[22 March 2007]
Social dancing as a celebration of individuality and community has long been marginal in Western cultures, but this has not always been so. Baroque composers wrote suites intended to accompany social dancing, but with the emergence of the Classical era in music, dance became radically devalued: new musical forms such as the concerto and the symphony moved secular music out of the ballroom and the royal court, and into aristocratic salons and darkened concert halls, rendering participatory dancing unsuitable, if not inconceivable. Though dancing and music remained closely linked in other cultures—particularly African and African American cultures—communal dancing flourished in the West only on the cultural periphery.
During the early 19th century, one particularly notorious locale where social dancing thrived and bourgeois mores were routinely transgressed was Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood, situated by the dockyards at the southernmost tip of the island. Sprawling with stevedores and sailors from around the world, the Five Points also teemed with raucous clubs housed in tenement cellars. According to historian Sally Sommer, these underground clubs attracted men and women of all races for music making, dancing and drinking (“C’mon to My House: Underground-House Dancing.” Dance Research Journal, 33:2). The Five Points clubs were prime examples of what anthropologist Victor Turner calls sites of liminoid activity, places “where conventional structure is no longer honored but, being more playful and more open to chance… are also much more likely to be subversive, consciously or by accident introducing or exploring different structures that may develop into real alternatives to the status quo” (Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, 2003). Filthy, debauched, and representing everything mainstream society stood against, the Five Points underground clubs mark perhaps the earliest examples of alternative nightlife in the modern era.
Though the Five Points set a social blueprint for many future discothèques, many aspects of the discothèque (including the name) were imported to America from France, where les zazous, a breed of bold and free-spirited French teenagers first emerged during the Nazi occupation. Les zazous would meet at odd hours in dank cellars, set up portable gramophones and dance to Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and Django Reinhardt. Their tastes in fashion (long hair and dapper clothes, inspired by Hollywood) and music (the Nazis called it “degenerate Americano nigger kike jungle music created by African Americans and disseminated by the Jewish-dominated media industries”) – guaranteed that les zazous were not merely fun-loving counterculturists. If caught, they were summarily sent to Nazi labor camps.
Not only did they thumb their noses at totalitarianism, les zazous performed a subtler form of cultural resistance, dancing to vinyl records rather than live performances. As Peter Shapiro notes in Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (Faber & Faber, 2005) the gatherings of les zazous were unprecedented in their use of records to facilitate social dancing outside the private home, and their very existence depended upon their record collections.
In postwar Europe, the basement-club atmosphere with dance-music records—jazz and big band swing primarily—became popular among the jet set. Since the great jazz musicians and big bands performed in America, Europeans had to rely on records. Shapiro notes that Europe’s relative lack of a live-music scene led jazz and big-band enthusiasts to “sanctify the jazz record as an almost holy artifact, as opposed to the live performance itself.” Nightclubs in which these “artifacts” could be celebrated communally began to sprout accordingly. By encouraging their patrons to rejoice to American records in defiance of the state-mandated “national culture”, these venues performed yet another subtle, apolitical mode of cultural resistance. The most famous of these nightclubs was Le Discothèque in Paris, whose name combined disque (“record”) and biblioteque (“library”). With its elegant décor, fine whiskies, comprehensive record collection, and wild dancing, Le Discothèque would spawn legions of imitators catering to night owls and the social elite.
While chic Europeans were swinging to American records, revelers in the United States still danced to live bands in ballrooms and juke joints. The first American nightclub to parallel Le Discothèque was Le Club, imported to New York in 1963 by Frenchman Oliver Coquelin. Le Club offered a safe, sophisticated haven for its elite Manhattan clientele to witness the exploding youth culture. The music played by DJ Slim Hyatt was regarded as an afterthought, as was dancing. In 1965 a gaudy nightclub known as Arthur opened in midtown, bringing a taste of swinging London to New York. Like their European counterparts, Arthur and Le Club were exclusive institutions catering to the wealthy, famous and glamorous. What these clubs shared, however, was that unlike other elitist social institutions, wealth and status alone were not enough to guarantee entry. Hipness and good looks were the most important factors to getting in (though money didn’t hurt).
