crackling flames of hell and Blue Beard himself, the fairy-tale French nobleman who killed his many wives.
A live band plays Cuban son and salsa music, and the mostly older men — some courtly, some drunk, others aging Lotharios with dyed hair and heavy jewelry — gallantly lead the ficheras in elaborate twirls and spins.
"This is a place for men who love to dance with women," said Manuel Rojas, 55, manager of a small Mexico City hotel who looks devilish dressed in black with a gray-pointed beard.
The Barba Azul is hopping compared to the legendary San Francisco cabaret, where hundreds of tables are empty and an unused conga drum sits on the vacant bandstand.
Historian Aguilar jokes it should be part of an "archaeological tour."
Elizabeth Fernandez, a grandmother at 39, says the San Francisco has 30 women on staff, compared to 300 in the days when ficheras earned enough to stay in nice hotels and eat in good restaurants.
"Now we can't even pay the rent," Sanchez said.
She said most of her dancer friends now run food stands or clothing stalls in Mexico City's hardscrabble Tepito district.
Fernandez continues at the San Francisco, living the 1930 Rodgers and Hart song of taxi dancers who go home exhausted after a night wrestling with "fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors."
So does Torres, as she waits patiently at a table, legs crossed, snapping gum, for a beau to ask for a dance.
"All that you need is a ticket," the song goes.
"Come on, come on big boy, 10 cents a dance."