“Disco”. In John Shepherd and David Horn, eds, Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 8, Genres: North America. London: Continuum, 2012, 180-86.


Coined to describe the broad range of danceable music played by disc jockeys in public discotheques and private parties in North America in the early 1970s, disco became a recognised genre of uptempo popular music that drew on elements of funk, gospel, jazz and soul. Disco recordings were often built on a propulsive underlying rhythm section, around which a wide range of instrumental and vocal techniques were developed, with structured songs and groove-oriented tracks both prominent. DJs became central to the popularisation of disco records, which were often characterised by the way engineers, producers and remixers deployed a series of increasingly unconventional studio techniques to manipulate vocal and instrumental takes, and the genre peaked commercially in 1978. The subsequent coincidence of disco's industrial overproduction with a deep recession culminated in a backlash against the genre and its associated culture, and during 1980 the music industry stopped using the word "disco" altogether. Although many aspects of disco could be detected in the newly coined category of "dance", as well as later genres such hip hop, house and techno, the increasingly electronic and sequenced character of these sounds also distinguished them from disco.

Emergence of disco and the role of the DJ

The practice of dancing to pre-recorded music in the United States can be traced to the spread of jukebox technology in the 1930s and record hop culture in the 1950s. Parallel practices unfolded in Germany, where "Swing Kids" set up gramophones in order to dance to jazz, and also in France, where the venues that played pre-recorded music became known as "discothèques". Having operated as a space in which resistance fighters would socialise and dance, French discothèque culture acquired an elitist, bourgeois cachet during the postwar era, and this was the version of the culture that travelled to New York when Oliver Coquelin opened Le Club at the beginning of the 1960s. In New York, discotheque culture became more democratic when Arthur, drawing inspiration from London's Ad Lib nightclub, opened in 1965, and a clientele made up of young white heterosexual workers danced the twist. But towards the end of the decade New York's discotheques entered a period of commercial decline, and when Arthur closed in 1969 the media reported that the novelty of the discotheque had worn off.

David Mancuso inside the Prince Street Loft. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. Photography by Peter Hujar. Copyright Estate of Peter Hujar.

A pivotal turning point for the culture arrived at the beginning of 1970 when David Mancuso, a resident of the NoHo district of New York, put on the first of a series of highly influential private parties that soon became known as the Loft, while two gay entrepreneurs called Seymour and Shelley took over a failing discotheque called the Sanctuary and marketed the venue to the gay clientele who frequented their bars in New York's West Village. Marked by the spirit of the countercultural era, the Loft and the Sanctuary attracted crowds that were mixed in terms of race, gender and sexuality, and the marginalised social status of many of their dancers combined with the popularisation of stimulants such as LSD contributed to the both emergence of a new dynamic on the dance floor and a non-normative way of experiencing the body. Instead of dancing in couples, participants adopted a freeform style that enabled them to dance with the wider crowd, and responding to the increase in energy, Mancuso and Sanctuary DJ Francis Grasso developed a dialogic relationship with their dancers in which they didn't just "lead" but also attempted to "follow" the dancers in their selections. Growing out of Harlem's rent party tradition, the Loft inspired a series of private parties, most of which opened in the recently evacuated industrial buildings of downtown New York, including the Tenth Floor, Gallery, Flamingo, SoHo Place, 12 West, Reade Street and the Paradise Garage. In a parallel development, public discotheques such as Better Days, Hollywood, the Ice Palace, Le Jardin, Limelight and the Sandpiper were structured according to the model of the Sanctuary. In contrast to the largely unregulated private party network, the public discotheques were bound by New York City's Cabaret Licensing legislation.

Between 1970 and 1973 private party and public discotheque DJs were required to search hard for their music, as record companies were unaware of the nascent dance market and appropriate tracks were in short supply. Drawing on funk, soul and rock as well as rare imports, DJ selections reflected the diversity of their dance crowds, and also contained elements of what would become disco. The break featured not once but twice in Eddie Kendricks' "Girl, You Need A Chance of Mind"; the Temptations' "Law of the Land" accentuated the power of the disciplinary beat; Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes "The Love I Lost" called attention to the four-on-the-floor bass beat; the funk alternative, which became prominent in disco, ran through James Brown "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose"; Chakachas "Jungle Fever" included Latin percussion and clipped, sensual vocals; the parallel move of developing politicised lyrics was evident in the Equals' "Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys"; Olatunji's "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion)" foregrounded African derived rhythms and chants; swooping orchestration was a hallmark of Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft"; WAR's "City, Country, City" revealed the dance floor preference for long records; an ecstatic gospel aesthetic was integral to Dorothy Morrison's "Rain"; emotional expressiveness ran through the Intruders' "I'll Always Love My Mama" and Patti Jo's "Make Me Believe in You"; and Chicago's "I'm A Man" demonstrated an openness to danceable rock. In September 1973 Vince Aletti published an article titled "Discotheque Rock '72 [sic]: Paaaaarty!" in Rolling Stone that drew attention to the way in which the records that were being played on New York's dance floors tended to feature these recurring traits.

Entering an industry dominated by radio DJs, private party and discotheque DJs demonstrated their ability to promote and sell records when Alfie Davison and David Mancuso became the first spinners to play the import single "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango, which subsequently entered the Billboard Hot 100 before receiving radio airplay. The new breed of DJs reiterated their rising influence when they helped transform neglected singles such as "Never Can Say Goodbye" by Gloria Gaynor and "Love's Theme" by the Love Unlimited Orchestra into chart hits. Having functioned initially as shorthand descriptor for the public institution of the discotheque, disco began to be used to refer to the music played in these settings, and when the Hues Corporation and George McCrae scored successive number one hits with the similar sounding "Rock the Boat" and "Rock Your Baby" in July 1974, it became clear that a new genre had come into existence.

Led by Paul Casella, Steve D'Acquisto and David Mancuso, DJs established the New York Record Pool, the first record pool in the United States, in June 1975, and soon after they persuaded a large gathering of major and independent record company representatives to start supplying them with free promotional copies in return for the de facto marketing they received every time a DJ played one of their records. DJs didn't only operate as tastemakers and marketers, however, and many of them became notable for the way in which they strung together their selections. David Mancuso (who considered himself to be a "musical host" rather than a DJ) pioneered the craft of piecing together records so they told a story that unfolded across an entire night. Francis Grasso used headphones and a mixer to blend records into a beat-matched flow. Nicky Siano asserted the creative power of the DJ when he began to interrupt records in mid-flow if the mix sounded right, and he also popularised the practice of working with three turntables simultaneously. Walter Gibbons became the first spinner to make his own homemade edits, and he also developed the art of mixing between the breaks of two records in order to create a "tribal aesthetic". Combining the distinctive styles of Mancuso and Siano, Larry Levan took the art of DJing to unmatched levels of artistry and drama. And although only a few spinners could play a conventional musical instrument ¾ Jim Burgess was a notable exception ¾ they demonstrated that the much-maligned practice of DJing was in fact a skilled art form.

