Athena the snake charmer took the stage at the dance club Mecca at 12:30 Friday night; 50 pairs of eyes were fixated as the young woman carefully pulled a 6-foot-long python out of a straw basket and wrapped it around her body, Nastassja Kinski-style. "The more you put into it," she said to the cheering audience, "the stronger the spell will be."
Just another night on the L.A. dance club scene, where life begins at midnight and the required dress is black. For the uninitiated, this city does not close down when the last moviegoer exits Westwood. On the barren streets of downtown, in converted theaters, hotel ballrooms, a parking garage and meeting halls, the club rats crawl from spot to spot in search of a doorman who will grant them passage.
They follow deejays like Henry of Vinyl Fetish who play music louder than the surgeon general recommends. And they follow the dance clubs themselves, the underground ones changing location week to week to stay one step ahead of the landlords and the fire marshals. Finding out where they are means being plugged into the club scene. Underground clubs are not listed in the phone book.
Performance art has reared its creative and sometimes pretentious head for the past several months. Themes at various night spots have included "safe sex night," where people came dressed as giant condoms; a "salute to communism" that featured bread lines, and "Adam and Eve Love Night" at Neely O'Hara's where dancers interpreted Martha Graham pantomimes.
It is midnight on Friday in Chinatown. The deejay at Mecca is spinning samba records in the deserted Hong Kong Low Restaurant while a uniformed officer stares with the droopy, blank eyes of a hound dog as two people climb the stairs to the club.
"There are 15 celebrities here," Nick the doorman says with more enthusiasm than conviction as he stamps the backs of the customers' hands. In fact, it's a little slow right now, he concedes, but it should be picking up soon. The customers say they just saw Tom Waits and Nicolas Cage leaving, and Nick says with some assurance that they'll be back. "And," he adds, "we're having a snake charmer at 12:30."
Two dozen people line the walls of the club, seated at tables by the window or at the bar. One woman mambos solo in the middle of the room; she is soon joined by another woman in black spandex pants who aerobicizes wildly to the same music.
In the next half-hour more people filter in; they dance to Brazilian music and the theme from "Hawaii Five-0." Cage and Waits return, taking a table toward the back to talk and watch the dancers while the snake charmer prepares her act.
On a makeshift stage covered with old red and black carpeting Athena goes through her act, wrapping Killer around her leopard-print bikini-clad body, dancing, pretending to cut herself while fake blood cascades down her arm and stomach, and eating fire. She runs off after much applause and the crowd quickly resumes its mamboing.
"I call it a specialty act," Athena says backstage as she wipes the fake blood from her stomach. "You can't really categorize it. It's something to do as I try to break into the motion picture industry."
The python's name, she relates cheerfully, is Killer, and he was raised in captivity. "He thinks he's a person."
Asked if there is much demand for this kind of work, she says no; "There isn't a steady market for it. And most clubs want you to take your top off. I try to get away from that. Tonight I made $75. That's kind of low."
As Athena continues to mop up the blood, a woman comes backstage and gazes in mild shock at the smears of red on Athena's body. "Did you really cut yourself?" she asks.
"Oh, no, that's just my little toy," Athena says, pointing to the fake knife.
As the early pair of customers exit the club, they walk by the uniformed officer who stands in exactly the same position with the same melancholy look on his face.
The two customers travel west from Mecca to the outskirts of downtown to Flaming Colossus, a new club in a converted Knights of Columbus meeting hall. Entrance here is by invitation only, so if your name isn't on the guest list you hope the doorman likes the way you look.
At 1:30 M'Bayero and his Congolese dancers are in the midst of their performance. They pull people from the audience onto the stage and everyone dances together, including one young man who does an approximation of a St. Vitus' dance.
A woman named Barbara from New York is mad about the club. "No one is into anyone else's attitude," she says, mopping sweat from her brow. "You don't have to feel constricted about what you're doing. Clubs in New York that are this small, you have to really find them. This is very tasteful, is what I'm saying. And this has been, like, an incredible week here!" she says. "Coming here is like the topping on the cake."
Flaming Colossus is hardly small by L.A. standards. There is a sizable dance room, decorated with murals, sculptures, potted plants and strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling that bring up the club's African/Caribbean motif.
