Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, India - Heavily made-up, shimmering with fake diamonds and a sequinned body-hugging dress to match, Disco Laxmi is a sensation when she descends on the stage before a rapt audience - mostly men. Some clap, some whistle. For many it is their closest brush with glamour.
Amid flashing stage lights and garish props, the performance kicks off just after dark. At the beginning, it is like any other Bollywood-inspired dance show that have become a mainstay of India's cultural landscape. Laxmi is enthralling the crowds with a non-stop medley of popular dance numbers.
The 17-year-old is soon joined by a sprightly bunch of fellow dancing girls. Like Laxmi, they too have taken stage names ranging from those of real film actresses to exotic fruits and celestial nymphs notorious for the art of seduction.
The dance and banter continue up to midnight, when the scene starts to change rapidly. The show is now well past the "family" hours, and the few women and children watching have long since disappeared. It is only men who remain in the audience.
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Disco Laxmi and the team now must tantalise their male audience. The songs become racy, the costumes risqué, and the dances raunchy. As Indian rupee notes begin to rain on the stage, vigilant managers backstage order the girls to push their limits.
The girls have little choice. "If the managers don't make enough money, we will not have the job. Only girls who are prepared to do everything to bring in more money can survive here," says Laxmi. But just when the girls think their ordeal is coming to an end, it often gets worse. As the show draws closer to an end in the early hours of the morning, many dancers are coerced into having sex with men who have stayed on and are willing to part with more cash.
"It is common for dancing girls to be forced into having sex with men after the strip dance session. Sometimes the unwilling girls get raped by 8 to 10 men," says Ram Mohan, a social worker whose organisation HELP works with dancing girls.
In recent years, strip dance companies have mushroomed in India's southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh. Many of these companies prey on traditional dancers who have lost their livelihood to television, cinema and other modern forms of entertainment. Dancers who for generations have entertained thousands during festivals and religious events are now confined to stifling ghettos in small towns and driven to destitution and despair.
The market town of Chilakaluripet, home to a large community of traditional dancers, has become one of the favourite hunting grounds for recruiting vulnerable girls. "My younger brother and I would have starved to death and gone unnoticed. We had no money left and joining a dance troupe was my only option for survival," says 19-year-old Radha.
Orphaned when she was barely in her teens, Radha never went to school. She learned to dance watching her mother practice at home. She now tours the state with other girls performing nude dance shows at festivals and secretly held private parties.
The shows are marketed as entertainment events and often organised around festivals and local fairs to cash in on the large number of people. The performances are usually staged in areas away from public glare. Though illegal, the shows happen year-round and are fast becoming a popular form of edgy entertainment and a staple of the forced sex trade.
S Umapati, an Additional Director of Andhra Pradesh Police Academy, says nude dancing is a crime. "Police will take action to stop such practices. Also, in the guise of dance shows, prostitution is happening which should be stopped everywhere - it is also a form of child trafficking," he said.
Already stigmatised for being in a profession deemed among the lowest in the social hierarchy, the traditional dancers have now come to be associated with sex work, leading to further social exclusion.
Many dancers are employed for only a few months each year, when they are booked to perform at local festivals. Periods in-between are often desperate. "We have to earn as much money as possible during the festive season," says 23-year-old Rathna. Relentless work often means being herded like cattle from one place to another during the day and being forced to strip naked at night.
The girls are graded by their looks and sexual earning potential. Even those at the top make fewer than $1,000 in a year, while others survive on just a few hundred. "There are days when we go without food. We are not skilled for any other job, and more so nobody would employ us," says Meena.
Girls as young as 12 can be pushed into the trade to support their family. "My daughter is nine years old and goes to school. I want her to continue her education but can't afford it anymore. I worry all the time that she too will end up in a strip dance troupe and be forced into sex work," says 26-year-old Raji.
"I kept my daughter away from this trade to give her a good life and now all my dreams are shattered. We can never hope to have a future."
- Venkateshwari, 37
From dance troupe managers to show organisers, audience and even moneylenders, dancing girls are treated like slaves and repeatedly subjected to sexual assault, often involving physical violence. "If I dare to resist, I will have nowhere else to go," says a dancer, Raji, who is also battling HIV.
Many dancers have contracted the virus and passed it to their children when they were born, and almost every family in the community has an infected member or relative. At 35, Meena is fighting her failing health and fading looks, which she needs to earn money. She, her husband and both their children are HIV-positive. Between bouts of severe illness when she is confined to bed, Meena takes all offers she can find for strip-dance performances and sex work in far-flung places.
As a result of HIV's spread, very young girls are pushed into sex work to support their families. Preventing this is a huge challenge for organisations supporting traditional dancer communities. "Second-generation prostitution is the least intervened route of trafficking of children into sexual slavery. The abuse of a child starts from early childhood itself," says SV Bhavani of child rights organisation Plan India, which is running a programme on child protection that provides health support to families.
A 2008 Plan study involving more than 800 children in communities where women are engaged in traditional sex work in Andhra Pradesh found that two out of every three girls are involved in commercial sexual exploitation. By the age of 13, some girls are forced to entertain customers regularly. While the girls face varying forms of sexual abuse, boys often become substance abusers or pimps.
The abuse of children is so rife that nearly one-third of them reported that they feel nothing wrong about it. The study, which was not circulated externally, also showed that nearly 90 percent of children in such communities are not in school. The minority of these children who do attend school face discrimination and condemnation by their peers and others. "Nobody talks to me in my class. I have no friends," says 6-year-old Sujatha.
In the village of Chilakaluripet, seemingly every household has a story of loss and despair. Venkateshwari, 37, says her daughter's engagement was called off when the groom's family learned about her family's status. "I kept my daughter away from this trade to give her a good life and now all my dreams are shattered. We can never hope to have a future," she says.
People from Venkateshwari's community seldom find any marriage prospects outside. Disco Laxmi has long given up hopes of finding a partner. She cannot muster the courage to get herself tested for HIV. "I just want to make as much money as possible to pay off my debts and to give my daughter an education," she says.
Meanwhile, a number of girls are getting ready for a week-long tour of rural districts. Retired dancers who have taken the role of stay-at-home mothers huddle the children together. Made-up and ready, the girls nervously wait for their transport to arrive. Soon, their managers turn up. As their young children begin to cry, the girls leave, promising them food and sweets when they return.
Names of case studies have been changed.
Davinder Kumar is the press officer of Plan International.