Loleatta Holloway. Photograph by Waring Abbott.

Loleatta Holloway. Photograph by Waring Abbott.

Capitalising on the rising prominence of New York's DJs and the associated dance network, independent record companies such as Roulette, Scepter and 20th Century started to produce and mix records for the dance market, and when Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of the renowned soul label Philadelphia International released "Love Is the Message" and "TSOP" by MFSB towards the end of 1973 it became clear that the music market was beginning to shift, with feel-good disco displacing message-oriented soul. The development was decried several years later by the critic Nelson George, who identified Philadelphia International's conversion to disco as a key moment in the decline of R&B. In reply it could be argued that disco was simply assuming an alternative form of engagement in its development of a politics of the body that deployed black aesthetics within a gay and feminist framework. Records such as "That's Where the Happy People Go" by the Trammps referenced disco's prominent gay male constituency, while the emotionally articulate Carl Bean, First Choice, Loleatta Holloway, Thelma Houston, Grace Jones, Chaka Khan, Evelyn "Champagne" King, LaBelle, D.C. LaRue, Cheryl Lynn, Sylvester and Karen Young joined Gloria Gaynor in forging disco as a terrain where masculinity could assume no easy dominance. Far from abandoning black aesthetic priorities, New York labels such as Prelude, Salsoul and West End recorded dance music that combined rhythmic drive with instrumental sophistication, while Florida's TK Records developed an eclectic, funk-tinged roster of artists that included Peter Brown, KC and the Sunshine Band, and T-Connection.

Development of the disco sound

In a parallel development, European producers started to release disco recordings in 1975, and their collective efforts soon acquired the label of Eurodisco. Silver Convention demonstrated the shift was aesthetic as well as geographical when "Fly, Robin, Fly" featured a strikingly heavy four-on-the-floor bass beat along with a clipped female chorus, and Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte entrenched Eurodisco's thudding four-on-the-floor bass drum motif when they recorded "Love to Love You Baby" with Donna Summer. These and other instances of early Eurodisco retained a connection with the soul orientation of US disco, but during the second half of the 1970s Eurodisco acquired a more obviously mechanical aesthetic. Although the self-consciously technological Kraftwerk are not normally associated with disco, recordings such as "Trans-Europe Express" were popular with many DJs, and Moroder produced an equally innovative and influential futuristic anthem when he teamed up with Summer to release the Moog-driven "I Feel Love". Gesturing towards the western classical tradition, Moroder and other prominent Eurodisco producers such as Cerrone, Alec Costandinos, Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo introduced elaborate orchestral instrumentation and grandiose conceptual themes in many of their recordings.

Eurodisco's rising share of the disco market was bolstered when the Los Angeles-based disco label Casablanca Records signed up a significant number of its most prominent producers and artists. Propelled by its hyperactive and uncontained owner Neil Bogart, Casablanca became the most commercially successful disco label of the second half of the 1970s, and counted Cher, Love and Kisses, and the Village People, along with the ubiquitous Donna Summer, among its most prominent artists. Disco acts on other labels also scaled the Hot 100, including the Bee Gees, Chic, Tavares, the Ritchie Family, Diana Ross, the Trammps, and Barry White, yet one-hit wonders such as Van McCoy ("The Hustle") and Carl Douglas ("Kung Fu Fighting") were also salient presence as well as an indicator of the ephemeral nature of many disco acts. Indeed that status even loomed over Gloria Gaynor until, who endured four years of failure until she scored her second hit, "I Will Survive", which was originally released as a B-side until DJs revealed it to be more effective than the A-side. The startling transience of these and many other disco artists can be partly explained by the fact that the rock-leaning record executives of the majors were notably reluctant to set up disco departments to help provide the genre's artists with a more consistent national profile. Yet as Will Straw has argued (1990), disco's relative fragility can also be traced to its consumers, whose primary concern tended to be the effectiveness of a particular recording in relationship to other contemporaneous recordings. In this disco differed from the rock market, where consumers were more likely to be committed to following the career of an artist or artists.

Instrumentalists and vocalists remained integral to the disco sound, yet as the 1970s unfolded a group of engineers, producers and remixers began to play a dominant role. Among this group, Giorgio Moroder and Alec Costandinos went on to enjoy reasonably successful artist careers, but the influential engineer Bob Blank and groundbreaking remixers such as Walter Gibbons, François Kevorkian, Tom Moulton and Larry Levan remained notably anonymous. Having reconstructed and extended records by artists such as BT Express, Don Downing, Gloria Gaynor, Patti Jo and South Shore Commission in order to make them more dance-floor friendly (often to the consternation of the recording artist), Moulton spearheaded the art of remixing. He also inadvertently recorded the first twelve-inch single when he placed a mix of an Al Downing song on a twelve-inch blank and was struck by the resulting increase in volume and sound quality. Designed to facilitate the circulation of extended records that could satisfy the needs of DJs and dancers, the twelve-inch single became one of the key innovations of disco, and the iconic format was commodified for the first time when Salsoul released a commercially available twelve-inch remix of "Ten Percent" by Double Exposure. The label also took the bold move of hiring Walter Gibbons to carry out the remix on the basis that a working DJ was more likely to understand how to reshape a record in the interest of the dance dynamic than a studio-bound engineer or producer. In this manner the twelve-inch single came to embody a dance floor sensibility, and Gibbons, who also completed groundbreaking remixes for Loleatta Holloway, Love Committee, Bettye LaVette and the Salsoul Orchestra, took the art of remixing into an experimental, leftfield direction. His far-reaching reconfiguration of Holloway's "Hit and Run", on which he was provided with access to the multitrack tapes of a recording for the first time, revealed the creative potential of remix culture.

From local scenes to mainstream saturation

While New York City remained the most important centre for private parties and discotheques throughout the 1970s, important scenes also developed in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Toronto, as well as cities in Europe and Asia. When the network of dance venues continued to expand during the economic slowdown that followed the oil crisis of 1973, commentators noted the way in which the entertainment institution of the discotheque provided good value for money in comparison to the cost of going to see live music, and during 1977 and 1978 three major discotheques ¾ Studio 54, New York, New York, and Xenon ¾ opened in midtown Manhattan. Competing over set designs, lighting systems, door queues and, most notably, the number of celebrities they could count as their clients, these venues began to appear regularly in New York's tabloid newspapers, as did more general interest features about disco culture. Some of the more thoughtful pieces discussed the way in which disco foregrounded novel ways of producing music and experiencing the body.

