Feet for hire

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2006, 12:00am

Wanted: taxi dancers needed at one of the city's most famous dance halls, to revive a trade from the days of old Shanghai. The newspaper advertisement placed by the Paramount didn't use such language, but it did issue a call for women aged 18 to 30, taller than 165cm, with dance skills. 'Those with a beautiful image, good temperament and a foundation [in dance] given precedence,' it said.

Between that small advert and glowing media coverage, the dance hall has been besieged by applicants. 'The news has spread,' an employee said. 'Everyone is talking about this. We have hundreds of applicants.'

More than 50 years after the Communist Party eliminated the profession of paid dancing partner, it has returned - in another sign that the new Shanghai is becoming more and more like old city. But, this time, the stigma of disguised prostitution has vanished, and the Paramount promises only good, clean fun. Managers say they will call the police if a male dancer harasses his hired partner.

In Shanghai, the job of taxi dancer boomed in the 1930s with the growing popularity of dance halls in the freewheeling port city. Although the work attracted a diverse group of women, some were sophisticated courtesans, earning extra cash, or prostitutes using the venues to find customers, as recounted in the book Dangerous Pleasures by Gail Hershatter of the University of California.

In the old days, customers bought tickets to dance. That practice will continue, at a price of 35 yuan for 10 minutes. The management promises that dancers can earn 2,000 to 10,000 yuan a month, depending on their popularity.

The Kuomintang government tried unsuccessfully to ban taxi dancers in Shanghai in the 1940s. The communist government succeeded in eliminating the trade in the 1950s, by detaining some and moving them to other jobs. Government officials viewed the work as a front for prostitution under the control of organised crime, such as the notorious Green Gang that used to rule Shanghai's underworld.

The Paramount will give the new women a month of dance training, and they must learn seven types of ballroom dancing. Dancers must wear traditional qipao dresses and hairstyles from the 1930s.

Shanghai is now in the throes of a craze for Latin and ballroom dancing, because of a popular TV show that put local television stars on stage. That bodes well for the Paramount's venture. A visit to the dance hall, near Jing'an Temple, reveals a sanitised version of old Shanghai. The building and its magnificent entrance have undergone a costly renovation to return them to their former glory.

Dance coach Peng Xiaohua told local media: 'We will try to bring back every detail of the old Paramount.'