Remembering David Mancuso and the Loft

 
David Mancuso outside Prince Street Loft, New York, 1988. Photo by Pat Bates

David Mancuso outside Prince Street Loft, New York, 1988. Photo by Pat Bates

 

When David Mancuso passed away on November 14, 2016, he left behind a legacy that enjoys no obvious precedent. Celebrating the Loft’s 46th anniversary this past February, he oversaw what must surely be the longest-running party in the United States’shistory—and perhaps even the world’s—having hit upon the right combination the night he staged a “Love Saves the Day” Valentine’s party in his downtown home in 1970 and initiated Loft-style parties in Japan and London 16 and 13 years ago, respectively. With all three manifestations rooted in friendship, inclusivity, community, participation, and collective transformation, the host has secured the life-after-death future of the party while demonstrating the effectiveness of a simple vision, the purity of which he never knowingly compromised. In this manner, the Loft has come to offer consistent light to a darkening terrain.

In one of the numerous interviews I conducted with David, I once asked him to explain how he would advise a newcomer to start a party. First, he replied, it’s necessary to have a group of friends that want to get together and dance, because without that there’s no basis for the party. Second, the friends need to find a room that has good acoustics and is comfortable for dancing, which means it should have rectangular dimensions, a reasonably high ceiling, a nice wooden floor, and a level of privacy that will enable people to relax. Next, the friends should piece together a simple, clean, and warm sound system that can be played at around 100 dB (so that people’s ears don’t become tired or even damaged). After that, the friends should decorate the room with balloons and a mirror ball, offering a cheap and timeless solution. They should also plan to prepare a spread of healthy food in case dancers become hungry during the course of the night. Finally—and as far as David was concerned, this was really the last thing to put in place—the friends should think of someone to select records that those gathered would want to dance to. Ultimately there could be no room for egos, including his own, if the party was to reach its communal potential.

Also rooted in friendship and the desire to party with freedom in a comfortable, private space, the Loft—as David’s guests came to name the party after it had been running for a few months—didn’t amount to an original moment so much as it pointed to a time when a number of practices, some of them decades’s old, came together in a new combination. The children’s home where David was taken days after his birth imbued him with the idea that families could be extended yet intimate, unified yet different, and precarious yet strong. Sister Alicia, who took care of him, put on a party whenever she was able to, and even went out to buy vinyl to make sure the kids were musically fed. The psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, who invited David to his house parties and popularized a philosophy around the psychedelic experience that would inform the way records came to be selected at the Loft, also became a power echo in David’s party scenario. Co-existing with Leary, the civil rights, gay liberation, feminist, and the anti-war movements came to manifest themselves in the egalitarian, rainbow coalition, come-as-you-are ethos of the Loft. And the Harlem rent parties of the 20s, in which working-class African Americans put on shindigs in order to raise money to pay the rent, established a template for putting on an intimate private party that could bypass the restrictions of New York City’s widely loathed cabaret licensing regulations. These streams travelled in different directions until February 14, 1970—when they met at 647 Broadway.

The homemade invitations for the February party carried the line “Love Saves the Day.” A short three years after the release of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the coded promise of acid-inspired things to come swapped The Beatles’ gobbledygook with a declaration of universal love. The invitations also reproduced an image of Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” which suggested not Sister Alicia nor the children’s home—because David had yet to have his latent memories jogged into revelation—but instead, the chance to escape violence and oppression by entering into a different temporal dimension in which everyone could leave behind their socialised selves and dance until dawn. “Once you walked into the Loft, you were cut off from the outside world,” explained David. “You got into a timeless, mindless state. There was actually a clock in the back room but it only had one hand. It was made out of wood and after a short while it stopped working.”

When David’s guests left the Valentine’s Day party, they let him know that they wanted him to put on another one soon, and within a matter of months the shindigs had become a weekly affair. Inasmuch as anyone knew about them—and few did, because David didn’t advertise his parties, because they were private—they acquired a reputation for being ultra hip, in part because 647 Broadway was situated in the ex-manufacturing district of downtown New York, where nobody but a handful of artists and bohemians had thought about living. The artists (and David) moved in, because the district’s old warehouses offered a spectacular space in which to live as well as put on parties, and the inconvenience of having to have one’s kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom hidden from view (in order to avoid the punitive eyes of the city’s building inspectors) turned out to be a nice way to free up space in order to do things that weren’t related to cooking, sleeping, and washing. Outside, the frisson of transgression was heightened by the fact that there was no street lighting to illuminate the cobbled streets, and because David didn’t serve alcohol, he was able to keep his parties going until midday (and sometimes later), long after the city’s bars and discotheques had closed for the night. “Because I lived in a loft building, people started to say that they were going to the Loft,” remembered David. “It’s a given name and is sacred.”

From the beginning, David constantly sought to improve his sound system, convinced that this would result in a more musical and therefore a more socially transformative party experience. Having begun to invest in audiophile technology, he asked sound engineers to help him build gear, including tweeter arrays and bass reinforcements, so that he could tweak the sound during the course of a party, sending extra shivers down the spines of his guests. Yet by the time the technology had come to dominate discotheque sound, David had concluded that such add-ons were unnecessary with an audiophile set-up and instead headed deeper into the world of esoteric stereo equipment, adding Mark Levinson amplifiers and handcrafted Koetsu cartridges to a set-up that also featured Klipschorn speakers. “I had the tweeters installed to put highs into records that were too muddy but they turned into a monster,” David once said to me. “It was done out of ignorance. I wasn’t aware of Class-A sound, where the sound is more open and everything comes out.”

As David relentlessly fine-tuned his set-up, the energy at his parties became more free flowing and intense. “You could be on the dance floor and the most beautiful woman that you had ever seen in your life would come and dance right on top of you,” Frankie Knuckles, a regular at the Broadway Loft, once commented in an interview. “Then the minute you turned around, a man that looked just as good would do the same thing. Or you would be sandwiched between the two of them, or between two women, or between two men, and you would feel completely comfortable.” Facilitating a sonic trail that was generated by everyone in the room, David would pick out long, twisting tracks such as Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl, You Need A Change of Mind” and War’s “City, Country, City,” gutsy, political songs like The Equals’s “Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys” and Willie Hutch’s “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out,” uplifting, joyful anthems such as Dorothy Morrison’s “Rain” and MSFB’s “Love Is the Message,” and earthy, funky recordings that included James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” and Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” Positive, emotional, and transcendental, these and other songs touched the soul and helped forge a community.

The influence of the Loft spread far and wide. At the end of 1972, a Broadway regular opened the Tenth Floor as a Loft-style party for an exclusive, white gay clientele, which in turn led to the opening of Flamingo, which went on to become the most influential venue in the white gay scene. Objecting to the elitist nature of Flamingo’s self-anointed “A-list” dancers, another Loft regular founded 12 West with the idea of creating a more laidback party environment for white gay men. Meanwhile Nicky Siano, another Loft regular, launched his own Loft-style venue called the Gallery that mimicked David’s invitation system, hired his sound engineer, and even borrowed a fair chunk of his crowd when he shut down his party for the summer of 1973. The Soho Place (set up by Richard Long and Mike Stone) and Reade Street (established by Michael Brody) also drew heavily on David’s template. When both of those parties were forced to close, Brody resolved to open the Paradise Garage as an “expanded version of the Loft” and invited Long, considered by many to be New York’s premier sound engineer, to build the sound system. Meanwhile Robert Williams, another Loft regular, opened the Warehouse as yet another Loft-style venue after moving to Chicago. Heading to the Loft, where they danced and bonded, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles went on to become the path breaking DJs at the Garage and the Warehouse, where they forged the outlines of what would later be called garage and house music. Other influential dance figures, including Tony Humphries, François Kevorkian, and David Morales, would look back on the Loft as an inspirational party. In short, the Loft was an incubator.

Like any party host, David had to face some unexpected hitches during his party’s 46-year run. In June of 1974, he moved to 99 Prince Street after city regulators pressured him into leaving his Broadway home. Ten years later, he bought a promising building in Alphabet City, only to see the neighbourhood slide into a virtual civil war. By the time he was forced to vacate a floor he was subletting on Avenue B towards the end of the 90s, things were beginning to look quite grim. But before he was forced to leave Avenue B, David received an invitation to travel to Japan, and although he was reluctant to put on a party outside his home, he ended up travelling on the basis that it could help him purchase the Avenue B space. Unfortunately, the purchase never came to pass. David returned to Japan to put on regular parties with a new friend he made during his initial trip, and he also started to put on parties with friends in London after he approached me and Colleen with the idea while “Love Saves the Day”—the book that charts his influence—was going through production.

As he went about putting on these parties, David stuck to the principles that have driven him from day one: stay faithful to your friends, find a good space for the events, get hold of the best sound equipment available, and smile when people welcome you as a guest. In the process, David drew on the life shaping experience of his orphan childhood to realize a profound philosophical lesson: homes can be built wherever you put down roots and make friends. Returning again and again to Japan and London, David realized his own universal vision, which was previously constricted to New York, but has now captured the imagination of partygoers across the globe.

Shortly after making his first trips to Japan and London, David hit upon a hall in the East Village that became the new home of the Loft, and though the parties were held on holidays rather than a weekly basis, David was convinced the dance floor that remained was as vibrant and energetic as ever. The fact David didn’t live in the space was a little inconvenient in that, with the help of friends, he had to set up his sound system each time he played, but even though he didn’t sleep in the hall, he was more comfortable in that space than any of his previous homes. “It’s in the heart of the East Village, which was where I always used to hang out,” he said. “I might have lived on Broadway, but for the other five or six days I was in the East Village. This is where I’ve been hanging out in the area since 1963. My roots are there. My life is connected to the area.” Forging new roots and connections, grandparents started to dance with their grandchildren on the floor of the New York Loft.

Thanks to David’s overdue recognition as an underpinning figure in the history of New York dance, it has become easy for partygoers to assume that the Loft has come to resemble a nostalgia trip for the halcyon days of the 70s and early 80s. Since February of 1970, however, David always mixed new and less new, even old, music, and he maintained the mix right to his final turns as a musical host. New faces in Japan and London might have arrived expecting a trip down disco alley, but that’s not what they got with David, because the party never became a fossil. Throughout, David remained committed to selecting records that encouraged the party to grow as a musically radical and diverse community. This sonic tapestry could sometimes sound strange to dancers who had become accustomed to a political climate in which communities were so casually displaced by materialistic individualism and nationalistic war, but the countercultural message was always powerful. “After a while, the positive vibe and universal attitude of the music was too much for me, but this moment of hesitation and insecurity only lasted for a few minutes,” commented a dancer following one party. “Then all the barriers broke and I reached the other side. Like a child, I stopped caring about what other people might think and reached my essence, through dancing.”

Confronted by the tendency of dancers to worship him—even though he never thought of himself as being a DJ, and was resolute in his belief that this kind of attention detracts from the party—David positioned his turntables so that partygoers would see the dance floor, and not the booth, as they entered the room. In a similar move, he also arranged his speakers so they would draw dancers away from the booth and towards the center of the floor. Admittedly in London (much more so than in New York), dancers tended to face David all the same, even though the effect was the equivalent of sitting with one’s back to musicians during a concert. At the end, dancers would applaud him as if in the presence of saviour, when he preferred to see himself as the co-host of a party whose job it was, when positioned behind the turntables, to read the mood of the dance floor. Reinforced by popular culture, which encourages crowds to seek out iconic, authoritative, supernatural leaders, the adulation made David feel deeply uncomfortable. “I’m a background person,” he noted.

Even if utopias can’t be built without a struggle, and can never be complete, the mood at the London parties was thrilling to behold during David’s visits and, in the ultimate test of his anti-ego philosophy, remained powerful after he stopped travelling on doctor’s orders. While some endowed David with a halo, a significant counter-group related to him as a friend, and the continuation of the applause in-between records and at the end of a party—when Colleen Murphy along with Simon Halpin/Guillaume Chottin picked up musical hosting responsibilities—suggested David’s argument that it was directed towards the music rather than him might be correct.

Ultimately, the party revolved around the simple idea of friends and friends of friends wanting to dance together in a comfortable and contained setting, with the music piping through clean, warm audiophile equipment, and a little talc helping participants get into the musical journey. David had indeed started the parties in London through friendship and during his time never once worked with an alternative set-up on the basis that one should stick with one’s friends. These foundations came to define the events. “It’s unbelievable,” one female dancer told me after her first party. “The people here—they make eye contact!”