Far from being confined to urban centres, disco culture also expanded rapidly in suburban areas, where a markedly compromised version of the Loft/Sanctuary format took hold thanks to the fact that venues were often situated in ex-restaurants, DJs were given less autonomy, and couples dancing was re-popularised in the form of the Hustle. Nevertheless Suburban disco culture acquired an unexpectedly high profile when RSO released the film Saturday Night Fever, which was based on Nik Cohn's partly fictional account of Brooklyn discotheque culture for New York magazine. Released at the end of 1977, the film went on to generate the second highest box office takings of all time (behind the Godfather) and recording-breaking album sales (of thirty million copies). Starring John Travolta as the working-class Italian American shop-worker/dancer Tony Manero and a sound track dominated by the Bee Gees, the film portrayed disco as being both white and heterosexual, and this contributed to the rapid popularisation of the culture during 1978. Although it was less commercially successful, the Casablanca film Thank God It's Friday helped disco consolidate its growth, as did the annual Disco Forum, which was organised by Billboard magazine.

Previously sceptical about disco's aesthetic and commercial potential, major music companies including Warner Bros. and CBS responded to the post-Saturday Night Fever boom by establishing dedicated disco departments, and artists such as Alfredo De La Fe, Herbie Hancock, Johnny Mathis, Dolly Parton and the Rolling Stones started to record disco, albeit with mixed results. Around the same time WKTU, an anonymous soft rock station based in New York, switched to an all-disco format and increased its ratings from a one-point-three share to an eleven-point-three share overnight. Along with the sweeping success of Saturday Night Fever, the rise of disco radio encouraged the majors to switch their promotional focus from discotheque DJs to radio DJs, and they also took the decision to expand their disco output exponentially in the belief that anything that contained disco's recognisable four-on-the-floor bass beat would climb the charts. As a result, DJs and dancers alike were faced with a rush of disco releases that were deemed to be substandard, yet the shift towards a more profit-driven release strategy was not absolute, and 1978 saw the release of records such as Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up", which brought together many of the aesthetic borrowings and innovations of disco, as well as Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", which included Patrick Cowley's synthesiser and served as an early imprint of the "San Francisco Sound". Released the following year and combining hard-edged drums, a prominent bass riff and shimmering vocals, Chic's seminal "Good Times" aligned the feel-good quality of the discotheque experience with black upward mobility.


Disco reached a formal end-point during the second half of 1979 when the hostile "disco sucks" movement helped persuade record companies to abandon the generic label. Originating with John Holmstrom's "Death to disco shit!" editorial in Punk magazine, which was published in January 1976, the anti-disco movement acquired momentum gradually during 1976 and 1977, in part because disco's primary constituency was black, female and gay (in contrast to rock's white, straight and male demographic base), and in part because disco emphasised the female vocalist, the aesthetic of the collective groove, and the near-anonymous work of the producer and the remixer (whereas rock revolved around male musicianship, the primacy of the vocalist and the lead guitarist, and an ethos of authentic performative musicianship). The post-Saturday Night Fever proliferation of substandard disco records made disco increasingly vulnerable to attack, while the onset of a deep recession in the first quarter of 1979 contributed to the creation of a constituency of alienated young men who were searching for a scapegoat to blame for their lack of security. It was within this context that the backlash against disco peaked in the summer of 1979, and when the talk host DJ Steve Dahl staged an explosion of approximately forty thousand disco records in the middle of a baseball double-header at Comiskey Park in Chicago the movement reached its symbolic peak. During the next six months US record companies reduced their disco output radically, closed down disco departments, and started to use "dance" in place of "disco".


Disco Sucks riot at Comiskey Park, Chicago, 1979.

Disco Sucks riot at Comiskey Park, Chicago, 1979.

As consumers grew tired of the overkill of Saturday Night Fever, the limitations of suburban discotheque culture, and the unabashed elitism of Studio 54 and its imitators, thousands of discotheques closed during the second half of 1979, and disco soon ceased to be a media story. Yet in New York private parties such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage continued to flourish, while influential new dance venues such as Bond's, Danceteria and the Saint opened for business in 1980, just months after disco's reputed death. No finite distinction can be made between the disco records released during 1979 and the newly-coined dance output of 1980, and a record like Dinosaur L's "Go Bang!" contained enough links to disco for it to be hailed as one of the founding tracks of so-called "mutant disco". Yet the increasing prominence of synthesisers and drum machines during the first half of the 1980s signalled a shift in dance aesthetics, and the move towards a more technological sound was consolidated when the first tranche of Chicago house tracks were released during 1984. The rise of house in the middle of the 1980s marked a shift away from the skilled musicianship and often costly production processes of disco towards a culture in which music was made on cheap electronic equipment by untrained musicians, yet many of these younger producers attempted to ape the aesthetic priorities of disco, and house recordings have repeatedly featured samples from disco recordings. Early hip hop artists and producers also drew heavily on disco aesthetics, as did pop figures such as Michael Jackson and Madonna.

The failure of house to match the commercial impact of disco confined dance and its various offshoots to the margins of mainstream US pop culture during the 1980s, even if the genre achieved a more pronounced impact in Europe. Meanwhile the general shift in pop music culture towards the deployment of electronic and sequencing technologies resulted in disco acquiring a new significance. Often judged to have been slick and mechanical during the 1970s, by the early twenty-first century disco was notable for just how "live" it sounded in contrast to electronic dance genres such as house, techno, and drum and bass, as well as hip hop. The 1970s remains the last period in western popular music culture when trained musicians from a wide range of generic backgrounds (including funk, soul, rock, jazz and orchestral music) were employed on a regular basis to record music that would be played in dance venues, and this is one of the principle reasons the period has continued to be such a productive terrain for sampling. At the same time the 1970s practice of a DJ selecting records in relationship to a dancing crowd across the course of an entire night has remained the central dynamic of contemporary club culture, while the ethos of remix culture has stayed grounded in the principles forged by the likes of Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons.

To sum up, the sound of disco emerged out of a wide range of danceable genres that were being played by DJs in the setting of the public discotheque and, less prolifically but perhaps more influentially, the private party. The sound came began to coalesce when a small number independent labels began to record music that was specifically designed for the nascent dance market and, around the same time, the music industry began to recognise that club play could boost a record's commercial performance. Consolidated during 1974 and 1975, the genre of disco featured a wide range of instrumental and vocal techniques that revolved around an uptempo four-on-the-floor bass beat (which ran at approximately one hundred and twenty beats-per-minute). Initially disco's open-ended structure enabled it to develop in eclectic and unpredictable ways, but during 1977 and 1978 a deluge of gimmicky releases drew on the genre's simple, easily identifiable rhythmic foundation, and in so doing undermined the credibility of the sound and contributed to its market collapse. The rise of disco-related genres such as house has led to a revival of interest in disco, especially in Europe, where house has enjoyed its most sustained level of success. Yet within the broader popular imagination, disco is regularly associated with "bad taste", and hip hop and rock commentators are often openly disdainful of the culture.

