“Disco: Liberation of the Body”. Liberazione, Italy, 18 June 2006.

Translated into Italian by Francesco WARBEAR Macarone Palmieri

In the popular imagination, disco conjures up images of Studio 54, the celebrated New York 1970s nightclub, where hoards of would-be dancers queued up on a nightly basis, waving their arms frantically in an attempt to catch the eye of the venue's doorman, as if they were at an auction bidding for their own lives. Disco also triggers thoughts of John Travolta, the star of Saturday Night Fever, striking his white-suited peacock pose of unrestrained Brooklyn machismo as he takes to the dance floor. And disco arouses "ear worms" that emit the shrill white pop of the Bee Gees, who stripped the genre of its black groove en route to becoming its best-selling band. Narcissistic mirrors, over-elaborate lighting systems and unfortunate fashion trends fill in a little more of this widely held perception, which includes everything except for progressive politics. Dig a little deeper, though, as I did in my research for my history of disco, Love Saves the Day, and the picture changes dramatically.

Bringing together the protagonists of gay liberation, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, who gathered in the abandoned lofts and murky basements of a bankrupt New York, disco was born in cauldron conditions. Two epoch-defining venues, the Loft and the Sanctuary, initiated a new, radical practice of all-night, non-partnered dancing at the beginning of 1970, and disco culture held onto its countercultural potential until the summer of 1979, when Steve Dahl, an embittered Chicago rock DJ who resented the newfound cultural power African Americans, gay men and women had discovered through disco, detonated forty thousand disco records during a "disco sucks" rally.

Whereas the dance floor was once the place for Man to meet Woman, the Loft and the Sanctuary recast it as a multicultural, polymorphous, free-flowing space where individuals could let go of their everyday selves and dissolve into the mutating desire of the crowd. Marginalised in wider society, gay men and women, as well as ethnic groups ranging from African Americans to Puerto Ricans, were dominant on these dance floors, but crucially the experience was open to all. Disco was a rare example of New York's melting pot ethos put into practice.

Encouraged by the penetrating affect of amplified sound, the close proximity of other bodies, and the otherworldly effects of disorienting lights and psychotropic drugs, dancers sacrificed their individual egos to the creation of an amorphous, improvised flow of merging bodies and penetrative music ¾ a circuit of collective energy that was greater than the sum of its parts. Entering into a creative relationship with the DJ, dancers participated in a democratic and collective form of music making that allowed them to experience their bodies as neither straight nor gay, but in a transformative circuit of affect and desire. Disco, above all, promised the liberation of the body and the arrival of a queer utopia.

Dance culture survived the "disco sucks" backlash, but disco, which had become an undeserving symbol for the moral and economic sickness of the recession-blighted United States, was beyond convalescence. Since 1980, dance music, which remains first and foremost an electronic mutation of disco, has gone through period cycles. It has flourished when sexual exploration is the zeitgeist, when women and gay men have been empowered, and when technological innovation has spurred on the creation of innovative sounds and rhythms. Yet dance culture has atrophied when the political terrain has turned hostile, as it has during times of war, or imagined immigrant/religious threat, or heightened heterosexual anxiety. Rock music and (for the last twenty-five years) rap have prospered during these periods, in part because they are in their element when politics is postural and confrontational. It is dance, however, that seems to offer the greatest social potential, and that potential can be traced back to the disco era.

Dance culture's scenes and sub-scenes now form a root-like network that its antagonists can barely understand, and this has made the cultural more resilient than its 1970s predecessor. The cultural terrain of the 1990s, however, has been hostile. The AIDS epidemic, the rise of neoliberal competition, the economic emasculation of black working class communities and "moral majority" strictures of Berlusconi, Blair and Bush have undermined dance culture's foundations. At times like these, dance can seem unintelligible. Organised around rhythm and sensation rather than lyrics and song, the culture can struggle to confront the major political crises of the day. Yet dance ¾ arguably more than the cinema, the sports stadium, the theatre or the church ¾ can function as an open, participatory, experimental, non-competitive community that is organised around progressive pleasure. By re-examining disco we can better understand its liberationist potential.


DISCO: La Liberazione Dei Corpi

Tim Lawrence è l’autore di Love Saves the Day: La Storia della "Dance Music Culture" Americana, 1970-79, pubblicato in Italiano da Key Note Multimedia, www. www.maurizioclemente.com. La sua performance di presentazione del testo sul piano discorsivo e musicale verrà ospitata da Phag off nel festival Queer Jubilee III (www.phagoff.org), venerdì 23 alle 10:30 pm Al club Metaverso sito in via di Monte testaccio 38/a. Per maggiori informazioni sulla saggistica e la ricerca di Tim Lawrence, visitate  www.timlawrence.info.

Nell’immaginazione popolare, la “Disco” propone immagini dello “Studio 54”, il celebrato club degli anni ’70 di New York dove orde di ballerini vorrei-ma-non-posso passavano ogni notte in fila, alzando le loro braccia spasmodicamente nella speranza di cogliere lo sguardo di chi gestiva le vip list, come se fosse una questione di vita o di morte. La “Disco” porta a pensare a John Travolta, la star del film “La febbre del sabato sera”, nella sua posa machista da gallo di Brooklyn vestito di bianco, mentre si impossessa del dance floor. Ancora, La “Disco” risveglia nei timpani (hear worms is: “i vermi dell’orecchio” but it has no sense unless it is a metaphore that I don’t know) il suono stridulo del pop bianco dei Bee Gees, spogliando il genere del suo groove nero nell’ottica commercializzante della band. Specchi narcisisti, sistemi di luce iper-elaborati e mode sfortunate sono gli elementi rimanenti a rinsaldare tale visione che include tutto eccetto una politica progressista. Scavando un pò più a fondo, come ho fatto con la mia ricerca sulla mia storia della Disco “Love saves the day”, l’immagine cambia drasticamente. La disco è nata in un calderone che riunisce i protagonisti del movimento di liberazione gay, del movimento per i diritti civili, nonché del movimento femminista; soggettività che hanno riempito i loft abbandonati e gli sporchi seminterrati di una New York in bancarotta (I changed the phrase structure here). Agli inizi degli anni ’70, due locali epocali quali il “Loft” e il “Sanctuary” iniziarono una nuova pratica radicale della ballo notturno “senza-partner”, legando la disco al suo potenziale controculturale fino al ’79. In tale data un dj rock di nome di Steve Dahl, aggredì il neonato potere culturale che donne, afromericani e gay scoprirono attraverso la disco, facendo esplodere fisicamente ben quattro mila dischi “disco” durante una manifestazione intitolata “disco Sucks” (La disco fa schifo; N.d.t.). Se il dance floor era una volta uno spazio dedicato agli uomini per incontrare donne, il Loft e il Sanctuary lo hanno risiginificato come spazio fluttuante, polimorfo e multiculturale dove gli individui potevano lasciar fluire i loro sé quotidiani lasciandoli dissolvere nel mutevole desiderio della folla. Marginalizzati nella società, donne e uomini gay così come gruppi etnici (siano essi african americans o portoricani) diventarono gli interpreti principali di quei dancefloor ma cruciale affermare che l’esperienza era aperta a tutti. La disco fu un raro esempio d messo in pratica  dell’ethos del melting pot newyorkese. Incoraggiati dal penetrante effetto del suono amplificato, dalla prossimità “tattile” (this is a word that I added) dei corpi, dagli effetti d’altro mondo delle luci, nonché delle droghe psichedeliche, i partecipanti sacrificavano il loro io alla creazione di un flusso amorfo e improvvisato di corpi mescolati e musica penetrativa – un circuito di energia collettiva molto più imponente della somma delle parti. Entrando in una relazione creativa con il dj, la gente partecipava ad una forma democratica e collettiva di produzione musicale che permetteva loro di esperire i loro stessi corpi ne come gay ne come etero bensì come un circuito trasformativo di affetto e desiderio. Ciò che la disco fece fu, sopratutto promettere la liberazione dei corpi e l’arrivo di un’utopia queer. La cultura Dance sopravvisse al rinculo della manifestazione "disco sucks”, ma la disco, che nel frattempo era diventata l’immeritato simbolo per la malattia economica e morale della recessione statunitense, andò oltre la convalescenza. Dall’80 la dance music, che rimane una mutazione elettronica della disco, ha attraversato periodi differenti. È fiorita quando l’esplorazione sessuale ha avuto il suo zeitgeist, quando donne e gay hanno accresciuto la loro forza e quando l’innovazione tecnologica ha abilitato la creazione di suoni e ritmi innovativi. Ancora, la cultura dance si è atrofizzata quando il terreno politico è divenuto ostile, specialmente nei periodi di guerra o di produzioni di capri espiatori migranti/religiosi (i used escare goat, see if it sounds good for you) o di incremento dell’ ansia eterosessista (i used heterosexist at the place of heterosexual, see if you like it). Il rock e il Rap sono prosperati durante questi periodi (negli ultimi 25 anni), in parte perché sono nel loro elemento quando la politica si fa posturale e confrontazionale (i didn’t really understand what you mean by “Their element”). È il ballo comunque ad offrire il potenziale sociale maggiore il quale non può che essere rintracciato storicamente nell’era della disco. Le scene e sotto-scene della cultura Dance formano oggi un network radicato che i loro antagonisti a malapena percepiscono (i usea percieve better then vcomprhened, see if it fits) e ciò ha prodotto una forma culturale più elastica che nei loro predecessori degli anni ’70. Ad ogni modo, Il terreno culturale dei ’90 è stato ostile. L’epidemia dell’ A.i.d.s., la crescita della competizione neoliberista, la castrazione economica della classe operaia di colore e le restrizioni della “moral majority” di Belrusconi, Blair e Bush hanno minato le fondamenta della dance culture. In periodi come questo, tutto ciò può sembrare non intelligibile. Organizzata intorno a ritmo e sensazione più che testo e canzone, la cultura può arrivare a confrontarsi con le maggiori crisi politiche del giorno. Ancora, il ballo – molto probabilmente più del cinema, gli sport da stadio, il teatro o la chiesa – può funzionare come comunità non-competitiva, sperimentale, aperta e partecipativa, organizzata intorno al piacere progressivo. Riesaminando la disco potremo capire meglio il suo potere di liberazione.

Saggio originale di Tim Lawrence. Traduzione di Francesco WARBEAR Macarone Palmieri

“Big Business, Real Estate Determinism, and Dance Culture in New York, 1980-88”. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 23, 3, 2011, 288-306.

Despite the late 1970s national backlash against disco, dance culture flourished in New York during the first years of the 1980s, but entered  a period of relative decline across the second half of the decade when a slew of influential parties closed. Critics attribute the slump to the spread of AIDS, and understandably so, for the epidemic devastated the city’s dance scene in a way that began with yet could never be reduced to numbers of lost bodies (Brewster and Broughton, Buckland, Cheren, Easlea, Echols, Shapiro). At the same time, however, the introduction of a slew of neoliberal policies—including welfare cuts, the liberalization of the financial sector, and pro-developer policies—contributed to the rapid rise of the stock market and the real estate market, and in so doing presaged the systematic demise of dance culture in the city. In this article, I aim to explore how landlords who rented their properties to party promoters across the 1970s and early 1980s went on to strike more handsome deals with property developers and boutique merchants during the remainder of the decade, and in so doing forged a form of “real estate determinism” that turned New York City into an inhospitable terrain for parties and clubs.1 While I am sympathetic to David Harvey’s and Sharon Zukin’s critique of the impact of neoliberalism on global cities such as New York, I disagree with their contention that far from offering an oppositional alternative to neoliberalism, cultural workers colluded straightforwardly with the broad terms of that project, as will become clear. 

The dance culture that I want to discuss can be traced back to the beginning of 1970, when parties such as the Loft and the Sanctuary pioneered the weekly practice of all night dancing that would go on to be labeled (somewhat problematically) “disco.”2 Initially off the radar, the movement became highly visible following the opening of Studio 54 in midtown Manhattan in April 1977 and the release of the movie Saturday Night Fever later that year. Disco achieved mainstream saturation across 1978—thousands of discotheques opened and the genre outsold rock—only for the combination of the overproduction of the sound and the slowdown in the US economy across 1979 to generate a homophobic, racist, and sexist backlash against the culture. Led by the Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl, the anti-disco movement highlighted the angst felt by white straight men about their increasingly uncertain future, and their perception they were losing ground to gay men, women, and people of color (or the alliance of dispossessed citizens that lay at the heart of the 1970s dance network). The “disco sucks” campaign, then, captured the crisis that enveloped the United States as disillusioned citizens sought out scapegoats to blame for the exhaustion of the postwar settlement, and picked on discophiles along with 1960s countercultural activists for leading the country into a cycle of supposedly unproductive hedonism.3 However, while the consequences of the backlash were far-reaching in terms of the number of dance venues that closed down nationally, as well as the cuts that were executed in disco departments across the music industry, New York City’s dance network was largely unaffected, and the independent record company sector that served it only temporarily troubled.

Downtown’s private parties survived with ease. “I read about ‘disco sucks’ in the paper and that was it,” comments David Mancuso, host of the Loft, the original downtown private party. “It was more of an out-of-New York phenomenon. New York was and remains different to the rest of the States, including Chicago. Out there they had this very negative perception of disco, but in New York it was part of this mix of cultures and different types of music.”4 Opened in stages across 1977 and 1978 as an expanded version of the Loft, the Paradise Garage thrived alongside Mancuso’s spot, especially when owner Michael Brody turned Saturdays into a gay male night (with a female and straight presence), and maintained the already successful Friday slot as a mixed night. Flamingo, which catered to an elite white gay male crowd, and 12 West, which attracted a more economically diverse gay male membership, also prospered until the theater and bathhouse entrepreneur Bruce Mailman opened the Saint on the site of the old Fillmore East at the cost of $5,000,000 in September 1980. Sporting a spectacular planetarium dome above its dance floor, the Saint started to attract 3,000–4,500 dancers every Saturday from opening night onwards.

Public clubs proliferated across the same period. Among the new spots, the Ritz opened as a rock-oriented discotheque that showcased live bands, the colossal Bonds switched to a similar format when its original owners become embroiled in a tax scandal, Danceteria operated as a supermarket-style entertainment spot that dedicated separate floors to live music, DJing, and video, and the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge took off as bar and dance venue that prioritized new wave, performance art, and East Village drag. Forging a more overtly multicultural aesthetic, the Funhouse caught on around the same time when Jellybean Benitez was hired to DJ at the spot, and drew in a huge Italian and Latin crowd. A short while later, Ruza Blue’s Wheels of Steel night at Negril and then the Roxy offered a mix of funk, rap, electro, dance, and pancultural sounds. Meanwhile the Mudd Club continued to integrate elements of punk and disco in its mix of DJing, live music, art exhibitions, and fashion shows, and Club 57 maintained its spirited combination of whacky parties, performance art, and film screenings. A number of these spots displayed the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and other young artists who could not find a way into SoHo’s already sedimented gallery scene, and gave them jobs if they needed to supplement their income.5 As such, they operated as inclusive, self-supporting communities that forged a cooperative ethos that contrasted with the neoliberal logic of exploitation, division, and maximum profit. 

Liberated by the decision of the major record companies to withdraw from dance along with the loosening up of audience expectations in the postdisco period, independent record companies such as Island, 99 Records, Prelude, Sleeping Bag, Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy, and West End also thrived across the early 1980s. Together they reestablished the position independent labels enjoyed in the mutually supportive network that defined the relationship between dance venues, dancers, and recording studios across much of the 1970s, and although few of their releases went on to achieve a national sales profile, the independents were able to thrive on locally generated club-based sales that would often run into the tens of thousands. Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan enjoyed his most prolific and creative period as a remixer between 1979 and 1983, and along with figures such as Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, François Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone, and John Robie, Levan contributed to the creation of a chaotic, mutant milieu that drew the sounds of postdisco dance music, rock, dub, and rap into a sonic framework that was increasingly electronic. 