David was all about contact. When he travelled to London, he was ready to accept a lower fee in order to be able to spend five nights in a hotel, not because he wanted to live it up but because he wanted to be in the city before and after each party so that he could build relationships—relationships that would feed back into the party and through the party back into the cosmos. This way of being imbued the way David related to strangers he’d meet who had nothing to do with the party. Whether we were going into a shop to buy groceries or visiting a hi-fi company to check out equipment or heading to his hotel at the end of a party, he invariably engaged with strangers as if they were all potential friends. He loved the telephone as a form of communication and for a while he was heavily drawn to the connections made possible via the Internet. Ultimately, however, he believed in the higher plane of the party.

Relationships built over a lifetime burst forth in the hours and days that followed David’s passing. Many knew David personally and spoke of him in the warmest possible terms. Others came forward as participants in a party who knew that they had entered into a nurturing environment in which social bonding and transformation were never compromised. It meant that David could live on in the knowledge that he had brought joy and hope to an incalculable number of people. “I don't want to go into the ‘I won’t always be here’ thing, but if I’m not here tomorrow, we now know what to do and what not to do,” he told me during a 2007 interview. That has come to pass as three parties in three cities in three countries in three continents are totally set to carry forward the Loft tradition in its remarkably pure form.

During dark times the Loft provided light and it will continue to do so. David understood the communal underpinnings of the party and its relationship to the universe like nobody else I ever met. Let us hang onto his words, his insights and his practice. In deepest grief, gratitude and joy, David, love is and will remain the message, music is and will remain love, love saves and will continue to save the day. 

 

This essay is an adaptation of a 2007 article originally written for Placed. The magazine folded before the issue was published. Tim Lawrence is the author of "Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (1970-79)," "Hold On to Your Dream: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92," and the newly published "Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-83." He is also a founding member of Lucky Cloud Sound System, which started to put on parties with David Mancuso in London in June 2003. 

David Mancuso's art of parties

 
David Mancuso outside Prince Street Loft, New York, 1988. Photo by Pat Bates

David Mancuso outside Prince Street Loft, New York, 1988. Photo by Pat Bates

 

Disco historian Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves The Day, remembers the late party purist's selection policy at parties in New York, London and Sapporo

David Mancuso made an incomparably profound contribution to the development of contemporary party culture. His vision was the simplest one he or anyone who knew him could imagine, and it inspired many. Yet as the culture stretched out his vision of the role of music within party culture went through turns and somersaults, a number of which took it to the point where it was barely recognisable to Mancuso. In ways that could seem dogmatic yet ultimately resonate as being profoundly ethical, insightful and even mystical, he barely wavered from his original vision during an unprecedented run that dates back to Valentine’s Day 1970. Inevitably he made some false turns as he made his way, yet any deviation only led him back to a path already established. When he passed away a week ago he left a legacy that was almost monk-like in its purity.

Mancuso’s musical philosophy placed music as a central component in a universe that in essence amounts to an unfolding party. Shaped through experiences that ranged from growing up in a children’s home to participating in the kaleidoscopic energies of the countercultural movement, he began to host private parties that combined the Harlem rent party tradition, audiophile stereo equipment, Timothy Leary’s LSD gatherings and downtown loft living with music capable of providing a form of life energy to enable his social gatherings to go further in their journey towards communal-transcendental transformation. Not even Francis Grasso, whose work at The Sanctuary paralleled Mancuso’s early efforts, was this far advanced. And Mancuso was only just starting out.

Prior to Mancuso, DJs were paid to “work the bar”, or whip crowds into a hurried frenzy before “killing the floor” with a slow number that contained the subliminal lyrics “It’s time to drink now”. There was no conversation, no flow. But Mancuso went about his work in the privacy of his own home, not a public space, and with alcohol set aside for the kind of stimulant whose initials inspired him to write “Love Saves the Day” on invitations to his February 1970 gathering, he was able to select music in relation to the energy of his dancing guests. The result amounted to a form of collective, democratic, participatory, improvised music making that was rooted in antiphonal conversation rather than virtuoso monologue. The practice of dancing to pre-recorded music had taken a great leap forward and there could be no shuffling back.

From that night onwards, Mancuso introduced an improbably wide range of sounds into the New York City party scene, with selections such as War’s “City, Country, City” , Chicago’s “I’m A Man” , Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” and Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” becoming elements in a sonic tapestry that wove in Latin, African, rock, gospel, breakbeat and even country while prioritising explorative records that reached dramatic crescendos. The discovery that long records enabled the party to enter into a deeper socio-psychic plane spearheaded a collective desire that culminated in the innovation of the 12" single. Meanwhile Mancuso placed records on the turntable according to the signs and signals of his dancing guests, conscious that a ‘third ear’ combining the consciousness of everyone gathered would ultimate lead to a journey that loosely followed the three bardos of intensity outlined by Leary in his notes on the acid experience.

The practice of mixing between two records – a technique pioneered by Grasso at the Sanctuary – seemed somewhat insignificant within the context of The Loft, as guests came to name Mancuso’s parties. Instead Mancuso remained more interested in the way records could be knitted together according to instrumental signatures, lyrical themes, production values and energy patterns to form an unfolding journey that by the early 1980s could last for up to 18 hours. The means of segueing from one record to another was just a technical matter that shouldn’t become more important than the music itself.

Mancuso related to music within an ethical framework that sought to bring social progress to the world, albeit on a local level. He co-founded the first record pool, the New York City Record Pool, in order to help his peers receive free copies of records to play/promote without record company support. He refused to play bootlegs on the basis that the original artists wouldn’t get their share of the sale. He declined to speak of his music selections or his playlists, preferring to attribute everything to the collective endeavour of The Loft. When asked about his approach to playing records, he’d wonder about the premise of the question because the truth of the matter was he couldn’t even play a musical instrument. He kept sound levels to 100dB because anything louder might damage the ears of one of his guests, and why would he want to harm someone entering a social situation?

In order to take the party deeper and higher, Mancuso devoted much of his life to the perfection of The Loft’s sound system. He introduced audiophile stereo components from the get-go, and by the late 1970s had established the core element of a system that included Klipschorn speakers, Mark Levinson amplifiers and Koetsu cartridges. Early into The Loft’s run he also hired sound engineers Alex Rosner and Richard Long to respectively design tweeter arrays and bass reinforcements that enabled him to give records a frequency injection at key moments in the party, yet he ditched the kind of innovations that later became a major feature of discotheque sound system design aftter concluding that music was perfectly capable of speaking for itself when channelled through a sufficiently accurate system.

Such was his faith in the emancipatory power of music, Mancuso even removed the mixer from his set-up in the early 1980s, finally convinced that such equipment introduced unnecessary stages in the electronic circuit that lay between the needle and the loudspeaker. Why only go 97 per cent of the way up a mountain when you can reach the summit, Mancuso once asked me. Ultimately he came to believe that the system’s sole purpose was to reproduce the original recording as precisely as possible so that the music would “play us”.

From the very beginning through to the very end Mancuso thought of himself as a musical host rather than a DJ. His reasoning was simple. Whereas DJs usually operated as for-hire freelancers who entertained crowds by deploying a set of technical skills, Mancuso was the host of an entire party, an entire environment, with music just one of his responsibilities. Indeed he lacked the technical skills that most DJs could draw on, didn’t get paid for his work, and didn’t even see himself as an entertainer. Rather, he compared himself to the host of a rent party who in less developed settings turned to a record player tucked away in the corner of the room in order to give guests something to dance to. And while the peerless clarity of his sound system threatened to bestow authority upon Mancuso, he remained firm in his mind that the newfound power of music confirmed his humble place in the universe. As he told me in an interview conducted in 2007:

“I’m just part of the vibration. I’m very uncomfortable when I’m put on a pedestal. Sometimes in this particular business it comes down to the DJ, who sometimes does some kind of performance and wants to be on the stage. That’s not me. I don’t want attention I want to feel a sense of camaraderie and I’m doing things on so many levels that, whether it’s the sound or whatever, I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a DJ. I don’t want to be categorised or become anything. I just want to be. There’s a technical role to play and I understand the responsibilities, but for me it’s very minimal. There are so many things that make this worthwhile and make it what it is. And there’s a lot of potential. It can go really high.”

Save for the creation of the New York City Record Pool, Mancuso remained remarkably focused on his own parties, perhaps because the countercultural movement’s wider aspiration to change the world had in many regards ended in disappointment, with state repression playing a significant part. Yet the power of his parties attracted a dedicated crowd of dancers as well as a significant number of discotheque DJs, who’d head to The Loft once they were done for the night, and although each step only amounted to a baby step, by the end of the decade it would be possible to cite The Loft as the most influential party of its era. Many of the most influential party spaces – private parties such as The Tenth Floor, The Gallery, Flamingo, 12 West, The Soho Place, Reade Street, The Paradise Garage and The Warehouse – were modelled directly or vicariously on The Loft. Meanwhile many of the most influential DJs and remixers of the period – Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Nicky Siano, François Kevorkian, David Morales, Tony Humphries – absorbed the “Love Saves the Day” vibes as they headed to The Loft on a regular basis. Even if he sometimes wondered about the way his model was adapted in some situations, especially when exclusionary policies crept in, Mancuso was largely happy for the message to spread. It’s like a good joint, he once told me, you pass it around.

Mancuso’s belief in the centrality of the party versus the musical host/DJ received its ultimate test when he was unable to play at a party himself. The first time this happened in London, where he had started to co-host events with myself, Colleen Murphy and Jeremy Gilbert, Colleen was able to step in seamlessly. The parties in London as well as Sapporo, Japan, also continued with barely a hiccup when a doctor suggested to David that he stop travelling internationally a few years later. Around this time David had started to effect an incremental, monk-like withdrawal from his own parties. The result is that, at the time of his passing, David had overseen the creation of three Loft parties in three cities that had been running for 46, 16 and 13 years respectively and were all set to continue along the purist lines he had maintained for a lifetime. He had fulfilled the dream of being able to disappear in the middle of a beautiful party.

As he told me in an interview: “I don't want to go into the ‘I won’t always be here’ thing, but if I’m not here tomorrow, we now know what to do and what not to do.”

Lucky Cloud Sound System party in London. Photo by Tim Lawrence

Lucky Cloud Sound System party in London. Photo by Tim Lawrence

The article can be accessed here (online) or here (pdf)

Life and Death on the Pulse Dance Floor: Transglocal Politics and Erasure of the Latinx in the History of Queer Dance

Life and Death on the Pulse Dance Floor:

Transglocal Politics and Erasure of the Latinx in the History of Queer Dance

 

Abstract

 

Although the dominant response of politicians, journalists and campaign groups to Omar Mateen’s 12 June 2016 massacre of forty-nine people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando revolved around the repetition of already established arguments about terrorism, this article will outline how the massacre amounted to a specific attack on the Latinx community.1 It will also argue that, although distinctive, the discursive erasure of the specifically queer Latinx finds a partial echo in the way that Latin culture has been marginalised in writing on dance culture. An outline map of the somewhat opaque Latinx contribution will be offered as a small tribute to those who have lived for and now died on the Latinx dance floor. The account of the dancers who gathered at Pulse, the music they danced to, and the unstable, marginalised and dynamic networks of musicians, dancers and party spaces that preceded them will be considered within J. Blake Scott and Rebecca Dingo’s (2012) evocation of the “transglocal”. If transglocal encounters “can generate new meanings and subject positions” (Blake Scott and Dingo: 7), so the dancers at Pulse can be seen to have moved resourcefully, dynamically and creatively between the local and the transnational as they sought out new modes of expression and community in a darkening global terrain.

 

Keywords:

Pulse, Orlando; Latinx; LGBTQ; DJ culture; terrorism

 

Deepening divisions in the US political landscape (Berman: 2016), combined with social media’s decimation of the once seemingly frenetic twenty-four hour news cycle (Alejandro 2010), fueled the near-instantaneous rationalisation of the Pulse massacre through the prism of ongoing debates about terrorism and gun control. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had already thrown out the casually fascistic suggestion that all Muslims should be banned from entering the US when he tweeted: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” (Trump 2016). Obama described the attack as “act of terror and an act of hate”, and although he remarked that the place where LGBT Americans “were attacked is more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights”—he maintained that “this could have been any one of our communities”, that an attack on “any American […] is an attack on all of us”, and that the massacre served as a “further reminder” of the need for gun control (Time 2016). Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton framed the massacre as both “an act of terror” and an “act of hate”, and pointed to the need to defeat “international terror groups” and keep guns “out of the hands of terrorists” (Briefing 2016). The New York Times summarised the massacre as “a tragedy that combined gun violence, a hatred of gays and ties to Islamist terrorism” (Shear 2016).