The literature on disco has been shaped by its shifting historical status. A flurry of books, many of them glorified dance manuals, came out in the US in late 1970s, when disco was enjoying its commercial peak; of these, Albert Goldman's Disco, which was published in 1978, is easily the most broad-ranging, even its content and voice are somewhat erratic, while Night Dancin' by Vita Miezitis provides an important turn-of-the-decade guide to the New York club scene. Published in 1979 and 1994 respectively, Richard Dyer's "In Defence of Disco" and Walter Hughes' "In the Empire of the Beat" contributed to the intellectual framing of disco, yet no book-length study appeared until 1997, when the US writer Anthony Haden-Guest published The Last Party, which framed disco through the lens of celebrity culture and Studio 54. Around the same time an alternative attempt to historicise disco within the context of dance music began to unfold in Europe, and while books by Ulf Postchardt (1995), Matthew Collin (1997) and Sheryl Garratt (1998) were heavily dependent on Goldman, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton conducted original research for the two disco chapters that appeared in their broad-ranging account of DJ culture (1999). Following the publication of Mel Cheren's engaging if sometimes unreliable disco memoir, Keep On Dancing', the author of this entry researched the first book-length study of disco, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79, which came out in 2003. Since then, the British authors Daryl Easlea (Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco) and Peter Shapiro (Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco) have contributed to the growing bibliography on disco, the length of which makes Shapiro's subtitle somewhat anomalous.



Aletti, Vince. "Discotheque Rock '72 [sic]: Paaaaarty!" Rolling Stone, 13 September 1973.

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999.

Cheren, Mel. Keep On Dancin': My Life and the Paradise Garage. New York: 24 Hours for Life, 2000.

Cohn, Nik. "The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night". New York, 7 June 1976.

Collin, Matthew (with contributions from John Godfrey). Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House. London and New York: Serpent's Tail, 1997.

Dyer, Richard. "In Defence of Disco", Gay Left, summer 1979. Reprinted in The Faber Book of Pop, ed. by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage. London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995, 518-527.

Easlea, Daryl. Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco. London: Helter Skelter, 2004.

Garratt, Sheryl. Adventures In Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture. London: Headline, 1998.

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. New York: Plume, 1988.

Goldman, Albert. Disco. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978.

Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party. Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.

Holmstrom, John (ed.). Punk: The Original. New York: Trans-High Publishing Corp., 1996.

Hughes, Walter. "In the Empire of the Beat: Discipline and Disco". In Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (eds.), Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1994, 147-57.

Lawrence, Tim. "Beyond the Hustle: 1970s Social Dancing, Discotheque Culture, and the Emergence of the Contemporary Club Dancer". In Julie Malnig (ed.), Social and Popular Dance Reader. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2008, 199-214.

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (1970-79). Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004.

Miezitis, Vita. Night Dancin'. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980.

Postchardt, Ulf. DJ-Culture. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. London: Quartet Books, 1998 (1995).

Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Straw, Will. "Popular Music As Cultural Commodity: The American Recorded Music Industries, 1976-1985". Ph.D. diss., McGill University, 1990.

Tolin, Steve (ed.). Disco: The Book. New York: Talent & Booking Publishing, 1979.



Can't Stop the Music. Anchor Bay, 1980, directed by Nancy Walker, screenplay by Bronte Wood and Allan Carr.

Saturday Night Fever. Paramount Pictures, 1977, directed by John Badham, screenplay by Norman Wexler.


Discographical references

Brown, James. Give It Up or Turnit A Loose.' Sex Machine. King. 1115. 1970: US.

Chakachas. 'Jungle Fever.' Jungle Fever. Polydor. PD-5504. 1972: US.

Chic. "Good Times". Twelve-inch single. Atlantic. 37158. 1979: US.

Chicago Transit Authority. 'I'm A Man.' Chicago Transit Authority. Columbia. GP 8. 1969: US.

Dibango, Manu. 'Soul Makossa.' Fiesta Records. 51-199. 1972: France.

Dinosaur L. "Go Bang! #5" Remixed by François K. Twelve-inch single. Sleeping Bag Records. SLX-0. 1982: US.

Double Exposure. 'Ten Percent.' Remixed by Walter Gibbons. Twelve-inch single. Salsoul Records.  12D-2008. 1976: US.

Douglas, Carl. 'Kung Fu Fighting.' 20th Century Records. TC-2140. 1974: US.

Equals, The. 'Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys.' President PT-325. 1969: UK.

Gaynor, Gloria. 'I Will Survive.' Twelve-inch single. Polydor. 887 036-1.1978: US.

Gaynor, Gloria. 'Never Can Say Goodbye.' Never Can Say Goodbye. MGM Records. M3G 4982. 1975: US.

Hayes, Isaac. 'Theme from Shaft.' Stax. TAX 2002. 1971: US.

Hues Corporation. 'Rock the Boat.' RCA Victor. APBO-0232. 1974: US.

Intruders, The. 'I'll Always Love My Mama.' Philadelphia International Records. ZS8 3624. 1973: US.

Instant Funk. 'I Got My Mind Made Up.' Salsoul. SG 207. 1978: US.

Jo, Patti. 'Make Me Believe in You.' Wand. WND 11255. 1973: US.

Kendricks, Eddie. 'Girl You Need A Change of Mind.' People… Hold On. Tamla. T 315L. 1972: US.

Kraftwerk. 'Trans-Europe Express.' Trans-Europe Express. Capitol Records. SW-11603. 1977: Germany.

Love Unlimited. 'Love's Theme.' Under the Influence of Love Unlimited. 20th Century Records. T-414. 1973: US.

McCoy, Van, and the Soul City Symphony. 'The Hustle.' Avco. AV 4601. 1975: US.

McCrae, George. 'Rock Your Baby.' TK Records. TK 1004. 1974: US.

Melvin, Harold, & the Blue Notes. 'The Love I Lost (Parts 1 & 2).' Philadelphia International Records. S PIR 1879. 1973: US.

MFSB. 'Love Is the Message.' Love Is the Message. Philadelphia International Records PIR 65864. 1973: US.

MFSB. 'TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).' Love Is the Message. Philadelphia International Records. PIR 65864. 1973: US.

Morrison, Dorothy. 'Rain.' Elektra 45684. 1970: US.

Olatunji. 'Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion).' Drums of Passion. Columbia CS 8210.  1959: US.

Silver Convention. 'Fly, Robin, Fly.' Silver Convention. Jupiter Records. 89 100 OT. 1975: Germany.

Summer, Donna. "Love to Love You Baby". Love to Love You Baby. Oasis. OCLP 5003. 1975: US.

Summer, Donna. 'I Feel Love.' Twelve-inch single. NBD 20104. Casablanca. 1977: US.

Sylvester. "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)". Twelve-inch single. X-13003. Fantasy: US.

Temptations. 'Law of the Land'. Masterpiece. Tamla. STML 11229. 1973: US.

Trammps, The. 'That's Where the Happy People Go.' Twelve-inch single. Atlantic. DSKO 63. 1975: US.