The crowd here tends toward yuppiedom; older couples in expensive clothes with money to burn, mixing with long-legged lovelies in skin-tight black off-the-shoulder dresses and Fawn Hall-ish hair and an occasional punk. Besides the dance floor there is a restaurant called Vaudeville, serving gourmet cuisine, and another room with a bar and a pool table. At one time the Knights of Columbus probably had this place looking staid but spruced up. Now the music, the smoke and the people drifting from room to room give it the look of a mansion taken over by kids after the parents have left.
The club has three owners; Frederic and Nicolas, two brothers who are French, and a petite woman named Sue Choy. Frederic and Nicolas used to own a restaurant called Paris Mexico Cafe on 3rd Street near the Beverly Center; they since gave that up for this club. "I like to mix French with a little bit of exoticism," Frederic says, explaining the culture clash here. "I won't say it's a success yet. I want to go much more with it, maybe have tango."
Why make it by invitation only? "I want to select the type of people," Frederic says. "I want people who really want to go crazy, but who enjoy the quality of this place. Every week we have a new show of paintings and statues by new artists."
Frederic is tall and trim, with blond hair that falls to his shoulders. He has the kind of good looks that kept attractive women glued to their tables at Paris Mexico as he read off the specials of the day in English tinged with a thick French accent.
Frederic won't reveal his last name. "I'm not in a state of mind to give it," he says. "I'm going to have some food now. Would you like to join me?"
His invitation declined by a young woman customer, he kisses her on both cheeks. As she and her friend leave, the doorman asks, "You have a good time? Good."
Saturday night, a dance club veteran named Nance goes with a friend to Performance at the Variety Arts Theater. Nance, who has recently dyed her blonde hair brown, is good at recognizing famous musicians and Harley Davidson motorcycles. She persuades her friend to stop first at Camp Beverly Hills' reunion party at Helena's, the movie industry hangout on Temple near downtown.
An hour into the party there is a sudden flurry of flashbulbs outside on the balcony. A photographer says Nicolas Cage just rode up on a Harley with 15 bikers in tow.
"WHAT?!" Nance cries, drawing the word out so that it has two syllables. She rushes out but it's too late; Cage and compatriots have fled.
Leaving Helena's at midnight, Nance drives her Suzuki jeep to Performance at the Variety Arts Theatre. A man perched on a four-foot-high concrete lamppost checks names off a guest list. Once inside it's an elevator ride to the club on the roof garden, which is so smoky your eyes begin to sting after 15 minutes.
Performance has a huge sunken dance floor and a deejay named Afrika Islam who mixes dance numbers from a perch overlooking the floor. Tonight is his birthday and he promises cake for the entire crowd, which is well over 1,000.
Nance cruises through the dance floor, past women who do an awkward dance around their handbags, up around the perimeter of the dance floor to check out a man with pink-tipped hair dancing in a go-go cage. She points out Levi Dexter, formerly of the band the Rockats, and mentions his rockabilly haircut. Over at the bar is Josh Richman, an actor who was in the movie "The River's Edge."
"I've seen him walking on Sunset Boulevard," she says. "He always walks with a cane, and he never wears shoes."
Sure enough, Richman's feet are swaddled only in thick white socks.
She walks by a woman with white hair a quarter of an inch long and scarlet lips and admires the look.
As Nance dances to her current favorite dance hit, "Dominatrix," a guy named Guy asks, "You been to any other clubs tonight?"
Then he adds: "My friends and I tried to get into Vertigo," evoking the name of the dance club a few blocks away that's run like the old Studio 54 in New York. "They were sure we'd get picked, but after two hours of waiting I just sat on the curb."
It's time to leave Performance. Nance's bleary eyes widen in disbelief as she spots 10 gleaming Harleys parked outside. "Can we just stand here a minute?" she asks, gazing intently at the bikes. "They're gorgeous. But where are the bikers?"
The owners of the motorcycles never show, and Nance is dragged away against her will. "Wanna drive by Vertigo?" she asks. She heads the jeep there and cruises by, looking for her friend who works the door. She looks at the crowd waiting outside to get in and remarks, "Why do they do that?"