Talk of terrorism, the nation and the West escalated to the point where the specificity of the massacre became hard to discern. Barely twelve hours after it had elapsed Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee declared that evidence indicates “an ISISinspired act of terrorism” (New York Times 2016). The following day FBI Director James Comey noted that despite there being no indication of outside direction the intelligence community was “highly confident that this killer was radicalized at least in part through the Internet” (Shabad 2016). Two days later the FBI agent in charge of the investigation called the massacre both a hate crime and an act of terrorism (RT.com 2016). Meanwhile it took the Republican governor of Florida Rick Scott almost forty-eight hours to recognise that the massacre was perpetrated against the LGBT community, with Florida’s attorney general Pam Bondi equally evasive (Wolf 2016). In the UK commentator Owen Jones left Sky TV’s studios when presenters insisted that the attack wasn’t homophobic, after which the Irish Independent rounded on Jones for failing to point out that the homophobic attack was “religiously motivated” and for propagating “identity politics at its most exclusionary and grotesque” (O’Doherty 2016). Some weeks later the FBI maintained that the investigation “hasn’t revealed that he [Mateen] targeted Pulse because it was a gay club” (Goldman 2016). Even if the scale of the shooting was undeniably shocking, it also became commonplace to overstate Mateen’s spree as the “deadliest” in US history (Breen 2016; Broverman 2016; Guardian 2016; Ravitz 2016; Teague 2016), situating it as an attack on the nation while papering over bloodier massacres perpetrated against Native Americans.

In fact, the framing of Mateen as an Isis-inspired terrorist was based on spurious evidence. He attended his local mosque, the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, but only infrequently. He twice went to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage in 2011 and 2012 to perform umrah, making him one of six million Muslims who do so annually. In 2013 he claimed to be aligned to both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, and citing two groups who are sworn Sunni-Shiite enemies. Concerned when it heard about these claims, the FBI investigated Mateen only to close its inquiry when he explained he had made the comment in response to being teased for his Muslim faith. A further FBI investigation into possible links between Mateen and a US citizen from the same mosque in Fort Pierce who took part in an al-Qaeda affiliate attack led nowhere. Mateen’s claim to know people who were linked to the brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing turned out to be fictional. On the Saturday before the massacre he posted messages declaring his allegiance to the leader of Isis, calling on the U.S. and Russia to stop bombing Isis, but the declaration bore no relation to patterns of strict religious conduct or ideological support of Isis. All the same, a CBS poll published on 15 June showed that three-quarters of US citizens believed Mateen’s attack was either an act of terrorism or an act of terrorism as well as a hate crime, while Wikipedia reported matterof-factly that the massacre constituted “the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S.” since 9/11 (Salvanto et al 2016; Wikipedia 2016).

 The depiction of Mateen as typical of the Orientalist male outlined by Edward Said (1995)—effeminate yet sadistic, simple yet duplicitous, outwardly functional yet psychologically unstable, intelligent yet irrational—provided further presumptive evidence that his actions were driven by so-called Islamic terrorism. Abusive behaviour within his first marriage appeared to affirm long held views about patriarchal violence within Islam while parallel stories of his pursuit of sexual encounters with other men via the gay dating app Grindr as well as the Pulse dance floor raised the thought that the massacre was rooted in his inability to reconcile his sexuality with his religion, which was repeatedly cited as being intolerant of homosexuality. Reports of Mateen’s increasingly angry demeanour, including a certain broodiness displayed during some of his visits to Pulse, pointed to an individual wrestling with conflicting cultural affinities and desires that were bound to culminate in an uncontrollable explosion. Citing no sources, the Guardian linked the massacre to Islam when it reported that Mateen was “said to have enrolled in online courses taught by a homophobic imam” and added that “homophobia and jihadism are anything but mutually exclusive” inasmuch as “Isis executes people it says are gay, stones them and throws them from roofs” (Ackerman and Siddiqui 2016). Particular prominence was given to Mateen’s father’s Facebook video comment that “God himself will punish those involved in homosexuality” (Sullivan and Wan 2016). Referring to the father’s story of his son’s expression of revulsion when he saw two gay men kissing while spending time with his second wife and son, the Washington Post noted that if Mateen was “interested in men, it would have been difficult to tell his father” before asking: “Was it Islamic State ideology or some personal demon that drove him to target gay people?” (Sullivan and Wan 2016).

The overall depiction reaffirms Jasbir K. Puar’s argument that constructions of terror and terrorist masculinities are “metonymically tied to all sorts of pathologies of the mind and body” as well as permeated by “perverse, improperly hetero- and homo- Muslim sexualities” (Puar: xxiii–xxiv). Puar and Amit Rai note how the personality defect model has been developed within Terrorism Studies as one of two main explanations of the “terrorist mindset”, with terrorists assumed to display pathological defects that are rooted in unconscious feelings of hostility towards their parents (perhaps because of abuse or adolescent rebellion) or of exaggerated identification (perhaps because of perceived suffering experienced by their parents) before the pathology becomes narrow, extreme and absolutist in adulthood. It follows that if terrorism is a symptom of a deviant psyche, or the breakdown of the psyche of the heterosexual family romance, then monster-terrorists are products of a form of “failed heterosexuality” (Puar and Rai: 124).

Yet people who experience sexual conflicts or display psychotic symptoms don’t inevitably go on to carry out terrorist attacks, just as the people who carry out such attacks aren’t necessarily conflicted or psychotic, and while it remains possible that more compelling evidence will come to light, for now Sima Shakhsari is right to suggest that Mateen’s lastminute declaration of allegiance to Isis might well have been made to give a “heroic” gloss to his homophobia, with Isis a “deterritorialized imagined community where anyone who wants to defy certain social rules can claim belonging (or is assigned belonging)” (Shakhsari 2016). Ultimately the terrorist label stuck to Mateen because of his Afghan background and Islamic heritage, just as, conversely, no terrorist sympathies were attached to the white man who was arrested before carrying out a planned attack at Pride in Los Angeles on the same day as Mateen carried out his massacre. “The Muslim feigns patriotism and practice of American customs, but it is a trick, so he must be watched for signs of savagery as he prays in the mosque and goes about his business”, notes Roqayah Chamseddine of the Orientalist view of the Muslim. “The Muslim American is a hyper-visible yet invisible being who will have his American-ness stripped from him the moment he errs” (Chamseddine 2016).

 The rush to affirm Mateen’s pathological terrorist intent just so happens to support a nationalist discourse that positions the US as the hub of global democracy, liberalism and morality, with a generalised Islamic East posited as an overt or covert threat to those values and their associated way of life. In perhaps the most remarkable of these interventions, Trump, not previously renowned for his dedication to LGBTQ rights, figured the attack on “gay and lesbian citizens” as “a strike at the heart and soul of who we are as a nation” because it enabled him to figure the liberal West as being at war with illiberal Islam, thereby justifying his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US. “The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here”, he argued, adding that Mateen’s father comes from a culture where 99% of people support Sharia Law (Trump 2016). “That is a fact, and it’s a fact we need to talk about”.

As much as Trump’s claims to liberalism might amaze, his contention sits within a widely accepted discourse that gives the US permission to enact illiberal policies, ranging from foreign wars to the maintenance of Guantanamo Bay to the policing of people of colour, in order to defend its claim to being the bastion of western liberalism. To point this out is not to argue for the equivalence or non-equivalence of the US vs. the Rest so much as to note that, for all of the talk about US tolerance, including freedom for its LGBTQ citizens, levels of homophobia, racism and sexism remain high—one might even say surprisingly high given these underpinning claims to liberalism. Puar (2007 2) also points to the relatively recent rise of homonationalism, or a form of nationalism that embraces the idea of LGTBQ rights and policies around, say, gay marriage so long as those embraced under this banner are willing to articulate the nationalist concerns of the political establishment. In this manner queer liberals have been coopted to a cause that is quick to support the introduction illiberal measures to defend liberalism.

Meanwhile Muslim countries, intent on preserving relations with the US, lined up to denounce Isis and distance themselves from its ideology; Saudi Arabia’s problematic ties with Isis along with the United States’s generally strong diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia passed all but unmentioned; and the silence surrounding the bombing campaign in Syria also escaped scrutiny (even if the post-Pulse panic strengthened its underlying rationale). Nor was any mention made of the fact that the horrendous death toll recorded at Pulse continued to be matched on a near daily basis in Iraq, as tracked by Iraq Body Count.2 Such are the power relations that underscored the way Mateen came to be defined in the hours that followed his attack. “In a war-on-terror world, there is an injunction to grieve in public for American lives lost to terrorism in order to ward off suspicion and further targeting”, points out Maya Mikdashi (2016). “This injunction applies as well to the dead in France or Belgium, but not to victims of terrorism (state or otherwise) in Iraq or Nigeria or Syria. This phenomenon is directly related to the ways in which US political discourse on the war on terror has starkly divided the world into victims (Europeans and Americans) and perpetrators (Muslims and Arabs)”

As it happens the men who described their interactions with Mateen painted a picture of someone who enjoyed friendships with gay men and drag queens as well as someone who was able to differentiate between his own religious beliefs and the more conservative ideas of his father. In the longest testimony, a man going under the name of Miguel told Univision that he and Mateen had a relationship that was akin to being “friends with benefits” and that they met some 15–20 times in a hotel room over a two-month period before the relationship came to a close in December. “He say Muslim religion is a beautiful, beautiful religion”, commented Miguel. “It’s a religion where everything’s about love, where everybody’s welcome—gay, trans, bisexual, hetero, everybody”. He noted that Mateen never appeared to be violent. “He [was] looking for love”, added Miguel. “To be embraced”. Miguel hypothesised that Mateen carried out the attack as an act of revenge, angered that he might have become infected with HIV (even though the test came back negative) (Univision 2016). Other Pulse regulars remembered him as a sullen character, yet none recalled an individual unable to reconcile his desire with his religious beliefs—or a person who, assumed to be a frustrated gay Muslim, might channel his pent-up frustration on the very people his religion “forbade” him to desire, and in so doing give succour to the fake idea that being Islamic and queer could only result in that kind of rampage. Nor was there so much as a hint that Mateen lived his life according to the kind of hardline Wahhabist strictures advocated by Isis that might have made him want to carry out an attack on the group’s behalf.

The gay community’s response to the massacre expressed deep emotional shock while avoiding the easy temptation to characterise Mateen as a conflicted Muslim terrorist. At vigils staged across the world, speakers argued for the need to oppose those who sought to use the massacre as an excuse for anti-Muslim prejudice (Browne 2016). Yet they often did so from a compromised point-of-view, such as when Advocate editor Matthew Breen (2016) argued that talk of Isis was a “goddamned red herring” and that Mateen’s hatred was “homegrown” inasmuch as it expressed societal homophobia, yet also recirculated the possibility that he was fuelled by Islamic extremism, with the Latinx identity of the Pulse crowd left invisible by his broader evocation of a generalised LGBTQ community. Courtney Fry (2016) followed up with a piece that noted the mainstream media’s reluctance to identity the night as a queer night yet again generalised the attack by maintaining that all LGBTQ party spaces were now in “extreme danger” and that “a place that has always been known as an oasis from the bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, physical threats, assaults, and murders that happen in the outside world, has now been torn to shreds”.

The colourblind response spread to The Atlantic, which published research showing that “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people”, and “more than four times as likely as Muslims, and almost 14 times as likely as Latinos” (Green 2016), as if LGBTQ people couldn’t be Jewish or black or Muslim or Latinx, as if killers could only be motivated “on the basis of one strand of hatred”, and as if white LGBTQ people are “more vulnerable than other minority groups”, as Jack Halberstam (2016) points out. A few days later the New York Times presented FBI data showing that LGBTQ people were the second most targeted group in 2005, behind “Jewish” and ahead of “Black”, “Muslim”, “Hispanic”, “Asian” and “White”, and were the most targeted group in 2014, only to note at the very bottom of the article the that “vast majority” of LGBTQ people killed were “black or Hispanic transgender people” (Park and Mykhyalyshyn 2016)—providing further evidence of the need, in Halberstam’s words, to “challenge this sense of an amorphous homophobic threat that separates homophobic violence out from the particular, convulsive expressions of racialized hate” (2016). As research (Waters et al. 2016) on attacks carried out against LGBTQ people between 2012–15 published by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reveals, white gay men were in fact the victims in eleven of a total of eighty-eight homicides, with the rest distributed between black transgender women (39), black gay men (11), Latinx transgender women (8) and other (19).