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“Disco and the Queering of the Dance Floor”. In Angela McRobbie, ed., “Queer Adventures in Cultural Studies”, Cultural Studies, 25, 2, 2011, 230-243

How might we analyse the relationship between sexuality and the dance floor in 1970s disco culture- a culture that is commonly ridiculed, yet which was often progressive and continues to inform the contemporary thanks to its innovations within DJing, remixing, social dance and sound system practices? It has become commonplace to read disco as the site where a binary contest between gay and straight was staged: that disco emerged as an outgrowth of the Stonewall Rebellion of June 1969 and unfolded as a predominantly male gay subculture; that the dance movement was subsequently co-opted, commodified and tamed by films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), which established it as a safe haven for straight courtship; and that the commercial overkill that followed the runaway success of the RSO movie culminated in an overtly homophobic backlash that turned on the culture’s perceived latent gayness. Rather than repeat this narrative, however, I want to outline some of the ways in which dominant conceptions of sexuality cannot fully account for the phenomenon of disco, and will argue that the conditions that coalesced to create the 1970s dance floor revealed disco’s queer potential- or its potential to enable an affective and social experience of the body that exceeded normative conceptions of straight and gay sexuality. In the analysis that follows, I will be referring to practices that unfolded in the United States, and in particular, downtown New York, where disco’s queerness was arguably most marked, even though the culture’s scope was ultimately international.

In order to assess the significance of queer disco, it is necessary to note that the social dances that preceded disco- most notably the Waltz, the Foxtrot, the Lindy Hop (or Jitterbug), the Texas Tommy and the Twist- were to varying degrees patriarchal and heterosexist. If this claim is sweepingtruncated and in some respects crude, it nevertheless draws attention to theway participants could only take to the floor if accompanied by a partner of the opposite sex, as well as the reality that in this situation it remained standardpractice for men to assume the lead. That did not make the dancesirredeemably regressive. To being with, they were often no more gendered than the wider social settings within which they emerged, and social dancebecame a site where these norms were challenged as well as imposed. As dance historians such as Katrina Hazzard-Gordon (1990) and Marshall and Jean Stearns (1994) note, vernacular dance provided African American communities with a reason to congregate as well as a channel for expressive release,while the under-historicized culture of drag balls that dates back to the Harlem Renaissance disrupted gender signifiers and roles. Successively, these dances also allowed for an increasing amount of space to exist between the dancing couple, and in turn this provided the female follower with greateindependence from her male lead.

Yet on the eve of 1970, prior to the breakthrough of the social dance formation that would come to be known as disco, the rising autonomy of the female dancer in dances such as the Twist continued to be tempered by the ongoing role of men as the gatekeepers of the dancer floor. And while gay men were ushered to the front of the door queue in venues such as Arthur (a comparatively liberal discotheque situated in midtown Manhattan) on the basis that they would help energize the dance floor, once inside they could only take to the floor within the structure of the ostensibly heterosexual couple, andthe same restrictions were applied to lesbian women. Arthur closed in June 1969 not because the Stonewall rebellion made its practices look archaic, but because the pre-disco discotheque craze of the 1960s had come to resemble atired fad. At this particular historical juncture, dance floor practices lagged behind the demands of feminist and queer activists.

Instead of fading out altogether, however, social dance assumed a new form at the beginning of 1970 with the more or less simultaneous emergenceof two influential venues. In one, David Mancuso staged the first in a longseries of private parties that came to be known as the Loft in his NoHo apartment on Valentines Day. In the other, two gay entrepreneurs known as Seymour and Shelley, who were influential players in the gay bar scene in Greenwich Village, took over a faltering straight venue called the Sanctuary that was located in the run-down Hells Kitchen neighbourhood of midtown Manhattan. Together these venues contributed to the forging of a relationship between the DJ (or musical host', as Mancuso prefers it) and the dancingcrowd that continues to inform the core practice of contemporary danceculture. And although gay men were an important majority presence in both of the Loft and the Sanctuary, participants (including participants who self-identified as gay men) did not consider either venue to be gay.

The Loft brought together several diffuse elements: the rent party tradition that dated back to 1920s Harlem; the practice of loft living in downtown New York, which emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s as manufacturers began toleave the city; the rise of audiophile sound technologies, which followed the introduction of stereo in the late 1950s; Timothy Learys experimental LSD parties; and the gay liberation, civil rights, feminist and anti-war movementsthat Mancuso aligned himself with during the second half of the 1960s. Mancuso, who had grown up in an orphanage in upstate New York, was used to experiencing families as unstable and extended, and brought this outlook into his parties, which attracted a notable proportion of black gay men, as well as straight and lesbian women. There was no one checking your sexuality or racial identity at the door,’ says Mancuso. I just knew different people.’ Because the Loft was run as a private party, Mancuso could have run it as anexclusively male gay event, but he chose not to. It wasnt a black party or a gay party,’ he adds.‘ Thered be a mixture of people. Divine used to go. Now how do you categorise her?

The Sanctuary was also indelibly heterogeneous.‘ It had an incredible mixture of people,’ recalls Jorge La Torre, a gay male dancer.‘ There were people dressed in furs and diamonds, and there were the funkiest kids from the East Village. A lot of straight people thought that it was the coolest place in town and there were definitely a lot of women because that was part of what was going on at the time’ (because gay men such as La Torre were often involved sexually with straight women).‘ I would say that women made up twenty-five percent of the crowd from the very beginning, probably more. People came from all cultural backgrounds, from all walks of life, and it was the mixture of people that made the place happen.’ It would have been difficult for Seymour and Shelley to turn the Sanctuary into an exclusively gadiscotheque, even if the idea had occurred to them. First, New York State law continued to assert that male- male dancing was illegal and discotheques were accordingly required to contain at least one woman for every three men; the female quota was filled by lesbians as well as straight women who wanted to be able to dance without being hit on by straight men. Second, while the Sanctuarys owners could have paid off the police in order to get around that obstacle, it is unlikely there would have been a thousand self-identifying gay male dancers to fill up the venue in this formative stage of queer dance culture. Finally, straight dancers wanted to be part of the nascent disco scene, and thanks to the venue’s public status, which meant that anyone who joined the queue could potentially get in, there was no obvious way to identify and exclude them.

I am not simply questioning the common assumption that early discoculture was homogeneous in terms of its male gay constituency just because this is manifestly inaccurate and contributes to the systematic erasure of other histories, including the history of lesbian women. I also want to argue that the reductionist focus on discos male gay constituency underestimates and even undermines the political thrust of early seventies dance culture, whicattempted to create a democratic, cross-cultural community that was open-ended in its formation. Dance crowds were aware of their hybrid character as well as their proximity to the rainbow coalition of the counter culturamovements of the late 1960s, and having witnessed the repressive statreaction against Black Panther activists, Stonewall Inn drag queens, and Kent State University and Jackson State University anti-war demonstrators, thetook to exploring the social and cultural possibilities of the counter cultural movement in the relatively safe space of dance venues. In these settingsdancers engaged in a cultural practice that did not affirm their maleness or their femaleness, or their queer or straight predilections, or their black, Latin, Asian or white identifications, but instead positioned them as agents who could participate in a destabilizing or queer ritual that recast the experience of the body through a series of affective vectors.