While late 1970s disco producers recorded within the constraints of an increasingly demarcated and rigid format, early 1980s dance producers conjured up cross-generic combinations that drew explicitly from rock, dub, and rap. In the case of “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the Peech Boys, bandleaders Michael de Benedictus and Larry Levan introduce cluster storms of echo- heavy electronic handclaps around which a thick, unctuous bass line splurges out massive blocks of reverberant sound, vocalist Bernard Fowler channels soul music’s routinized theme of sexual attraction through the erotically charged, transitory environment of the Garage floor, and guitarist Robert Kasper plays hard rock. On another contemporaneous release, David Byrne’s “Big Business” explores the connections that ran between new wave, funk and dance while delivering elliptical lyrics that appeared to warn against the country’s rightwards shift. “Over time disco became less freeform and more of a formula, and the arrangements also became less interesting,” notes Mancuso of the shifting sonic terrain. “There were fewer and fewer good records coming out. It was obvious there would have to be a change. People didn’t want a set of rules. They wanted to dance.”

 

Neoliberalism and Downtown Culture 

The shift to a neoliberal agenda can be traced back to the moment when the banking sector began to exert an explicit grip on New York in the mid-1970s. Unable to repay its short-term debts as a result of the decline of its industrial manufacturing sector and the flight of white taxpayers, New York’s government was compelled to strike a harsh deal that led to 65,000 redundancies, a wage freeze, welfare and services cuts, public transport price hikes, and the abolition of free tuition fees at the City University in return for a bailout (Newfield and Barret 3). In the eyes of free-marketeers, the city that had come to symbolize the intractable waste of the 1970s became a model of neoliberal adventure. “The management of the New York fiscal crisis pioneered the way for neoliberal practices both domestically under Reagan and internationally through the IMF in the 1980s,” comments David Harvey in A Short History of Neoliberalism. “It established the principles that in the event of a conflict between the integrity of f inancial institutions and bondholders’ returns on the one hand, and the well-being of the citizens on the other, the former was to be privileged. It emphasized that the role of government was to create a good business climate rather than look to the needs and well-being of the population at large” (48). 

A committed Carter supporter, Mayor Ed Koch had little choice but to accept the environment of extreme financial restraint when he assumed office in 1978. Yet rather than emphasize his opposition to the settlement, or seek to introduce policies that would support the poor rather than the interests of large corporations, Koch embraced the fiscal restraints imposed on New York City with the zeal of a born-again bank manager. As Jonathan Soffer notes in his biography of Koch, the mayor’s inaugural speech “reflected a neoliberalism that was far more concerned with ‘business confidence’ than with aff irmative action,” and concluded that the “city had been too altruistic for its own good, leading to mistakes ‘of the heart’” (146). Koch made gentrif ication “the key to his program for New York’s revival,” adds Soffer (146), and went on to construct a governing coalition of “real estate, f inance, the Democratic Party machine, the media, and the recipients of city contracts,” comment Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett (3). Struggling with the burden of a $1.8 billion debt in 1975, the city went on to produce a budget surplus ten years later thanks to strong economic growth. “At the same time,” note Newf ield and Barrett, “the poor were getting poorer, for the boom of the 1980s bypassed whole chunks of the city” (4). 

At the national level, Jimmy Carter preempted Reagan’s embrace of neoliberalism by introducing deregulation into not only the gas, oil, airline, and trucking sectors, but also the increasingly powerful banking sector (this via the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980). Adding electoral positioning, revisionist history, the conviction of class interests, and affective reassurance to the mix, Reagan delivered a series of speeches and policy statements that aligned him with the so-called traditional voting constituencies that Carter had failed to favor: he characterized the countercultural coalition of the late 1960s as the cause of the country’s demise during the 1970s; he seized on policy developments around deregulation and welfare cuts not as a requirement but as an opportunity to unleash market-driven wealth at the expense of greater equality; and he embodied a form of brill-creamed 1950s conservatism that reassured many that these radical economic and social changes would help reestablish the country to its supposedly golden past.6 William K. Tabb maintains in The Long Default that the Reagan administration became “merely the New York scenario” of the 1970s “writ large” (15), the main difference being that Reagan lacked Koch’s progressive instincts around healthcare, gay rights, and other so-called liberal issues. 

Along with the wave of artists, choreographers, composers, ex- perimental video filmmakers, musicians, performance artists, sculptors, and writers who gravitated to downtown New York during the 1960s and 1970s, the party hosts and promoters who operated in the East Village, the West Village, and SoHo appeared to be threatened by these developments. After all, they moved to the area because space was cheap, which in turn meant they could live in a community that was organized around creative work that put a low value on commerciality. As a result, they pursued unlikely interdisciplinary and cross-media projects, exchanged favors around performances, valued ephemeral art over the production of objects that could be sold, and forged a network that was notable for its integration and level of collaboration. “Artists worked in multiple media, and collaborated, criticized, supported, and valued each other’s works in a way that was unprecedented,” notes Marvin J. Taylor in The Downtown Book . “Rarely has there been such a condensed and diverse group of artists in one place at one time, all sharing many of the same assumptions about how to make new art” (31).

If the probusiness, progentrif ication policies of Koch and Reagan broke up that network, it would have made sense for politicians and cultural producers to be strategically opposed to one another. However, Sharon Zukin argues in Loft Living: Cultural and Capital in Urban Change that in fact the cultural producers forged an alliance with real estate investors and the city government in order to drive out industrial manufacturers from SoHo and other loft-rich areas. “Before some of the artists were chased out of their lofts by rising rents, they had displaced small manufacturers, distributors, jobbers, and wholesale and retail sales operations,” Zukin writes. “For the most part, these were small businesses in declining economic sectors. They were part of the competitive area of the economy that had been out- produced and out-maneuvered, historically, by the giant f irms of monopoly capital” (5).7 Zukin adds: “The main victims of gentrif ication through loft living are these business owners, who are essentially lower middle class, and their work force” (6).8 Of the 1975 amendment to the Administrative Code of the City of New York, Zukin argues: “With J-51 [the amendment], the city administration showed its irrevocable commitment to destroying New York’s old manufacturing lofts” (13). And in the postscript to the UK publication of the book, published in 1988, Zukin concludes: “With hindsight, and with the bittersweet taste of gentrif ication on every urban palate, it is not so diff icult to understand the ‘historic compromise’ between culture and capital that loft living represents” (193). 

David Harvey develops the argument that cultural producers and capital colluded across the 1970s and 1980s in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Indeed, Zukin notes that Harvey’s 1973 book Social Justice and the City inspired the analytical approach of Loft Living, and having written the introduction to that book, Harvey expounds on its central thesis; that far from being politically progressive, cultural workers became inseparable from the neoliberal project across the 1970s and 1980s. “The ruling elites moved, often factiously, to support the opening up of thecultural field to all manner of diverse cosmopolitan currents,” he writes, “The narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality, and identity became the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic licence, promoted by the city’s powerful cultural institutions, led, in effect, to the neoliberalization of culture. ‘Delirious New York’ (to use Rem Koolhaas’s memorable phrase) erased the collective memory of democratic New York.” Harvey adds that a conservative distrust of the demographic make-up and outlook of artistic types caused ripples of dissent that were usually drowned out in the pursuit of prof it. “The city’s elites acceded, though not without a struggle, to the demand for lifestyle diversif ication (including those attached to sexual preference and gender) and increasing consumer niche choices (in areas such as cultural production),” adds Harvey/“New York became the epicentre of postmodern cultural and intellectual experimentation” (47).

Harvey’s and Zukin’s analysis is reasonable insofar as a number of cultural workers purchased their loft apartments and went on to make signif icant prof its on selling their properties, having contributed to the gentrif ication of the area. In addition, some went on to prof it from the market-led rejuvenation of New York’s economy through the sale of their works and the receipt of sponsorships from the benef iciaries of the neoliberal boom, from Wall Street brokers to public institutions that were charged with the role of marketing New York as a global center of cultural tourism. However, both Harvey and Zukin overstate the collusion inasmuch as only a tiny proportion of cultural workers could have moved downtown in order to participate in a self-conscious project of gentrif ication, while many lived in small apartments in the East Village because even the low rents of SoHo, TriBeCa, and NoHo were prohibitive. In addition, Harvey and Zukin underemphasize the experience of the vast majority of those workers, who were carved out of SoHo’s gallery economy from an early moment, and were compelled to leave the area in signif icant numbers when rents went up.9 While some of the work of the downtown artists was suitable for co-option by the sponsors of neoliberalism, a far greater proportion was grounded in collaborative, noncommodif iable practices that could not be sold in any straightforward way. Along with Harvey, Zukin mourns the shift from industrial to postindustrial capitalism, yet inexplicably attributes this to the existence of cultural workers when she argues that they “displaced” industrial manufacturers, or ousted them forcibly, even though the artists moved into empty lofts that had been evacuated by industry, either because those businesses had moved to areas that were more favorable than downtownNew York, or because they had succumbed to the national decline in the industrial sector. That could hardly be attributed to a relatively small group of cash-poor creative types. 

New York’s downtown dance scene might have been post-Fordist in its co-option of ex-industrial buildings, yet its core ritual was anything but neoliberal, rooted as it was in the anti-individualist ethos of the dance floor, where dancers abandoned the self in pursuit of collective pleasure, often in settings that encouraged the kind of “inter-class contact” advocated by Samuel R. Delany in his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (111). Indeed owners and promoters disregarded the prof it motive consistently, with David Mancuso and Michael Brody notable for spending huge sums of money in pursuit of perfect sound, Jim Fouratt and Rudolf Pieper for reinvesting Danceteria’s takings into risk-taking programs and costly interior redesigns, Bruce Mailman for seeking a degree of experiential perfection that left his investors dissatisfied, and so on. Moreover, whereas the arrival of artists contributed to the regeneration of SoHo and other downtown neighborhoods, the existence of dance venues, and in particular those that attracted a heavily gay and ethnic presence, was deemed to counter the gentrification process by local residents (who opposed Mancuso’s move from NoHo to SoHo, for example). Nor did neoliberal wealth trickle down to the protagonists of the New York dance scene. “All this money came into New York, and it was like, ‘Give all the money to the rich people and it will trickle down to the little guy.’ But that never happened,” notes Ivan Ivan, a DJ at the Mudd Club and Pyramid. “Money was coming into New York, but it was being enjoyed by a bunch of Wall Street guys doing blow, drinking champagne, and going to really fancy restaurants. It wasn’t really trickling down. Maybe some of the art world was getting some of that money, because these people had money to spend on art; but overall it was a pretty hairy time.” 

Opposing Reagan, the Mudd Club staged an ironic inaugural party, Danceteria mocked the bland conservatism of the government’s domestic vision, and venues such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage positioned themselves as safe havens for dancers who lived at the hard-end of economic, sexual, and ethnic discrimination. These and other spots were profoundly aware of the way their practices existed in relation to wider economic and political developments. “The Pyramid was an amalgam of glamour and the grungy surround that we lived in in the East Village,” explains Brian Butterick/Hattie Hathaway, a drag queen who worked and performed at the Pyramid. “We also had a very strong 1960s influence that ran through everything; we were hippyish, if you will, idealistic. But of course we were living in the age of Reagan, so I don’t know how long our idealism lasted. After a couple of years the timbre of the shows became very sarcastic.” Ann Magnuson, who performed regularly at Club 57, Danceteria, and the Pyramid, comments: “At the time, it was, ‘Well, [Reagan’s election] that’s fucked up, but we’re going to keep on doing what we do. People were still saying, ‘I’m not going to let this get me down, or change who I am. But the anger kept on brewing and brewing, and the anger informed everyone’s work and performances. There was a lot more ranting and a lot more screaming and frustration and darker imagery.” 

Most pointedly, party hosts and club promoters along with noncommercial creative workers were forced to confront the consequences of Koch’s drive to turn Manhattan into an oasis for property investment. “Between 1982 and 1985, sixty new off ice towers went up south of 96th Street,” write Newfield and Barrett. “Real estate values in gentrifying neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn went soaring, and the exodus of major corporations from New York was stopped. A new convention center was built, a half- dozen luxury-class hotels were financed with tax abatements, and tourism increased, injecting revenue into the Manhattan economy of theaters, hotels, and restaurants” (3–4). Concurrent property price inflation, which rocketed by 125% between 1980 and 1988 in New York City, priced many party hosts and club promoters out of large swaths of Manhattan, while tax abatements that totalled more than $1bn in “corporate welfare” left them full of resentment, as the following examples illustrate.10 

 

Real Estate Determinism, AIDS, and Social Division 

The Loft became a site of embattled struggle when David Mancuso left his 99 Prince Street location in June 1984 because his lease was about to expire and the building’s owner wanted to cash in on the rising value of the property market in SoHo. Mancuso could not afford to meet the landlord’s price, and, as a countercultural radical who was deeply committed to running an integrated and ethical party, would not have wanted to anyway, thanks to SoHo’s shift from a zone that encouraged artistic and social experimentation to one that was embedded in boutique consumerism and real estate mania. Mancuso had prepared for his exit by purchasing a building in Alphabet City, which was due to receive a significant government subsidy, but maintains that the move hit problems when the plans to regenerate the neighborhood were abandoned and the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s began to take hold. Mancuso lost a signif icant proportion of his crowd immediately, with many of his female dancers concerned about venturing into an area where it was so hard to catch a taxi home. Moreover, the very forces that persuaded Mancuso to move encroached on his ability to engage in activism. “It took a couple of years to see what damage Reagan was doing,” recalls the party host. “In 1982 I knew I had to move, and when I moved from Prince Street to Third Street a lot of things changed in my life that meant I couldn’t focus so much on politics. I was just trying to survive.” 

Danceteria was also priced out of the real estate market. For three years, the promoters just about met their expenses as they showcased fledging bands, helped pioneer the staging of art-oriented events in a pop setting, and reinvented the interior of the third and fourth floors at a furious rate. But in mid-1985 Alex Di Lorenzo, the property mogul owner of the building, who doubled as part owner of the venture, decided to rent his space out for more money than Rudolf Pieper and manager John Argento could afford. “Our lease was up and the owner of the building had partners who were not part of Danceteria, and were making money from real estate,” recalls Argento. “We rented the whole building for $1.20 per square foot and he [Di Lorenzo] was getting offers of $25 per square foot. His siblings pressed him to rent the building for more money.” A realtor purchased the lease for $600,000, and Pieper and Argento were among the benef iciaries, yet Pieper had no control over the outcome and took little pleasure from the development. “When Danceteria opened, 21st Street was in an abandoned neighborhood,” he recalls. “You could walk for blocks and not f ind anything open at night. Then, gradually, the excitement of New York brought in hordes of moneyed bores from the rest of the country and real estate prices went up. The club would have continued where it was had not some speculator come up with an offer. Now it’s a residential building with ‘apartments of unsurpassed luxury.’ How exciting.” 

The Saint closed a little under three years later, apparently due to AIDS, which struck the venue’s membership with particular force because the balcony area doubled as a feverish zone for promiscuous and often unprotected sex; indeed, early on AIDS was nicknamed “Saint’s disease” because the virus was so prevalent among the venue’s members (Shilts 149). Initially, the dance floor dynamic was not affected, largely because the venue’s long waiting list meant that sick and deceased members were replaced seamlessly, and also because the venue offered those who were sick or knew people who were sick with a chance to “dance their troubles away” (as the Saint DJ Robbie Leslie told me). But when turnout began to decline around the middle of the 1980s, Bruce Mailman opened the club to straight dancers on Thursdays and Fridays, and numbers caved in on Sundays as well during the venue’s f inal years.11 “The Fridays stopped and then Sundays became very, very thin towards the end of the 1980s,” comments dance floor regular Jorge La Torre. “I didn’t want to stop going, but when there weren’t enough people to get the party going and f ill the dance floor it wasn’t the same.” 