It was primarily left to members of the Latinx queer community to note the erasure of the specificity of the attack.3 AM Foiles Sifuentes (2016) expressed her anger at the way “the same people that forced queer people of color to the margins are the ones hosting these public places of grieving” before asking: “Even in death—why is it okay for you to continue to force queer people of color to the margins? How can you find comfort in ignoring your collusion in their erasure?” Acknowledging the difficulty inherent in critiquing more powerful figures in the LGBTQ community because they also “shared in the vulnerability and trauma of the incident”, Ramón Rivera-Servera pointed out reactions nevertheless “distanced themselves significantly from the specificity of this as a Latino, primarily Puerto Rican, experience” (Kornhaber 2016). Several writers cited Christina Hanhardt’s (2012) research into the way past LGBTQ calls for anti-violence measures have often led to forms of increased policing that endanger queer people of colour and wider communities of colour. “The white LGBTQ community doesn’t face the criminalization and policing that our community faces every day”, remarked Jorge Gutierrez, founder of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (Vasquez 2016). “Not just at Pride, but every day, everywhere we go. That’s our life”

The everyday homophobia and racism experienced by queer people of colour offers a more obvious explanatory context for Mateen’s actions than any last-minute declaration of sympathy for Isis. There have, of course, been gains in the US in recent years, including the Supreme Court June ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that effectively made same-sex marriage the law of the land, the White House LGBTQ pride reception where transgender immigrant leader Jennicet Guttiérrez pointed to the plight faced by LGBTQ immigrants held in detention centres, and the Black Lives Matter movement’s demanding an end to police violence and anti-black racism (Waters et al. 2016). Yet during the same period a slew of anti-LGBTQ initiatives swept the nation in the form of “religious freedom bills” and “bathroom bills” while racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric spiraled. If anything the backlash intensified during 2016, with eighty-seven bills aimed at limiting LGBTQ rights introduced in legislatures between January and June—a marked increase on previous years (Mason et al. 2016)—with police shootings of black men continuing apparently unabated. “Outside, they call you an abomination”, author Justin Torres (2016) noted the day after Mateen’s attack. “Outside, there is a news media that acts as if there are two sides to a debate over trans people using public bathrooms. Outside, there is a presidential candidate who has built a platform on erecting a wall between the United States and Mexico — and not only do people believe that crap is possible, they believe it is necessary. Outside, Puerto Rico is still a colony, being allowed to drown in debt, to suffer, without the right to file for bankruptcy, to protect itself. Outside, there are more than 100 bills targeting you, your choices, your people, pending in various states”.

Figure 1: Flyer for Pulse’s Saturday night parties.

Figure 1: Flyer for Pulse’s Saturday night parties.

In terms of his personal location within this culture, Mateen sought out employment in violent settings and, perhaps not coincidentally, reproduced violent behaviour. He worked as a state prison guard at the Martin Correctional Institution and then for multinational security company G4S, a “hotbed of routine abuse, sexual violence, extremism and homophobia” where the “routine protection of violent, racist tendencies among its security officers appears to be an institutionalised global problem”, according to Nafeez Ahmed (2016) of the Institute for Policy Research and Development. Mateen was sufficiently obsessed with the idea of working for the New York Police Department he took a series of selfies dressed in one of its shirts. Some acquaintances remember a person who littered his speech with the invective of hate. He took excessive quantities of steroids as he built himself up into a muscle machine and was a wife beater. He also committed his hate crime not against the United States, but against the Latinx LGBTQ dancers who congregated at Pulse that Saturday night—otherwise why travel two hours to Pulse instead of one of the city’s two-thousand other bars?

Shakhasari (2016) wonders if it was Mateen’s “performance of a homophobic and misogynistic American masculinity enabled by everyday militarism, and constructed vis- à-vis the ‘failed masculinity’ of the Muslim other, that led to this massacre”. The critic acknowledges that the existence of violence, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in the Middle East shouldn’t mask the “hypocrisy of an exceptionalism that assumes the US to be the bastion of freedom and progress”. Mateen’s expression of homophobic and violent sentiments might not offer final proof of his motivations, but in the final instance his actions were much more obviously homophobic and violent than inspired by the ideology of Isis.

 

Writing the Latinx Dance Floor into Pulse and the History of Dance Culture

 

 What, then, of the population that Mateen attacked—a population that has been, to varying degrees, left out of accounts of the massacre? Barbara Pomo and Ron Legler founded Pulse in 2004 in honour of Pomo’s brother, John, who died from AIDS in 1991, evoking his heartbeat in the club’s name. Located at 1912 South Orange Avenue, the venue promoted itself as “the hottest gay bar in Orlando”. Regular theme nights included Noche Latina on Mondays (featuring a Reggaetón dancehall soundtrack), Twisted Tuesdays (a talent night hosted by Axel Andrews and Kai’ja Adonis), College Night Wednesdays (hosted by Angelica Sanchez and weekly guests), Tease Thursdays (a burlesque show hosted by Lady Bri and Blade Matthews), Platinum Fridays (a hip hop night hosted by Angelica Sanchez) and Upscale Latin Night on Saturdays (hosted by former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Kenya Michaels). Offering three rooms and a chic interior, the venue carried the promise of style, fabulousness and an escape from hardship. “Guests are free to choose which best suits their present mood”, Diego Wyatt (2016) of Next Magazine reported in February. “Some fall under the spellbinding mystery of the Adonis Room, an intimate space filled with beautiful male and female go-go dancers. Some head to the Lounge, complete with a state-of-the-art lighting and sound system, a dance floor, VIP area and the main bar. And others go for the patio, which is undergoing some sprucing up to accommodate the relaxed atmosphere. Each area has its own DJ and vibe. Translation: There’s something for everyone”.

Prior to the attack the club attracted an eclectic crowd made up of LGBTQ people and straight friends of all ages and ethnicities, with Saturdays particularly popular with queer Latinx dancers. “I was too white to fit in with Latinos and I was too Hispanic to fit in with white kids”, one told Matthew Rodriguez (2016) of mic.com. “But on Latino Night on Saturdays I didn’t feel that way. It was just literally a time and place where everyone could be together and enjoy yourselves”. Numerous drag performers got their start at the venue and indeed two trans women of colour were featured on publicity for the party that started on 11 June and ended with the massacre. Queer women were also a notable presence and, as Trish Bendixson (2016) notes, featured among the victims of the attack. Non-Latin migrants— including Mateen—were admitted into the mix. “I think Pulse differs from tourist clubs, as well as other local clubs, for a couple of reasons”, Pomo commented in an interview with Billboard the day after the killing spree (Gray 2016). “One of our biggest goals was to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere that was family-like, with people who shared my vision”.

Continuing the legacy established by pioneering party spots such as the Loft, the Sanctuary, the Haven and the Limelight in early 1970s New York City (Lawrence 2003), Pulse operated as cross between a home, a refuge, a community centre and a pleasure palace. “Growing up in a black and brown community where hyper-masculinity was acted out as a form of survival, I actually grew up hating on Pulse”, dance floor regular Daniel Leon-Davis (2016) recounts in Fusion. “In my community, like in so many others around the world, my identity as a gay man was viewed as a form of weakness. So much so that even when I cam out, I refused to go to gay clubs because it meant that I would be one of ‘those gay men’ ”. Everything changed when he went to Pulse. “Over the next several years, Pulse became the place where my best friends learned to be themselves”, he adds. “Pulse was where I learned to love myself as a gay man. Pulse was where I learned to love my community”. Pomo also made a point of supporting local charities, raising funds for entertainers who wanted to enter pageants, educating around HIV/AIDS prevention and working in tandem with the straight community (Gray 2016). “We were never exclusive of any person’s cause”, she maintained in her Billboard interview. “Our doors were open to everyone”. Pomo added: “People who aren’t out, people who are exploring, people who are transitioning need a place to do this without judgment, they need acceptance; this is what Pulse was always about”

Operating at the intersection of race and class as well as sexuality and gender, Pulse is also rooted in the intertwining forces of colonialism and neoliberalism. With an estimated 1,000 Puerto Rican families currently relocating to Florida every month, the state is close to surpassing the total Puerto Rican population of New York (Alvarez 2016), and Orlando remains one of the primary destinations for this transitory population. The underpinning reasons for the movement are clear: Congress has historically refused to act on the unincorporated colony’s seventy-billion dollar debt, leaving it unable to file for bankruptcy; its economy has stagnated since 2011; its population is declining; and its unemployment rate is twice as high as mainland US, with poverty three times as severe (Chappatta 2016). As US citizens Puerto Ricans are also free to travel to the mainland, with Florida offering them the nearest landing point in the US as well as access to employers such as SeaWorld Orlando Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, Walt Disney World Resort and Legoland. In August 2015 the New York Times observed that the current wave of migration “is transforming a corridor of Central Florida that is increasingly viewed as economically powerful, culturally diverse and politically pivotal” (Alvarez 2015). LGBTQ Puerto Ricans joined the migration to Orlando in part because of the city’s nightlife, with its ten-plus gay bars matching the total in Detroit, a city three times Orlando’s size, and Pulse offering queer migrants an opportunity to escape the “compulsory heterosexuality” (Rich 1980) of the city’s theme parks. Pomo notes that LGBTQ holidaymakers would head to the club as well (Gray 2016).

Saturday 11 June started out as a regular Latin night with DJ Ray Rivera, a.k.a. DJ Infinite, selecting a mix of hip hop, R&B and reggaeton, or “old school” as he put it in a Facebook exchange (Rivera 2016), with DJ Flawless and DJ Simo holding down the other two rooms. When Mateen began his rampage Rivera initially thought that someone was letting off firecrackers, reports Asawin Suebsaeng (2016); then he turned the music down and understood what was going on. Sourced from the biographical testimonies and photographs posted on social media by lovers, family members and friends, a person-byperson roll call of those who died conveys the connectedness as well as the pluralism of the social coalition that gathered on the floor that night (Mirkinson et al. 2016). “Maybe your Ma blessed you on the way out the door”, Torres writes in his tribute to the dead, imagining the multiplicity of circumstances that might have preceded their congregation (Torres 2016). “Maybe she wrapped a plate for you in the fridge so you don’t come home and mess up her kitchen with your hunger. Maybe your Tia dropped you off, gave you cab money home. Maybe you had to get a sitter. Maybe you’ve yet to come out to your family at all, or maybe your family kicked you out years ago”.

Figure 2: Flyer for the Saturday night party at Pulse on 11 June 2016.

Figure 2: Flyer for the Saturday night party at Pulse on 11 June 2016.

Torres offers further scenarios that articulate the way the sonic and social underpinnings of the Pulse dance floor stretch across time and space in transglocal fashion, to cite J. Blake Scott and Rebecca Dingo’s (2012) evocation of culture combines the global and the local while “moving through space or across lines, as well as changing the nature of something”, in the words of anthropologist Aihwa Ong (1999: 4). In the run-up to Mateen’s attack the Pulse floor connected the disparate yet intertwining experiences of, to reference Torres’s diverse community further, the dancer whose lover decided to stay at home to the one who is allowed to stray, the one who is flush to the one who is broke, the one who doesn’t speak Spanish to the one who barely speaks English, and so on, until he finally asks after the dancer who might be undocumented, a common experience in the Latinx community, not solely in terms of the estimated eleven-million migrants who lack authorisation to live in the US (Kronstad and Passel 2015), but also in terms of societal location.