Social dance

Whereas dancers in the 1960s took to the floor within the regulated structure of the heterosexual couple, dancers in the 1970s began to take to the floor without a partner. The transformation underpinned the historical experienceof gay male sexuality: the longstanding practice of cruising encouraged gay men to be open to the idea of moving onto the dance floor autonomously, while ongoing legal restrictions around male- male dancing encouraged gay male dancers to continue to take to floor and dance as singles- at least until the law that restricted men from dancing with each other was repealed in New York in December 1971. At the same time, however, the shift to solo dancing was partially inaugurated within the culture of the 1960s music festival, where women and men started to dance in a swaying motion to the sound of acid rock. Because of this, straight Sanctuary dancers who had participated in events such as Woodstock would have already been habituated to the idea of dancing solo, while others might have encountered the discourse of liberation that was so pervasive during this period else where. As George Clinton sang in 1970, Free your mind and your ass will follow.’ On the floor, dancers did not experience the displacement of couples dancing as an individualistic anisolationist prelude to the neo-liberal era, in which the principles of partnership and cooperation would be savaged, but instead as a new form of collective sociality that exceeded the potentially claustrophobic contours of the previous regime.

Aside from that regimes promotion of compulsory heterosexuality, the social dynamic of partnered dancing was necessarily limited because the men and women who formed dancing couples had to concentrate on their partnerin order to move rhythmically and expressively- and also avoid physical injury. As a result, dancing couples were internally focused, and communication with other dancers, never mind the musicians or the DJ, was a secondary matter. In contrast, the dancers who participated in the private party and public discotheque network of the early 1970s were able to develop free form movements, and because of this they experienced an increased ability to communicate and dance with multiple partners. As Frankie Knuckles, a male gay regular at the Loft, notes of that setting: 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. 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.

The experience described by Knuckles does not merely describe thdisplacement of one sexual objective (to dance in order to seduce a member of the opposite sex) with another (to dance in order to seduce several members of both sexes). Bisexual promiscuity might be queerer than monogamous heterosexuality, but to entertain such a framing would be to entirely misread the function of the dance floor exchange by reducing it to intercourse. Instead dancers regarded the exchange as their primary objective, not as a means to an alternative end, and in contrast to the framing of earlier social dance forms, which were intended to service compulsory heterosexuality, the emergent dance milieu of the early 1970s articulated no equivalent function. While all manner of sexual liaisons could be read into the free flow of movement on the floor, with the opportunity for gay men to meet other gay men in a novel setting the most marked, participants, including male gay participants, have insisted that any intercourse that could come about at the end of the night was only exceptionally more than a secondary concern. This continued to be the case even at venues such as the Saint, the white gay private party that opened on the site of the old Filmore East in 1980, where sex could be enjoyed in the balcony area, but remained a side attraction for most. 

By turning on a single spot, then, dancers could move in relation to a series of other bodies in a near-simultaneous flow and as part of an amorphous and fluid entity that evokes Deleuze and Guattaris Body without Organs(BwO). Described by Ronald Bogue (2004, p. 115) as a decent red body thathas ceased to function as a coherently regulated organism, one that is sensed as an ecstatic, catatonic, a-personal zero-degree of intensity that is in no way negative but has a positive existence, the dance floor BwO contrasted with other crowd formations: the cinematic crowd because it was physically active rather than passive and in constant communication rather than silent; the sports stadium crowd because its attention was not directed to an exterior event; the marathon runner crowd because its pleasure was based not on remaininwithin the crowd but rather leaving it behind; and so on. In other words, the very being of the dance floor crowd revolved around its status as a collective intensity, and while its resonance with the often asexual Deleuzian concept of the BwO could lead some to question its queerness, its erotics of bodily pleasure- an erotics that intersected with gay liberation, the feminist movement, and the counter-cultural revolt against 1950s conformism- confirms its disruptive sexual intent.


The DJ

The second factor to consider with regard to the queering of the dance floor is the DJ, whose craft was transformed by the shifting social contours of the dance floor. Earlier DJs saw themselves as subservient waiters who served up music prepared elsewhere, or as puppeteers who could manipulate thdancers. Whatever their sense of self-worth, DJs were also charged with the responsibility of encouraging dancers to not only dance but also leave the floor and visit the bar, because that was how most venue owners made their money. But as the Sanctuary DJ Francis Grasso confided, the newfound collective force of the 1970s dance crowd meant he had to change his style. Grasso is interesting because he was the only employee to survive Seymour and Shelleybuyout of the Sanctuary, which means he witnessed the difference between playing to the regulated straight crowd and the more open, heterogeneous crowd that entered the venue at the beginning of 1970. When the Sanctuary went gay I didnt play that many slow records [records introduced to work the bar] because they were drinkers and they knew how to party,’ says Grasso. Just the sheer heat and numbers made them drink. The energy level was phenomenal. At one point I used to feel that if I brought the tempo down they would boo me because they were having so much fun.

 Of course dancers did not just communicate by booing the DJ. They would also clap and cheer and whistle, while the very energy of theimovements was also communicative, and it became the primary role of Grasso and his contemporaries to read the mood of the crowd and select a record that was appropriate for the moment. Because they were now attempting to both lead and respond, DJs contributed to a form of anti phonic music making that has characterized a great deal of African American music, and in order to increase the effectiveness of their playing in relation to the crowd, DJs started to segue and then beat-mix between records in order to maintain the rhythmic flow, or purchase two copies of the same record in order to extend the parts that their dancers particularly liked. As a result, a form of illegitimate music making emerged in which the conventional performing artist was displaced by the improvising figure of the DJ, who could draw on a wide repertoire of sounds and programme them within a democratic economy of desire. Thanks to the absence of the performing artist and the relative anonymity of the DJ, dancers began to respond to the sonic affect of the music rather than the image of the performing artist, and this unconventional circuit subtly challenged the hierarchical underpinnings of the music industry, in which the vocalistmusician and producer held an elevated position above the listener. Because the disembodied recording artist could be heard but not seen, the dancer could also begin to think of her or himself as a contributor to the collectively generated musical assemblage, and could also respond to the music outside of the hierarchical relations of artistry and fandom.


Dance music

Third, I would like to consider the position of pre-recorded music in this moment of flux and change. Again, the contrast with the 1960s is instructive, because whereas discotheque DJs of that era tended to play from a limited rockand roll repertoire that encouraged a similarly limited style of dance, and festivals/concerts from the same period tended to foreground the singular sound of rock, discotheque DJs of the early 1970s drew from a broad range of sounds. The term disco music’ did not emerge until 1973, and when it did it referred not to a coherent and recognizable generic sound, but instead to the far-reaching selection of R&B, soul, funk, gospel, salsa, and danceable rock plus African and European imports that could be heard in Manhattandiscotheques. Even when the sound of disco became more obviously recognizable during 1974 and 1975, DJs would intersperse the emergent genre with contrasting sounds. The introduction of sonic contrast andifference helped generate a sense of unpredictability and expectation on the dance floor, and the juxtaposition of different styles enabled dancers to experience existence as complex and open rather than singular and closed. In other words, DJs were generating a soundtrack that encouraged dancers to be multiple, fluid and queer.