The AIDS epidemic placed signif icant emotional and economic pressure on Mailman, who became involved in a public dispute with Koch as he fought to maintain the right of gay men to regulate their own sexual practices in the Saint and the St. Mark’s Baths (which he also owned). “Because the circumstances have changed, because political opinion makes us bad guys, that doesn’t mean I’m doing something morally incorrect,” Mailman told the New York Times in October 1985 as the tussle unfolded. “In my own terms, my behavior is correct and I’ll do what I believe as long as I can do it” (Jane Gross). However, according to Terry Sherman, a Saint DJ who was close with Mailman, the Saint closed only when a real estate developer made Mailman an eight-f igure offer that would have at least doubled his initial investment, and the owner accepted, in large part to satisfy his investors, who had long expressed their frustration that the immense costs involved in running the club meant they had not seen a return on their outlay. “Bruce was very ambiguous about selling the club because he loved it so much and the last season (1987–88) was actually crowded again on Saturday nights,” says Sherman. “He did say to me, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t sell it this year.’” Although numbers dropped from the mid-1980s onwards, La Torre conf irms that “Saturday nights always had a sizeable crowd,” and the ensuing success of the Sound Factory, which opened in 1989 and attracted a huge white gay male crowd, illustrated that AIDS did not amount to the teleological, retributive conclusion of queer pleasure on the dance floor and beyond. As devastating as the AIDS epidemic was for the Saint community, the venue was sold in the final instance because Mailman also needed to satisfy a set of investors, and those investors wanted to see a return on their money that embroiled the venue in the neoliberal turn. 

For its part, the Paradise Garage became entangled in a perfect 1980s storm of gentrification, AIDS, and drug addiction. First the freeholder of the King Street location made it clear to owner Michael Brody that the venue’s ten-year lease would not be renewed when it expired in September 1987—because the empty parking lot that lay next to the Garage was about to be developed into an apartment block, and the new owner of that block along with the neighborhood association insisted that the club close down. “When Michael f irst got the lease there was no one living near the club,” notes David DePino, the alternate DJ at the Garage, and a close conf idant of Levan’s and Brody’s. “On the corner was a parking lot. Eight years later the lot was gone and in its place was a very big and expensive apartment building. The developer and the local neighborhood association wanted the club gone so they persuaded the landlord not to renew the lease.” DePino adds: “Neighborhood associations are powerful. It’s not something a landlord wants to have problems with.” Brody responded by searching out possible new sites, but contracted AIDS soon after and resolved he would not attempt to continue. Brody’s deteriorating relationship with Levan, his totemic DJ, helped him make his decision; always demanding, Levan had become extremely difficult to work with after he became addicted to heroin. 

The independent label sector also lost momentum across the mid- 1980s, in part because its representatives were squeezed out by the major labels, which were emboldened by the economic recovery, the commercial success of the CD format, and the marketing bonus provided by MTV. The majors proceeded to cherry pick dance acts such as D Train and France Joli, rip them out of their integrated networks, and mismanage them into producing albums that did not work locally or nationally. Across 1983 and 1984, the majors also started to offer remix commission to cutting edge dance figures such as Arthur Baker, Franc¸ois Kevorkian, and Jellybean, who found themselves working on an increasing number of rock and pop tracks that did not translate in a club context. At the same time, the closing of Danceteria along with the Mudd Club, Tier 3, and other spots that showcased live bands alongside DJs deprived labels such as 99 Records and ZE of their principal means of promotion. Both ground to a halt across 1983–84, and although this could be put down to a mix of exhaustion and misfortune, the mid-1980s did not produce a new wave of danceable punk-funk acts to replace the likes of the Contortions, ESG, Konk, and Liquid Liquid. Nor did a towering f igure emerge to replace Larry Levan when his heroin addiction hardened, or Shep Pettibone after he went on sabbatical in 1984. When Chicago house music started to arrive in the city during 1985, dance DJs embraced it hungrily, in part because by then the majors had succeeded in reclaiming control of dance music, which they flooded with a pop sensibility (Shepherd, 1984a, 1984b). 

The mid-1980s New York club-music milieu also fragmented as record companies and club owners attempted to target their offerings with greater precision. Whereas 1970s and early 1980s disco and dance had operated according to the principles of integration and assimilation, mid- 1980s rock and rap shifted away from polymorphous rhythm in favor of a heavier, more aggressive, more masculine aesthetic. The shifting terrain made it difficult for integrationist parties to survive, and Ruza Blue was ousted from the Roxy when the venue’s owner concluded that her vision was not sufficiently prof itable; soon after the venue along with rap music became more tightly def ined and heavily commodif ied as the MC-rapper displaced the DJ-integrator as hip hop’s emblematic f igure. “The management at the Roxy were clueless, and didn’t get what I was trying to do there,” comments Blue. “They started to book a lot of MCs and groups, and the scene became one-dimensional instead of three-dimensional. It became a bit violent and troublesome. There were mostly men in there. Not very exciting.” 

Across the same period, the pluralistic sound that could be heard in white gay venues across the 1970s and early 1980s congealed around a beautiful disco/Hi-NRG aesthetic, in part because the high cost of membership and entry to the Saint encouraged its regulars to reimagine themselves as individual consumers rather than participants in a fundamentally collective ritual, which in turn led a significant number to write hostile letters to Mailman when they felt less than overwhelmed at the end of a night. The flurry of letters appears to have contributed to the drug overdose that killed the venue’s most established DJ, Roy Thode, and it also led the sacking of George Cadenas, Wayne Scott, and the venue’s most unlikely DJ, Sharon White, a black lesbian who liked to “play outside the box” (as she puts it). These and other developments encouraged many of those who held onto their positions to eliminate risk from their selections, which in turn led to an aesthetic stasis. The venue’s most popular DJ, Robbie Leslie, acknowledged as much when he told the New York Native in March 1984: “Music has evolved but New York’s gay market has faithfully held on to the romantic period of disco, which was 1978 through 1980. While we’ve all been dancing to that, we haven’t noticed that there are a lot of records being produced that over the past couple of years we’ve ignored because they haven’t f it into the mold that the audience has demanded” (Mario Z). When house music broke into New York in 1985, Saint DJs (with the partial exception of Terry Sherman) rejected it outright. Looking back, Leslie comments: “Overall we were walking on a cliff edge musically at the Saint and product was running scarcer by the week. I felt a feeling of imminent disaster.”

Meanwhile the Garage, the Loft and successor parties continued to espouse a pluralist ethos, but the heightened segmentation of the market, which witnessed rock and rap shift away from dance, and Hi-NRG targeting female pop and gay male dance audiences, left them with little to play beyond house music. Some outfits attempted to blend the sounds of house and rap, but the experiment was short-lived. Politicized by the inherently divisive consequences of neoliberalism and the effects of the crack epidemic on the black community, black rappers, such as Chuck D of Public Enemy, came to see house as “elitist” and objected to the way it tried to “separate itself from the street” (in Chuck D’s words). Back in 1987, the perception that house music’s followers were not interested in addressing the most urgent concerns of the black community led Chuck D to address the issue in more incendiary terms and label the genre as “music for faggots” (Reynolds 49). In so doing, he drew attention to the broader failure of the black community to address the question of homophobia as well as the threat of AIDS, and he also gave expression to the corrosive effects of neoliberalism, which encouraged groups that had once sought out common ground to see each other in terms of opposition and even betrayal. 

“In the early ’80s, everything was progressive,” Bambaataa commented in an interview in 1994 (Owen 68). “People listened to funk, soul, reggae, calypso, hip hop all in the same place.” But by the late 1980s, continued Bambaataa, club culture resembled a form of “musical apartheid.” “If you wanted house music, you went to this club, reggae another club, and hip hop yet another club,” he added. In the early 1990s, significant proportion of the “gangsta” rap scene would go on to embrace the Hobbesian trajectory of neoliberalism, or the argument that the world was made up of individuals whose natural mode was one of warlike competition. “Reagan appealed to that American sense of individualism that was really tailor made for the hip hop generation,” comments Mark Riley, a regular at the Loft and the Paradise Garage who worked in the news department of WBLS and LIB. “I am therefore I am; greed is good; the accumulation of wealth is a worthy goal in life; to hell with everyone else.” 

The demographic make-up of New York’s clubs shifted in line with the times, with Area a case in point. Opened in the autumn of 1983 by four Californians who wanted to place the idea of art production at the center of their venture, the venue attracted a mix of creative and for the most part hard-up partygoers who were drawn to the ingenious revamping of the club’s interior theme every six weeks. The cost of this work was so expensive the downers are said to have never made a prof it, but a year or so into its existence Area started to attract a new kind of preppy club-goer, and within a couple of years this new type had taken over the space. A dominatrix doorwoman, barwoman, performing artist, and promoter whose boyfriend Johnny Dynell DJed at the club, Chi Chi Valenti notes: “At Danceteria there were one or two of them—they were hideous geeks with a tie. But by the end of Area there were so many of them they weren’t just an irritant, they were a threat, and I took it very personally.” The shift mirrored changes that were taking place in the demographic make-up of downtown, where many low-earning cultural workers were forced to leave due to the cost of rising rents. “When I got to New York [in 1978] my feeling was the most uncool thing you could be was rich,” recalls Ann Magnuson, a performance artist who ran Club 57. “Then what started happening was the most uncool thing you could be was poor, and it sort of switched like that very dramatically. It shifted for me when Reagan got into off ice for the second four years.” 

Koch introduced social policies that contributed to the city becoming a more stable and profitable investment prospect while making it much harder for clubs to operate. Falling in line with Reagan’s National Minimum Drinking Age Act, ratified in July 1984, the mayor raised the legal drinking age to 21 in December 1985, ostensibly to prevent college students from drinking and driving. Whatever the intent, the effect on clubs was regressive, because young dancers injected bodies and energy into the culture; interviewed in 1985, Rudolf Pieper referenced the drinking reforms as “the final nail” (Michael Gross). Feeding the panic that surrounded AIDS, Koch also rounded on the city’s gay sex clubs and bathhouses in the name of public health, closing the Mineshaft and the St. Mark’s Baths in rapid succession, even though public health would have been supported much more effectively by backing the numerous organizations—including the St. Mark’s Baths—that were educating vulnerable groups about the disease. 

In broad terms, capital fed off club and music culture while offering little in return. When party promoters and musicians sought out cheap spaces in nonresidential areas in order to go about their work in affordable ways, they paved the way for young, smart, cash-poor populations to experience the area, only for that movement to function as the precursor to gentrification. In a parallel development, the government started to highlight New York’s cultural legacy in an attempt to promote the city as a tourist attraction, only for this to lead to the spread of expensive hotels and restaurants that made New York a less livable place for the core populations most likely to contribute to the city’s cultural life. Cultural workers might have contributed to the process of gentrification and tourism, but their involvement was often unwitting given that they were simply seeking out affordable space thanks to their lack of income. Moreover, their presence did not cause gentrif ication to happen, but simply enabled those with more money to move into the area and escalate property prices. Party hosts and club promoters were caught up in the same stream of developments, and their radically reduced presence in downtown New York across the 1980s speaks to the way rising property prices benefited owners and investors at the cost of those who wanted to undertake the simple act of congregating on a dance floor. 

Buttressed by the introduction of socially conservative policies around zoning and other policing matters, the further embedment of neoliberal policies supporting the deregulation of the banking sector and property investment across the 1990s and 2000s has reduced the number of places where dancers can head out to such an extent that the regressive period of the late 1980s now resembles a period of wild opportunity. Indeed, the city’s retail, property, and corporate interests have become so embedded that even the dip in the real estate market that followed the banking crisis of late 2008 failed to augur a mini-revival in dance culture. As a result, a generation of teenagers and adults has grown up with few opportunities to dance beyond the comparatively constrained environments of social dance forms such as ballroom and the tango. Within this context, the highlighting of an era when collective, freestyle dance parties were numerous and vibrant reveals not only what New York once was, but also what it can become. The critique of the role played by neoliberal economics and politics in the culture’s collapse brings to the fore the sometimes-obfuscated business and policy agenda that surely must be challenged if an alternative urban environment is to flourish once again.

 

Notes 

1. I am indebted to Jonathan Sterne for suggesting the phrase “real estate 

determinism” after hearing an earlier version of this article at the EMP Pop Music 

Conference at UCLA on February 26, 2011. My use of the “determinism” moniker 

is not intended to suggest that the economic dictates everything around it, including 

the cultural, but instead to draw attention to the way the cultural occurs within the 

milieu of the economic. 

2. Disco historians, such as Alice Echols and Peter Shapiro, refer to 1970s 

dance culture as “disco,” but the culture was motored by private parties as well 

as public discotheques, from which so-called disco culture got its name in 1973.

Indeed, the private party network was arguably more influential than its public 

discotheque counter part for much of the 1970s, which is a case I make in Love 

Saves the Day (Lawrence). In addition, the DJs who helped forge disco began their 

work in 1970, some three years before the “disco” term was coined, and during 

this pre-disco period and after drew on a wide range of danceable sounds that 

included but was never reducible to the generic style that came to be known as 

disco. Therefore, while “disco” works as a neat description of 1970s dance culture, 

it obfuscates its richness. 

3. I outline the relationship between the slowdown in the US economy, 

the backlash against disco, and the rise of the Republican right in Love Saves the 

Day (Lawrence 363–80). An equivalent argument has been made by Peter Shapiro 

(227–32) and Alice Echols (205–15). 

4. All interviews conducted with the author unless otherwise stated. I am 

grateful to John Argento, Ruza Blue, Brian Butterick/Hattie Hathaway, Chuck D, 

David DePino, Ivan Ivan, Jorge La Tor re, Robbie Leslie, Ann Magnuson, David 

Mancuso, Rudolf Pieper, Mark Riley, Ter ry Sherman, Chi Chi Valenti, and Sharon 

White, all of whom I quote in this article. In addition to these interviews, this 

article is based on interviewing and archival work (car ried out for a forthcoming 

monograph on New York dance culture in the f irst half of the 1980s) that is too 

extensive to cite here. 

5. By default, they also provided these employees, their friends and their 

peers with a premobile phone, preinternet space in which they could congregate, 

exchange ideas, and plan projects. 

6. Regarding the importance of affect, Laurence Grossberg (253, 268) 

maintains that Reagan was able to popularize a new conservatism because he 

“embodied the sentiment, passion and ideology of the new conservatism,” and 

“placed himself within the popular” both “rhetorically” and “socially.” 

7. My emphasis. 

8. My emphasis. 

9. Indeed even larger numbers did not live in a loft in the f irst place, because 

apartments in the downtrodden East Village were considerably cheaper. 

10. The inflation figures are sourced from http://www.forecast-chart.com/ 

estate-real-new-york.html. Accessed Feb. 26, 2011. Soffer (259) provides the tax 

abatement details. 

11. The introduction of straight nights is noted in “Saint Says ‘No’” 1. In 

an interview with Dar rell Yates Rist published in May 1988, Bruce Mailman noted

that Saturdays were attracting something closer to 1,200–500 a week rather than 

the regular “3,000 week in, week out,” rising to “6,000” at some special parties 

(Yates Rist 18). 

 

Works Cited 

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

Buckland, Fiona. Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002. 

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

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York UP, 1999. 

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

Echols, Alice. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 

Gross, Jane. “Bathhouses Reflect AIDS Concerns.” New York Times 14 Oct. 1985. 

Gross, Michael. “The Party Seems to Be Over for Lower Manhattan Clubs,” New York Times 26 Oct. 1985, 1. 

Grossberg, Laurence. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. 

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–79. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. 

Newf ield, Jack, and Wayne Bar rett. City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York . New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 

Owen, Frank. “Back in the Days.” Vibe (Dec. 1994): 66–68. Reynolds, Simon. “Public Enemy.” Melody Maker, 17 Oct. 1987.

Reprinted in Simon Reynolds, Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-Hop. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. 47–55. “Saint Says ‘No’ to Straights on Saturdays.” Nightclub Conf idential 1.1 (May 1986): 1. 

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

Shepherd, Stephanie. “The 12′′ Single Is Here to Stay.” Dance Music Report (30 Nov. 1984a): 3, 12–13. 

Shepherd, Stephanie. “1984: Conservative Consciousness Reigns Supreme.” Dance Music Report (29 Dec. 1984b): 3. 

