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When NYC’s Dance Scene Reigned Supreme

Brent Nicholson Earle, an early AIDS activist who spent months doing long-distance runs around America to raise awareness about the disease, credits at least part of his drive to an East Village dance club: the Saint. In the early Eighties, some three thousand men a night would dance beneath the rotating stars of the Saint’s planetarium ceiling. “At times,” Saint regular Jorge La Torre recalls, “it felt like we were levitating.” On the dance floor, Earle was “welcomed and absorbed into the tribe,” he says. “I never would have dreamt that I could become a hero if I hadn’t had that image of transcendent glory, that iconized version of myself, bestowed to me under the dome of the Saint.”

For these men — whom Tim Lawrence quotes in his new book, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor: 1980–1983 — the stakes of partying were high. On the dance floor, you might embrace your identity or try out new ones, find a groove, form a movement. Two miles from the Saint, at the Roxy in Chelsea, the promoter Ruza Blue tells Lawrence, “B-boys, downtown trendies, punks, famous people, musicians, painters, gays, trannies — everything you can think of” — routinely partied together. This wasn’t just a matter of physical proximity: As people shared space, they also shared ideas, aesthetic and political sensibilities. Disco had been declared dead, but in New York, people kept moving, reimagining what dance music and the cultures around it could be.

Left to right: Keith Haring, Bethann Hardison, Grace Jones, Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite at the Fun Gallery (c. 1983)

The music industry had begun its funeral rites for disco in 1979, when more than fifty thousand haters brought their unwanted disco records to Chicago’s Comiskey Park for a demolition that turned into a riot; when the phrase “disco sucks” became shorthand for a particular kind of rock ‘n’ roll machismo; when America fell out of love with the Brothers Gibb and the slick commercialism they’d come to embody. Never mind that Donna Summer and Michael Jackson had topped the charts with disco records that same year. By 1980, all the major labels had axed their disco departments — a move that Lawrence explains was, counterintuitively, good for dance music.

Out of the national spotlight, freed from marketing pressures, and shedding its leisure-suit straitjacket, dance music entered a period of shape-shifting, hybrid grace. Lawrence tells this part of the story through its main players: DJs (also the heroes of his 2003 tome, Love Saves the Day, a remarkably detailed, mammoth history of disco). At the Paradise Garage on the west end of Soho, DJ Larry Levan played r&b and disco alongside dub, gospel, and new wave tracks. In the Bronx, hip-hop giant Afrika Bambaataa was sampling from whatever records he pleased; soon he was also DJ’ing in Manhattan at Negril and the Roxy. At the Mudd Club, an art-punk hangout that served simultaneously as a dance club, gallery, and salon, owner-impresario Steve Mass brought in acts like Eddie Palmieri, Mary Wells, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. New wave and punk bands began taking inspiration: The Bush Tetras got funky; Blondie rapped; and with Remain in Light, the Talking Heads began making just about the moodiest music that would still make a body move. As Afrika Islam, then a member of the hip-hop ensemble Soul Sonic Force, tells Lawrence, “Everybody was listening to everything.”

Of course, place mattered, and Lawrence is careful to sketch out the distinctions in taste and ethos from club to club, even when their crowds overlapped. Performance artist Ann Magnuson hung out at the Mudd Club plenty, but Club 57 was her home base: “They dressed like characters in a New Wave film,” she explains, “whereas we were much more into laughing and bright psychedelic colors.” But as Lawrence writes, “talk of difference concealed important ties,” and downtown New York was positively knotted. While some of his interviewees describe a rivalry between the Paradise Garage and the Loft, for instance, Boyd Jarvis, a regular at both venues, says it was common for Loft and Garage dancers to bring their radios to Washington Square Park or Central Park the morning after, to “continue the party right there until three in the afternoon.” When you start connecting the dots — and Lawrence does — different scenes become part of a big, sprawling tangle.

The cast of characters in the book can be staggering, the exhaustive accounts overwhelming — Lawrence interviewed or corresponded with more than 130 people, and he makes room for their voices — but that’s part of the point: He wants a crowded and motley party. This is a scrupulously researched, marvelously detailed history.

