Flagging (also called flag dancing) is improvisational dance that involves waving large squares of cloth in each hand to music. The squares, called flags, are made of silk or silk-like material, and have small metal weights sewn into one side so that the flags will open when waved. Flagging is a Gay men’s art form that is preserved by individual practitioners of any sex, gender, and physiology who gather in nightclubs and at Circuit events.
“Flagging” may also refer to wearing color-coded handkerchiefs in a back pants pocket that convey information about one’s erotic preferences (also called hanky code).
History: From Fanning to Flagging
Flagging started with fan dancing done by Gay men in Manhattan during the early 1970s right after Stonewall. Men bought fans in Chinatown so they could dance with them. The fans did not last too long because they were not made for performances. The spines would snap and there was no room for fingers between the spines to move them artistically, so custom fans were created. Dance fan makers such as Larry Reigel began to make fans specifically for club performances. Square flags with tiny weights sewn into one edge came later when some dancers decided to do away with the spines altogether.
The AIDS epidemic killed many men from the first generation of flaggers and fanners. Because many died, there is little data about exactly how and where fanning/flagging started, and the art form almost disappeared. Candida Scott Piel, an AIDS activist and Lesbian supporter of Gay men’s club folklife in New York City, was one of the people who were instrumental in keeping the folk art alive.
With the resurgence of Gay men’s dance folklife during the late 1980s and the rise of massive weekend-long Circuit parties, flagging became a mainstay of Circuit culture. As well as being performed by individuals and groups of flaggers (sometimes called tribes), flagging was incorporated into performances during Circuit events.
Flagging tribes are in cities where there are sufficient flaggers to form a community. Some groups go on trips to Circuit parties all over the country, keeping the legacy alive and teaching new flaggers along the way.
Flagging is a tradition that is passed on from person to person. Once people have the basic skills — how to hold and move the flags or fans — they are on their own. The general idea is to find one’s own style. Those who flag often report a sense of euphoria and connection with the spiritual as they flag. This feeling of connection is considered an altered state on its own, inspired by movement, music, camaraderie, introspection, and the smooth motions of the soft cloth moving against the skin. As spiritual expression, flagging is the means for individuals to connect with the music, each other, and even loved ones who have passed on, as some flaggers report bonding with those who have died as they flag.
Performance troupes of flaggers such as Axis Danz in New York City (founded in 1998) and Flyboys of Flag Troupe Houston (founded in 2002) brought the folk art into various other venues as well as the dance floor. In keeping with the origins of flagging in the Gay male community, and in memory of the people lost during the worst days of the AIDS crisis, Axis Danz and the Flyboys also participated in AIDS awareness and fundraising projects.
Flags and Flagging Etiquette
It is customary but not mandatory for flaggers to make their own flags, although some will make flags for others as a means to “share the gift,” that is, pass on the art of flagging. Flags are most often made of silk or a silk-like material, and flaggers favor bright colors as well as flags that glow when exposed to ultraviolet light. Tie-dyeing is a common means of designing flags that some flaggers trace back to San Francisco.
Although the cloth of the flags is silky to the touch and caresses the flagger, the weighted side of the flag can be painful if struck against another body. For this reason, flaggers are usually very aware of their surroundings, and it is considered good form to flag in a dance space only if the club is not too crowded since a flagger may take up the space of six dancers. Flaggers usually flag either early in the party or towards the end unless they have a space reserved for them. Most flaggers are happy to teach people their art, and may even bring extra flags for just that reason. But they tend to also be wary of curious bystanders who might take flags out of their bags without prior permission.
Flagging as International, as Therapy
Flagging has become an increasingly international phenomenon. People who come to Circuit parties in Canada and the USA have been taking it home with them to other countries, so it may be found almost anywhere that has an active Gay male dance culture. Flagging has also been incorporated into theatrical performance, and has been used as therapy for people with certain disabilities.
Floguing is a performance art that incorporates flagging and Ballroom voguing in runway competition. Floguing was first made publicly visible by artists such as Aaron Enigma of the Chicago Ballroom community, who saw flaggers in the Gay Pride parades there in the 1980s. Ever since, he has used flagging while voguing, and without any formal training. In 2006, flagger George Jagatic from Axiz Dance collaborated with Luna from the House of Khan at The Door (NYC youth organization), resulting in the use of floguing in NYC runway as well.
Weems, Mickey. The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit. Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2008.
Busch, Wolfgang. Flow Affair: Flag Fan, and Floguing Dance. Art From The Heart, 2010.
Torrealba, José. Got 2 B There. 175 BPM Productions, 1999.