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1987. 

Soffer, Jonathan. Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. 

Tabb, William K. The Long Default: New York City and the Urban Fiscal Crisis. New York: Monthly Review P, 1981. 

Taylor, Marvin J. (ed.). “Playing the Field: The Downtown Scene and Cultural Production, An Introduction.” The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974–1984. Ed. Marvin J. Taylor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2006. 

Yates Rist, Dar rell. “A Scaffold to the Sky and No Regrets.” New York Native 2 May 1988, 18. 

Z, Mario. “Robbie Leslie: The Pat Boone of DJs.” New York Native 12 Mar. 1984, 21 24. 

Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. London: Radius, 1988.

 

 

Dowload this article here (pdf

“Beyond the Hustle: Seventies Social Dancing, Discotheque Culture and the Emergence of the Contemporary Club Dancer”. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 199-214.

In Julie Malnig ed. Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader. 

 

The Saturday Night Fever publicity shot of a white-suited John Travolta, right hand pointing up and left hand, twisting along the same axis, aiming down, quickly became (and continues to be) the consciousness-invading icon of 1970s disco culture. The image evokes a strutting, straight masculinity.   Tony Manero, played by Travolta, is a Hustle expert and a straight man on the prowl; in the photo, he is pictured alone, but his look and posture reveal that he is searching for a female partner, both on and off the dance floor.  Released in November 1977, Saturday Night Fever ushered disco into the American mainstream, where it remained for a relatively short eighteen months.  Travolta and 2001 Odyssey, the discotheque featured in the film, became the key reference points for dancers and club owners during disco's commercial peak.

Beyond the celluloid sheen and marketing paraphernalia of the post-Saturday Night Fever disco boom, however, the 1970s dance floor functioned as a threshold space in which dancers broke with the tradition of couples dancing and forged a new practice of solo club dancing.  Although the shift in style suggested that individuality and loneliness came to dominate the floor, participants in fact discovered a new partner in the form of the dancing crowd.  The Travolta-types may have subsequently gained a Gucci-shoed or stiletto-heeled foothold on the dance floor towards the end of the "disco decade," but their grip proved to be ephemeral in the post-disco era.  From 1980 onwards, the solo dancer, moving to the collective rhythms of the room, formed the enduring model for contemporary club culture.

The sexual and bodily politics of Saturday Night Fever didn't appear out of thin air, of course.  If dancing is an articulation of the wider world, reflecting dominant forces while providing a space for difference and resistance, the history of social dance in the United States has been intertwined with the shifting yet resilient practice of patriarchal heterosexuality.  On the dance floor this has become manifest through the partnered couple, in which the man, assuming the role of gatekeeper, both invited his female partner onto the floor and then assumed the role of dance leader.  Although the position of the male lead did not go unchallenged--the twentieth century is replete with examples of social dances in which the couple would break for periods on the floor or the woman would be granted periods of relative control within the couple--the framing role of the leading man remained in place.

Dances such as the Waltz and the Foxtrot, which allowed for minimal individual movement, were the most rigorously partnered of all, at least from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, and when couples in "modern" ballroom dancing developed their independence from the wider floor by developing their own "individuality," this served to entrench the heterosexual couple--now unique in their relationship--still further.[i]  The rise of black social dance such as the Lindy Hop (often referred to as the Jitterbug) and the Texas Tommy chipped away at these practices inasmuch as they allowed partners to break away from each other and intersperse moves with individual improvisation.  As Marshall and Jean Stearns, writing in 1968, noted, "both dances constitute a frame into which almost any movement can be inserted before the dancers return to each other."{C}[ii]{C}  The Stearns added that, "while a Lindy team often danced together during the opening ensembles of a big band, they tended to go into a breakaway and improvise individual steps when the band arrangement led into a solo."[iii]  These and other dances, such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom, integrated breakaway practices that enabled dancers (including, of course, female followers) to discover a new form of expressive freedom.  The mutating tensions between the couple and the individual were, however, regularly resolved in favor of the former.

The unit of the couple faced its most sustained challenge when the Twist emerged alongside the first discotheques in New York City at the beginning of the 1960s.[iv]  Allowing their bodies to respond to the affective space of the club, in which dancers encountered a combination of amplified sound and lighting effects, partners were couples only in name.  Marshall and Jean Stearns acknowledged that the Twist and related dances had produced a "new and rhythmically sophisticated generation," but remained pessimistic about the environment in which the dancing occurred.[v]  "No one could dance with finesse in such crowded darkness, even if he wished. . . The only way to attract attention was to go ape with more energy than skill, achieving a very disordered effect."{C}[vi]{C}  Couples dancing (alternatively known as "hand dancing") all but imploded, yet the individual free-form style of the Twist appeared to be an inadequate replacement when, towards the end of the 1960s, the dance went out of fashion, the music industry stopped pushing the music, and beacon discotheques such as Arthur began to close.

Contemporary disco dancing emerged out of the dual context of African American social dance and the rise of the discotheque, and was propelled forward by the sudden influx of gay men into these social dance spaces at the beginning of the 1970s.[vii]  Up until this moment, gay men were marginal within social dance, for while they were free to go out and dance, they weren't free to choose their partner.  Although the door staff at flashbulb discotheques such as Arthur waived gay men to the front of the queue because of their ability to energize the dance floor, these men were still required by New York state law to take to the floor with female partners.  The Stonewall Inn was one of the few venues in Manhattan where men could dance with other men, but patrons had to make do with the stuttering rhythms of a jukebox as well as regular police raids.  By the time the owner of the Electric Circus, responding to the Stonewall rebellion of June 1969, invited gay men to share the dance floor with straights, the institution of the discotheque was in nose-dive decline.[viii]  Because the Electric Circus was still marked as a straight (if tolerant) venue, the influx of gay men into the venue was minimal.

The key turning point in the culture of individual free-form dance arrived when, more or less simultaneously, David Mancuso began to put on regular parties in his Broadway loft apartment (which became known as the Loft) on Valentine's Day 1970, and two entrepreneurs known as Seymour and Shelley who owned a series of gay bars in the West Village took over a struggling straight discotheque called the Sanctuary and encouraged their clientele to give it a go.  Both venues were unique in that gay men--who required "special protection" until Mayor Lindsay repealed New York City's laws governing the admission of gay men to cabarets, dance halls, and restaurants in October 1971--were dominant on the floor (even if straights were present) and the energy and expressivity of these dancers, many of whom faced the double marginalization of being black as well as gay, kick-started 1970s dance culture.[ix] A series of legendary private parties (including Flamingo, the Gallery, the Paradise Garage, Reade Street, the SoHo Place and the Tenth Floor) emerged out of this moment, while the public institution of the discotheque also received a second lease of life that culminated in the opening of Studio 54 in 1977.

According to eyewitness such as spinner Francis Grasso, who surveyed the metamorphosis of the crowd at the Sanctuary from the vantage point of his DJ booth, the difference in dance styles was radical.  "[Seymour and Shelley's] opening night was a bang," he told me. "I'd never seen a crowd party like that before. . .  When the Sanctuary went gay I didn't play that many slow records because they were drinkers and they knew how to party.  Just the sheer heat and numbers made them drink.  The energy level was phenomenal."[x]  That energy was founded on the newness of the experience (this was the first time that gay men had been able to dance together in a dedicated dance venue) and the wider social context (the celebratory momentum of gay liberation).

Whereas couples had dominated the straight Sanctuary, the gay reincarnation was organized around individual dancers who took to the floor by themselves.  The break with partnered dancing wasn't total--men would sometimes grab each other before dancing, or sidle up to each other on the floor--but the established matrix of social dance was nevertheless loosened to the point where it was no longer recognizable.  Yet the shift towards individual free-form dancing, which was mirrored at the Loft, didn't result in participants experiencing the floor as space of isolation.  Instead, by moving around on a single spot, dancers would effectively groove with multiple "partners."  "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 Loft, told me.  "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."[xi]  The experience of dancing with scores of other dancers helped generate the notion of the dancing "crowd" as a unified and powerful organism.  By moving to the rhythm of the DJ and the gyrating bodies that surrounded them, gay men realized they were part of a collective movement.  The idea of dancing with a partner didn't so much implode as expand.

Early discotheque dancers, according to participants such as Frank Crapanzano and Jorge La Torre (two regulars at Manhattan's best known gay venues), didn't develop a defined style, such as the Twist, but instead improvised their steps (moving backwards and forwards, then side to side, etc.) and, in line with black jazz dance and the Twist, generated movement from their hips.  Combining grace and stamina, the dancers broke with the dominant practices of the late 1960s.  "The dancing was very jazz-spirited," Danny Krivit, an early downtown dance aficionado whose father ran a popular gay bar in the Village called the Ninth Circle, told me.  "It was just free.  Before the Loft people thought they were free but they were just jerking around and jumping up and down."[xii]

Dance floors were usually crowded, often to sardine-like proportions at hipper-than-thou venues such as the Loft, the Tenth Floor, and the Gallery, so there was little room to show off special steps, or form circles around especially skilled dancers.  Some dancers would seek out unpopulated areas--Archie Burnett, a "Loft baby" from the late 1970s onwards, told me how he would gravitate towards the cloak room, away from the main floor, in order to find space to work on (and show off) his steps.  But the lack of space was of little concern to most protagonists, whose aim was to participate in a musical-kinetic form of individual dissolution and collective bliss.[xiii]  While the exhibition (or novelty) practices of the swing era involved, in the words of Jonathan David Jackson, "asserting such a pronounced sense of personal style that the black vernacular dancer's actions invite a charged, voyeuristic attention from the community at the ritual event," the party-goers of the early 1970s expressed their individuality within a more overtly participatory, less visible framework.[xiv]

Drugs--in particular LSD and marijuana, although Quaaludes, poppers and speed also became popular as the decade progressed--contributed to the hedonistic quality of the dance floor experience, although New York's downtown venues were ultimately grounded in a collective rather than individualistic notion of pleasure.  As La Torre told me, the consumption of drugs was an enabling add-on part of the dance experience, which was ultimately focused on tribal transcendence rather than a narrower, individualistic high.[xv]  Describing the experience in similar terms, Jim Feldman, a dancer at the Paradise Garage (an expanded version of the Loft that opened in 1977), noted, "There was a sexual undercurrent at the Garage but no one was picking up.  Sex was subsumed to the music and was worked out in the dancing.  It was like having sex with everyone.  It was very unifying."[xvi]  As Maria Pini, in an analysis of club and rave culture in the 1990s that speaks to the 1970s, comments: "This is not about a sexual longing directed towards a specific or individual `target,' but about a far more dispersed and fragmented set of erotic energies which appear to be generated within the dance event."[xvii]

Contrary to some accounts of the early disco scene, out of which certain mythologies continue to circulate, sex rarely, if ever, took place on the dance floors of New York's downtown discotheques.[xviii]  Although the evocation of sex is not altogether ridiculous--a sexual energy undoubtedly permeated the early gay discotheques, and erotic glances would regularly be exchanged--dancing at the Sanctuary, the Loft, and scores of other venues wasn't the first stage in the process of seduction.  Revelers refigured the dance floor not as a site of foreplay--the contention of David Walsh in "Saturday Night Fever: An Ethnography of Disco Dancing"--but of spiritual communion where sensation wasn't confined to the genitals but materialized in every new touch, sound, sight, and smell.[xix]  "The Loft chipped away at the ritual of sex as the driving force behind parties," Mark Riley, a confident of Mancuso, explained.  "Dance was not a means to sex but drove the space."[xx]  The ethos continues to this day, even if the club scene is now dominated by house rather than disco music. As Sally R. Sommer comments in "C'mon to my house": Underground-House Dancing (in this collection), "the redemption of total body sensuality without rampant sexuality fostered by hard dancing that engages the body and mind" remains central to the paradigm of the contemporary underground dance network in New York and beyond.[xxi]

The technologies of amplified sound and lighting developed at an exponential pace during the 1970s and, combining with rhythm-driven dance music and perception-enhancing drugs, established a hyper-affective environment that prioritized alternative forms of bodily sensation.  Mancuso introduced the technologies of tweeter arrays (clusters of small loudspeakers, which emit high-end frequencies, positioned above the floor) and bass reinforcements (additional sets of subwoofers positioned at ground level) at the start of the 1970s in order to boost the treble and bass at opportune moments, and by the end of the decade sound engineers such as Richard Long had multiplied the effects of these innovations in venues such as the Garage.  "Bass-heavy dance music provokes the recognition that we do not just `hear' with our ears, but with our entire body," write Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, in Discographies.  "This embodiment is achieved through the experiential characteristics, the kinesthetic effects of the disco, the club, the dance floor, and the performative and reproductive technologies employed within them."[xxii]

The spread of the marathon dance session in the 1970s discotheque heightened this affective experience and was particularly pronounced at private venues such as the Loft, the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, Flamingo, 12 West, and the Garage, where the owners bypassed cabaret licensing laws by offering only non-alcoholic drinks and running a private membership system.  That meant that they could stay open as long as they liked--in contrast to public venues that operated under New York's cabaret licensing laws.  Mancuso started off with the seemingly audacious decision to open until 6:00 a.m.; by the early 1980s he was holding parties that would begin at midnight and carry on until 8p.m. the following evening.  The substitution of alcohol with energy-enhancing drugs enabled dancers to stay on the floor for longer and longer periods of time, and this in turn encouraged them to "lose themselves" in the dance experience.  While the idea of engaging in a trance-inducing workout might not have been new--shamanistic ceremonies and drag balls functioned according to similar principles--it was a novel experience within the context of late 1960s-early 1970s North American society, and it was novel in terms of its deployment of amplified sound and disorienting light.

The sheer length of these marathon dance sessions, the reduced consumption of alcohol, and the relatively abrupt end to the practice of partnered dancing combined to create the conditions for the emergence of a new narrative of dance.  Instead of regarding the night as a series of ventures onto the floor that would be interspersed by visits to the bar or leaving the floor to find a new partner, dancers started to stay on the floor for hours on end, and DJs started to sculpt a soundtrack to respond to these new conditions.  Whereas 1960s discotheque DJs would build to a quick peak and then introduce a slow record to "work the bar" or "move the floor around," spinners such as Grasso and, above all, Mancuso, began to build sets that would tell a story over an entire night, beginning gently before climaxing with a series of peaks, after which the spinner would bring the dancers down.

The DJ was central to the ritual of 1970s dance culture, but the dancing crowd was no less important, and it was the combination of these two elements that created the conditions for the dance floor dynamic.  A good DJ didn't only lead dancers along his or her (male spinners far outnumbered their female counterparts) preferred musical path, but would also feel the mood of the dance floor and select records according to this energy (which could be communicated by the vigor of the dancing, or level of the crowd's screams, or sign language of dancers directed towards the booth).  This communication--described by Sarah Thornton, in her early analysis of late 1980s and 1990s dance culture, as "the vibe"--amounted to a form of synergistic music-making in which separate elements combined to create a mutually beneficial and greater whole.[xxiii]

Continuous with the practice of antiphony, or the call-and-response of African American gospel, the DJ-crowd exchange can be traced to the 1960s discotheque, but the best-known spinner of that era, Terry Noël, nevertheless preferred to view himself as a puppeteer who asserted his will over an obedient, passive floor.[xxiv]  The tempo of Twist music, which was significantly more uniform than the "party music" selected by DJs in the early 1970s, would have dampened dancer expectations of influencing a spinner's selections, and couples' dancing, inasmuch as it was still in play in the 1960s, would have further discouraged dancers from making the DJ their primary focus for communication.  It was only when the unit of the couple was further weakened in the early 1970s that the wider crowd, conceived of as a communicative force, discovered its power to influence the course of a night.