While Le Club served the rich and the beautiful, alternative discothèques sprouted in unseemly areas of Manhattan for freaks on the margins of society. Of these, the Sanctuary and the Loft were the most important and influential. The Sanctuary was opened in 1969 by Arnie Lord in the Hell’s Kitchen end of West 43rdStreet. Situated in a reconverted church, the Sanctuary was originally christened the Church until New York’s Catholic representatives served an injunction against the venue days after it opened. Though it ceased to be sacrilegious in name, the Sanctuary was paganism incarnate in most other senses. The décor was nothing short of depraved. Shapiro details how Lord designed the club to resemble a Witches’ Sabbath, featuring “a gigantic mural that depicted a devil surround by angels engaging in various forms of sexual intercourse.”
The music at Sanctuary was opposite of that at Le Club and Arthur, whose DJ, Noel Coward, spun mainly white blues rock and pop standards from the Motown hit parade. Francis Grasso, the Sanctuary’s DJ, spun hard funk by James Brown along with records far from the pop mainstream, like the African drum chants of Babatunde Olatunji and the Caribbean psychedelic soul of Osibisa. Ingeniously operating two turntables and a primitive mixer, Grasso is credited as being the first DJ to overlap two records so that their drumbeats are synchronized. Though future generations of DJs could achieve this effect rather easily by manipulating speed controls on their turntables or samplers, Grasso synchronized records using only the tips of his fingers. Whereas Coward was perhaps the prototype of the nightclub DJ—in Tim Lawrence’s words, the “musical equivalent of a hamburger chef, mindlessly serving up a menu of processed meat”—Grasso’s innovative, transcendent sets paved the way for deejaying as a technologically mediated, postmodern art form. (Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, Duke UP, 2004)
Unlike the patently outrageous Sanctuary, which attracted instant controversy, David Mancuso’s Loft grew from humble beginnings. Equal parts mystic and dedicated audiophile, Mancuso initially configured his massive SoHo loft apartment in 1965 as a site for multimedia happenings and psychedelic trips to the accompaniment of his hand-cut reel-to-reel mixes of free jazz, spoken-word mantras, gamelan orchestras and minimalist compositions. Furnished only with a smattering of balloons, an incomparable sound system, and a few items of Buddhist and Gnostic iconography, Mancuso’s loft was famous, according to Shapiro, for symbolically recreating the “irretrievable scene of the mother’s womb.” Mancuso’s happenings attracted a diverse crowd of whites, minorities, gays, straights, artists, dilettantes and adventurous working-class toughs. As the 1960s wore on, Mancuso configured his bimonthly rent parties to feature more and more hard dancing. It wasn’t until the Valentine’s Day 1969 party, “Love Saves the Day”—a thinly veiled reference to LSD—that Mancuso’s loft became the Loft, an essential reference point for underground dance culture.
Unlike mainstream discothèques, which essentially reinforced the status quo, the Sanctuary and the Loft offered participants the opportunity to explore identity and achieve ecstasy with their fellow revelers. Bound by their experiences on the dance floor—in Shapiro’s words a “polymorphous, polyracial, polysexual mass affirming its bonds in a space beyond the reach of church, state, or family”—dancers at the Sanctuary and the Loft began to cultivate a sense of community.
Nowhere was this taken more seriously than at the Loft. According to Carol Cooper, Mancuso “wanted his crowd to understand that the job of being a patron was as crucial to a club’s existence as the job of being a deejay” (“Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Music Underground” Social Text, 45). Mancuso would occasionally revoke the club memberships of those who had neglected their “job” by failing to show up every week.
At the Loft and the Sanctuary the DJ became something like the night’s priest, consecrating the sacred space of the dance floor. This sanctification opened up new possibilities for the nightclub beyond its prescribed role, whereby social dancing serves merely as a prelude to sexual congress. According to Lawrence, Mancuso’s sonic ministrations were closely modeled on the Tibetan Book of the Dead to achieve a “natural rhythm” and “sustain his guests for an entire night.” At the Sanctuary, Francis Grasso’s genre-bending experiments on the turntables were delivered from an actual church altar.