Jean-Michel Basquiat DJ'ing at Area (1986)

Temporally speaking, it’s also a relatively short one: In six hundred pages, Lawrence covers just four fertile years. He ends the book in 1983, when Jackson’s Thriller burst onto the national scene and British new wave bands began exporting danceable hits to the U.S. Even the city’s scene was in flux, with financial deregulation and the New York real estate boom reshaping Lower Manhattan. Rents went up. Clubs closed. A slicker, more moneyed gallery culture threatened to edge out the largely DIY ethos with which the decade had begun.

But it wasn’t just market pressures that cooled the swirling energies of downtown New York; so did human loss. Nineteen eighty-three was the year that AIDS became an epidemic, killing more than 1,000 people, including downtown luminaries such as singer Klaus Nomi. Dance floors started to change: As Terry Sherman, a Saint DJ, tells Lawrence, “Lots of people died, a lot were sick, and a lot of the friends of the members who had died or were sick stopped coming because it was too painful to go to a place with so many memories of the fun times they had enjoyed with their friends or lovers.” And no longer, he says, was dancing in gay clubs “considered ‘cool’ by straight people in the domestic record industry.” Fear had sundered alliances.

In the wake of these forces — death, homophobia, capitalism — the scene settled into separate pieces, both socially and artistically. Clubs became more homogenous, and so did the music they played. Lawrence closes his book with an epilogue mourning the promise of a time when, as the scenester Chi Chi Valenti puts it, people could “live this alternative life that was not just nocturnal but communal.” Perhaps, Lawrence writes, it’s an era that will remind us that “given the right conditions, a different kind of city can exist.” First, though, he takes us to some parties: New Year’s Eve, as 1983 comes to a close and revelers head out. No one’s going gentle into that good night: They choose the beat, the party, the collective experience, dancing beside folks they may not yet know but will want to. From there, Lawrence tells us, who knows what might come.

Tim Lawrence will speak about his book at CUNY’s Graduate Center on October 7.

Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor: 1980–1983
By Tim Lawrence
600 pp., Duke University Press

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In ‘Strike a Pose,’ Madonna’s Backup Dancers Take Center Stage

In Madonna’s famous “Vogue” music video, released in 1990, dancer Luis Camacho poses in the company of statues, flicks his hands around his face as if making a series of frames, and — having shed his natty suit jacket and unbuttoned his white shirt — basks in a breeze coming from somewhere offscreen. He and his fellow dancers appear for alluringly short periods, one shot held for mere seconds before cutting to another. Madonna’s voice extends across it all.

Contrast that with the opening scene of Strike a Pose, a documentary by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan that has its North American premiere April 15 at Tribeca Film Festival, in which Camacho, now middle-aged and slightly pudgy, looks in a mirror and dances. Wearing a black T-shirt and baseball cap, he spins, stops, and brings his arms fluidly up, around, and behind his head: He’s voguing, and the difference is striking. Instead of hearing Madonna’s voice, you get Camacho’s, recalling the pressure he used to feel to “act like everybody else.” Now, his movements seem to say, he’s expressing himself on his own terms.

Strike a Pose profiles the seven backup dancers — Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, and Carlton Wilborn — who worked Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour, thrilling the world with their moves. Their routines yoked together steps from hip-hop, jazz, modern dance, and ballet. Most of them also had formal training: Gutierez began studying ballet at Eliot Feld’s school in third grade, and Wilborn had danced professionally at Hubbard Street in Chicago. But it was voguing that gave Blond Ambition a new type of cool. Conspicuously missing from the film is Madonna herself; here, the backup dancers are the stars.

Not that they weren’t already. Voguing emerged from New York’s underground queer ballroom scene in the Eighties (it was captured memorably in the documentary Paris Is Burning), but its roots stretch back at least as far as the Sixties, when Harlem drag queens imitated fashion models; holding poses as they made their way down a catwalk, they both mocked and one-upped mainstream standards of beauty. By the Eighties, voguing was folded into the balls that brought Houses, largely composed of black and Latino performers, together to compete. After Madonna saw Camacho and Gutierez, both members of the House of Xtravaganza, dance, she invited them to audition for her upcoming tour. As the two dancers remember it, their spots were pretty much guaranteed: She needed them to teach her how to vogue. They also choreographed and performed in the “Vogue” video.