The popularization of this call-and-response pattern, so familiar within gospel, on the dance floor points to the way in which the dance experience of the 1970s was experienced as a spiritual affair, albeit within a secular-to-the-point-of-sacrilegious context.  This quality was apparent at the Sanctuary, which was situated in a converted church in which the DJ booth was housed in the pulpit.  La Torre argues that the spiritual dimension of the dance floor experience became particularly pronounced in the second half of the 1970s when the music became less vocally driven and more instrumental, thereby allowing the mind to wander more freely.  All of this anticipates Kai Fikentscher's description of the nightclub's parallels with the African American church: both the African American church and the nightclub "feature ritualized activities centered around music, dance, and worship, in which there are no set boundaries between secular and sacred domains," and this tradition cultivated a mood of group ecstasy and catharsis on the dance floors of the Loft, the Gallery, the SoHo Place, Reade Street, the Warehouse, and the early incarnation of the Paradise Garage.[xxv]

The nature of the ecstatic-cathartic experience of the 1970s discotheque can be theorized in various ways.  Freud's discussion of pre-Oedipal sexuality--which he characterizes as the polymorphous perverse, whereby the child experiences sexual drives that are organized around not the genitals but the entire body--is appealing when analyzing the Loft, which evoked a series of child-oriented themes in its mass deployment of party balloons and, thanks to its "safe" private party status, encouraged dancers to "regress" into a series of pre-linguistic yelps, gasps, and screeches.  These themes were played out in the 1970s and beyond: baggy, sexless t-shirts were symbolic of late 1980s club culture in the U.K.; dummies and other kids' accessories, as well as intentionally inane kid-style melodic riffs, were ubiquitous within the Anglo-American Rave scene of the 1990s.[xxvi]  Of course these parties didn't enable a literal return to a pre-Oedipal childhood, but they did establish the conditions for the rediscovery of something that is experienced (if temporarily forgotten) in childhood.  Dancing in a constricted space in which the boundaried body was lost in a pre-linguistic sea of touch and sensation, participants experienced subjectivity in a non-egotistic mode--which suggests that the theory of the polymorphous perverse might be more than an evocative metaphor.

Describing one of his trips to Flamingo, author Edmund White evokes the process of abandoning his cherished ego.  "I am ordinarily squeamish about touching an alien body," he wrote in States Of Desire: Travels in Gay America.  "I loathe crowds.  But tonight the drugs and the music and the exhilaration had stripped me of all such scruples.  We were packed in so tightly we were forced to slither across each other's wet bodies and arms; I felt my arm moving like a piston in synchrony against a stranger's--and I did not pull away.  Freed of my shirt and my touchiness, I surrendered myself to the idea that I was just like everyone else.  A body among bodies."[xxvii]  Unable to avoid physical contact on all sides, dancers had little choice but to dissolve into the amorphous whole and, as the distinctions between self and other collapsed, they relinquished their socialized desire for independence and separation.

Developing a related argument, cultural critic Walter Hughes describes the way in which the boundaried masculine body, having been penetrated sonically on the dance floor, loses its autonomy and, in turn, establishes an empathetic alliance with the repressed-yet-resistant figure of the black female diva.  Disciplined by the relentless disco beat, which compels him to move, the gay male dancer embraces the traditional role of slave while experimenting with a cyborg-like refusal of the "natural," his body no longer being an autonomous entity but instead a mixture of tissue, bone, and reverberating sound.[xxviii]  The emergence of Euro-disco, which isolated and reinforced the four-on-the-floor bass beat of disco and combined this rigid rhythm with the nascent synthesizer technology of the 1970s, accentuated the experience of the dance floor as a realm in which technology went hand-in-hand with disciplinary compulsion.

At the same time, dancers also experienced disco as polyrhythmic, especially in contrast to thudding pulse of contemporary rock, which had long since departed from the rhythmic interplay of rock 'n' roll, and this quality underpinned Richard Dyer's compelling defense of disco, published in 1979.[xxix]  Whereas rock, according to Dyer, confined "sexuality to the cock" and was thus "indelibly phallo-centric music," disco "restores eroticism to the whole body" thanks to its "willingness to play with rhythm," and it does this "for both sexes."[xxx]  Gilbert and Pearson, drawing on Dyer's argument, add: "If the body in its very materiality is an effect of repeated practices of which the experience of music is one, then we can say that what a music like disco can offer is a mode of actually rematerializing the body in terms which confound the gender binary."[xxxi]

The centrality of this experiential process--of abandoning the ego and giving oneself up to the undulating rhythms and affective sensations of the dance floor--helps explain why gay men, along with people of color and women, were so central to disco's earliest formation.  Having been historically excluded from the Enlightenment project, these groups were less attached to the project of bourgeois individualism and rational advancement than their straight white male counterparts, and were accordingly more open to the disturbing forces of sonic-dance rapture.  Riding on the back of gay liberation, feminism, and civil rights, the core dancers of the disco era were also engaging in the development of new social forms and cultural expressions, and the floor provided them with a relatively safe space in which they could work out their concerns and articulate their emotions and desires.

The discotheque, however, didn't only function as a meeting space for the outcastes of the rainbow coalition.  Straight men were involved in discotheque culture from the outset, both in its 1960s (predominantly straight commercial) and 1970s (predominantly gay subterranean) guises.  While straights were relatively marginal in spaces such as the Loft and the Sanctuary, they became more prominent after club culture became more visible (especially through the commercial success of venues such as Le Jardin, which was situated in Times Square) and the media began to report on the phenomenon.  Their participation became even more pronounced when the mid-1970s recession provided straight white men with one of disco's most important pretexts: the need for release.  "Straight, middle-class people never learned how to party," a gay Puerto Rican partygoer told the New York Sunday News in 1975.  "To them, a party is where you get all dressed up just to stand around with a drink in your hand, talking business.  But for us, partying is release, celebration.  The more hostile the vibes in your life, the better you learn how to party, 'cause that's your salvation.  Now that things aren't going so well for the stockbroker in Westchester and his wife, they come down here, where it doesn't matter how much money you make, or what the label in your coat says."[xxxii]

The broad characteristics of the early 1970s dance floor--a crowd largely composed of outsider groups that would dance as individuals-in-the-crowd in a highly affective environment for an extended period of time in--could be found not only at private venues such as the Loft, the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, and so on, but also at public venues such as the Limelight (the Greenwich Village version), the Haven, Le Jardin, and Galaxy 21 (Figure 11.1).  Whereas the private parties were normally considered underground and the public venues commercial, the key difference between the two was social rather than aesthetic.  Hardcore dancers would frequent both, but whereas their position would be protected in the private parties, which weren't advertised and weren't open to members of the public, they were vulnerable to "unknowing outsiders" in public venues.  As such the dance ritual practiced at the Sanctuary, the Limelight, Le Jardin, and other public venues would be every bit as purist as that practiced in counterpart private parties at the beginning of their run, but their purism was invariably short-lived, at least in comparison to the private venues.

Even so, the private party network, which referred to itself as "the underground," could hardly be described as constituting a hermetically sealed entity.  These private parties influenced the mainstream by generating chart hits, and underground DJs were insistent that they received Gold Records, or at least free records (via the first Record Pools), in return for their service to the music industry.  In addition, DJs were largely committed to spreading their music beyond their core dance crowd, with figures such as Nicky Siano playing at his own private party, the Gallery, as well as highly visible venues such as Studio 54.

The precariousness of the private party network's model of dancing was illustrated in the second half of the decade when it was twisted to the point of non-recognition.  As discotheque culture entered the commercial mainstream, DJs started to push primarily chart-based music and, on the dance floor, the Hustle (as well as various line dances) came to dominate.  Critics such as William Safire, the conservative New York Times op ed columnist, were delighted and praised the routine for marking a conservative return to self-discipline, responsibility, and communication after a fifteen-year period of "frantic self-expression" and "personal isolationism" on the dance floor.  "The political fact is that the absolute-freedom days of the dance are over," added Safire.  "When you are committed to considering what your partner will do next, and must signal your own intentions so that the `team' of which you are a part can stay in step, then you have embraced not only a dance partner, but responsibility."[xxxiii]

Drawn from the Mambo, the Hustle required partners to hold hands while one led the other in a series of learned step and spin sequences and, popularized by Van McCoy's hit single, the practice subsequently emerged as a conspicuous ingredient of the discotheque revival to the extent that it was the featured dance of Saturday Night Fever, the film that became the key catalyst within disco's belated and, ultimately, short-lived explosion.  That film, in which there is no discernable dynamic between the selections of the DJ or the movements of Manero and his co-dancers, became the takeoff point for the mass crossover in disco during 1978 and the template for the disco boom.

Music writer Peter Shapiro confirms that the "Hustle marked the return of dancing as a surrogate for, or prelude to, sex," yet he also maintains that "as long as you strutted your stuff on the floor, disco was essentially democratic."[xxxiv]  It is difficult, however, to see how the Hustle could have maintained the individual-within-the-crowd dynamic that was so central to the early (and, ultimately, enduring) formation of disco.  For sure, Hustle dancers could be expressive, but the Mambo-derived move disrupted the synergistic line of communication that was so central to the dance dynamic established in the early 1970s.  Significantly, the move wasn't practiced in any of New York's hardcore venues.

Following the release of Saturday Night Fever, some thirty instruction books were published on disco dancing, and their focus on the Hustle, combined with the rapid growth of Hustle classes, is indicative of the way in which the priorities of New York's downtown dancers were lost in the second half of the 1970s.  It is no coincidence that the DJ in Saturday Night Fever, Monty Rock, is an almost wholly absent figure.  Spinners such as Paul Casella, who played in a variety of venues during the 1970s, testify that it was far easier to establish a flow in a hardcore urban setting than any commercial (urban or suburban) equivalent.

Dancing, of course, could be enjoyed outside of the esoteric ambience of the private party network and, for the most part, suburban clubbers, gravitating to local and urban venues, wouldn't have even been aware of what they were missing.  In some instances, they might not have missed much: strong DJs were in operation outside of New York's hallowed downtown scene, and the Hustle was, ultimately, just one of a number of dance styles that were popularized in the 1970s (even if a number of the other routines also disrupted the line of communication between the floor and the booth).  Of course, there is no reason to think that Hustle dancers were having a bad time, and while dance floor aficionados might have maintained that transcendence could only be attained through other moves, the producers of Saturday Night Fever were clever enough to capitalize on the potential pleasure of this particular dance practice.  In the process they generated a new vehicle for the popularization of social dance in the United States.

Saturday Night Fever was initially welcomed by a number of disco purists, but the excitement soon waned.  The extraordinary commercial success of the film might have encouraged the rapid expansion of the discotheque sector, but the new strata of club owners tended to create third-rate venues in their rush to capitalize on the boom.  Inadequate sound systems broke up when pumped hard, illuminated floors flashed out their distracting sequences, and a new generation of know-nothing DJ automatons spurred an aural diet of prescribed, shrill white pop.  Meanwhile male dancers took to dressing, dancing, and generally behaving like John Travolta, and their come-and-get-me gestures soon began to look ridiculous to even the least discerning dancer.

The rapid dilution of the downtown dance dynamic during the course of 1978, with the glut of bad disco music that was released in the slipstream of Saturday Night Fever, and the fatigue that inevitably followed the film's marathon stint at the top established the conditions for national backlash against disco.  The culture's demise was accelerated by the combination of a deep recession in 1979 and the gathering momentum of the "disco sucks movement," a coalition of predominantly straight white men who felt dispossessed by disco and vented their anger and revenge in frequently homophobic and, to a lesser extent, racist publicity stunts.  Yet while hardcore DJs and dance aficionados blanched at the discourse of "disco sucks," they passively agreed with the premise that disco productions in the post-Saturday Night Fever climate had become, for the most part, aesthetically banal and tiresomely commercial.

The Hustle didn't survive the so-called "death of disco," at least not as the standard routine on club dance floors of the United States during the 1980s and beyond, but the dance practices of the downtown party did.  The outward signs suggested a culture in terminal decline--thousands of clubs, many of them in suburban centers, closed in the second half of 1979, and at the beginning of 1980 the music majors ditched the word "disco" and replaced it with "dance"--but parties such as the Loft, the Garage, and the Warehouse in Chicago, as well as host of new, groundbreaking venues such as Danceteria, the Saint, Bond's, and the Funhouse went from strength to strength.  Dance floor practices in the key urban venues of the 1980s and beyond were largely continuous with those of the early 1970s, and, as described by Fikentscher and Sommer, this template has survived into contemporary North American club culture, which largely revolves around the more electronically-driven genres of house, techno, and garage. As such, the dance formations of the New York downtown party network of the early 1970s have proved to be significantly more enduring than the Hustle, even though disco culture will, it seems, forever be associated with this altogether safer routine.

Notes

 

Many thanks to Julie Malnig for the astute comments she offered throughout the writing of this essay.

[i] Elsewhere in this collection Elizabeth Aldrich points out that from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century the Waltz revolved around "whirling pivots" and, as such, could be practiced without a leader.

 

 

[ii] Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 323.

 

 

[iii] Ibid., 325.

 

 

[iv] Ibid., 361.

 

 

[v] Ibid., 7.

 

 

[vi] Ibid., 5.

 

 

[vii] My book, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), opens at the start of the 1970s and investigates, amongst other things, the precise chronology of the evolution of 1970s club culture.  A number of points that I make in this article are drawn from the book.

 

 

[viii] Charles Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis 1940-1996 (London: Phoenix, 1999), 201-2.

 

 

[ix] See Love Saves the Day, 28-30, for a more detailed discussion of the relationship between the Stonewall rebellion, gay liberation and the rise of gay discotheque culture.  In contrast to a number of authors, I argue that disco didn't so much grow out of the Stonewall rebellion as run parallel to it as part of a wider movement of gay activism, consciousness, and culture.

 

 

[x] Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 21, 37-38.

 

 

[xi] Ibid., 25.

 

 

[xii] Ibid., 26.

 

 

[xiii] Ibid., 25; Archie Burnett, interview with author, 19 September 1997.

 

 

[xiv] Jonathan David Jackson, "Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing," Dance Research Journal 33 (2001/02): 45-46. 

 

 

[xv] Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 288-89.

 

 

[xvi] Ibid., 353.

 

 

[xvii] Maria Pini, Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity: The Move from Home to House (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 165.

 

 

[xviii] For example, Albert Goldman's Disco, for long the most authoritative account of 1970s American discotheque culture, describes orgiastic scenes taking place at the Sanctuary (London: Hawthorn Books, 1978), 118-119.  This claim, for which (after interviewing several regulars at the venue) I have found no supporting evidence, is regularly repeated in books on club culture including, most recently, Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 15. 

 

 

[xix] David Walsh, "`Saturday Night Fever': An Ethnography of Disco Dancing," in Helen Thomas ed., Dance, Gender and Culture (London: Macmillan, 1993), 116.

 

 

[xx] Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 25.

 

 

[xxi] Sommer, "C'mon to my house," in Julie Malnig, ed., The Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2007), pg. Sally Sommer, "C'mon to My House: Underground-House Dancing", Dance Research Journal, 2001/02, 33, 74, reprinted in Julie Malnig, ed., The Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2007), pg. House music dates back to 1980 or 1981, when dancers at the Warehouse in Chicago started to describe the DJ's selections -- disco, boogie and some early Italo disco -- as "house music", house in this instance being an abbreviation of the Warehouse (Lawrence, 2004, 409-10). In late 1983 young Chicago producers started to use cheap synthesiser and drum machine technology to create their own dance tracks, which imitated a number of disco's bass lines and rhythmic patterns, and in 1984 the term house music was reappointed to designate Chicago's electronic offshoot of disco. The new genre started to receive play in New York clubs in 1985. Sally Sommer's use of the term house music is more general than my own, and her use of the term house dancing is used interchangeably with the style of dancing at the Loft, which she calls Lofting (and which I label individual free-form dance).

 

 

[xxii] Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound (London and New York: 1999), 134.

 

 

[xxiii] Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 29.

 

 

[xxiv] Philip H. Dougherty, "Now the Latest Craze Is 1-2-3, All Fall Down," New York Times, 11 February 1965.

 

 

[xxv] Kai Fikentscher, You Better Work! Underground Dance Music in New York City (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press), 101.

 

 

[xxvi] See, for example, Hillegonda Rietveld, "Living the Dream," in Steve Redhead ed., Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture (Aldershot: Avebury, 1993), 54.

