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Never Stop Dancing: On Dance and Queer Sensibility

Never Stop Dancing: On Dance and Queer Sensibility

  • Jeromiah Taylor on queer sensibilities, house music, and finding where you belong in gay clubs.

I dance to save myself, and find / Swimming in sweat, it’s in our common breath I fly.

Paul Verlaine

On the morning of June 13, 2016, I woke up to a text reading “did you hear the news?” The day before, Omar Mateen had shot up the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and wounding another 53. I, of course, had not yet heard the news; and only now have I begun to feel it. When the Pulse massacre occurred I was underage, and still holding my queerness at arm’s length. It was patently tragic, yes—the latest in a long string of seemingly unstoppable mass shootings. And I had a vague, romantic notion that gay clubs were “safe spaces,” and that this lent special cruelty to the attack, or as Vanity Fair rather glibly put it: “Mass Murder at the Gay Bar: When a Refuge Becomes a Target.” But never having experienced the supposed refuge of queer nightlife, for me the attack lacked salience. 

In subsequent years, I’ve run the gamut from all-ages drag shows in Kansas to sex-parties in Hell’s Kitchen. Though I still get nervous every time I enter a gay bar, and though they still contain numerous dynamics which can hardly be called “safe,” I’ve experienced more transcendent moments within their throbbing confines than anywhere else. A fact not attributable to any sentimental sense of community, nor exactly to the thrills provided by queer nightlife’s seedier pockets. Rather, my collected ecstasies have all arisen from the act of dancing; that collective and yet profoundly personal phenomenon inseparable from queer culture. So inseparable that in the wake of the Pulse shooting, amongst the growing memorial outside The Stonewall Inn, was a sign that read “Never Stop Dancing.” It is remarkable that in the wake of a cataclysmic terrorist attack against queer folk, it was imperative that we kept dancing; remarkable that dancing became the byword for resilience. 

Though remarkable, that prioritization was also, at least for me, credible. It was in fact my experience dancing in that very same club nine years after the Pulse shooting, and 54 years after The Stonewall riots, which caused me to feel the “news.” I began to wonder why it was that dancing itself, and not any other accouterment of queer nightlife, led me to embrace my own queerness, and feel an affinity for other queer people. I also questioned the reasons behind dancing’s ubiquity in queer scenes, and why it especially flourishes amongst our most marginalized. Why do those at the periphery, by merit of their queerness and their racializations, consistently find resilience and solace within both dance music and the act of dancing? 

I found one answer in the genre conventions of dance music. Music that relies on a stream of ready-made aesthetic objects, which it then twists into new shapes. The particular sensibility required to detect latent possibilities in ostensibly finished aesthetic objects, and to tease them out, is a queer sensibility. Akin to the cruiser, who as Matthew Isherwood puts it in the article “Toward a Queer Aesthetic Sensibility: Orientation, Disposition, and Desire,” must rely on their ability to “detect ephemeral traces of queer possibility,” the DJ must re-envision what is into what could be, perhaps what should be. In their book Last Night a DJ Saved my Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton cite Chicago house pioneer Frankie Knuckles’ legendary early remixes at The Warehouse in Chicago. Knuckles himself told Brewster and Broughton, “Even stuff like ‘I’m Every Woman’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan, just things like that, [I would] completely re-edit them […] extend them and rearrange them.” The ingenuity of Knuckles and his Chicago contemporaries is even more notable in context. It was their rejection of the established narrative—the idea that “disco [was] dead”—which motivated them to preserve their beloved disco. A genre which had been pioneered and championed by queer folks of color. Yet they chose to preserve it by fucking it up, and that is the crux of the queer biscuit. That tender irreverence aligns with Jonathan Dollimore’s concept of “transgressive reinscription,” or a “turning back upon something and a perverting of, typically if not exclusively, through inversion and displacement.” Inversion indeed, as the house progenitors kept the spirit of disco alive not through reactionary preservation, but through visionary overhaul. Isherwood asserts that queer sensibility is about recognizing a “certain disconnect between what is and what could be that allows different ways of seeing the aesthetic object to emerge.” These abstract frameworks were materialized in 1980’s Chicago, and the result was transcendent phenomena. Brewster and Broughton attest that:

In Chicago, as the seventies became the eighties, if you were black and gay your church may well have been Frankie Knuckles’ The Warehouse, a three-story factory building in the city’s desolate west side industrial zone. Offering hope and salvation to those who had few other places to go, here you could forget your earthly troubles and escape to a better place. Like church, it promised freedom, and not even in the next life. In this club Frankie Knuckles took his congregation on journeys of redemption and discovery.

