Sat, Nov 11, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Patpong's go-go dancers gyrate to new rhythms

Dance classes provided by a non-governmental organization aim to instill a sense of self-respect in some of Thailand's most vulnerable laborers

By Peter Janssen  /  DPA , BANGKOK

Bar workers wait for clients in front of a bar on Patpong Street, central Bangkok.


Go-go dancing, the not-so-refined art of gyrating in a bikini, or less, in bars, has been a staple of Thailand's booming night entertainment industry for decades.

According to sleaze historians, the dance style began on Patpong Street — Bangkok's notorious red light tourist district — during the Vietnam war at the Grand Prix bar, when the American owner had the bright idea of getting his girls to dance, minimally dressed, on a small stage.

Since then, Bangkok go-go dancing hasn't developed much as an art form.

But things may be changing.

This week Empower, a non-governmental organization established in 1985 to promote women's rights in the entertainment industry, added instruction in classical dance to its curriculum of non-formal education for sex workers on Patpong, where an estimated 5,000 women are employed in bars.

The first dance class, attracting about 20 students, was held Wednesday at Empower's office on Patpong, two floors above the Super Pussy Bar.

"The Non-Formal Education Department has agreed that dancing is a profession that could qualify for a certificate," said Empower director and founder Chantawipa Apisuk.

Empower, which stands for Education Means Protection of Women Engaged in Recreation, has been providing non-formal courses to sex workers in Bangkok for the past 13 years at its so-called Empower University on Patpong, which offers high school graduation certificates from the Ministry of Education.

"Many of our graduates have gone on the attend university," said Chantawipa. "They are ex-sex workers, but also lawyers, psychologists, accountants and journalists."

Offering basic dance courses to Patpong sex workers was a response to popular demand.

"Here the teachers and students, and the students are teachers. If people want to study dance we provide it," said Chantawipa.

The dance instruction is in keeping with Empower's philosophy of instilling self-confidence and self-respect among sex workers, who are some of Thailand's most vulnerable laborers.

"In teaching dance we're promoting their profession to let them know that what they are doing is not bad or criminal. It could be professional," said Chantawipa.

While prostitution is illegal in Thailand, go-go dancing is not.

Empower's first dance class for about 15 Patpong go-go girls, and five go-go guys, provided instruction in Spanish classics — flamenco and jota.

Malu Boix, a Spanish social-worker-cum-amateur-dancer, provided the instruction.

"It was a lot of fun. The girls said they wanted me to come back next week so I will," said Boix, who heard of Empower in Spain at a seminar attended by Chantawipa.

Boix admitted that while the Thai students were quick to pick up the hand movements of Spanish dance — not too different from the delicate hand pirouettes of Thai classical dance — it might take longer to instill the flamenco spirit into them.

"I don't think I can make the girls dance with Spanish passion, but I think if they understand Spanish music and dance they may better understand their Spanish customers," said Boix.

Go-go dancing is, ultimately, a customer-driven dance form.

"It's up to the personality of each student whether they can really learn to dance Spanish style," said Sai Chon, 32, one of Boix's more gifted pupils.

Sai, a receptionist, said she was interested in learning how to flamenco because she had already studied other classical dance forms such as ballroom and tango and wanted to expand her repertoire.

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