 

 

[xxvii] Edmund White, States Of Desire: Travels in Gay America (London: Picador, 1986), 270-271.

 

 

[xxviii] Walter Hughes, "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), 151-152.

 

 

[xxix] Richard Dyer, "In Defence of Disco," Gay Left, summer 1979. Reprinted in Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage eds., The Faber Book of Pop (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995), 518-27.

 

 

[xxx] Ibid., 523.

 

 

[xxxi] Gilbert and Pearson, Discographies, 102.

 

 

[xxxii] Sheila Weller, "The New Wave of Discotheques," New York Sunday News, 31 August 1975.

 

 

[xxxiii] William Safire, "On the Hustle," New York Times, 4 August 1975.

 

 

[xxxiv] Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around, 184-85.

 

 

Download the article here

“In Defence of Disco (Again)”. New Formations, 58, Summer 2006, 128-46.

‘Disco’ is the overburdened name given to the culture that includes the spaces (discotheques) that were organised around the playback of recorded music by a DJ (disc jockey); the social practice of individual freeform dancing that was established within this context; and the music genre that crystallised within this social setting between 1970 and 1979. Although disco has rarely been taken seriously, its impact was - and remains - far-reaching. In the 1970s, some fifteen thousand discotheques opened in the United States alone, with notable scenes also emerging in Germany, France, Japan and the UK, and the music, which revolved around a four-on-the-floor beat (an even-tempo ‘thud, thud, thud, thud’ on the bass drum), polyrhythmic percussion and clipped vocals, became the best-selling genre on the American Hot 100 during this period.

Since the 1970s, disco, which formally went out of production towards the end of 1979, has moved under a different guise, yet remains prevalent. The clubbing sections of Time Out are testament to the ongoing popularity and vitality of the social practice popularised by disco, and the music’s pounding rhythm is prominent in mainstream pop acts such as Kylie and the Scissor Sisters. Madonna wasn’t just born out of the embers of seventies disco (her debut album was rooted in the New York dance scene of the early 1980s); she also owes her recent revival to disco. ‘Hung Up’, Madonna’s first unblemished success for the best part of a decade, doesn’t just sound like disco (the album from which it is taken, Confessions on A Dance Floor, unambiguously references club culture). In sampling Abba’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’, a staple on the white gay dance floors of 1970s New York, it also recycles disco.

For the most part, disco’s political ambitions have been local. Seventies artists, producers and remixers released records that, inasmuch as they contained lyrics, were focused on the theme of dance floor pragmatics (‘Dance, Dance, Dance’, ‘Work that Body’, ‘You Should Be Dancing’, ‘Disco Stomp’, ‘Let’s Start the Dance’, ‘Turn the Beat Around’, ‘By the Way You Dance’, ‘Dancer’, ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’, ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’, ‘Fancy Dancer’ and so on). Meanwhile dancers were, and remain, preoccupied with the experience of bodily release, temporary escape and the ephemeral community of the nightclub. Private and evasive, disco and dance successors such as rave have nevertheless been dragged into the centre of mainstream political culture at key moments of ideological struggle. John Major, seeking to establish a post-Thatcherite sense of purpose, picked on dance culture (as well as hunt saboteurs, countryside ramblers and civil liberties campaigners) in his Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. Mayor Giuliani mobilised his pre-9/11 popular conservative constituency around the clampdown on clubbing activity and the sanitisation of Times Square sex. And the American New Right, searching out a polyvalent symbol of the ‘degenerate’ values of the 1960s (drug consumption, women’s rights, civil liberties, gay liberation, excessive public spending), drew on disco as a key target around which it could mobilise the long-suffering moral majority.

The disco that riled the gathering forces of the New Right was born in cauldron conditions. Lacking alternative social outlets, gay men and women of colour, along with new social movement sympathisers, gathered in abandoned loft spaces (the Loft, the Tenth Floor, Gallery) and off-thebeaten-track discotheques (the Sanctuary, the Continental Baths, Limelight) in zones such as NoHo and Hell’s Kitchen, New York, to develop a uniquely affective community that combined sensation and sociality. Developing a model of diversity and inclusivity, participants established the practice of dancing throughout the night to the disorienting strains of heavily percussive music in the amorphous spaces of the darkened dance floor. While the nonlinguistic practices of these partygoers differed from the direct action of their counterpart street activists, they were similarly committed to the liberation of the dispossessed, and a number of faces could be spotted shuffling between the club and the street. And who was to say that civil rights, gay rights and feminist protestors didn’t experience a form of the transcendence-throughenvelopment that was so central to the dance ritual in the midst of marching, chanting crowds?

The heat and humidity on these dance floors was almost tropical in intensity, and when urbanites and suburbanites picked up on this ethicalkinetic movement (‘Love Train’ by the O’Jays, released in 1972, captured the spirit of the floor and was adopted as a pre-disco anthem) it seemed, at least for a couple of years, as if the transgressive dancers of New York’s ‘downtown party network’ - the network of sonically and socially progressive venues that included the Loft, the Sanctuary, the Limelight, Gallery, the Tenth Floor, Le Jardin, the SoHo Place and Reade Street, which were for the most part clustered in downtown Manhattan - might be about to remould the United States through the sonic and bodily practices of their queer aesthetic. As disco stretched out, however, its DJs became less attuned to the mood on the floor, its clubs more oriented towards looking rather than listening, and its music more geological (structured according to the hardened co-ordinates of the classic pop song in which the lead vocalist and lead guitarist are dominant within a set verse-chorus structure) than aquatic (built around unpredictable structures and fluid non-hierarchical layers of textural sound). The backlash, which began to gather momentum in the mid-seventies, reached its crescendo in the final summer of the 1970s when the rabid rock DJ Steve Dahl detonated forty thousand disco records in a hate fest at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox. The Left barely mustered a whisper in disco’s defence. Except, that is, for Richard Dyer.

In its commercialisation disco mirrored the folk and rock movements of the 1960s, and although its marketing, which tracked the upward curve of neo-liberalism, may have been unprecedented within the music sector, disco suffered disproportionately because it had few allies in the major record companies, whose ranks were dominated by white straight executives. Their sympathies lay with the rebellious postures of the Stones and Dylan rather than the gutsy emotional outpourings of the black female divas - among them Gloria Gaynor, Loleatta Holloway, Donna Summer and Grace Jones, as well as the black gay falsetto vocalist Sylvester, author of the gay anthem ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ - who established a foothold in the music industry thanks to the consumer support of New York’s heavily gay dance floors.

In retrospect, 1977 was a transitional year. The opening of Studio 54, the glitziest and most exclusionary venue of the disco era, in April, followed by the release of Saturday Night Fever in November, steamrollered the ethical model of the downtown party network into smithereens, at least in terms of the emergent disco industry. Whereas the dance floor was previously experienced as a space of sonic dominance, in which the sound system underpinned a dynamic of integration, experimentation and release, at Studio this became secondary to the theatre of a hierarchical door policy that was organised around exclusion and humiliation, as well as a brightly-lit dance floor that prioritised looking above listening, and separation above submersion. Meanwhile Saturday Night Fever replaced the polymorphous priorities of New York’s progressive venues with the flashing floor lights of 2001 Odyssey and the hyper-heterosexual moves of John Travolta. Whereas the dance floor had previously functioned as an aural space of communal participation and abandon, it was now reconceived as a visually-driven space of straight seduction and couples dancing, in which participants were focused on their own space and, potentially, the celebrity who might be dancing within their vicinity.

Saturday Night Fever and Studio didn’t just dominate the disco landscape of the late 1970s; they also held sway over the cultural landscape of the United States. Fever became the second most popular film of all time (the Godfatherheld onto its poll position) and the best-selling album of all time, while Studio, thanks to its unnervingly compelling combination of celebrity gossip, drug scandal and door-queue carnival, hogged the front pages of the tabloids. As disco exploded in 1978, thousands of discotheque moguls and their patrons mimicked these contorted versions of dance culture, and while the initial experience was thrilling, the effect soon began to fade or, worse still, jar. By 1979 the combination of the shrill white disco pop that had come to dominate the charts and the exclusionary, individualistic practices that had come to dominate the dance floors led disco’s swathe of recent converts to question their new affiliation. Dancing became disengaged, and when a nationwide recession kicked in during the first half of 1979 the groundwork was prepared for the popularisation of the ‘disco sucks’ movement, a network of disco haters that first emerged at the beginning of 1976 and eventually coalesced around Steve Dahl, a disillusioned Chicago-based rock DJ/talk host.

Dahl and his anti-disco followers tapped into the homophobic and racist sentiments that underpinned the rise of the Anglo-American New Right and would culminate in the election of Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher. The ‘disco sucks’ slogan evoked the way in which disco drew dancers into its seductive, beguiling rhythms as well as the action favoured by so many of its most dedicated participants, and while Dahl claims to have been more concerned by disco’s superficiality and artificiality than the identity of any of its dancers, these terms had, by the late 1970s, become euphemisms for ‘gay’. As cultural critic Walter Hughes notes, ‘even the subtler critiques of disco implicitly echo homophobic accounts of a simultaneously emerging urban gay male minority: disco is “mindless”, “repetitive”, “synthetic”, “technological”, and “commercial”, just as the men who dance to it with each other are “unnatural”, “trivial”, “decadent”, “artificial”, and “indistinguishable” “clones”’.

Gay men, however, weren’t the sole focus of the anti-disco movement’s rage. Almost as target-friendly were the equality-demanding women and African Americans who had become intertwined with disco and, much to the displeasure of the New Right’s core following, were displacing white straight men from the centre of American popular music culture. ‘I think I tapped into young, brotherly, male - and dragged along for the ride, female - angst,’ Dahl told me. ‘You leave high school and you realise that things are going to be tougher than you thought, and here’s this group of people seemingly making it harder for you to measure up. There was some kind of anger out there and the anti-disco movement seemed to be a good release for that’.

The concerns of the New Right came sharply into focus just as disco’s commercialisation reached saturation point. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter defeated President Ford, nearly seventy percent of voters declared the economy to be their primary concern, yet by 1979 national conditions had dipped dramatically. Meanwhile, the Middle American heartland began to complain ever more bitterly at the way in which sixties social values had become increasingly entrenched in US governmental policy, with Carter perceived to have introduced a series of liberal policies, on issues from abortion to affirmative action, that were deemed to be favourable to African Americans and women rather than the so-called ‘average’ voter. Building on its early formation, when it was known as the ‘middle American’ revolt, the New Right deployed its support for the Protestant work ethos and abstemiousness against the corrupting influences of pleasure and play. 

Under Carter, the argument ran, the United States had become unprofitable, valueless, sinful, profligate, stagnant, disorderly, vulgar, inefficient, unscrupulous and lacking in direction. The proponents of this critique might as well have been talking about disco and, to their good fortune, disco - populated as it was by gay men, African Americans and women - contained scapegoats galore. ‘It wasn’t just a dislike of disco that brought everyone together’, Dahl added (before he realised I wasn’t a sympathiser and abruptly ended the phone call). ‘It was all of the shared experiences. But disco was probably a catalyst because it was a common thing to rally against’.

Yet if, for the emergent New Right, disco was a metonym for a degraded capitalism, the organised Left, which had yet to adjust its antennae to the politics of pleasure, wasn’t concerned with that kind of distinction. As far as socialists were concerned, mainstream disco’s flirtation with upward mobility, entrance door elitism and rampant commercialisation was quite enough. Although Saturday Night Fever might have been set in the working class neighbourhood of Brooklyn, disco appeared to be disengaged from the concerns of class inequality, and, in contrast to folk and rock, its vocal content (which was never the point of disco) failed to address the wider social formation. Working one’s body - a common refrain in disco, in which vocal repetition, following in the tradition of gospel, emptied words of their meaning in order to open the self to spiritual inspiration - wasn’t the kind of labour that appealed to the Left in 1979, the seismic year in which Thatcher and Reagan were elected.

It was into this hostile terrain that Richard Dyer seemingly ventured with the publication of his far-sighted article, ‘In Defence of Disco’, which came out in the same month as the Comiskey Park riot. Dyer, however, wasn’t concerned with standing up to the escalating homophobia of the disco sucks bullies because he hadn’t heard their taunts. ‘I was living in Birmingham [in the UK] and was involved in Gay Liberation and I had the feeling that the kind of music that I liked was constantly being disparaged’, Dyer told me.

I was part of the Gay Liberation Front in Birmingham and we put on discos, in the sense that we played music that was on vinyl. They were free or very cheap, and we always befriended people who came along. It was meant to be a whole different way of organising a social space and there was always tension over what music should be played. There were those who thought it should be rock, and those of us who were into Tamla Motown and disco. We were criticised for being too commercial. It was just felt it was commercial, capitalist music of a cheap and glittery kind, rather than something that was real and throbbing and sexual. The article sprang out of the feeling of wanting to defend something when the last thing it needed was defending because it was commercially very successful.

Believing that the left-leaning Gay Liberation Front was out of synch with the wider gay constituency - ‘Most gay men had nothing to do with gay clubs, but gay men who had an identified gay lifestyle were probably into disco and clubbing’ - Dyer decided to pen a response in Gay Left, a bi-annual journal that he worked on alongside a collective of several other men. ‘All my life I’ve liked the wrong music,’ he wrote. ‘I never liked Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll; I always preferred Rosemary Clooney. And since I became a socialist, I’ve often felt virtually terrorised by the prestige of rock and folk on the left. How could I admit to two Petula Clark LPs in the face of miners’ songs from the North East and the Rolling Stones?’

The key problem, according to Dyer, was that disco, in contrast to folk and rock, tended to be equated with capitalism (even though the latter genres had been co-opted by the music industry much earlier than disco). Yet ‘the fact that disco is produced by capitalism does not mean that it is automatically, necessarily, simply supportive of capitalism,’ he countered. Dyer added that whereas rock confined ‘sexuality to the cock’ and was thus ‘indelibly phallo-centric music’, disco ‘restores eroticism to the whole body, and for both sexes, not just confining it to the penis’ thanks to its ‘willingness to play with rhythm’. Anticipating the queer materialist arguments of Judith Butler, Dyer concluded that disco enabled its participants to experience the body as a polymorphous entity that could be remodelled in ways that sidestepped traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity. ‘Its eroticism allows us to rediscover our bodies as part of this experience of materiality and the possibility of change’.

Dyer was virtually a lone voice however, and while his arguments would have garnered the support of disco’s most dedicated evangelists in the States, this constituency was much too busy with the business of dancing to concern itself with developing (or for that matter reading) a theoretical defence of the genre. That said, Dyer might not have written ‘In Defence of Disco’ had he lived in the unofficial capital of disco - as he did between February and September 1981 - rather than Birmingham. ‘I went to live in New York and when I was there I went to the Paradise Garage,’ he says. ‘I was in a group called Black and White Men Together, I had a relationship with an African American man, and going to the Garage was very much part of that. Obviously there were lots of white people at the Garage, but nonetheless one felt one was going to a black-defined space. That made me reflect much more upon the fact that I was white’. The experience would trigger Dyer’s future work on whiteness, yet had the peculiar effect of closing down his work on disco. ‘I just remember thinking the Garage was fabulous. Of course there was absolutely no one at the Garage or the Black and White Men Together group who spoke about how awful all this disco music was. There was no one who said that. It just wasn’t something that anyone said’. It followed that, in this congenial environment, there was no need to mount a defence.

