written by Malique I. Morris
An androgynous figure decked in a look replete with harem pants, high platform boots and accessorized with a chandelier sitting atop their head struts through a sea of unlikely bodies aggressively rubbing elbows under the spell of musical splendor. The figure makes their way to the pews in the back of the main dance space to mingle with a white-robbed woman on stilts. If a satellite were peering into this scene, you might think you’re at some Holy Communion ceremony in an alternative dimension. Certainly alternative, this dimension is where metropolitan club culture has landed in the 21st century. But since the dawn of time, whether it was Mick Jagger hanging out with drag queens at Les Bains Douches, or Andy Warhol mingling with graffiti artists and prep school kids at Studio 54, nightclubs have always served as a sanctuary for the weird; temples of freedom that don’t discriminate against high and low brow. Places where creative outsider communities came to thrive in the after-hours of the night.
In most cases, nightlife often is a dismissible consumerist entity. It facilitates a culture of vapidity, unhealthy indulgence and segregation among various social groups. But, somehow when organized by the socially ignored or targeted sub-cultures, nightlife can turn into an entirely different kind of institution. Fringe artists, all sorts of non-conforming, non-binary, trans identified persons, drag queens, circus performers, burlesque dancers, nudists, furries, exhibitionists - you name it - continue to push the definition of nightlife to new dimensions. They have redirected the intent from solely capital gain to community building and restoration. Dance parties as social emblems of a certain kind of freedom continue to evolve, reflect, and keep up with our society as it too evolves. Attendees are not looking to solely congregate at lustful or political junctures. The new and more diverse inhabitants of subcultural enclaves, originally centered around queerness, are using modern club culture to discover and solidify individuality.
It is of primal importance to acquaint oneself with the knowledge that queer nightlife was born out of a need for a physical outlet. Back when homosexuality, specifically, was openly criminalized, people of “deviant sexual behavior” needed locales where they could simply just be. In post-war, clean cut America, the newly appointed gay bars of the 50’s and 60’s became places where men and women could mingle and establish partnership, friendship, and camaraderie. In these secret meeting grounds, they could employ language specific to their culture without the fear of the judgmental societal microscope that are so often placed on them. They were places where mannerisms and other gender specific social cues were not policed. While the bars were often subject to random and violent raids, patrons returned nightly because it gave them a connection with likeminded individuals all vying for a social ground to call home and people to call family. This sentiment has been an undying motif of marginalized communities for generations. However, the settings and intent in which outsiders find solace among one another is continually shifting.
From the first brick thrown at The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in NYC, to the forums held at The Castro in San Francisco during the outbreak of the AIDS pandemic, queer nightlife has assumed a role of more sociopolitical importance than seedy fun. With the insistence of liberation, and then the fight for life against a rampant disease that was governmentally disregarded, the bars and nightclubs were stomping grounds for activism. Save the world and dance a little in between takes. For the new generation, social awareness is not dissipating. Today, when mere ownership of identity is considered didactic, awareness is as critical as ever. Only this time it is not insulated to queer identity.
The pool of individuals seeking playgrounds where they can discontinue the limitations of their person is far more diverse than is historically accounted for. As “gay” bars and nightclubs have become more commercial and aesthetically monolithic, dance parties have emerged as the fulcrum of queer nightlife where inclusivity and a net of safety to exist is at the heart. The attention is not entirely redirected from rectifying social inequities for the people of this particular population, rather a sharper focus is placed on existential conservation. Social defiance through dance under the sentiment of “I just want to be.” The latter sentiment has forged an extension to a greater population. Parties like Battle Hymn, hosted by famed nightlife titan Lady Fag and held on Sundays at Flash Factory, have evolved from being safe grounds for the marginalized, to being inclusive hot spots for anyone looking to dance to novel beats while being immersed in the glamour of it all. In such conclaves, freedom of expression is not only aggrandized but almost obligated.
Just like at Les Bains Douches and Studio 54, it’s the combination and blend of people who make these clubs what they are. Now, these same types of people, of whom are bound to amplified sonic stimulation, co-exist in the reinvented coves of NYC club culture. At Battle Hymn, the milieu is fluttered with sartorial ingenuity on neo-club kids, chest bearing hunks making out and the everyday misfits looking to exercise kinetic energy to pulsating beats. A mass of bodies dissimilar in frame and social grouping yet harmoniously in sync under control of the persisting rhythm. Everyone in motion, unfiltered. The only existing tension is the one being worked out by the muscles in the body as one dances for hours on end. It is in this nearly utopian setting that one can experience a full convergence of fashion, modern technology, theater, and performance art along with the mundanity of city living. A place that has room for all facets of a thrill-seeking population.