The lack of authorization extends to Latin music, which until recently barely figured in a field that was assumed to consist of a binary exchange between black and white musicians and listenerships. John Storm Roberts addressed the erasure when he argued that “Latin music has been the greatest outside influence on the popular music of the United States” (Roberts: ix), and Ned Sublette developed the analysis by showing how the “commonplaces of Cuban music became commonplaces of American music” (2004: 571) by 1951. Raquel Rivera carried the analysis to hip-hop, noting how New York Puerto Ricans were “integral”to the culture since its inception (2003: 3). Ed Morales went on to trace the Latin influence on rock, hip hop and other sounds in Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond (2003), and Jim McCarthy and Ron Sansoe extended the analysis in the Voices of Latin Rock (2005). César Miguel Rondón’s Spanish history of salsa came out in English three years later (2008), after which the authors of Reggaeton (2009) pointed to how the sound emerged as a transnational Jamaican, Nuyorican, Panamanian and Puerto Rican music with no singular place of origin. More recently, Juliet McMains (2015) has tracked the development of salsa dance in New York, Los Angeles and Miami as well as its relationship to salsa music. However, the Latin influence on DJ culture, disco, house music and other electronic dance sounds remains largely undocumented, and that left the impression that either the sound of the music or the sexuality of a significant number of its makers weren’t sufficiently Latin, or weren’t primed for easy integration into stories about national and diasporic musical movements. In this manner the queerest strand of Latinx culture has passed under-historicised, right up to the point when Mateen’s assault on the culture revealed just how easy it remains to erase Latinx queerness

Ramón H Rivera-Servera argues that the analysis of the utopian space of the queer Latinx dance floor requires an “engagement with the cultures of pleasure that characterize the club” as well as “the cultures of struggle that mark the multiple trajectories and negotiations undertaken by dancers on their way to and as a precondition for the utopian experiences of the dance floor” (2004: 271) What journeys, then, were undertaken in order for the dancers to congregate at Pulse on 11 June 2016, not only in terms of how they and the music they danced to coalesced that night, but also how previous generations of dancers and musicians (including DJs) combined to make Latinx dancers and Latin sounds become an integral part of DJ-led dance culture in the first place, from the pre-disco formation of the opening years of the 1970s through to the rise and fall of disco through to its mutant aftermath and the subsequent rise of house? While Rivera-Servera (2012) has developed an insightful ethnographic analysis of the Latinx dance floor that unfolded in eight clubs located in New York, Rochester, San Antonio and Austin between 1998–2003, and while José Esteban Muñoz (2009) has elucidated crucial aspects of Latinx performance in club settings, a history of the culture that locates its development within the broader conjunctural landscape of DJ-led dance culture has yet to be written. The point isn’t that key Latinx figures never get to be mentioned in other accounts of queer dance culture so much as their contribution tends to be mentioned in passing, as if they were incidental, when in fact it could be argued that, to adapt Sublette’s phrase, the commonplaces of Latinx music have become commonplaces of dance music.

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a detailed analysis, a post-Pulse survey of DJ culture and disco during the 1970s confirms the extent of a Latinx presence that has only crept into writing on the culture. Any historical account would need to being begin with the year zero beginnings of contemporary dance music culture in 1970 when David Mancuso and Francis Grasso, spurred on by a convergent crowd that articulate the energies of gay liberation, civil rights, feminism, anti-war protests, the broader countercultural movement and bohemian culture, pioneered the practice that saw DJs begin to select records as part of a democratic, antiphonal conversation with the dancing crowd (Lawrence 2003). Although there were no Latin-specific discotheques in operation at the time, Latinx dancers formed a key contingent at the Loft and to a lesser extent other venues, their presence traceable to the “Great Migration” of Puerto Ricans to the US mainland during the 1950s and the passing of Hart Cellar Act in 1965, with the latter loosening up restrictions on non-European migration to the US. Their communicative presence can have only encouraged DJs to select records with varying degrees of Latinness into a mix that was largely yet by no means exclusively composed of African American recordings, with tracks such as Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican”, Barrabas’s “Wild Safari” / “Woman”, Joe Bataan’s “Latin Strut”, Chakachas’s “Jungle Fever”, Chicago Transit Authority’s “I’m a Man”, Gil ScottHeron’s “The Bottle” and WAR’s “City, Country, City” offering Latin elements. Publishing the first article to point to the rising number of DJ-led dance venues in the city, Vince Aletti (1973) described the emerging sonic amalgam as ‘‘Afro-Latin in sound or instrumentation, heavy on the drums, with minimal lyrics, sometimes in a foreign language, and a repetitious chorus”. How did Latin influences make themselves heard in these records? Who were the musicians and producers who spearheaded the development? What journeys did the recordings make en route to the New York dance floor? To what extent were the DJs who played them rooted in Latin culture?

Although Italian Americans dominated the formative years of the DJ profession (thanks in part to the Mafia’s presence in a number of discotheques), and although African Americans such as Tee Scott and Larry Levan became increasingly influential as the decade progressed, Latinx DJs also made their mark, with David Rodriguez (the Limelight) and Richie Rivera (the Firehouse, the Anvil, Flamingo) the most notable, and John “Jellybean” Benitez, Armando Galvez, Hector Lebron, Freddie Mendoza, Mike Mora, Eddie Rivera and Ray Velazquez also significant during this period. These DJs cultivated a range of styles that articulated their diasporic subjectivities in sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit ways. Calling himself the Contessa, Rodriguez selected records with unprecedented attitude as he told tempestuous stories by interweaving the lyrics of songs (Lawrence 2003). Meanwhile the shyer Richie Rivera emerged as one of the city’s most compelling DJs as he played alternate weekends at Flamingo, the most influential private party for the white gay male crowd, introducing such a high level of Latin percussion he acquired the nickname “Boom Boom Rivera”. Based at the Cork & Bottle, Eddie Rivera might have been the first DJ to introduce Latin imports into his sets, among them “El Bimbo” by the Chocolate Boys, a 1974 import (Aletti 1998: 87). Meanwhile John Benitez, whose mother migrated from Puerto Rico to the South Bronx during the early 1950s, integrated recordings such as the Latin-jazz-disco of “What You Need Is My Love” by Cindy Rodriguez (Aletti 1998: 231).

Latinx sounds became more prominent in disco during the second half of the 1970s. Van McCoy led the charge when he scored a number one hit with “The Hustle”, which tapped into the revival of the Latin dance style in suburban discotheques. Formed with the ide of Latinising the Philadelphia Sound after its Jewish-Syrian owners had mined the Latin import market, Salsoul proceeded to bring Roy Armando, Andy Gonzalez, Manny Oquendo and Peter “Choki” Quintero as well as conga player Larry Washington into the studio, so whereas Philadelphia International house band MFSB used only one conga/timbales player (Washington), Salsoul went “very Latin”, according to vibes player and producer Vince Montana (Lawrence 2003: 170). With Tom Moulton accentuating the Latin percussion in his extended mix of Patti Jo’s “Make Me Believe In You”, Vicki Sue Robinson heightening the percussion and flight in “Turn the Beat Around”, Karen Young combining Afro-Latin rhythms with jazz and R&B in “Hot Shot”, Walter Gibbons foregrounding congas, timbales and dramatic expression in his mix of Salsoul Orchestra’s “Salsoul 3001”, and Richie Rivera emphasising an insistent woodblock in his mix of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”, the kind of syncopation, colour and contrast that was more obviously typical of Cuban music than the R&B groove and swing that shaped early disco came to overtly infuse disco during the second half of the decade, with scores of other records incorporating the shift. Meanwhile Gibbons demonstrated how DJs could generate a Latin-inflected style behind the turntables when, paralleling DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx, he pioneered the technique of extending the percussive break by mixing between bongo heavy tracks such as “2 Pigs and a Hog”. With the partial exception of the salsa-ification of Salsoul, these significant developments have at best been acknowledged only in passing in writing about disco.

Certain institutional gains paralleled these developments, all of them unfolding within straight settings. On the discotheque front, the Copacabana, the Cork & Bottle and the Ipanema all targeted a Latinx crowd, with DJs such as Freddie Mendoza, Tony Gioe, Mike Mora and Eddie Rivera mixing disco with Latin tracks. As secretary of the New York Record Pool, an organisation co-founded by Mancuso to distribute free promotional records to DJs, Rivera convened a separate Latin Music Department before forming a breakaway organisation, the International Disco Record Center (IDRC). Straight Latin DJs followed Rivera while LGBTQ ones stayed with Mancuso and subsequently joined Judy Weinstein’s For the Record after Mancuso wound down his pool. Lacking a night marked as their own, LGBTQ Latinx dancers continued to head to the Loft as well as other private party spaces that catered to mixed crowds, including the Gallery and the Paradise Garage. “It [the Gallery] was never clearly defined along black gay lines”, notes DJ Nicky Siano of some of the non-normative aspects of Latinx queerness that require further examination (Lawrence 2003: 104). “There were so many people who were just sexual. A lot of black men would have sex with other men but didn’t consider it gay sex. Puerto Rican men, who would never have been caught dead in a gay club, were ‘Just hanging out, man, getting blow jobs, fucking some ass’. It wasn’t about gay or straight. It was about, ‘Hey, let’s party!’ ”

 By the end of the 1970s, as a national backlash threatened to wipeout disco, Latinx protagonists could reflect that they had little to lose given that their profile was already subjugated. Admittedly the most influential New York DJ of his generation, Larry Levan of the Paradise Garage, would soon cite David Rodriguez as one of the “the school of DJs” who had most influenced him (Harvey: 30). Meanwhile Richie Rivera held down his positio at Flamingo and Salsoul remained a hallowed label in the opinion of New York City DJs. Yet the LGBTQ Latinx dance crowd remained largely invisible to the wider public, in part because of its racial profile, in part because of the subterranean character of the private party network, while the Latinx contribution to the sound of disco barely registered as discussions framed the genre as either black (African American disco) or white (Eurodisco and the Bee Gees). It followed that when sales started to decline and the backlash gathered pace, the debate about disco’s status revolved around the argument that a culture born out of African American R&B had abandoned its roots by producing a bleached sound for a white audience. That, in turn, established the bifurcated framework that would enable the rise of rap music to be interpreted as a black working-class response to disco’s journey into white commercialism, itself an oversimplified analysis of the relationship between these two sounds (Lawrence 2016). The ongoing marginalisation of the Latinx weakened the position of Eddie Rivera when he attempted to persuade the wider Latinx music community of the benefits of supporting party DJs and making records that could be played in discotheques (Fernandez 1982; Billboard 1982).

A history of Latinx dance culture that extends to the 1980s and 1990s might take account of several key developments, including the rise of John “Jellybean” Benitez as one of the most influential party DJs of the early 1980s; the contribution of Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” to the emergence of freestyle as a uniquely Latin-flavoured dance floor sound, including Nayobe’s breakthrough contribution; the manner in which “Little” Louie Vega made a name for himself on the New York freestyle scene before becoming one of the most influential house music DJs of the 1990s; the game-changing impact of Vega’s Masters at Work and Nuyorican Soul collaboration with Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, which saw the duo frequently team up with Latinx musicians as they established themselves as the most influential house music remix/production team of the decade; the contribution of Chicago Latinx DJs and artists, including Jesse Velez, Ralphie Rosario and Liz Torres, and New York DJ/producer/remixer David Morales; the pioneering role played by Cutting Records and Nervous Records when it came to showcasing Latinx house artists; the ongoing fluctuations of the New York dance floor, which included the rise of the House of Xtravaganza as the first Latinx ballroom house and the closure of the Garage; and the opening of a number of queer Latinx and cross racial party spots, including Escuelita and Suspect in Manhattan, Krash in Queens, and the Warehouse in the Bronx. Any analysis would need to consider the relationship between the straight and the queer as well as the white and the racialised. “The sexual economies of commercially driven Latin culture, generally assumed and marketed as heterosexual, are queered at the site of the local, reconfigured under a different cultural economy”, notes Rivera-Servera (2004: 282). “Likewise, the often unquestioned whiteness of the gay club is challenged by the virtuoso demands of the Latina/o dancer”.

Following Alexandra Vazquez’s call for an analysis of Cuban music that refuses attempts to craft the country and its culture “as a fixed, immobile, and nonchanging object” (2013: 11), so an account of Latinx dance needs to remain alive to the borders through which the music bleeds, the instrumental combinations it stimulates and the cross-genre flights it encourages, if only because these very qualities are compelling to Latinx dance crowds that often experience life as unfixed, mobile and disjunctive. As Vazquez further suggests, we also need to listen in detail to the music, including to deceptively incidental moments in any recording, such as the sound of the woodblock in Anita Bell’s “Ring My Bell”, originally written and recorded by Frederick Knight for Juana as a slow track before Henry Stone, the owner of TK Productions and distributer for Juana, came to decide, perhaps through breathing the Miami air that passes from Puerto Rico and Cuba to Orlando, that the Knight record would benefit from a Richie Rivera mix (Discoguy, undated)—after which Rivera accentuated or even introduced the woodblock. As they reveal the power relations that structure how music is recorded and how it circulates, these details can inform the analysis of Latin party music while encouraging us to learn more about its submerged history—including, as I have come to understand while researching this article, that Rivera also mixed latinised disco tracks such as Melba Moore’s “Standing Right Here” and Two Man Sound’s “Que Tal America”. How did the work of “Boom Boom Rivera” and others contribute to a viral economy of songs and moves that prepared the terrain for Pomo and others to congregate at Pulse?