The tumultuous summer of 1979 bears an uncanny resemblance to the present. As neo-liberals on both sides of the Atlantic aim their fire at the last remaining vestiges of social democracy, people of colour (who ‘drain the welfare coffers dry’ and support ‘gang culture’) and queers (who threaten to undermine the ‘moral fabric of Christianity’) are blamed for the destabilisation of Anglo-American prosperity and order. Meanwhile dance music, which enjoyed a period of prolific creativity during the 1980s and 1990s, when house, techno, drum ‘n’ bass, garage (in its US and UK articulations) and grime made rock look leaden-footed, is once again facing charges of excessive hedonism and aesthetic banality. In Britain, the ebb and flow of the Mercury Prize has functioned as a barometer of dance music’s sliding fortunes. Whereas dance acts such as Reprazent, Talvin Singh and Dizzee Rascal captured the prize either side of the Millennium, rock acts are once again dominant. The winners of the autumn 2005 prize, the queer-torch-singing Antony and the Johnsons, might not fit the pattern of guitar band conservatism, traditional rock acts such as the Kaiser Chiefs and Coldplay filled up the shortlist to such an extent that dance was all but obliterated. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, and seeping back into Britain, came the politicised poetics of … Bob Dylan. Riding on the back of a Martin Scorsese documentary film and an autobiography, the folk-turned-rock star’s latest and most hyped revival has been received by leftist critics as evidence of his timeless political and artistic values, even though Dylan virtually created rock’s centrifugal myth of romantic individualism: the belief that a white straight man, as a creative and authoritative being, can speak for the ‘masses’. When dance plays second fiddle to ageing as well as contemporary rock, it is clear that it has ground to make up.

Yet beneath the narrative of these coincidences and echoes with the late 1970s, the status of disco has shifted considerably and the genre, somewhat surprisingly, has now acquired the aura of an undervalued cultural formation that is rich in musical material and political example. As such it is much easier now than at any point in the last twenty-five years to defend disco, and the reasons for this lie in the effects of AIDS, the death of legendary disco DJs, the commercialisation of rave, a growing interest in the genealogical excavation of the ‘sample’, and the emergence of anti-digital discourses in dance culture.

Fuelled by the rise of Chicago house (a DIY form of post-disco dance music put together with cheap synthesisers and drum machines) and the spread of Ecstasy (the popular feel-good drug of choice that was popularised in the UK during 1988), the rapid expansion of British club culture in the late 1980s was interpreted by dancers, as well as a good number of spinners, as the negation of disco. The pointedly ‘stripped down’ (naked except for the bare bones of percussion and minimalist instrumentation) non-musicality of Acid house, a subgenre of Chicago house, was contrasted with the elaborate productions of the high disco period, and while the early formation of acid and rave culture produced progressive versions of a de-masculinised and deheterosexualised dance floor, discourses around the music were less queer, with house/acid posited as the male straight (stripped down, hard, serious) antithesis to feminised gay disco (elaborate, soft, playful). There was no such disavowal of disco in New York, but nor was the culture valued. The high point of the AIDS epidemic from the late 80s to the early 90s created a milieu for nostalgia, yet the ruling DJ-production forces of the era - Todd Terry (the producer of sample-heavy tracks such as ‘Party People’, ‘Can You Party’ and ‘Bango’) and Junior Vasquez (the DJ at the Sound Factory, who developed a relentless tribalistic aesthetic) - were also moving into the territory of a hard house sound divorced from disco.

The roots of this revival were initially difficult to discern. Following the backlash against disco, the music industry in the States laid off its disco promotion staff - incidentally (but not coincidentally) the first group of openly-gay employees to be employed by corporate America - and replaced the name ‘disco’ with ‘dance’. Disco classics were still much loved, but their heavy rotation by DJs was motivated as much by necessity as desire, the major records companies having reeled in their dance output. Even Chicago house, which broke through towards the end of 1984 and gathered momentum during 1985, became something of an estranged cousin to the 1970s genre. Lazy history has it that ‘house was disco’s revenge’ (the phrase was first uttered by Frankie Knuckles, the DJ at the Warehouse, the key dance venue in Chicago between 1977-83). However, the most influential producers within the nascent genre - Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard - were more concerned with imagining a contorted, technological future (synthesiser patterns and drum tracks that didn’t imitate disco) than referring back to a wholesome, organic past (synthesiser patterns and drum tracks that did), and the crucible for their experimental tapes wasn’t the Power Plant, where Frankie Knuckles, the mythological ‘Godfather of House’, was spinning a refined selection of disco classics and, when it was sufficiently sophisticated and well-produced, house, but the Music Box, where DJ Ron Hardy, blasted on heroin, was playing anything that sounded strange. The producers of techno, which emerged in Detroit a little after house surfaced in Chicago, were even more decisive than their Windy City counterparts in breaking with disco (even if Donna Summer’s futuristic disco recording, ‘I Feel Love’, was an important inspiration), and when New York started to run full throttle with the house baton in the late 1980s and early 1990s its most influential protagonists were the producer-remixer-DJs Todd Terry and Junior Vasquez, who dipped into disco but were primarily dedicated to developing the merciless sound of hard house - house that was heated in a Petri dish until it was reduced to its disco-inspired, electronically-fortified breaks.

The reverberations of disco were even harder to discern in the British club boom of the late 1980s, which drew heavily on the Chicago subgenre of acid house yet, according to the historians of the rise of house in the UK - Matthew Collin (Altered State) and Sheryl Garratt (Adventures in Wonderland) - was primarily inspired by the holiday island of Ibiza. There, the story goes, a group of white straight lads on holiday (Trevor Fung, Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Ian St Paul) sampled the bitter-yet-ultimatelysweet taste of Ecstasy while listening to Balearic music (music popularised on the Island of Ibiza that featured a comparatively slow R&B beat with Latin, African and funk influences, including lots of classical guitar) and house, dancing under the Mediterranean night skies.Within months of their return, Ecstasy-fuelled parties were springing up in London and, to remind them of their Ibizan roots, clubs were regularly decorated with fake palms while employees handed out ice pops and the like. As it happens, house had already taken off in the north, where black dancers - in contrast to their black southern counterparts, who remained committed to the softer humanism of soul - consumed it as a black futurist outgrowth of electro. However this narrative was marginalised by the historians of UK dance, who paid tribute to the black roots of dance in New York and Chicago before attributing the ‘discovery’ of this music not to the Black Atlantic inter-connections forged by black British dancers but by the post-colonial narrative of white British dancers on holiday in the Mediterranean.

At this particular juncture and location, disco wasn’t even pre-history. Acid house’s stripped-down non-musicality provided the ultimate contrast to the elaborate productions that had come to dominate disco, and the UK dance scene simultaneously developed a progressive dance floor politics of sexuality that revolved around de-masculinised and de-heterosexualised identities (amorphous, baggy, intentionally sexless T-shirts were all the rage, while Ecstasy had the partially progressive effect of making straight men want to hug each other rather than chase after women). When the first analysis of this culture was published in a collection of essays edited by Steve Redhead, Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture, most of the contributors drilled their analysis with Baudrillardian theory and posited the experience as motivated by an aesthetic of disappearance. The fact that the Haçienda, the most popular club in Manchester during the halcyon days of the early house boom, had already been running successfully on an unlikely diet of black electronic music and indie rock prior to the introduction of house was erased by the contributors to Rave Off, as was the direct, New York-based inspiration for the venue, Danceteria, which opened just as disco was mutating into post-disco dance. According to this discourse, the Haçienda didn’t have a history; instead it arrived from a parallel universe (which is probably how most dancers understood their experience).

These years 1987-89 marked a noticeable shift in dance music’s centre of gravity. Whereas New York had been dominant during the 1970s and, in spite of inroads made by Chicago and Detroit, retained its pre-eminent position in the United States during the 1980s, the city’s dance culture was struggling to maintain anything resembling momentum by the end of Reagan’s second term in office. Of course it was AIDS, rather than the histrionic gestures of Steve Dahl, that killed, or at least came close to killing, disco. So rampant was AIDS within the city’s gay clubbing population that the virus was initially dubbed ‘Saint’s disease’, after the Saint, the biggest, most renowned white gay venue of the 1980s, where dancers were dropping in disproportionate numbers. The Paradise Garage, regularly touted as the most influential club of all, was also struck by the virus and closed its doors in the autumn of 1987 when its owner, Michael Brody, fell sick and decided against renewing his ten-year lease. The Saint shut down a short while later in the spring of 1988. ‘One of my best friends was [the owner of the Saint] Bruce Mailman’s assistant, and she said that towards the end the number of letters for membership renewals that were coming back marked ‘addressee unknown’ or ‘addressee deceased’ was just unbelievable’, Robbie Leslie, a resident DJ at the Saint, told me. ‘It wasn’t that the living were cancelling their memberships. It was just that they were dying off and there was nobody to fill the gap. It became an unfeasible operation’.

Ex-gay men, queered through ACT-UP’s trenchant campaign for statesponsored medical treatment and political acceptance, were politicised by the AIDS crisis. As the number of new cases reached its peak in 1993, dancing became less and less of a priority for those who survived. For those who continued to go clubbing, there was no room for nostalgia - the dominant aesthetic of the period was the rough, edgy sound of hard house - so when pioneering DJ Walter Gibbons, the Jimi Hendrix of the disco era who moreor-less invented the modern remix, passed away in 1994 his funeral was unceremonious and attended only by a handful of people. The fate of his record collection, which was donated to a San Francisco AIDS charity only to be returned because they could not be sold, was indicative of disco’s status. Here was a used-up culture for which there was no demand. (Today the collection would attract bids of tens of thousands of pounds, in all likelihood, if it were to be auctioned on eBay.)

Effective HIV therapy was adopted in 1996 and, as it gradually became clear that gay men with AIDS could live with the disease, disco began to come back into soft focus as the ultimate symbol of pre-AIDs abandon, a culture of innocence and release that could never be repeated. Memories and emotions inevitably coalesced around the Saint (especially if you were white and gay) and the Paradise Garage (especially if you were black and gay), and thanks to its greater influence on straight ‘Clubland’ the Garage soon began to bake up the largest slice of the nostalgia cake. The preciousness of the memory of the Garage was heightened further by the death of its resident DJ, Larry Levan, who passed away in 1992. For some, Levan died, at least in spirit, when the Garage (where he had worked as the resident DJ for ten years) closed in 1987. He continued to play at other venues, but the mystique and aura he had nurtured so successfully at the Garage were impossible to sustain, and his extraordinary remixing career ground to a rapid halt. When the spinner was invited to launch the Ministry of Sound, the London venue modelled on the Garage, he showed up empty-handed, having sold his records to feed his heroin addiction. Two years later, significant numbers of diehard New York clubbers turned up to his funeral, and for his next ‘birthday’ ex-Garage heads put on a birthday party, which became an annual event, with each celebration more nostalgic than the last (Garage classics and, in particular, Levan’s productions and remixes, would be played back-to-back at these events). The anniversary parties reached their crescendo when Body & Soul, which opened in 1997 and was quickly honoured as the latest New York party to pick up the torch of the ‘dance underground’, put on a Levan celebration and invited Nicky Siano, a supremely gifted disco DJ and one of Levan’s most influential mentors, to come out of retirement and play. Siano’s performance, true to the spirit of the 1973-77 era, when he played at the Gallery was widely considered to be New York’s most talented and influential DJ, was an extrovert affair and came to symbolise the moment when the latest generation of New York’s downtown clubbers, who had been introduced to the 1980s at previous Levan anniversary parties, began to grasp their culture’s roots in the 1970s and, more specifically, disco.

Plucked out of their cultural and institutional context, which, like any other, was riven with conflict and struggle, disco and Levan became the rose-tinted signifiers of lost communal harmony and musical sophistication. To refer to either one became a way of highlighting a set of aesthetic preferences and paying homage to the past while entering into a coded system that, combining seriousness and cool (two words that were rarely associated with disco during the 1980s), offered the prospect of privileged status to dance aficionados. Around this time it became seemingly obligatory for dance remixers and producers to dedicate their vinyl releases to Levan or the Garage or, more occasionally, the Loft (the influential party organised by David Mancuso from 1970 onwards), and record labels, picking up on the trend, started to release bootleg disco and Garage ‘classics’, largely because demand for these records, for so longer unwanted, was spiralling and fleet-footed Japanese kids, spurred on by Levan’s last ever gig, which took place in Japan in 1992, had been hoovering up the originals with consummate skill.

Unable to fall back on their own history of subterranean party networks and groundbreaking DJ innovators, British club kids were introduced to the sonic if not social possibilities of disco through the dreaded antagonist of the live musician - the sampler. Having come to characterise the cut-andmix aesthetic of 1980s hip hop, the sampler began to influence the shape of house when dance producers and remixers came to understand that their electronically produced tracks could gain a third dimension if they were interspersed with carefully chosen live quotation (a distinctive horn riff, or drum break, or guitar lick, or vocal phrase) from an old disco record. The groundwork for this trend was established by Chicago’s early house producers, who regularly copied (rather than sampled) favourite disco extracts, and this practice was taken to its logical conclusion when Todd Terry, the first major New York house producer and, not by coincidence, a hip hop devotee, placed the postmodern imprint of the sampler at the centre of his house releases during 1987-88. Terry’s technique was well received in New York, but it was the British dance press that, unable to contain its enthusiasm, declared Todd to be God. More or less coinciding with the Japanese hunt for disco rarities, British DJs and remixers, hoping to access disco’s apparently infinite seam of sampling possibilities and having almost invariably missed out on the vinyl first time around, started to do exactly the same.

The trend inspired the musician and writer David Toop to publish a piece on disco and its revival for the Face - the style magazine that had helped break Chicago house in the UK and which was still considered to operate at the cutting edge of British fashion and cool - in 1992. Citing ‘neo-disco tracks’ such as Joey Negro’s ‘Enter Your Fantasy’, Deep Collective’s ‘Disco Elements’, the Disco Universe Orchestra’s ‘Soul On Ice’, Grade Under Pressure’s ‘Make My Day’, the Disco Brothers and Sure Is Pure’s ‘Is This Love Really Real?’ and M People’s Northern Soul, Toop noted the way in which British house tracks were successfully negotiating a ‘space between nostalgia and machine futurism’. In between references to disco’s history of sonic innovation, camp extravagance and commercial saturation, Toop added: ‘Studded with (studied) disco clichés now distant enough to resonate with Antiques Roadshowmystique, throbbing with a new cyber-strength that the old classics could never match, they are smart enough to avoid a headlong plunge into unabashed shallowness’.

The sampler inadvertently introduced unknowing British house heads to the sonic possibilities of disco - however much they were curtailed, these snippets were often the high point of the track - and when streetwise labels started to release compilations featuring the full-length versions of disco tracks that had been popularly sampled, thousands of non-collectors were able to easily access non-commercial disco classics for the first time. These collections demonstrated the consummate skill of the producer/remixer, whose job it was to pick out these fleeting quotations from the complicated, layered text of the disco original. Yet, more often that not, the house track that had rejuvenated the live seventies version suffered in comparison, with the sampled house track sounding shallow and gimmicky when played backto-back against the disco records that had garnished their grooves, largely because the sampler, by highlighting and repeating an unoriginal phrase ad infinitum, can easily become the ultimate producer of cliché.

Even if the house version sounded good in the clubs, where the use of the post-disco technology of the drum machine came into its own via reinforced sound systems (Toop’s point above), the tracks didn’t stand up to - and, importantly, weren’t intended to stand up to - repeated listening. That wasn’t the case with disco, which would regularly employ the finest session musicians of the era in the pursuit of freeform, jam-oriented, transcendental grooves. Disco, so often characterised as worthless ‘cheese’ by UK-based house heads in the late 1980s, started to resemble a fine pecorino, with the full complexity of its flavour only coming to the fore when allowed to mature over time. (House tracks, meanwhile, began to take on the characteristics of a ripe briethanks to their tendency to provide intense pungent bursts of flavour over a relatively short period of time, after which they would start to go sour.)

The backdoor entrance of disco into contemporary house more or less coincided with a structural shift in the organisation of British dance culture. As Collin recounts in Altered State, published in 1997, British dance culture was born in the clubs but started to spread to disused warehouses and hastily erected tents around the M25 when dancers became frustrated with the early closing-time restrictions of Britain’s antiquated licensing laws. The birth of rave at the end of the 1980s ushered in an era of high-tempo techno and progressive house - stripped down, track-oriented music that complemented the spacious, echo-oriented contours of these improvised venues - but the rapid commercialisation of this culture in the early 1990s followed by the passing of the restrictive Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994 dampened the momentum of rave.