The intention in this particular space is lucid and straightforward, people have come to dance and this they will do. Above all else. What overcasts the room is an unprecedented but palpable vibe lining the fabric of this woven population. A distribution of open and welcoming energy. A displacing of judgement and an exalting of the obscure is a fierce form of liberation. In a congested city where stress has its own zip code, people just want to be and, under the contemporary purpose of the dance party, Lady Fag’s Sunday night get-down is where such a phenomenon is possible. Come in all of your colors and let it all hang out.
From fashion to art, film and, of course music, innate creativity and this outsider ethos, however contentiously fallacious, has historically felt like an inextricable pairing. The innovations and aesthetic ingenuity of queer folks has been the underlining fabric of popular culture for decades. Arguably since the inception of a concept of popular culture. The symbolically underground dance party, (think Studio 54 of the past and Battle Hymn or Something Special or Be Cute of the present), is a rhythmic, sweaty and abstractly glamorous manifestation that supports the symbiotic dynamic of queerness and creativity. What festivities in non-descript locations do, and will always do, is invite everyone to the party. Or rather, the party built on a foundation of inherent creativity and a meticulous eye and ear for all that shines, becomes so indisputably cool, that everyone just shows up dressed in fastidiously acquired thrift store assemblages, high-end vintage finds, designer bearings, and elaborate papier-mâché creations.
Embedded in this type of club culture is the clause of come as you are. What the latter includes is an embracing of wear what you want. At the epicenter of the allure of going dancing underground are the club kids themselves. They are the ones sporting the chandelier as a head piece, the stilts as shoes, leather harnesses san shirts, harem pants with platform boots. Patterns mixed as one has never encountered before. Battle Hymn, Something Special, and Daddy Issues are contexts in which innovative manners of dressing are the norm. Outside of the excitement of seeing sartorial ingenuity in its primal element, it is inspiring. It is not only the club kids embracing oddness as a visual motif. Someone may observe a man of David Bowie’s fashionable proclivities dancing mercilessly with his significant other, who is reminiscent of a Bianca Jagger, also gyrating passionately in a top hat and coordinated pinstripe suit. Under the proverbial disco ball, everyone can immerse themselves in movement while partaking in the bizarreness of fashion, or sometimes almost lack thereof.
Another mitigating factor in what makes Battle Hymn, and the environments like it, work so stunningly is the state of the music. The sounds are not Top 40 or repetitive electronic beats. Resident DJ’s, such as The Carry Nation, Eli Escobar and Honey Dijon, spin tunes that artfully blend disco, house, 80s R&B, synth pop and new wave. The result is a soundtrack to corporeal awakening as guided by infectious and persistently good tunes. And that’s the sign of a good DJ - controlling the room. Attendees can’t help but make a commitment to dance with little to no rest upon hearing the masterful mixes.
Each world-renowned disc jockey at Battle Hymn injects a specifically palatable flavor into the gumbo of the dance floor. Sounds from the duo The Carry Nation feels earthy and bohemian with a fine-tuned electric undercurrent. Their mixes are unmistakably centered around house music, with a strategic omission or interspersion of an inundating and persistent back beat. What one hears is variety, even with one beat at the core. Eli Escobar, another resident DJ at Lady Fag’s well-populated soiree, releases an electro thunderstorm with his mixes. A synthesis of trap (sub-genre of hip-hop), funk, disco, blues and sounds of tribal influence. Upon hearing this, all hermetically compact inhibitions are done away with. One will move continuously because Mr. Escobar’s music has commanded one to do as such. Moreover, Honey Dijon’s set is unabashedly soulful, as she uses black cultural touchstones as sound bites. From gospel driven vocal add-libs to something more politically charged, i.e. her use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Under Dijon’s interpretation, dance music at a dance party is not utilized to service an escape from our cultural differences, rather as a recognition and celebration of them. Everyone can boogie while being sharply attuned to what still plagues society at large. Here, while receiving bombastic auditory stimuli, is where all participants shall confront and cleanse. What other reason for having so many dynamically distinctive persons in a single, perspiration heavy environment.
What occurs at these events is an embodiment of sonic euphoria. Not an isolated experience, this auditory enchantment works in tandem with the unrestrained expressionism that permeates the dance floor. The marriage of experimenting with fashion and fully succumbing to the music has fostered an organic embracing of individuality. There is no full divergence from consumerism, certainly not from capital gain. In honesty, there will never be. The notably encapsulating elements, the captivating music and an unencumbered expressiveness, overcast the precarious feature of capitalism. It is through the aforementioned that a new and liberating sense of community is felt. If attention had been paid closely to it, this is how nightlife, propagated by queerness, has possibly always functioned. One thing is for certain, this is how nightlife is working at the benefit of society at large.
No matter how many social media communities there are, people will always come back to the physical. Now more than ever, there is a need to express yourself in a fully uncensored capacity– something you can’t truly do online, so long as the nipple still isn’t freed. The liberation in dancing while other bodies bounce around you and the beat throbs in your ears is a release that has stood the test of time. So, spend a night out, let loose, save the world and dance a little in between takes.