The band manager leaned in, dueling with the guitars and accordions and booming strains of Mexican norteño music. Wait until you see the “legs contest,” he said.
The scene was a nightclub in Moreno Valley, where men in boots and plaid shirts twirled women in tight dresses and high heels.
After midnight, a man with a microphone called for women to join him on the dance floor. Some quickly fell into line. Others had to be egged on by the emcee, a carnival barker-like figure who used raunchy jokes to rile up the men and lure women to come forth.
Thus began the “Concurso de Piernas Sexy.”
The young women twerked, pulled up their skirts to reveal lacy thongs and crawled on the floor as they snatched dollar bills thrown by men clutching bottles of Corona, Modelo and Dos Equis. One woman pulled off her top to flash her breasts, unleashing boisterous cheers from the grateful crowd. Security guards told her to put her shirt back on.
This is the world of the legs contest. They have been part of the Mexican American club scene in Southern California for decades, a variation on the wet T-shirt competitions that has managed to endured as a subculture even in an era when some consider it offensive, crude and decidedly anachronistic.
Bar owners tend to be touchy about talking about the events. But they promote the contests on social media, blasting out photos on Facebook and Instagram showing women in their bras and underwear with money raining down on them.
"People think it’s bad, that it’s vulgar," said one club manager, who like most of those interviewed declined to be named. "But those of us who work in the environment, it’s a form of entertainment, a way to attract people."
It almost always begins well after midnight — sometimes at 1 or 2 a.m. The bleary-eyed hours give the legs contest the feel of the forbidden — something that needs to be kept under wraps.
By then many of the people in the club have had more than a couple of drinks.
When the contest first sprang up, it was exclusively for legs,, the manager of a Pico Rivera club said. Women who bared too much were disqualified. In the 1980s, families would come watch and boyfriends were comfortable with their significant others participating. Clubs would hold finals and sometimes reward the winner with a car — though usually a used one.
As other clubs began to allow contestants to strip down, customers came to expect more and staff found it harder to clamp down on the contest’s growing excesses, the manager said. The contest gave birth to a kind of competitive circuit.
With the money the contest brings in for clubs vying for larger crowds, the manager said, there are no plans to end it.
Like other contests that may be held at a business, there is a line that, once crossed, can be legally problematic. In the case of the sexy leg contests, that threshold is crossed when what is going on essentially becomes stripping.
"Let’s say we go out there undercover and we see it’s more than best legs and girls are stripping down and it’s being allowed … that goes into other areas of violations," said Sgt. Eric Martin of the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division. "If the location is not stopping that … if they’re sitting there and cheering her on and the location has knowledge that’s going on, then that location is in violation."
It’s unclear how often the contests become something law enforcement ends up dealing with.
But club staff seem aware of the possible consequences, agreeing only to speak on the condition of anonymity. A few of them mentioned a club that had been shut down after a television report about the legs contest. (On some nights, especially slow ones, emcees were unable to persuade enough women to participate.)
At one club that started its sexy legs contest after 2 a.m., the patrons were restless. One man grabbed a metal folding chair and dragged it to the edge of the scuffed wooden dance floor in anticipation.
“Just a little bit of leg, nothing more,” the emcee boomed into the microphone, trying to entice the women. “Just a little bit and you win the $300.”
There weren’t a lot of women in the crowd this night, and few seemed eager to take part in the contest. After about five minutes, women seemed to come out of nowhere onto the floor.
“Cowboys,” the emcee told the men, “don’t touch the women.”
Eight women danced around the room to Big Sean’s “Don’t …. With You,” with the first contestant bouncing on the lap of the man in the folding chair. Men peeled singles from their wallets for tips, which the women tucked into their bras. When some of the men got too hands-on, security guards pulled them away.
Some of the women used pillars for support as they dropped to the ground, exposing pink, white and multicolored thongs and swimwear. They scrambled for the dollar bills adding up on the floor.
When the music faded, the women lined up center floor. They did a few more dance moves, hoping it would earn them the applause they needed to win the $300. One twerked and another lifted up her dress to expose her pink bikini.
In the end, two women tied for first place. One of the losing contestants, having shed most of her clothing, stalked off angrily.
During a conversation in the bathroom, away from the prying eyes of security guards, one of the dancers introduced herself as Brenda. She didn’t participate often, she said. Brenda agreed to talk later, providing her cellphone number. She canceled several meetings at the last minute and eventually stopped answering her phone.
The 56-year-old club manager speaking over the phone was clearly ill at ease and, as with just about everyone else, insisted he not be named. The club could get in trouble if someone took the contest the wrong way, he said.
Who likes it? The men,” he said. “What happens with the women? They make money. But not everyone looks at it that way."
Just before 1 a.m at a nightclub near Long Beach, a petite brunette bent over and rested each hand on the dance floor, between her front-laced high heels. Her short black dress rode up over her butt as she shook it for the cheering crowd. Dollar bills cascaded down around her, tossed haphazardly by a group of drunken men.
Another woman shimmied out of a white mesh skirt, revealing a tight red thong. The harsh overhead lights illuminated the movements of the nine women on the floor now, a few scrambling to snatch up the money even before the contest began.
And there, lined up with the other women, was Brenda, eight months later and 12 miles to the south from our last encounter. She wore the same dress. But there would be no lap dances this time around because this club had strict orders for the women to not move toward the crowd.
This time, she didn’t win.
The emcee with the black cowboy hat strode onto the wooden dance floor of a club in the southeast. It was just before 1 a.m. He instructed the crowd to cheer in order to get women to leave their seats and step into the spotlight.
"If you see a woman with bare legs," he told patrons in Spanish, with a smile, "send her up."
All night he had reminded patrons that it was coming — the legs contest — in case they got the notion to leave for another club. One birthday girl, prompted by friends and the insistent emcee, reluctantly headed to the floor to cheers. Another was egged on by the emcee, who asked the crowd to make noise for the “guera,” the fair-skinned girl. She finally caved and joined in.
"Make some noise so she’ll take off her pants!" the emcee shouted, to cheers and whistles. She didn’t take them off right then, but she would, the announcer assured the crowd.
A woman in a cheetah print dress lifted her legs up onto the railing separating tables from the dance floor. Two men seated in front of her reached over their bucket of Modelo to run their hands over her breasts before tucking dollar bills into her bra.
She left the dance floor and worked her way into the crowd, bending over and allowing a man to slap her butt.
One drunken man clasped her closer to him as she tried to wriggle free. A look of discomfort flashed across her face before she pulled away. The security members who seemed eagle-eyed about cracking down on phones that could be shooting video did nothing.
The two birthday women danced alone and timidly, clearly not accustomed to the situation they were in.
The women made their way back to the floor, hair disheveled, clutching the dollar bills they managed to collect. One massaged her butt, courtesy, the emcee said, of the smack she received from a patron.
The contest is a huge draw for that club, the manager said, bringing in plenty of spectators, who pay for parking, an admission fee and buckets of drinks.
Virtually none of the women wanted to speak, let alone be named. One, an 18-year-old high school student, said she’d been going to contests in different cities for about two months.
"I do it just to entertain people, it's not really for the money," she insisted. She had taken off her skirt that night and won second place. "I don't think this is a bad thing."
A week later she answered her phone. She said she didn't think she would do it again.