At the same time, the disco genre, which drew together elements that could be found in R&B, soul, funk, gospel and so on, also generated a queer aesthetic, even in its singular incarnation, and this was something that was highlighted by Richard Dyer (1979/1995) in his article In Defence of Disco’Dyer, who completed his PhD at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, might have been isolated in his interest in gasexuality, and perhaps even his love of disco, in that setting; these elements of  popular culture received scant attention from other Cultural Studies scholars whose focus was directed towards class relations, the mods and the punks, government policy and, when Angela McRobbie (1980) raised her voice, gender. Dyer initially set out to defend disco from the leftist attack that, in contrast to folk as well as elements of rock, it amounted to little more than some kind of commercial sell-out, and his argument turned out to be apremonitory critique of the lefts reluctance to engage with the politics of pleasure. Yet it was Dyer's analysis of the aesthetic properties of disco music and the relationship of these properties to the body and conceptions of sexuality that is of greater concern here.

In the article, Dyer outlined a number of the key distinctions that existed between rock and disco. Whereas rock confined sexuality to the cock’ and was thus indelibly phallo-centric music’, disco, argued Dyerrestores eroticism to the whole body’ thanks to its ‘willingness to play with rhythm’and it does this ‘for both sexes’ (1979/1995, p. 523). Disco also offered dancers the chance to experience the body as a polymorphous entity that could be re-engineered in terms that confounded conservative models of masculinity and femininity, for as Dyer added: Its eroticism allows us to rediscover our bodies as part of this experience of materiality and the possibility of change’ (1979/1995, p. 527). In other words, disco opened up the possibility of experiencing pleasure through a form of non-penetrative sensation- and he made this case shortly before Michel Foucault, following a trip to the United States, called for the making of ones body a place for the production of extraordinary polymorphic pleasures, while simultaneously detaching it from a valorization of the genitalia and particularly of the male genitalia’ (Miller 1993,p. 269). Published in Gay Left, the bi-annual journal of a collective of gay mento which Dyer belongedIn Defence of Disco’ did not prompt a widediscussion about queer sexuality within the Cultural Studies discourse of the time, but three decades later that anomaly has been corrected. 

The preference of the early 1970s dance floor for polymorphous ratherthan phallic rhythms is illustrated by the contrast between Olatunji’s Drums of Passion’ and Santanas cover of the same track, which was re-titled Jingo’Whereas Santanas rock version developed a rigid beat and foregrounded the phallo-centric instrumentation of the electric guitar and the male voice, Olatunjis original recording emphasized rhythmic interplay along with a chorus of voices that developed a call-and-response interchange betweethemselves and also the drummers. The owner of both recordings, Grasso only played the Santana version when he DJed in front of the pre-Seymour and Shelley straight crowd at the Sanctuary, but when the crowd diversified at the beginning of 1970 he immediately realized he could start to play the Olatunji. As Grasso recounts: I said to myself, 'If Santana works then the real shit is going to kill them!’’ I was good at mixing one record into another so I played the Santana and brought in ‘‘Jin-Go-Lo-Ba’’. The crowd preferred thOlatunji, where theres no screaming guitar. They got into it straight away.’

Queerness could be harder to detect in the lyrics themselves, in large part because they drew so heavily on R&B’s heavily heterosexual thematics. Yet thanks to the support of a gay male constituency that was affluent enough to spend a significant amount of money on music, the black female diva became a key figure within disco, and vocalists such as Gloria Gaynor and Loleatta Holloway would go on to express their surprise that gay men should be their most fervent followers. Wronged by her man, Gloria Gaynor exemplified the way African American divas could be both emotionally articulate and grittily resistant when she recorded ‘I Will Survive’, which was released as a B-side until DJs and dancers homed in on the recording and prompted the record company to re-release the song as an A-side. In this instance, queerness had more to do with surviving heterosexuality than subverting it. 

Other tracks developed lyrics that were deliberately innocuous because their clipped, repetitive content was designed to accentuate the beat anpersuade the dancer to focus on affective sound rather than discursive meaning, while a third group of unknowingly queer recordings laid down heterosexual themes that turned out to be ripe for appropriation- so Free Man' by the South Shore Commission acquired a new layer of meaning when gay male dancers interpreted it as an anthem of gay liberation rather than a tussle between two straight lovers. Then again, sometimes the straight trajectory of a lyric did not have to be reinterpreted if the delivery was strong enough in the first place, and that turned out to be the case in elements of Loleatta Holloways rendition of  Hit and Run’. In his remix of the record, Walter Gibbons took out Holloways first rendition of a frankly embarrassing set of lines that included references to the vocalist being an old fashioned country girl’ who would know what to do’ when it comes to loving you. But when the vocalist returned to the theme in an improvised vamp that had been largely cut from the original release, the delivery was so remarkably forceful their lame meaning was rendered totally irrelevant.


Temporalities and technologies

Temporal strategies also contributed to the emergence of non-dominant experiences of the body in the dance environment of the 1970s. The practice of staging parties late at night became the founding premise of a culture that aimed to invert the priorities of a society organized around day time work, and the protection afforded by darkness as well as the protected space of the danceparty enabled disenfranchized citizens a level of expressiveness they rarely enjoyed during the day (something Judith Halberstam [2005] has commented on in her book In A Queer Times and Place). In addition, the forward march of teleological time- the time of bourgeois domesticity and capitalist productivity- was upset within the disco setting, where repetitive ancyclical beat cycles created an alternative experience of temporality and the absence of clocks enabled dancers to move into a realm in which work- the work of the dance- was not required to be productive in a conventional economic or indeed heterosexual sense. Within this setting, DJs drew on a range of records that cut across temporal and spatial boundaries in order to evoke and in some respects create a radically diverse sonic utopia. Theipractice of using two copies of a record to not only collapse but also extend time- by, say, extending a particularly popular section- culminated in the creation of a new disco format (the twelve-inch single) that enabled DJs to play long mixes that were specially remixed for the dance floor.

The emphasis on temporal length was important. If the record was long, the dancer had a greater opportunity to lose her or himself in the music, and therefore to enter into an alternative dimension that did not so much evacuate the site of the body as realign it within a new sonic reality. The new sonic reality turned out to be especially forceful in private party spaces (such as the pioneering Loft) that did not sell alcohol and could accordingly stay open long after the public discotheques that were governed by New Yorks cabaret licensing laws had to close. The extended hours encouraged partygoers toengage in marathon-style dance sessions in which the physical was prioritized over the rational, and this opened up participants to the experience of the body as an entity that was not bounded and distinctive, but rather permeable and connected.

