Part one of a series on the role of the dancefloor in gay culture!
The dancefloor—whether in clubs, ballrooms, or even just public sidewalks—has long been associated with a place to shine for queer men. Beyond the gay stereotypes of good dance moves, dancing can provide a place of safety and support for many people living on the margins of mainstream society. However, not everything is as joyous as it seems.
The dancefloor—whether in clubs, ballrooms, or even just public sidewalks—has long been associated with a place to shine for queer men. Beyond the gay stereotypes of good dance moves, dancing can provide a place of safety and support for many people living on the margins of mainstream society.
Gay music frequently engages the dancefloor and nightlife as a center of queer community and culture. RuPaul Charles’s song “Main Event” claims that “When you step into the disco, leave your problems at the front door. You know, the world don’t have to end [as] long as the DJ’s records spin…” This lyric portrays the gay dancefloor as a source of salvation for a community of people lost in the grips of mental illness and abandonment by society.
Similarly, the song “Role of a Lifetime” in bare: A Pop Opera suggests that to questioning youth, sexual “confusion is a crime, so you fill your life with sound and if you dance like hell, you hope you never touch the ground. What happens when the music stops? We drive ourselves insane, spinning circles in our souls as we dance around and play pretend.” This musical surrounding a pair of Catholic school boys in love appropriately features many of its settings around a nightclub in which secrets about their covert relationship fly about and eventually leads to death for one of the young men.
The dancefloor acts as a catalyst for exploring our fantasies and identities in the dimly-lit and seemingly private spaces, anonymously allowing us to display who we are with full force and joy. One can gain a crowd as a queer person and feel validated rather than targeted, victimized, or suppressed for their authentic self-expressions. We can show our sexuality freely on the dancefloor in ways we simply cannot manage in a straight-dominated world and even advocate for our own power and strength.
In the documentary film on ballroom culture in the 1980s in New York City entitled Paris Is Burning (a must see on Netflix!), queer, low-income black and Latinx people young and old were able to escape from the systemic challenges they faced daily to show off their talents, compete, gain community, and learn from each other in social networks known as “families.” People used dance to resolve conflicts and envies by competing in “categories” or vogue competitions. Categories such as “Executive Realness” permit marginalized people to demonstrate how they could be just as powerful as others in executive positions—if only given the opportunity.
However, these important spaces for queer people to connect are evaporating in the 21st century. Gay bars and clubs across the country are closing down as patrons no longer need to find each other for sex or relationships in the age of Grindr. Even popular locations like Town in Washington, D.C. are shuttering their doors amidst rising costs. The last thread holding gay clubs together has been the widespread popularity of drag in recent years, necessitating a queer space for these artists to perform.
The ceaseless and powerful role of the dancefloor in queer culture and community is undeniable and important even as gay bars close. If nothing else, the failing careers of pop stars around the world need gay men to dance passionately to their music and scream each time their favorite anthem of the week comes on speakers!