Though it eventually diffused into the mainstream, house music was originally written off as “fag music” according to Brewster and Broughton. An appropriate moniker, as evidenced by the genre’s formalist queering of aesthetic objects. Yet the formal conventions of dance music are not an ultimate answer to the question of why and how dance functions in queer scenes, and in queer lives. Especially because in the club, there is only one DJ, but many dancers. Notice that I did not attribute my queer awakenings to having been a DJ, nor did the The Stonewall Inn urge us to “Never Stop DJing.” Though the DJ’s shamanistic primacy cannot be overstated, the music itself is only half of the picture. 

Dancing as an activity remains the experiential bread and butter of queer nightlife, and the fodder of elation for so many. What about dancing facilitates our collective and individual ecstasies? One important element of the alchemy is the dancer’s participation in what the DJ is doing—our relationship to the DJ’s set is analogous to the DJ’s relationship to their tracks. Just as the records that the DJ remixes are not truly “finished,” neither are the DJ’s mixes. For the music must be sensed—and also responded to, interpreted, and re-expressed—through dance. The DJ’s set is itself an aesthetic object, in which we the dancers, especially those of us endowed with queer sensibilities, are called to detect latent possibilities; a detection that requires us to explore the object with our bodies. Dancing’s place at the intersection between exploration and corporeality is integral to its transcendent potential. (“Transcendent” in the most exact sense: having risen above or gone beyond something). Sarah Ahmed, in her book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, wrote that “bodies take shape through tending towards objects that […] are available in the bodily horizon.” 

If our bodies need to “take shape,” they must first be shapeless. And they are, because as queer people we must eventually accept that our bodies are stripped of symbolic meaning: of being “men” and “women” who adhere to the requisite gestalts. That meaninglessness from a normative subjectivity would threaten as void, but from the queer subjectivity it promises as boundless opportunity: after all, a place where there is nothing is also a place where there can be anything. Isherwood concurs, writing that “a queer sensibility enlarges one’s own sense of being in a body, and reorients them in time and space towards explorations of desire that go against the routine or expected.”

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All this talk of “objects” might seem notional, but things themselves are integral to queerness. I recently heard a DJ in Hell’s Kitchen mix Madonna’s “Music” in and out of Cher’s cover of “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” by ABBA. Everyone in the club, myself included, completely lost their shit. Part of the excitement was due to the fact that “Music” makes heavy use of a sample from “Gimme,” meaning the songs blended together seamlessly. But it was the DJ’s savoir faire, his intentional use of Cher’s version rather than the ABBA original which dazzled the crowd; the intermixing of two paradigmatic gay icons supplemented the sonic compliment with a social one. His knowing embrace of niche taste embodies Michael Warner’s designation of queer scenes as the “ultimate salon refusés”—where rejected people delight in rejected things. If there had not been a robust lingua franca amongst the denizens of that particular club, the DJ’s trick would not have worked; that is the status of objects within queerness. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote that for young queer people:

The ability to attach intently to a few cultural objects […] whose meaning seemed mysterious, excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes most readily available to us, became a prime source of survival. We needed there to be sites where the meanings didn’t line up tidily with each other, and we learned to invest those sites with fascination and love.

Over the decades, dance has become one of those few cultural objects; the DJ’s set conjures the untidy site, and the dancers invest it with love and fascination; love and fascination expressed with our bodies as an exploratory mechanism geared towards alternative—and unrealized—possibilities. Or, in the words of legendary child Nunney Karma: “Without vogue, my life would have been normal, and I am not a normal person.” 

My own four-on-the-floor odysseys have endowed me with the vocabulary to contemplate and realize the meanings I envision for myself. Those nights encrusted in sweat and carried by elation have nourished me in my undertaking of a queer vocation; have buoyed me against all the associated precarity, derision, and shame. Each time I dance my ass off in a gay club, from somewhere out of the strobe, the pulse, and the dampness gleams the epiphany: the all-at-once knowledge that this is where I belong. Not because I am like everyone else, but precisely because we are all alike in our un-alikeness. Because at some point in each of our distinct lives we were deemed not quite right, and dangerously so. Because at some subsequent point in each of our distinct lives did we invest ourselves with love and fascination. Disco never died; in fact as Frankie Knuckles liked to say, “house was disco’s revenge.” It will never die because as long as there are people with nothing to lose and everything to gain come together, we shall dance. 

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