The confined space of the dance floor, in which dancers would inevitably come into contact with one another, heightened the experience of the body as extended and open, and a range of sound system, drug and lightintechnologies enhanced this further. Julian Henriques (2003) has described the Jamaican sound system as a form of sonic dominance’, in which the sonic takes over from the visual and creates a community based on sound. In these situations, the sound permeates the body, and therefore creates a situation in which the bounded body (often characterized as the masculine body) is penetrated and becomes difficult to maintain as a separate and unified entity.This was precisely the kind of situation that was engineered in disco, where figures such as David Mancuso as well as engineers such as Richard Long and Alex Rosner introduced a range of technological innovations in ordeto produce both purer and more powerful sound. Drugs- in particular LSD- were consumed in order to further the dancers distance from the everyday and enable entry into an alternative experience of both time and space, as well as to encourage the body to form a connected alliance with sound. Meanwhile, lighting was deployed sparingly, because bodies were more likely to exceed everyday constrictions in an environment that emphasized the connective dimension of the aural above the separating dimension of the scopic (because sound enters the body more forcefully than light). In as much as lighting was used, it was usually aimed at creating disorienting effects, again in order to encourage the dancer to experience the dance floor as an alternative and experimental space.

The conjunctural moment of the early 1970s encouraged these elements and practices to be adopted by a significant range of dancers and venues. This, after all, was the period when the counter-cultural movement's discourse of change, liberation and internationalism continued to resonate; a range of newly-politicized yet disenfranchized groups doubled their efforts to seek out liberated spaces; state repression of political activists encouraged a migration from the dangerous site of the street to the protected haven of the club; the failure of the first wave of discotheque culture and simultaneous evacuation of downtown New York by light industry opened up a plethora of unused spaces that were perfect for dancing; and the music industry had yet to work out how it was going to respond following the failed political promises of rock culture. Along with the Loft and the Sanctuary, spaces such as the Haven, thLimelight, Salvation, Tambourine and Tamburlaine operated dance floors that were remarkably coherent in terms of their social and aesthetic practices. For a while, protagonists believed that they were forging a culture that would go onto reshape the world and in some respects their aspirations have been borne out, if only because so many of their then nascent practices continue to echo. Yet the queer potential of the early 1970s dance floor also proved to be vulnerable to various forms of dilution and co-option, and this procesunfolded in three notable ways.

First, a range of party organizers and accomplice dancers sought to split up the early disco scene into a series of discreet groups that were organized around identity, and this led to an inevitable closing down of the demographic range on New Yorks dance floors as well as the emergence of a more normative and static conception of what kind of identities could be articulatedin the dance setting. De facto white-only male gay venues such as the Tenth Floor and Flamingo, which deployed Mancusos private party template to consolidate a self-anointed A-list’ crowd, could be seen as examples of this kind of practice. Of course these venues catered to a demand because a significant fraction of white gay men considered themselves to be part of some kind of elite that was organized around beauty, professional success anintelligence, and only wanted to dance with men they judged to be their equals. What is more, participants in this stratum of New York dance culture regularly perceived their actions to be politically radical, because gay culture was still historically marginal and the practices of disco were understood to be aesthetically progressive. The tribal experience remained powerful and stoodas a challenge to many conservative practices. But it did not include people who were not white and male, and therefore revealed the way in whicdance venues that were organized around gay men could enact an otherwise regressive social agenda. Largely excluded from these venues, lesbian women opened their first dedicated discotheque, the Sahara, in 1976; the four lesbian women who ran the business made a point of introducing a weekly slot when men could participate. 

Second, as the demographic constituency of disco was divided ansubdivided, a number of promoters began to seek out what they perceived to be an elite dance crowd, and this resulted in the introduction of a marked hierarchy with the dance scene from 1977 onwards, when a series of huge midtown mega-discotheques opened on the premise that they would cater to an elite audience that was organized around fashion, film and so on. The most famous of these was Studio 54, which bore some unlikely links to the culture of the Loft, but ultimately instituted a competitive and hierarchical entrance policyHuge crowds would form outside the venue every night, and while the owners declared their intention to create a democratic mix inside, the prevailing culture was one of cruel exclusion. It followed that a venue that was so self-absorbed with its status would pay more attention to the scopic than the aural to lighting rather than sound, to being seen as a form of validation, and to the possible presence of a celebrity and so the primary activity at Studio was not dancing but looking. For reasons already outlined, this undermined the venues potential to function as a space of queer becoming.

Third, in order to sell disco to the perceived mass market- the suburban market, or the Middle American market- entrepreneurs reframed disco as the popular site for patriarchal masculinity and heterosexual courtship. The most notable example of this involved the filming of Saturday Night Fever, which was released at the end of 1977. Organized around the culture of the suburban discotheque and the figure of Tony Manero, played by John Travolta, the filmenacted the reappropriation of the dance floor by straight male culturin as much as it became a space for straight men to display their prowess and hunt for a partner of the opposite sex. The film also popularized the hustle (a Latin social dance) within disco culture, and in so doing reinstituted thstraight dancing couple at the centre of the dance exchange. In an equally regressive move, the soundtrack was dominated by the Bee Gees, whicthreatened to leave viewers with the impression that disco amounted a new incarnation of shrill white pop. None of this would have mattered if the film had sunk without a trace, but it went on to break box office and album sale records, and in so doing established an easily reproducible template for disco that was thoroughly de-queered in its outlook.

By 1979 conditions were ripe for a backlash against disco. Following the unexpected commercial success of Saturday Night Fever, major record companies had started to invest heavily in a sound that their white straight executive class did not care for, and when the overproduction of disccoincided with a deep recession, the homophobic (and also in many respects sexist and racist) disco sucks’ campaign culminated with a record burning rally that was staged at the home of the Chicago White Sox in July 1979. The coalition of disenfranchized citizens that lay at the heart of disco culture were identified as the beneficiaries of 1960s liberalism, which in turn was blamed for the economic failure of the 1970s. As Stuart Hall (1989) and others have argued, this turn to a conservative discourse complemented and in many respects underpinned the accelerating shift to the individualistic, market-driven priorities of what was then referred to as the New Right, and which is now more commonly described as neo-liberalism.

Yet the backlash did not mark an end to disco per se, because the Loft and its multiple off shoots, including the legendary Paradise Garage, which was modelled on Mancusos party, continued to organize their dance floors according to the communal and explorative principles set out at the beginning of the 1970s. Indeed Richard Dyer ended up travelling to live in New York between February and September 1981, and having danced at the Paradise Garage, started to develop the philosophical framework that culminated in the publication of White (1997). In effect, the perceived failure of disco was really therefore the failure of a form of disco that valorized the patriarchal, the heterosexual and the bourgeois, and not the queer disco that I have outlined in this article. As such, the failure was not so much a failure of queerness as a failure of the regressive attempts to contain queerness and appropriate disco. This failure of the dominant rather than the queer would become more explicit in the period that ensued the backlash against disco, when non-hegemonic forms of dance culture flourished. That they, too, failed to become hegemonicis another story altogether.


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