Figure 3: Nuyorican Soul led by “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez

Figure 3: Nuyorican Soul led by “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez

If the sonic and social underpinnings of the Pulse dance floor stretch across time and space in a transglocal fashion, so do the threats that Latinx dancers face as they engage with the culture, with homophobic and racist violence hardly new, and the dance floor never straightforwardly constituted as a safe LGBTQ space. After all, until the New York law that forbade two men from dancing with one another was repealed in 1971, police officers routinely threatened to close establishments unless they received a payoff. An ensuing perio of relative tolerance faltered when the economic slowdown of the late 1970s engendered an overtly homophobic anti-disco backlash. By 1983, as gentrification gathered pace, New York City intensified its regulation of the city’s nightlife (Hae 2011) and within a couple of years a neighbourhood association forced the owner of the Paradise Garage Michael Brody to announce he would close the party when his lease expired. As crack-related violence spiralled, Brody also installed a metal detector. Meanwhile the AIDS epidemic led to a clamp down on all-male bathhouses and clubs, with Reagan’s drawn-out refusal to talk about the disease widely interpreted as a sign of queer disposability. Offering no obvious respite, Mayor Giuliani clamped down on party spaces as part of his “Zero Tolerance” campaign. Throughout and beyond, dancers of all persuasions faced the threat of fire, even if the blaze at New Orleans LGBTQ hangout the UpStairs Lounge in 1973 remains the only one to have been caused by arson. Jessica Ravitz (2016) surveys other attacks carried out against queer venues, some of them successful (Eric Rudolph’s bombing of a club in Atlanta in 1997), others unsuccessful (an attempted arson attack on a Seattle club in 2013). In terms of sheer concentration, however, Mateen’s act remains the most violent of all and has resulted in a heightened sense of precariousness

If the safe space of the LGBTQ dance floor has only ever been relatively safe, and if Pulse continues to welcome its LGBTQ crowd into a purpose-built environment with increased security measures, perhaps not that much will change. The Daily Beast might have introduced the strapline the “day the music died” into an article about the massacre (Suebsaeng 2016), but of course forty-nine people died on the Pulse dance floor, not the “music” or the broader desire to gather and dance to music with friends, and the commitment to continue the ritual has become pivotal to the LGBTQ community’s response. “‘Safe space’ is a cliche, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit”, Torres (2016) notes of the culture’s inevitable bounce-back. “So many of us walk through the world without it. So when you walk through the door and it’s a salsa beat, and brown bodies, queer bodies, all writhing in some fake smoke and strobing lights, no matter how cool, how detached, how over-it you think you are, Latin Night at the Queer Club breaks your cool. You can’t help but smile, this is for you, for us”. Torres adds, poignantly: “The only imperative is to be transformed, transfigured in the disco light. To lighten, loosen, see yourself reflected in the beauty of others. You didn’t come here to be a martyr, you came to live, papi. To live, mamacita. To live, hijos. To live, mariposas”.

On hearing the news of the massacre, I couldn’t immediately imagine how Pulse might re-open and concluded instead that the mayor of Orlando should fund the opening of a new, purpose built LGBTQ venue while converting Pulse into a museum dedicated to the victims of the massacre as well as the history of queer dance culture. Having opened the venue as a life-affirming gesture in the first place, Pomo understood much more clearly that the show had to go on, and also established the onePULSE Foundation, which is committed to contributing 90 percent of funds to the National Compassion Fund and the remaining 10 percent to the creation of a memorial. Meanwhile the Orange County Regional History Centre collected some 3,500 items related to the massacre from inside the club as well a spontaneous memorials. Although no quick decision will be taken on the future of the collection, some items will be included in the pre-planned exhibition “Pride, Prejudice & Protest: GLBT History of Greater Orlando”. “This touched thousands of lives”, Michael Perkins, manager of the centre’s museum, told the Orlando Senitel (Hudak 2016). “We are trying to preserve it for generations”.

The totality of these elements show how Pulse negotiated the precarious divide between loss and creation, between violence and love, from the day it opened, and not simply the night Mateen entered the venue armed with a gun. Just as José Esteban Muñoz (2009) points to the way that queer racialised hope and loss come intertwined, with the work of building a utopia left to those whose lives have been damaged, so Pulse dancers have long been habituated to negotiating the violence of homophobia, racism and poverty. If Mateen’s attack took their experience of violence to levels none of them can have imagined, the utopian worldmaking goes on because it was already mandatory, because it cannot be extinguished, and because violence breeds resourcefulness. Pulse’s purpose has never been more urgent, its task to negotiating the local, the national and the transnational never clearer. At the same time, queer latinidad voices and sounds are resisting their erasure. Anger and grief are fuelling joy and resistance. As Pomo’s new motto puts it, “Our hearts are broken but our Pulse is strong”.

Figure 5: Pulse’s post-massacre flyer. Art by Meghan McDunnah

Figure 5: Pulse’s post-massacre flyer. Art by Meghan McDunnah

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Graham St John for encouraging this article and for comments as well as further editing suggestions by Jonathan Karpetz.

 

Notes

1 Latinx is used as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino that also references agender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, queer and trans Latin people. Like Latinidad it understands connections that exist between Latinx people without reducing them to an essential characteristic.

2 See https://www.iraqbodycount.org/              

3 Exceeding the idea of Latinness, or the idea of a shared geopolitical identity, the floor amounted to a Latinx space that reflected the complexities and contradictions not only of immigration, colonialism, race, colour, legal status, class, nation, language and the politics of location, but also queerness, in line with Juana María Rodríguez’s framing of the queer latinidad (2003).

 

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Shear, Michael D. (2016). “After Nightclub Massacre, Obama Expresses Outrage and a Familiar Lament”. New York Times. 12 June, <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/13/us/politics/president-obama-expresses-outrage-over-massacre-at-nightclub.html>. (Accessed 21 August 2016).

Storm-Roberts, John. 1999. The Latin Tinge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sublette, Ned. 2004. Cuba and Its Music. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Suebsaeng, Asawin. 2016. “Pulse DJ Saved Lives Behind His Booth as Gunfire Tore Into Club”. Daily Beast. 12 June, <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/06/12/pulse-dj-describes-orlando-massacre-everybody-was-just-panicking.html>. (Accessed 21 August 2016>.

Sullivan, Kevin, and William Wan. 2016. “Troubled. Quiet. Macho. Angry. The Volatile Life of the Orlando Shooter”. Washington Post. 17 June, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/troubled-quiet-macho-angry-the-volatile-life-of-omar-mateen/2016/06/17/15229250-34a6-11e6-8758-d58e76e11b12_story.html>. (Accessed 18 August 2016).

Teague, Matthew, Ciara McCarthy and Nicole Puglise. 2016. “Orlando Attack Victims: The Lives Cut Short in America’s Deadliest Shooting”. 13 June, <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2016/jun/13/orlando-terror-attack-victims-pulse-nightclub>. (Accessed 20 July 2016).

Time. 2016. “Read President Obama’s Speech on the Orlando Nightclub Shootings”. 12 June, <http://time.com/4365454/orlando-shooting-president-obama-speech-transcript/>. (Accessed 26 July 2016).

Torres, Justin. 2016. “In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club”. Washington Post. 13 June, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-praise-of-latin-night-at-the-queer-club/2016/06/13/e841867e-317b-11e6-95c0-2a6873031302_story.html?utm_term=.cb39784b4173>. (Accessed 26 July 2016).

Trump, Donald. 2016. “Donald J. Trump Addresses Terrorism, Immigration, and National Security”. 13 June, <https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-addresses-terrorism-immigration-and-national-security>. (Accessed 26 July 2016).

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Vazquez, Alexandra T. 2013. Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Waters, Emily, and Chai Jindasurat, Cecilia Wolfe. 2016. “Lesbian, Gay, bisexuaL, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-affected Hate Violence in 2015”. National Coalition of Anti-violence Programs, <http://www.avp.org/storage/documents/ncavp_hvreport_2015_final.pdf>. (Accessed 21 August 2016).

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Discography

Babe Ruth. 1973. “The Mexican”. Odeon (LP): 3351. <https://www.discogs.com/Babe-Ruth-First-Base/release/6541665>.

Barrabas. 1972. “Wild Safari” and “Woman”. Wild Safari. RCA Victor (LP): 443.043. <https://www.discogs.com/Barrabas-Wild-Safari-Afro-Soul/release/617339>.

Joe Bataan. 1974. “Latin Strut”. Mericana Records (7-inch single): M-7157. <https://www.discogs.com/Joe-Bataan-Latin-Strut-Peace-Friendship-And-Solidarity/release/867207>.

Chakachas. 1971. “Jungle Fever”. Polydor (7-inch single): PD-15030. <https://www.discogs.com/The-Chakachas-Jungle-Fever/release/2069961>.

Chocolate Boys. 1974. “El Bimbo”. Les Disques Fleur Inc. (7-inch single): FL 479. <https://www.discogs.com/Chocolate-Boys-El-Bimbo-Voltaire-Pier/release/8354579>.

Chicago Transit Authority. 1969. “I’m a Man”. Chicago Transit Authority. Columbia (LP): GP 8. <https://www.discogs.com/Chicago-Transit-Authority-Chicago-Transit-Authority/release/9195483>.

Cindy Rodriguez. 1976. “What You Need Is My Love”. Disko-Mania (12-inch single): DL-557. <https://www.discogs.com/Cindy-Rodriguez-What-You-Need-Is-My-Love-Phoenix/release/2863913>.

Patti Jo. 1975. “Make Me Believe In You”. Disco Gold (remixed by Tom Moulton). Sceptre Records (LP): SPS 5120. <https://www.discogs.com/Various-Disco-Gold/release/1052277>.

Van McCoy. 1975. “The Hustle”. Avco Records (7-inch single): AV 4653. <https://www.discogs.com/Van-McCoy-The-Soul-City-Symphony-The-Hustle-Hey-Girl-Come-And-Get-It/release/263503>.

Vicki Sue Robinson. 1976. “Turn the Beat Around”. RCA Victor (7-inch single): PB 10562. <https://www.discogs.com/Vicki-Sue-Robinson-Turn-The-Beat-Around-Lack-Of-Respect/release/692440>.

Salsoul Orchestra, The. 1976. “Salsoul 3001”. Salsoul Records (12-inch single): 12D-2011. <https://www.discogs.com/Salsoul-Orchestra-Nice-N-Naasty/release/75606>.

Shannon. 1983. “Let the Music Play”. Emergency Records (12-inch single): EMDS 6540. <https://www.discogs.com/Shannon-Let-The-Music-Play/release/66766>.

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson. 1974. “The Bottle”. Strata-East (7-inch single): SES-19742-45. <https://www.discogs.com/Gil-Scott-Heron-Brian-Jackson-The-Bottle/master/7833>.

WAR. 1972. “City, Country, City”. The World Is a Ghetto. United Artists Records (LP): UAS-5652. <https://www.discogs.com/War-The-World-Is-A-Ghetto/release/428062>.

Anita Ward. 1979. “Ring My Bell (Midnight Mix)”. T.K. Disco (12-inch single): 124. <https://www.discogs.com/Anita-Ward-Ring-My-Bell/release/2906909>.

Karen Young. 1978. “Hot Shot”. West End Records (12-inch single): WES 12111. <https://www.discogs.com/Karen-Young-Hot-Shot/release/79289>.

 

This article was published on Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, you can download it here (pdf).

Perfectly Imperfect

Although its influence has fluctuated in recent decades, New York City occupied the epicenter of progressive party culture during the 1970s and 1980s. It did so for a reason. Back then, the city was the home to what must have been the most diverse mix of people on the planet, many of them viewed as outsiders, misfits and outcasts by mainstream society. As the postwar boom ran into the ground, and as fresh waves of immigration led many white middle-class residents to head to the suburbs, the city went through a transformation as industrial warehouses emptied out and large parts of the East Village became unoccupied.