This identification continues to resonate in dance-music culture today. Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music, was initiated into the world of dance music at the Loft and the Sanctuary. Still performing around the globe as one of the world’s most-popular DJs, Knuckles affectionately refers to the dance club as “church for the children fallen from grace.” Ardent club crawlers continue to identify the DJ as a “priest, a shaman who musically ministers to the dancers enjoying a temporary regression from adult strictures” (Sommer).
At the Loft, dancers were encouraged not simply to absorb and deflect sound but to create their own sounds and rhythms—to participate in the creation of the music. Hard-core dancers could easily be spotted (and heard) in the Loft by their whistles, tambourines and maracas, which they played in rhythm to the music while performing athletic steps on the dance floor. But unlike the mandatory whoops at the end of each song at a rock show or the directives issued at hip-hop shows to “make some noise,” in the continuous format of the dance music event verbal interactions by the audience are encouraged but rarely (if ever) commanded by the DJ. At a dance-music event, the most potent means of communication are not in sound at all, but in movement, in dancing itself.
The participatory, democratic nature of the interaction between DJ and dancer at clubs is closely related to the musical tradition known as call and response, or antiphony. Though the DJ performs in sound and light and the dancers perform with movement, the mutually interdependent dynamic between them engenders a collective performance, synthesizing sound, rhythm and movement. In the absence of codified steps, the dancers’ movements are actualized in the DJ’s efforts so that each dancer is not merely consuming music but enacting a ritualistic, improvisational response.
The dance floor is not merely a setting for collective performance, but it also allows the expression of gender constructions and sexualities that do not conform to mainstream values. As Lawrence notes, in the primeval stomping grounds of the Loft and Sanctuary, the nascent club scene enabled gay men, ethnic groups, and women to experiment with a new lifestyle characterized by communal hedonism, ecstatic release, and bodily rather than verbal communication. The Loft’s commitment to pluralism made it a haven for all marginalized groups, especially blacks, homosexuals, and (most especially) black homosexuals, including Frankie Knuckles and future Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan.
The Loft also attracted bohemians, art school, intellectuals, and disaffected hippies. The Sanctuary had a more gay friendly vibe than the Loft, but it could never function as a homogeneous gay nightclub for reasons both practical and political. During the Sanctuary’s brief tenure at the vanguard of the New York nightlife (1969-1971), the state of New York still criminalized all-male dancing, mandating that discothèques contain at least one woman for every three men. Furthermore, as Lawrence points out, “even if the restrictions had been fully lifted there probably weren’t enough self-realized gay dancers to fill the floor at this early stage in the culture’s evolution.”
However, gay culture would find in the nightclub a safe and uninhibited environment in which to confirm the validity of gay identity. While gays were welcomed in the early downtown clubbing network, the purely gay discothèque would initially flourish outside the confines of Manhattan. The earliest gay discothèques, including the Ice Palace, Cherry Grove, and the Meat Rack, opened in the late 1960s along the quaint beachscape of Fire Island, an hour outside New York City. Accessible only by ferry, the Fire Island discothèques were settings in which, according to Shapiro, “the wildest fantasies…could be acted out without fear that anyone from the straight world would find out about it.” The exuberant expression of homosexuality was given free rein in these discos, which became sites of unprecedented libertinism. Though the Fire Island discothèques were literally and figuratively farther outside bourgeois America than their downtown contemporaries, the environments’ similarities were far more significant than their differences: Both allowed for the cultivation of a sense of community and permitted hedonistic desires forbidden by the mainstream.
As the gay rights movement coalesced in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, gay club culture would no longer remain hidden away on Fire Island but would flourish in plain sight of the mainstream in downtown Manhattan. Of the early gay downtown discos, none was more successful or influential than the Gallery, opened in 1973 by Loft habitués Nicky Siano and Robin Lord. The Gallery combined the functional, communal aesthetic of the Loft with the unbridled sexual expression of the Fire Island discos. While Lord managed the business end of the Gallery, the fearless and charismatic Siano introduced new levels of artistry and theatricality to the fledgling practice of the nightclub DJ.