The ensuing story has been told many times over. On one hand, Truth or Dare, the immensely successful 1991 behind-the-scenes documentary of the Blond Ambition tour, on which Strike a Pose focuses, celebrated queerness and reveled in the in-your-face exuberance that helped create vogue. Six of the seven dancers were gay, and, to this day, they get letters from fans who say that the film helped give them the courage to come out. On the other hand, three dancers filed a lawsuit against Madonna after the release of Truth or Dare, saying she hadn’t paid them what she owed them and that she’d violated their privacy. Trupin, for one, felt he’d been outed against his wishes; as his mother recalls in Strike a Pose, Truth or Dare was not “a statement that he wanted to make. It was [Madonna’s] statement.”

Stea, Trupin, and Crumes in 1990
Stea, Trupin, and Crumes in 1990

Meanwhile, where the history of voguing is concerned, critics allege that Madonna has profited from, and overshadowed, the creations of queer black and brown artists. Thomas F. DeFrantz, chair of Duke’s African and African American Studies department, contends in the Spring 2016 issue of The Black Scholar that Madonna has a long history of moving black and brown dances “out of their foundational social circumstances,” where they celebrated the identities and powers of oppressed people. When Madonna puts these dances into her videos and her concerts, he argues, she reduces them to spectacle.

Gutierez disagrees. Madonna, he says, wasn’t exploiting gay artists: She was honoring them, bringing their art to the world. Where the dancing for Blond Ambition was concerned, he tells the Voice, “It was choreographed by all of us, to be honest.” Vincent Paterson, the show’s choreographer, had a strong sense of artistic direction but didn’t always have a fixed plan for particular steps. Gutierez remembers that the dancers would “go into the studio, play music, and Vince would say, ‘Let me see you move.'” Since Paterson wasn’t very familiar with voguing, Gutierez says, he and Camacho designed whole swaths of steps themselves, as when, in “Like a Virgin,” they played bedposts come to life. Madonna didn’t just bring voguing to the mainstream, he says, she brought her teachers with her — “How is that a disrespect to the community?” Still, he admits, more recognition would be nice. But he knows that’s not the way commercial dance works, and besides, “Who wants to give credit to a little gay boy from the Lower East Side in Manhattan?”

Strike a Pose doesn’t wrestle with these issues, at least not head-on. But regardless of whether Madonna has marginalized gay men, the documentary certainly doesn’t. Instead, it casts its gaze on the variegated meanings of dance for these men, onstage and off-. After all, in the Eighties, balls weren’t just spaces of celebration, but also of mourning for the many members of the community lost to the AIDS epidemic. Vogue, and you might be memorializing the mentors you’d lost. During the Blond Ambition tour, three dancers were secretly HIV-positive; in the years since, one has died, and one has only recently spoken publicly about the weight of that diagnosis. Truth or Dare promised an unfiltered look at life on the tour, but as Gauwloos puts it in Strike a Pose, there was “a whole other backstage.”

Under Gould and Zwaan’s direction, that backstage comes forward beautifully. Moments after Gauwloos’s comments, Wilborn, who is HIV-positive, is seen dancing in front of an empty stadium, then going to a doctor’s appointment. The sequence seems to imply that secrets have no audience. Meanwhile, on a city sidewalk, Stea improvises a solo against the wall of a building that seems, variously, like a support, a partner, or dead weight; there’s no stage in sight.

These present-day moves were done specifically for the film, but Strike a Pose shows us that, onstage or not, dance is still front and center in these men’s lives. Camacho performs in a drag show. Gauwloos teaches a class in Vienna. Gutierez instructs a room of young people to vogue, and, in another scene, coaches a cautious walker across the floor. “Be proud,” he says, “be proud, whatever it is. ‘Cause everyone is someone.”