In other words, the ideal petri dish for new venues to grow within. The result was a set of spaces that were rough around the edges and nowhere near pristine, yet perfectly imperfect for these exact same reasons.

It was against this backdrop of economic decline and social marginalisation that a coalition of queers, women, African Americans, bohemians and countercultural activists started to innovate forms of community-based partying. Led by the music and the dance, this put civil rights, gay liberation, feminist and anti-war principles into action.

At the same time, artists and musicians gravitated to the city’s semi-abandoned downtown terrain, drawn by the cheap cost of living and the chance to collaborate with peers, and combined to produce a cultural renaissance of epic proportions. The maelstrom resulted in the groundbreaking sounds of disco, punk and hip hop. It also produced a series of parties that cultivated these sounds; and provided participants with new ways of experiencing music, community and ultimately the world in the process.

Welcome to a period in the life of New York City when the margins seized the center.


THE MUDD CLUB 

Downtown scenesters Diego Cortez and Anya Phillips were diehard regulars at CBGB, but also wanted to be able to head to a spot where it would be possible to dance to something other than disco – and CBGB didn’t have a dance floor. They put the idea of opening a punk discotheque with art-oriented add-ons to Steve Mass, a businessman who also happened to be a CBGB regular. Mass ran with the idea, settling on a dilapidated textile warehouse located on the border of industrial China Town — the last place artists would have expected to find a cutting-edge artist hangout. Opening the Mudd Club on Halloween 1978, Mass curated a whirlwind programme that included DJing, live music, video and film screenings, and Situationist-style happenings. Klaus Nomi, Debby Harry, Chris Stein, Patti Astor, Arto Lindsay, John Lurie, Andy Warhol, Amos Poe, Anna Sui, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy and scores of others turned it into a restless hub for subterranean creativity and outré dancing.

THE LOFT 

Starting out as a “Love Saves the Day” party held by David Mancuso in his NoHo loft space on Valentine’s Day 1970, the Loft tore up the rulebook of 1960s discotheque culture. Fuelled by LSD, a definitively mixed crowd that included a significant proportion of gay men, an audiophile stereo system and an expansive range of music that complemented the three bardos of the acid trip, the Loft was the first weekly party to run into the early hours of the morning, long after licensed venues were required to close. The combination enabled Mancuso and his crowd to enter into a uniquely sensitized and energetic communicative plane that – in tandem with Francis Grasso’s efforts at the Sanctuary – inspired the rise of contemporary DJ culture, or the practice that requires DJs to respond to, as well as lead their crowds. Future DJ legends Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles were regulars on the dance floor.

THE ROXY 

Bronx-style party culture percolated away in relative isolation during the 1970s, with Disco Fever the primary location for its DJs and MCs. Graffiti unfolded as a largely separate phenomenon and while even breaking (one of a number of styles popular with Bronx dancers) started to fade as the decade disappeared. But then downtown scenesters Fab 5 Freddy and Charlie Ahearn decided to make a film that conceptualised the “four elements” as forming a cohesive thing called hip-hop. Around the same time, Malcolm McLaren employee Ruza Blue turned over her reggae night at Negril to Bronx performers, including Afrika Bambaataa. When the fire department closed the spot, Blue took her party to the Roxy, a gargantuan rollerskating rink. There was no reason to believe the move would work but Blue’s party soon started to attract “a big mash-up of b-boys, downtown trendies, punks, famous people, musicians, painters, gays, trannies — everything you can think of,” she remembers. Hip-hop was gathering momentum in a city where all things hybrid, inclusive and dynamic seemed possible.

DANCETERIA 

Drawing on the city’s art-punk, fashion, dance and experimental traditions, gay liberation activist Jim Fouratt and professional hedonist Rudolf Piper opened Danceteria on 37th Street in the spring of 1980 as the first location where partygoers could experience everything at once. One floor showcased cutting-edge bands, another meshed together the contrasting selections of punk DJ Sean Cassette and disco DJ Mark Kamins, and a third housed the city’s first dedicated video lounge. Fouratt curated performers who combined the avant-garde and the popular, mindful that participants needed to be “open to a range of experiences.” Piper focused on interior design, special parties, social engineering and building a staff team that included artists Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz. Authorities closed the after-hours spot some six months after opening but a new form of partying had come into being. Fouratt and Piper would return.

PYRAMID 

Drag queens tended to head to specific drag bars and above all drag balls until Bobby Bradley and Alan Mace took over a struggling spot called the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge. Located on the outer edges of Alphabet City, which rivalled the Bronx for poverty, the setting enabled the owners to cultivate a form of community-oriented partying that offered anti-clone queers the chance to dance to new wave and participate in the wilder end of alternative performance. Even if they formed a minority within the venue’s diverse East Village crowd, larger-than-life drag queens danced on the bar and ran the door, instilling the venue with acerbic wit, radical politics and unfiltered emotion.

Paradise Garage

Inspired by the Loft, Michael Brody ran a private party in an old egg and butter storage plant on Reade Street in TriBeCa until authorities closed the spot for breaching an array of fire regulations. Aware that Mancuso had re-opened in a larger space in SoHo, and convinced a market existed for an even larger version of the Loft, Brody took out a lease on a gargantuan parking garage located on King Street. As it happens the building’s acoustics were terrible while the idea of dancing in a garage wasn’t immediately appealing, but Brody embraced the tension by naming his spot the Paradise Garage and set about turning the venue into the ultimate shrine for all-night dancing. It was here that Larry Levan established himself as the most influential DJ and remixer of his generation--and perhaps any generation.

This article originally appeared on Boiler Room. Click here for the original article. 

"I Was Born on the Dance Floor: A Playlist for Pulse” Tim Lawrence contribution to article edited by Ann Powers

"I Was Born on the Dance Floor: A Playlist for Pulse" Tim Lawrence reflects on Dinosaur L's "#5 (Go Bang!)” in the aftermath of the Pulse/Orlando massacre. Introduction by Ann Powers with contributions from other authors, NPR, 18 June 2016.

We asked eleven writers to share the songs that helped them make the dance floor home.

We asked eleven writers to share the songs that helped them make the dance floor home.

In the week since the bloody and obscene disruption in Orlando's Pulse nightclub challenged the spirit of hope the LGBTQ* community has so determinedly cultivated for decades, many beautiful words have been burnt into computer screens, offerings to the sacred dance floor. These eulogies have been personal and political, lauding club life as a source of personal awakening, activism and community building. The distant thump of dance music has run through all of these accounts. Different varieties of beats bounced against each other — the salsa and reggaeton played at Pulse that night; the house music that helped people cope with the decimation wrought by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s; the disco that first shaped the physical experience of post-Stonewall liberation, putting bodies together to sweat and cry out in joy.

To honor that music, we've asked eleven writers who've realized essential elements of themselves on such dance floors to share the songs that meant the most to them within that process. This is a playlist for Pulse, for the 49 dead and 53 wounded who each had their own song, the one that pulled him or her out of her perch at the bar, grinning and shaking that thing, that body that holds the soul; grasping the hand of a friend or lover while looking for a new smile to catch out, to keep growing the circle until it felt like it extended everywhere.

"People talk about liberation as if it's some kind of permanent state, as if you get liberated and that's it, you get some rights and that's it, you get some acknowledgment and that's it, happy now? But you're going back down into the muck of it every day; this world constricts," wrote the novelist Justin Torres in his own remembrance of such moments. The Pulse tragedy reasserted the cruel fact that liberation is a fragile right in a society still making its fitful trudge toward genuine tolerance. The mourning process reminds those who love to dance together of something else, too: Liberation is a practice, an insistently loving one, advanced every time people gather to shake off judgment and open their arms to life. The songs enable the practice. They are the conduits through which a superordinary current travels. To reclaim the religious language too often used to justify hate: The songs are the mantras, the beads dancers use when they pray. We present this playlist as a form of witness and of participating in the practice. Be free.

A Playlist For Pulse

CeCe Rogers and Marshall Jefferson, "Someday" (1987)

The day after the massacre of so many queer people of color in Orlando, I kept returning to CeCe Rogers and Marshall Jefferson's "Someday" from 1987. It was a house anthem that I had heard over and over at the End Up in San Francisco when I was an underage go go dancer at Club Uranus, fresh out of the closet and fresh out of Kentucky. The pain and politics of "Someday" were oddly resonant in the late eighties, as the devastation of AIDS stalked our partygoing, and its references to oppression, prejudice, racism and fear indexed the very obstacles that made its lyrical promise of living as one family and making the world a Paradise so alluring, and, still, so distant. Absorbing the awful news from Florida, I played "Someday" over and over, and then dragged the file into Ableton Live editing software and just looped those gospel chords, listening to that cascading riff, trying to extract some balm. In doing so, I was replaying something that has already been replayed and re-used countless times, notably by Liquid for their rave homage/take off "Sweet Harmony" from 1992, which sped up the tempo and soldered breakbeats and rave stabs to the churchy chassis of the Chicago original (a process taken even further for the Concrete Jungle remix of Urban Shakedown's "Some Justice", which also raids "Someday" for vocal loops). In the wake of Orlando, I could hardly bear to hear the pain in Rogers' voice as he modulates upwards to sing that "It doesn't have to be like this".

Tragedies are tragic because they are avoidable. The force of this song confirms something essential to me: The pleasure and joy of gay dance music and gay dance spaces draw their fire from political imagination and political demand. Here it takes a radically counterfactual form, one cruelly apt to the question of gun control in America. The message is simple: We don't have to keep repeating ourselves. We could have a different world. House can be an escapist narcotic, an inert and formulaic placeholder for pious citations of long exhausted historical moments, but it can also sneak up on clichés and make their dry bones live. On the dance floor, you learn these things in your body. Rogers' reference to apartheid in South Africa is a case in point; in the wake of the end of apartheid, the meaning and valence of the song has been transformed within his own lifetime. But it's harder to measure the time it will take to get to where this song is going. "If we could just open our eyes / we could make our world a Paradise." If there's pain, it's the pain of waiting, of deferral, of counting our losses. As queers, how long will we have to wait for someday? DREW DANIEL

Diana Ross, "Love Hangover" (1976)

"Ahhhhh" was the sultry opening to "Love Hangover," disco's "it" song during the spring of 1976. With ex-Supreme Diana Ross singing dreamily, languidly, lustily, "Love Hangover" begins like a slinky seduction. By the time the song shifts into high gear, the dance floor where I most often danced, Ann Arbor's Rubaiyat Disco, was mobbed, and no one, even the most exuberant dancer, could do more than dance in place. Maybe we were responding exclusively to the infectiousness of this track, which Ross herself once described as not quite a song. But I suspect that for early adopters of disco like myself there was a joy in having this maligned genre affirmed by Ross. No singer that famous had yet ventured into our glitterball world. But there's something else about that song that I think explains why we so crowded the dance floor whenever it played. "If there's a cure for this, I don't want it" was Ross's first line. Sure, the song was about love, but for us — the sexual outsiders, the gender rebels — "Love Hangover" was about our love, queer love, and we weren't looking for a cure either. When I think about those disco days, and how queer people used the club, making ourselves over in the process, I flash back to that song, the feeling of brushing up against strangers, and the sensation of feeling free. ALICE ECHOLS

Jennifer Lopez, "Waiting for Tonight" (1999)

When I started the process of coming out around 1999, I was 19 years old and, shall we say, inexperienced. The all hours, 18-and- up club I frequented with my Gap co-workers was a dingy, druggy place in a scary part of town, a metaphorical world away from where I'd grown up. Needless to say, I loved it. Hearing "Waiting For Tonight" reminds me of nothing so much as the sensory confusion and heightened arousal of those first club experiences — making eyes with handsome strangers, awkwardly misreading signals and surrendering myself to the tangled mass of bodies on the dance floor while J. Lo torched the place with her vivid, breathless fantasies and those naughty conga drums. Closing the deal rarely exceeded the thrill of the chase for me, but "Waiting for Tonight" could always convince me that I just needed to try harder. JON FREEMAN

Armand Van Helden ft. Duane Harden, "You Don't Know Me" (1999)

In the early 1990s, I used to rent a room in New York's Flatiron district, right around the corner from the Sound Factory Bar at 12 West 21st street. Sleep was not an option while 4 a.m. dancing to DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Louie Vega; after a few sunset hours of puttering around the apartment, I'd hop the subway to honor my nine to five. By the mid- to late-'90s, The Octagon, Escuelita, Café Con Leche, Phab, Brooklyn Sensation and Langston's were among the trans-borough black and Latino gay clubs (or club nights) that formed my crew's weekly going-out ritual; these spaces were something of a contrast to the decidedly more mainstream (and much paler) megaclubs like Palladium, Twilo and Arena.