Expanding on Grasso’s innovations, Siano would delight audiences with beat-matched segues and overlays, while also allowing for drastic shifts in tempo between tracks and even during track selections. Siano pioneered the club use of variable-speed turntables, once the province of avant-garde composers like John Cage. While Cage used the vari-speed turntable to create fragmentary, unsettling soundscapes, Siano used it to implant an otherworldly logic on his material and to display his mastery over the popular media at his disposal.
Siano also introduced the practice of interrupting and mixing tracks midflow—“riding roughshod over the precious boundaries of authorship” according to Lawrence—as opposed to letting each track end. Siano’s final gift to future generations of DJs involved his imaginative and dramatic use of the frequency-selective equalizer bands on the Gallery’s potent sound system. At peak moments, Siano would abruptly shut off all low and mid-range frequencies, leaving only the tinny whispers of the cymbals and hi-hats. With his crowd screaming in expectation, Siano would then kick in the bass and mid frequencies with renewed intensity, bringing the dancers to an ecstasy bordering on anarchy. He also managed to manipulate the Gallery’s lighting rig with his feet.
In a rare confluence of art and commerce, two homosexual Italian Americans from working-class families in Brooklyn developed the cult and culture of the DJ and put them at the vanguard of New York City nightlife. Grasso’s and Siano’s trailblazing techniques destabilized the distinction between production, performance and reception in the realm of musical meaning, communicating to audiences through the manipulation of found objects—namely commercial records—chosen not out of their popularity or profitability but their functionality on the dance floor.
The notion of functionality was embedded in the definition of disco music, which was first introduced to the popular lexicon by Vincent Alletti in the June 1973 issue of Rolling Stone. Before this, disco merely described a place where music was played, not a specific genre of music distinct from soul, funk and R&B. Many early disco floor-fillers were uptempo tracks by popular black artists: Marvin Gaye, Eddie Kendricks, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes. As Lawrence explains, the features that would define disco music—lush and dramatic string orchestrations, four-on-the-floor drum beats, percussion breaks, jazzy arrangements, and vocal choruses as glib as they were gospel—were forged in the crucible of West Philadelphia. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, songwriter/producers for the record label Philadelphia International, ingeniously created the blueprint for all disco to come by blending the grandeur of Hollywood with the grit of funk and salsa. The duo’s first chart-topping hit, “Love Is the Message”, recorded by MFSB, became the theme song to the nascent disco movement and helped inspire the mainstream disco craze that would dominate mainstream popular culture throughout the late ‘70s.
While the disco craze was ultimately short-lived, dance music culture continued to evolve. The same conceit by which discothèque music became disco led to the name of house music, derived from the mind-melting sets of Frankie Knuckles at the Warehouse in Chicago in the early ‘80s. And garage, the sound of much British dance music from the late ‘90s, came from attempts to reclaim the sound and the allure of the Paradise Garage (pronounced “gay-raj”) and its inimitable DJ, Larry Levan.
The location-specific functionality of disco, house, and garage music foregrounds the fundamental differences between these styles and other forms of pop music. Unlike rock songs, which typically require the listener to decode layers of reference interlaced with tailor-made constructions of “angst,” “anger,” “fantasy,” or “catharsis,” dance music is “meant to be used rather than understood….they are about collapsing the future into the present” (Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound, Routledge, 1999). Transforming audiences from passive interpreters to performers, dance music and its venues provide a potent aural-social environment in which alternative sexual and bodily identities can be explored. The guiding ethos of these environments, interwoven with innumerable threads of discourse in race, sexuality and technology, continues to influence social dancing practices recuperated by the mainstream and in the underground.
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Peter Dougherty is a senior in the Music Department at Princeton University studying composition with Steven Mackey and Paul Lansky.