Dance party and disco ball viewed through a red filter

Dance, Dance Revolution

Finding freedom on the dance floor

By Ana Matronic and
Siddhartha V. Shah

Throughout history, the dance floor has been a safe space for the marginalized. Whether it’s the cabaret of the Weimar Republic, the speakeasy of Prohibition-age Chicago, or a gay bar in a tiny Alabama town, places where people gather to perform or dance exist as some of the only public spaces in which alternative expression is allowed, and as such, are incubators in loosening rigid social mores. The freaks, as they say, come out at night. They come out because the darkness allows for safe movement of policed bodies, and under the light of the dance floor, allows for inclusion and exploration. When we come together to celebrate Pride by dancing and marching as a community, we move in the footsteps of those wild and wonderful beings before us, who took the freedom they experienced on the dance floor and channeled it into a fight for their rights to be themselves and, thus, for our freedoms and rights to be ourselves today.

Coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, and the burgeoning mainstream feminist and LGBT+ movements, disco culture provided an intersectional space for young, underprivileged, and ostracized communities to come together, to feel love, to be free. Before 1970 in New York City, laws prohibited men from dancing with each other and required there to be one woman for every three men on the dance floor. These restrictions led to frequent raids on homosocial spaces. Harassment by the police was a regular occurrence until, on a particular hot night in June 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back after one too many attacks on their establishment. For five days, the queers of New York City took to the streets with their allies, giving rise to the modern LGBT+ movement. This movement began on the dance floor, and is why the history of dance culture and the struggle for LGBT+ rights are inextricably linked.

Not even a year after the riots, in 1970, David Mancuso started The Loft—one of the earliest American discos—in his apartment in downtown Manhattan. The laws prohibiting men from dancing together were still in place, but he circumvented police harassment by making it an invitation-only space that did not serve alcohol. This formula provided the blueprint for some of the most important and influential discos in history, where people from all walks of life could come out at night to be as wild and gay as they wanted to be. Mancuso is also credited for being one of the founding fathers of DJ culture, among the very first to mix records on multiple turntables to create a continuous, unbroken stream of sound for his dancers to journey into. Gone were those awkward pauses between songs that stopped bodies from moving together and getting closer to each other. Rather, his style of blending songs—one right into the other—kept the crowd moving and sweating on the dance floor, folding time in on itself so that all that remained was that one, extended moment of communion. The Loft’s unique space and sound lured pleasure seekers from the city and country’s farthest reaches including many of those who would go on to leave their own indelible mark on dance music and culture in later years: Arthur Russell, Nicky Siano, Larry Levan, and Frankie Knuckles.

Coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, and the burgeoning mainstream feminist and LGBT+ movements, disco culture provided an intersectional space for young, underprivileged, and ostracized communities to come together, to feel love, to be free.

The experience created in the Loft and subsequent discotheques gave people another channel to discover music: a physical space more real than the radio station, an intimate connection to the DJ, and an immediate community. This experience was ruled by movement of bodies and a collective, in-room communication. What made people dance was different from what people liked to sit and listen to; it was those record collectors who gathered people together and created a new form of music made specifically for the dancer through a collage of eclectic sounds. Born of American Rhythm and Blues but faster, more joyful, and unabashedly queer, Disco is an emphatic YES to experimentation. Anything is permitted within its “four on the floor” rhythm pattern, a pulsating tempo that syncs with our own human heartbeat. Disco’s framework laid the foundation for the three-minute pop song to transform into an extended, ever-expanding mantra: a soundscape for those who liked to dance with a partner, as well as for those who preferred to let loose on their own. It gave space for the queen to be as flamboyantly femme as she needed to be and for the gospel diva to celebrate her own sexual expression and fulfillment without shame. It gave gay men the space to live and give freely within their sexuality and establish a fluid spectrum of redefined masculinity. That sound produced a unique sonic space in which to make friends and find lovers between the notes, to elevate and celebrate the self and the other. It was a sound that turned dancing into a non-stop workout to let off steam, sweat in community, and to feel sensual and sexy. All the frustrations of being gay, trans, black, or brown were transformed into something beautiful, spiritual, extraordinarily desirable, and absolutely irresistible.

Indeed, disco became the soundtrack to liberation on so many levels; it was bound to bleed beyond its downtown Manhattan and Fire Island roots to become a global phenomenon. Central to the concept of disco was that it was a space for everyone, a space where everything was permitted—if it feels good, do it. With total permission comes total freedom, and disco felt free to borrow and blend anything: to get as funky, jazzy, rocky, cheesy, symphonic, electronic, as indulgent or as minimal as it wanted to. DJs created a diverse mix combining the soulful sounds of R&B from Philly & Detroit with Afrobeat from Cameroon and Nigeria, Nuyorican and Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms with the futuristic synthesizers of Munich and Ghent, and in kind, attracted a diverse group of dancers to experience the ecstasy. Black, Latinx, and white people, gay and trans, straight and bi, blended into an androgynous collective body, and together sound and community formed a happy, hedonistic HALLELUJAH that broke barriers and created a whole new way for people to learn about and experience music.

In the post-hippie, pre-AIDS urban centers, the zippy sound of Disco ushered in the era of the dance chart, the extended 12”, the remix, the sample, the break, the rap, and the build. In the fabulous freefall of the 1970s, this celebration of newfound freedoms paved the way for excesses and dangerous debauchery, and Disco, like most musical phenomena, buckled under a backlash—but it never fully went away. From its basslines and drum breaks came the urban poetry of Hip Hop, from its R&B spirit came Hi-NRG and Freestyle, from its Gospel soul and sense of community came House, and from its spaced-out synth experimentation came Techno. Within all of these genres we find a dance floor, and with it a community for every kind of body to dance, move, groove, sweat, melt, and meld in a wordless space beyond time.

Club culture, as we know it, was founded in the heaving gay bosom and thrusting loins of the 1970s, within a mass celebration of newfound freedoms. That celebration still lives on, and the freedom seeps from the speakers. Witness the bartender who whips out a feather boa every time Sylvester comes on, or the stadium full of sports fans throwing their arms up into Y! M! C! A! without reservation or a stitch of irony. The sound itself is a safe space, rippling through speakers and dancers, encased within the memories and muscles of the elders among us, wafting out on the winds in places where to be gay is still a crime. We keep it going by creating these safe spaces for the marginalized, carrying on the tradition of incubating sexual freedom and gender fluidity.

We insist on making the dance floor a safe space for all to express their fullest selves, encouraging liberation of self that can lead to a collective liberation of spirit. That safe space is not always so, and we remember the thirty-two victims of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans (1973) and the forty-nine men and women who lost their lives at Pulse in Orlando (2016). We remember our family lost to AIDS, an epidemic that took so many of the great architects of this culture that sustains us. For them, we dance.

Photo Credit: Ana Matronic.
Ana Matronic

Ana Matronic

Ana Matronic is an orator, author, artist, musician, DJ & broadcaster best known as the lone female member of pop/rock phenomenon Scissor Sisters. Her show Dance Devotion airs every Saturday night/Sunday morning at midnight in the UK on BBC Radio 2. Credit: Suki Dhanda.

Siddhartha V. Shah

Siddhartha V. Shah

Siddhartha V. Shah is Curator of Indian and South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum. His academic and curatorial projects often deal with issues related to racial, religious, and sexual identity in South Asia and beyond. Credit: Bob Packert/PEM.