For a transitional '90s moment, the idea of a hip-hop night in a gay club was still decidedly left-curve, so much so that I can recall lining up outside The Warehouse in the Bronx, waiting to get in, wondering if any of us might be mowed down by a drive-by shooter with a phobic axe to grind. I wonder if in our rush to mourn and find logic in the midst of the Orlando catastrophe we've managed to conflate the concept of the commercial, transactional gay nightclub as a safe space with the ideal of the gay nightclub as a convivial space. To attend an LGBT club in a straight-supremacist world used to mean — and in many places still means — that you're necessarily exposed in some way; there was always a bit of risk, and safety was rarely guaranteed (particularly if you weren't cisgender). And still, we flocked to spaces like Escuelita and Crash, hell bent on having a kiki-ing with friends, hot in pursuit of a date or a hook-up, dressed to the nines in stylized outfits, determined to see and be seen, awestruck by voguing mavericks battling it out and kinetically dancing the night away until our feet turned sore.

Even more than Ultra Naté's 1997 "Free," "You Don't Know Me" is the track that most reminds me of the inspirational anthem pop that 1990s NYC underground house made possible. Duane Harden's impassioned bleat surging atop Armand Van Helden's looping Carrie Lucas disco sample and Jaydee beat was the pre-9/11 zenith of transcendent dance floor pride. The sassy, clapback lyric — fusing self-esteem sentiments borrowed from ditties as diverse as La Cage Aux Folles' "I Am What I Am" and Billy Joel's "My Life" — rides along on a "don't judge me" message so in-your-face-potent you wish the Orlando shooter had heard it, internalized it and made much smarter, less lethal choices. Nearly two decades later, I've spent a fair amount of time in queer nightlife spaces in pockets of the world where homosexuality has yet to be decriminalized. There, like everywhere else, the pursuit of conviviality and personal liberation continues; even in the midst of resurgent attempts to repress the marginalized, we find a way to keep dancing. JASON KING

Dinosaur L, "#5 (Go Bang!)" (1982)

Thoughts spring to "That's Where the Happy People Go" by the Trammps, the first song to acknowledge the pivotal role played by the LGBTQ community in the formation of disco, and a sweet number to offset this bitterest of moments. They also turn to M.F.S.B.'s quintessential underground disco classic "Love Is the Message," because the desire to confront hatred with love has suffused responses to the massacre. Then there's Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", a near-mandatory selection given that so many partygoers realised their queer selves at Pulse, and also Joe Smooth's Chicago house classic "Promised Land" in the hope that "One day we will be free / From fighting, violence / People crying in the street."

Not for the first time, I need a DJ to capture the layered complexity of what I'm feeling, to lead a dialogical journey that weaves together all of these records and so many more, because this form of extended conversation enables us to discover where we are and where we want to go, expressing our connectedness as the exchange unfolds. But if no DJ steps forward, I'll pick out for Dinosaur L's "#5 (Go Bang!)."

First released by Arthur Russell on the album 24  24 Music in 1981 and remixed by François Kevorkian in 1982, "Go Bang!" gives the impression of doing everything at once as it meshes disco, funk, jazz, dub, new wave, opera and spoken-word chanting in a pulsating groove marked by high drama. The track captures New York party culture at its most mutant and vibrant, for just as nobody had a name for the wild range of sounds that fueled the city's definitively mixed crowds of the early 1970s, so the post-backlash period of the early 1980s witnessed the culture casting genre to one side as musicians captured the kaleidoscopic diversity of the city's dance crowds. "Go Bang" expresses not only male pleasure (listen to Julius Eastman's three-and-a-half octave organismic rendition of the title line) but also the the better-than-sex moment when an entire dance floor screams as a sublime record reaches its peak (captured in the line "I want to see all my friends at once go bang"). Whenever I hear this record played at a party, I and others enter into a circus of sounds, movements, gestures, expressions, touches and screams as the floor becomes a space of openness and expression that exceeds standard definitions of who we are, allowing us to become collectively who we want to be. If only the record never stopped. TIM LAWRENCE

Aquarian Dream, "Phoenix" (1976)

This gem, produced by jazz fusion drummer Norman Connors, embodies the sanctified feeling of gospel, a sound that suffused so much of early disco.

I first heard this cut about 25 years after it was first released and had drifted into obscurity. I had just graduated college and moved to Philly for a music critic internship. Soon after moving there, I became something of a club head. There was virtually no gay club life in my native Little Rock, Ark., and Philly back then still had several hot joints. This one spot, whose name I've long forgotten, played a mix of new and classic dance cuts and drew a beautiful, intergenerational, mostly black and brown crowd. The night the DJ threw on "Phoenix," the older queens whooped and filled the floor right away. Younger ones joined, too. Usually the wallflower, I couldn't resist and ended up dancing with a slim, flirty older guy who sang the lyrics as he danced, hands lifted. After the song segued into another cut, I leaned into the guy's ear and asked him the title of the song.

"'Phoenix,' baby," he said."Aquarian Dream."

It took me almost a decade to find a copy of that song, which transformed that narrow, sweaty space into a righteous sanctuary. Named for the mythical bird that rose strong and glorious from ashes and flames, "Phoenix" celebrates the resiliency of the human spirit, something to remember as we grieve the tragedy at Pulse. And as we grieve, perhaps the spirited horns, strings, percussion and churchy vocals will help us imagine a better place for the 49 gone. Their spirits dance on as the song evokes the flight metaphor found in many gospel songs: "Fly, fly away." RASHOD OLLISON

Jeanie Tracy, "Time Bomb" (1984)

I hadn't experienced sex yet, but when my pointy-toed boots hit the dance floor of the Lost & Found in Washington D.C., my teenage body throbbed with lust, passion and desire. Those same sensations pile up in climax upon climax on this lost classic by Jeanie Tracy, the Houston-born singer that stepped in as Sylvester's primary backing vocalist after Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes graduated to fame as the Weathergirls. (I've never been able to find complete credits for this track, but I choose to believe that's Sylvester, the Queen of Disco, wailing away behind Jeanie throughout this gem.) I blasted "Time Bomb" in my suburban Virginia bedroom and on my first Walkman to sustain me during long, lonely weeks at school, but it never sounded as full and alive as it did in those fleeting moments when I dared to detonate into my true self, one among many, on Saturday nights at the L&F. KURT B. REIGHLEY

Paul van Dyk ft. Saint Etienne - Tell Me Why (The Riddle) (2000)

The beat and sequencer matrix is familiar to fans of the German DJ whose trance productions were all the rage in big cities during the Y2K era. But the synth strings cresting over those beats? Impossible by himself. Collaborating with the British dance pop trio coaxed out the best from each other: Saint Etienne got sinew and muscle, van Dyk got pastels and melodies. Thank Sarah Cracknell, the Holy Spirit of Wistfulness, repeating, "When the morning comes/and the snow is falling" after wondering if she could open her heart again. Tweaking and peaking, months after the ebb of my own unrequited crush, I danced to this 2000 British hit at a defunct Miami club's gay night, aware that several hundred damp strangers and my three friends had known nothing better than this moment but would know much better moments when the morning came and the sun was rising.ALFRED SOTO

Aly-Us, "Follow Me" (1992)

I owe so much of my life, interests, salvation to vogueing — its execution, its specter, its soundtrack — that very specifically black and Latino and gay and trans and New York subculture that has quite literally depended upon the club (or community center, or VFW, or high school gym) as a sanctuary for survival. I owe so much to its practitioners, its DJs, its participants, for teaching me new ways to be free by example, and for exemplifying transcendence through dance, and for expanding and illuminating ingenious new avenues for femininity to me, a straight, cis Latina from Wyoming. Voguing is a space where words like "soft" and "cunt" and "pussy," often derogatory in less open spaces, are compliments of the highest order, particularly when accompanied by unwavering displays of athleticism that equate them with physical power, too.

Adjacent to this is "Follow Me," the 1992 New York City anthem by house trio Aly-us, and one of the most generous songs I've ever heard — a song that, 24 years later, still has the capacity to uplift me more than 30 years in the church ever did. Specifically anti-racism, its gospel (and gospel influences) resonates for any time and place. Its essential openness and light even now encourages the best possible scenario: a dancefloor of hands lifted in ecstatic prayer, the physical sensation of being truly free. It explicitly imagines the club as a site of inclusivity and the body as its own locus of worship. Follow me... why don't you follow me... to a place where we can be free. This is as plainspoken a mission of house music as there's ever been, an enduring staple of the queer dancefloor that can still elevate the club to a higher place. There's love to share. Can you feel it? It's in the air. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

Deee-Lite, "Good Beat" (1991)

I met David Diaz on the parched, scraggly playground for "upper graders" at our Inland Empire elementary school in Southern California, within months of my arrival to the States in 1983. We were both 10, and as he describes it, "Karen was playing soccer with the boys, and I was playing Chinese jump rope with the girls." When we were on a class field trip to the murky, man-made Lake Perris, David rode with me and a few other kids in my folks' conversion van, prompting my mom to think wishfully that we were "an item." I suppose we were. How we were became increasingly apparent as we matured awkwardly into our teendom, trying slyly to fit within whatever acceptable parameters of gender-bending the late '80s and early '90s afforded. At one point we both had hairdos resembling Mario Lopez's mullet in Saved by the Bell, though I could never achieve the lustrousness of David's, since he has naturally curly hair, and like most Asian girls of the era, I needed a "body wave" just to get mine to take any sort of shape. It was in our senior year as theater kids and members of the Thespian club that David — who, in a rehearsed cosmopolitan accent, I started calling "Dahv" — brought Deee-Lite's World Clique album to our protoqueer (but really already totally queer), theater dork cast parties.

While our hetero-confident peers were gregariously practicing their prom night grind to the album's highest charting hit, "Groove is in the Heart" (portending its subsequent popularity at many of the straight weddings we'd end up going to years later), Dahv brought us to the house with the nonchalant, cumulative build of "Good Beat." We'd ease into the song with simple, pulsating movements of the head and chest, nodding our assent to the beat that would eventually animate our flesh as if we were elastic, ecstatic windsocks. We sang along with our priestess, Lady Miss Kier (from New York City via Youngstown, Ohio): "Everything will be alright when you feel it tonight." "Good Beat" propelled those of us piled into my grandma's Ford Escort station wagon across the full 55 miles of freeway that led to Arena, in the eastern part of West Hollywood. Arena was the 18-and-over queer Latino club where we could do everything for real with other brown queers like us: the intimate strangers who knew when to break out in a tight, rhythmical unison with "zoo wah zoo wah zoo wah da da...zoo wah...zoo zoo wah...." We came to the rest of our lives together there to the "Good Beat," to the promise of things getting better, blissfully oblivious to our future worlds in which such scenes of becoming are so easily annihilated. KAREN TONGSON

Sarah Dash, "Sinner Man" (1978)

I'll never forget dancing to Sarah Dash's "Sinner Man" because I heard it for the very first time at my very first gay disco. My friends Jim and Julie and I had just graduated from high school in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y. and I was about to leave for college in New York City. I wasn't out even to myself yet, but this was 1979, and we already knew the hippest and most urbane version of ANYTHING was gay. So we went to a downtown gay club called Jim's, and right away spot two of our English teachers. Then this song comes on, about an otherwise strong-willed woman's attraction to what's forbidden. It's sung by one of the ex-members of Labelle, so she really belts, and it's got one of Tom Moulton's classic mixes that breaks down as the background vocalists chant, "Holding me, touching me, sinner man" while the track builds more powerful than ever — as if surrendering to what's supposedly bad for you can make you stronger if you're able to learn from it. That, for me, was the gay experience in a nutshell. Soon after, Jim, Julie and I all came out, and a few years after that, our social studies teacher Tim Mains became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in all of New York State. I'm sure there are people in our hometown who still think we're all sinners, but I wouldn't have made it out alive if I'd believed that. BARRY WALTERS

This article originally appeared on NPR on 18 June 2016. Click here for the original article.

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