That left dancers with a conundrum: having revelled in the initial transgression of Ecstasy culture, after which they rediscovered their enthusiasm through the daring spatial transgression of rave, dancers where beginning to wonder about the true oppositionality of their practices. The almost total failure of ravers to participate in the campaign against the punitive Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which offered an opportunity to join forces with other outlawed groups including ramblers, hunt saboteurs and civil rights organisations, further undermined the sense that dance culture was rebellious as well as hedonistic. With the number of outdoor events in decline, and those that remained tamed by the process of local authority licensing, many dancers returned to the clubs. There they discovered that the multinational drinks companies, whose products had been wholly marginalised by Ecstasy consumption during the late 1980s and early 1990s, were once again calling the shots. Offering clubs lucrative sponsorship deals, alcoholic brands now permeated flyer and related publicity material, and the drinks themselves were repackaged, usually through the deployment of fluorescent colours, in order to appeal to the aesthetic preferences of drug users, who didn’t so much stop taking Ecstasy as combine this consumption with alcoholic intake. As Collin notes, it was around this time that clubbers also started to complain about the quality of the drugs they were taking - an indication that either the active ingredients of Ecstasy were being diluted more and more, or that the effect of the drug was diminishing with repeated use (this being one of Ecstasy’s traits).

Faced with the additional comedown realisation that they were participating in a highly commercial culture in which so-called ‘Superclubs’, which prided themselves on their corporate identities, were coming to dominate the nightscape, a number of dance writers began to seek out an alternative political narrative to contextualise their practice and, looking west rather than south, came up with a new chronology of British dance culture that began not on an Ibiza beach during the 1980s but in NoHo lofts and Hell’s Kitchen discotheques during the 1970s. Collin opened Altered State with a section on the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, the Sanctuary, the Loft and the Paradise Garage, while Garratt devoted the opening chapter of Adventures in Wonderland to the rise of the modern discotheque, culminating in the opening of the Sanctuary, and chapter two to the black gay continuum that began at the Loft and culminated at the Paradise Garage. Sarah Thornton might have commented that the evocation of ‘black gay’ culture served the purpose of endowing the British club and rave narrative with a dose of ‘subcultural capital’ (Bourdieu’s cultural capital within a clubbing context) had she considered disco to be worthy of a single mention in her 1995 book on dance culture, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital.

The move to highlight the contribution of African American gay men to the culture of disco to the point where, in its earliest formation, disco was black and gay, added an important layer to the historicisation of the genre, even if the black gay element was central rather than dominant at this juncture. Anthony Haden-Guest’s Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, published in 1997 and the first substantial book to be published on disco since Albert Goldman’s Disco (which came out in 1978), had erased this narrative in favour of a scandalous focus on the ultimately marginal celebrity contingent at Studio 54. Yet there was a sense that the switch in popular historiography towards highlighting the black gay presence in early disco culture was motivated less by the desire to produce a history of the marginalised than by the craving for a hip marginality that could lend glamorous credibility to Britain’s increasingly vacuous club culture. The authors of this popular historical narrative of UK dance culture were at the time employed, after all, by trend-setting magazines such as the Face and i-Dthat retained an investment in preserving the fashionable identity of the dance cultures they had helped break, and the black gay component of early New York dance culture seemed to be safe to write about because it was something that had happened in the past - and overseas. If any commitment to a politics of inserting a history of the dispossessed into the history of dance existed, surely they would have also drawn attention to the important incubator role played by early London clubs such as Stallions, Pyramid and Jungle, where black and white gay men constituted the core crowd, and northern venues such as Legend, Wigan Pier, Placemate 7 and the Haçienda, where black (and white) straight dancers embraced the challenging sounds of American dance. That they didn’t do so suggests a willingness to tick the boxes of alternative identity so long as they were positioned at a safe distance. Otherness, in this revised official history of dance, functioned as a prologue to a familiar main narrative: the centrifugal role of the white straight men (who just happened to now be wearing a Hawaiian shirt).

The excavation of disco in the late 1990s was also a sign of the maturation of dance culture - a phase that, for some, represented the scene’s loss of energy, cultural institutionalisation and sedimentation. Just as Britpop had, in the mid-1990s, reminded music consumers of the bleached version of rock history that has the genre beginning with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, now, for the first time, at least in the UK, dance culture participants were being asked to explore the roots of their own practices. The move was in many respects counter-intuitive. Whereas rock fans tended to follow the career of an artist, collecting their records as, true to the Romantic roots of modern artistry, they developed over time, disco/dance functioned according to the pragmatics of the dance floor. If a piece of music worked, that is, made dancers dance, participants might go out and buy the record; if it didn’t they wouldn’t. However, as the generation of late eighties clubbers grew older, and ostensibly started to spend as much (if not more) time listening to dance music at home as in the clubs, their listening priorities shifted. Record-collecting became more important, especially amongst male consumers, and alongside this process came a new emphasis on the historical genealogy of dance, which invariably led back to disco. Early house heads, who had despised disco when they discovered Chicago house in 1987-88, now began to treat seventies dance as an object for connoisseur-like attention. In addition, as dance consumption shifted from the club to the home, repeated listening became a greater priority and disco, more than house, was able to bear this kind of close sonic scrutiny. The sample might have been a creative tool that could contribute to sonic combinations not available to seventies producers, yet its repetitive and fragmentary logic tended to produce its eventual redundancy. If the sample existed as a superior fragment from a wider text, why settle for just the fragment?

In the second half of the 1990s New York producers, responding to the limitations of the sampler as well as the drying up of the archival well, started to re-emphasise the ‘live’ component of their recordings. Having turned to sampling first time around because they lacked the musical know-how required to produce the sounds that were so abundant in seventies disco, house producers and remixers such as Masters at Work - ‘Little’ Louie Vega and Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez - began to invite session musicians into the studio in order to jam over technologically-generated tracks. In 1997, operating under the Nuyorican Soul moniker, Vegan and Gonzalez took this trend to its logical conclusion and released an entire album, titled Nuyorican Soul, of live recordings that featured legendary seventies performers such as Jocelyn Brown, Vince Montana and Roy Ayers re-recording seventies classics alongside a live band or, in the case of Vince Montana, a whole orchestra. The album sent mild shock waves through Clubland where house fans, raised on a diet of pulsating drum machines, didn’t quite know what to make of the subtler and superficially less dynamic sound of live drums. In terms of its wider politics, the clearest message of the album - that dance music was in danger of eating itself alive if it failed to employ musicians to generate new sounds and reintroduce the ‘feel’ of grooving musicians into the dance matrix - was compromised by the over-emphasis on cover versions of soul classics. The mining of disco and its wider aesthetics, however, was unmistakable and largely welcomed by DJs, dancers and other producers.

The resuscitation of disco in the US and the UK coincided with the wider shift in political culture in which the morally conservative alliances of Reagan/Bush and Thatcher/Major, which propped up their economic liberalism with intermittent bouts of racism and homophobia, gave way to the comparatively progressive social politics of Clinton and Blair. Although there was no let-up in the neo-liberal agenda following the election of the Democratic President and the Labour Prime Minister, the Anglo-American cultural context shifted in important ways, with women, people of colour and gay men/lesbian women co-opted into the newly multicultural, liberal feminist, gay-friendly marketplace. Disco’s revival in the second half of the 1990s can, in this regard, be understood as part of the historical continuum that witnessed the rise of ‘Bling’ - untamed materialism based around the champagne lifestyle of expensive jewellery, fast cars and designer clothes - in US hip hop and UK garage. More amorphous in terms of its black and Latin roots, disco offered a milder entry into the quagmire of racial politics and, following the breakthrough introduction of protease inhibitors and cocktail treatment strategies, which produced dramatic results in the containment of AIDS, it also became a safer and more marketable gay lifestyle product. Disco, having been pronounced ‘dead’ as the New Right swept to power, came back to life (at least in terms of its public profile) as this era came to a close.

Disco’s status as a source of radical musicianship received its ultimate affirmation in the summer of 2005 with the publication of Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco by Wire journalist Peter Shapiro. Notorious for its high-minded avant-gardism, general seriousness and penchant for arrhythmic music, the Wire was never a likely home for complimentary articles about disco. David Toop’s feature on Giorgio Moroder was a rare exception, as were Peter Shapiro’s pieces ‘The Tyranny of the Beat’ and ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’. As such Shapiro’s book was to be welcomed not so much for its arguments about disco music, which had been set out in other publications, as for the fact that he was taking these arguments, along with a new level of musical detail, to a cynical audience. If only Shapiro’s publishers had understood the wider critical contest that was at stake: their use of sparkling effects and lurid fluorescent colours on the covers of the US and UK editions of the book undermined Shapiro’s attempt to stake out disco’s right to be taken seriously.

The aspect of disco musicality that Shapiro fails to articulate adequately, which also happens to be the aspect that has proved to be the most enduring in terms of aesthetic innovation and global influence, is the role of the DJ. Spinners such as David Mancuso, Francis Grasso, Michael Cappello, Ray Yeates, Bobby Guttadaro, David Rodriguez, Tee Scott, Richie Kaczor, Nicky Siano, Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles developed a mode of communication that mirrored the marathon trance grooves emerging from artists as diverse as Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead and War, although in contrast to the practices of these musicians they functioned as engineers of collage, melding found objects (vinyl records) that originated as distinct entities (works of art) into an improvised aural canvas, and as such challenged traditional notions of musicianship.floor. Experienced producers, vocalists and musicians stood by and gasped as weedy, know-nothing DJs were let loose in the studio and slashed their carefully constructed recordings, highlighting some tracks and cutting out others. The resulting releases, which revolved around an aesthetic of stripped down beats, the groove of the rhythm section and clipped vocals, set out the blueprint for house - the genre that would later return to these records for sample-friendly material.

One of the attractions of the seventies dance environment was the streetlevel status of its DJs, who were for the most part anonymous, low-paid music enthusiasts. In their hunger to search out new sounds and put on parties for friends, they became conduits for a new genre of music, but in spite of the often-adoring reception they would receive from the floor, only the most deluded could have imagined that they were a star or celebrity outside of their cocooned mini-universe. DJs were lucky to get an occasional mention in the media. Nicky Siano was probably the best-known spinner of the decade, yet his cuttings library consisted of a three-paragraph mini-feature in New York magazine and a couple of quotes in articles about disco that ran in the nationals. Some, such as Mancuso, and to a certain extent Levan, were media shy and believed that a higher media profile might undermine the feverishly protected privacy of their parties at the Loft and the Paradise Garage. But this fails to explain how the Paradise Garage, during a ten year reign at the apex of Nightworld that spanned the seventies and the eighties, didn’t receive a single feature exploring its dynamic - and only a short obituary in Billboard when the venue finally closed. Larry Levan and owner Michael Brody might not have favoured press coverage, but the press also wasn’t especially interested in a micro-scene whose black gay core continued to exist outside of the public eye.

Today, following the repeated excavation (and defence) of disco, a Google search on the Paradise Garage or Levan will yield results of some 135,000. Even Mancuso, perhaps the most influential pioneer of seventies disco, yet a barely-known figure outside of the downtown party network until Nuphonic Records released a compilation of Loft classics in 1999, achieves about 52,000 results. Fascination and the desire to experience in some respects go hand in hand, and many attribute the resurgent popularity of figures such as Mancuso to a wider desire to taste a slice of seventies disco. Of course the clock cannot be turned back to the 1970s, but the persistence of seventies and classics nights - adorned with, in the worst-case scenario, an industrial quantity of glitter, neon, wall mirrors and Bee Gees/Village People pop - indicates that promoters and, presumably, dancers are not about to tire from trying. To dance to disco at one of these events is not akin to experiencing the 1970s, for seventies music, played in the seventies, would have sounded new and challenging, while today it will normally sound like music that is thirty years old (whatever the symbolic or affective significance of that might be).

Some, such as Energy Flash author Simon Reynolds, argue that disco is a reactionary force in contemporary club culture. Writing for the Village Voice in July 2001, Reynolds is gently critical of New York’s ‘double take’ around disco, whereby a number of clubs - most notably Body & Soul - are seen to be evoking dance music’s ‘roots, origins, and all things ‘old school … With clubbing tourists coming from all over the world to experience ‘the real thing’ as a sort of time-travel simulacrum, New York’s ‘70s-style dance underground has become a veritable heritage industry similar to jazz in New Orleans’. Reynolds, however, overstates his case. Even the Levan birthday parties can’t be equated with disco nostalgia nights - the Levan remixes that form the staple of these nights were for the most part recorded in the post-disco era of the 1980s, and the classics (tried and tested favourites from the seventies and eighties) normally give way to newer music that references the past while teasing out the future - and nobody in New York has produced what might be called a disco record since the very early 1980s. While Todd Terry initiated the trend of sampling disco in New York, his biggest audience was in the UK, and it was in the UK that the practice was deployed to the point of saturation. New York producers and remixers responded to this particular malaise by combining live instrumentation with technologically generated beats - a step ‘backwards’ that is implicitly criticised by Reynolds (‘New York dance culture hasn’t delivered the shock-of-the-new in well over a decade’), but which has been a regular tool of the progressive music makers that Reynolds lauds elsewhere (such as jungle producers digging through their old record boxes in order to redeploy the bass from Jamaican dub into breakbeat techno).

Reynolds’s real problem with New York’s ‘disco-house tradition’ would appear to be ‘the scene’s premium on old-fashioned notions of ‘musicality’ and ‘soulfulness’’, which runs in opposition to his preference, outlined in Energy Flash, for dance music that is part of a rave/hardcore continuum built around ‘noise, aggression, riffs, juvenile dementia, hysteria’. Yet while the producers of hardcore have contributed to the creation of a dance market in which subgenres develop and disappear with startling speed, the mutant disco producers of the so-called deep house scene are engaged in a project that, evoking Amiri Baraka’s concept of the ‘changing same’, is more concerned with continuity and longevity than disruption and transience. Political struggle can only be ongoing if affiliations, rather than being dropped as soon as a more futuristic option emerges, are maintained over time.

(When the two paths converge - around, say, drum ‘n’ bass, which added jazz riffs and dreamy synthesizers to jungle’s throbbing rudeness - Reynolds tends to disapprove. Nevertheless such a strategy, which finds contemporary expression in the Deep Space dub-meets-techno-meets-disco framework developed by François Kevorkian, as well as Maurizio’s techno-oriented dub productions for Rhythm & Sound, offers a potentially productive solution to the conservatism and radicalism that runs through much of dance culture. For now, demand is strong enough to sustain all three approaches.)

Veteran seventies DJs who are still playing today - including the highprofile David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, François Kevorkian, Danny Krivit and Frankie Knuckles - are to varying degrees expected to deliver a seventies agenda (even if the agenda in the seventies was to play new music, not seventies music). The arguments that flow across discussion boards such as Deep House Page (www.deephousepage.com) and DJ History (www.djhistory.com) after a Mancuso Loft party, for example, illustrate the conflict that inevitably surrounds the performance of a ‘legend’ outside of her or his original milieu. Disco nostalgists (both those who experienced the seventies first time around, and those who weren’t there but wish they had been) are critical of Mancuso’s non-disco selections, of which there are a good number, while others urge the one-time cutting edge pioneer to play a higher proportion of new records in order to demonstrate the template’s relevance to the current conjuncture.

Whether it is through the playing of a disco record, the snatching of a disco sample or the mutation of disco’s sonic imprint, disco’s reach might be shrouded yet it is also resilient and widespread. Just as significant, though, is disco’s social template. First outlined by Richard Dyer back in 1979, and developed by Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson (Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound) and Maria Pini (Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity) some twenty years later, disco’s politics of pleasure, experimentation and social equality, which draws on the potentially queer/affective experience of the amorphous body moving solo-with-the-crowd to polyrhythmic music, remains an enticing objective every time a DJ comes into contact with a group of dancers. Disco, like any music genre, is vulnerable to commercial exploitation. Yet few music genres (it is hard to think of any) have been so successful at generating and spawning a model of potentially radical sociality.

 

Thanks to Jeremy Gilbert for comments on an earlier draft of this article

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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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