Text by LOU ANN WALKER Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK.
Dancing partners in Florida.
Single women of a certain age go to Miami, to retire or just to dance ‑ with ageing gigolos like Lucky Kargo.
Just a gigolo: 70-year-old former chorus boy Lucky Kargo.
And Bill Hering, one of his younger rivals, with dancing patners Virgie Hacker and Ginnie Seager.
In the dining room of the Sun Spa hotel, near Miami, Lucky Kargo, a broad‑shouldered man with an 88‑key grin, is carefully twirling a frail lady in a cornflower blue dress. The band plays "I'm Just a Gigolo". Kargo, 70, the recent winner of a senior citizens' bench‑pressing contest, was once a Broadway dancer and an actor on television and in B‑movies. He's clearly restraining himself, but, as he tosses his head back for a big, stagey laugh, the woman adjusts her glasses and peers up at him lovingly. Well into her eighties, with a dowager hump and matchstick arms and legs, she smiles, apparently thrilled by Kargo's act of delicious danger. "They like that sexy man‑appeal," Kargo later confides.
The exchange will be repeated countless times this evening throughout the southern Florida world of Latin and ballroom dancing. It's an economy largely driven by the presence of elderly women: housewives, bank clerks, managers of family real estate and society grande dames, ranging from their sixties to their nineties, who have come to dispel the blues of winter. They take the dance lessons that the Sun Spa, like many local hotels, offers its residents during the day. Then, six nights a week, there is the "cabaret". For a $6 fee, a woman can rent a male partner for a two‑minute dance ‑ and the chance, however momentary, to scintillate.
Providing this service are men like Kargo: suave, gentlemanly ballroom dancers, aged 20 to 85, who know how to play the part of Fred Astaire. Of the $6 paid to the hotel, Kargo pockets $3.60 and hopes for tips. On a good night, he can squeeze in 15 to 20 dances; and, after a few hours at Sun Spa, Kargo and other dancers often wind up at yet another dance hall.
Age shall not wither them: Gino Tranchida dancing with Eve Milgrim Linet.
The women are paying, but Lucky Kargo insists there's 'no hanky‑panky’.
These male dancers are treated like pashas. They hand out business cards to attract private clients. An hour‑long dance lesson at home usually costs $60 ‑ "but no hanky‑panky," says Kargo. They also attend charity functions, for which they charge $150 to $200 a night. But the cost of upkeep is high ‑ all those nice suits, dancing shoes, manicures and haircuts. And the Miami dance world is full of intrigue. Competition for well‑paying clients is fierce, and the older men are constantly jealous of the young upstarts. One woman in her eighties loved dancing so much that she hired two instructors and never told either about the other.
For aspiring Rita Hayworths, the Sun Spa is only the beginning. There are dance studios, where clients are encouraged to sign up for lessons, and weekly parties at which the women try out their new skills. There are also dance competitions, often in exotic locations, which require plane fares, entry fees of several hundred dollars, and gowns, specially designed for each type of dance, such as the tango or bolero, which can cost up to $5,000. No wonder some women are cautious about telling their families about their dancing. When one, who a had never been happier than with her dancing instructor, told her sons in Chicago, she was quickly shipped off to a nursing home.
At ballrooms such as Mr Dance or Margo's, the women mingle with the professionals, sitting at long tables in folding chairs, and often staking out the same seat week after week. Some ballrooms offer a tea‑dance matinée for those who don't like to go out in the evening. They are open only two or three nights a week, and the crowds shift from place to place, prompting feuds among the owners, who have been known to call the fire inspector in order to have a competitor closed down.
Guys and dolls: for $6, a woman can rent a male partner for a two‑minute dance ‑ and the chance to be the centre of his attention, if only for a moment. The dance halls in southern Florida (clockwise from above: Luigi's Italian American Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Mr Dance in Miami; Dance Showcase in the Hilton Hotel, Miami; and Margo's Dance Hall in Miami) compete for the patronage of these wealthy dowagers.
Sex is always in the air. Sometimes, women throw themselves at the men. Lucky laughs as a tiny woman jumps on the lap of a colleague, Paul Pastore, and licks his cheek. "Dear, do you want to go home now?" asks Ruth, a doctor's wife. "I have all kinds of money and I spend it!" Paul is regretful. He gazes as she inches crablike to the door. "In one week I could get a Cadillac," he says wistfully.
Men like Lucky Kargo and his big rivals, Gino Tranchida and André Chiasson ‑ a French-Canadian considered the dean of Miami's dance world ‑ have bounced in and out of the dancing world. Kargo always keeps a scrapbook in the boot of his car in case he meets an interesting woman. Leafing through its tattered pages, he points out the phases in his life when he was variously Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. He turned up in Miami after years spent squiring women around Las Vegas and California while trying to make it as an actor. He lists jealous husbands high on his curriculum vitae. "I was caught two times jumping out of windows, three times running out of the apartment, and once I hid underneath the car," he says.
Gino Tranchida's trademark is fluffy white hair, long at the back; he once had a hair‑styling salon. At a fancy over‑fifties singles bar, he's sitting with Danielle, a wide‑eyed sixtysomething. He pats her on the shoulder, on the bottom, and on the back. He readjusts his large diamond pinkie ring and heavy gold bracelet. Danielle announces brightly that she's heading to the "little girl's room". "I dance with a lotta ladies," Gino boasts. "You know what I am? The eligible bachelor."
These men have to make their money quickly: the Miami dance season is short. "It's Death Valley days here by May," says André Chiasson. In the off‑season, Kargo might work at a fleamarket stand or in a supermarket. Others install windows or sell aluminium sheeting.
The women keep coming back because they love to be in someone's arms. "That's what money is for," one woman says. "You pay to get your nails done, you pay for a good time. What the hell? Tomorrow it could be all over."