Dance is expressive movement of the body to music. Dancing has been used to raise money for Gay causes, promote community solidarity, and present oneself as an attractive person. Dancing has also led to the creation of opulent Gay male spaces, DJ culture, the Circuit (annual weekend-long dance parties for Gay men and their allies), the revival of burlesque in the Lesbian community, and innovative dance in runway competitions held by the Ballroom community.
Dance History Before Stonewall
The earliest mention of same-sex erotic dance in a modern Gay context is in British criminal records concerning molly houses at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Molly houses were sanctuaries for men to engage in cross-dressing, mock births and marriages, homoerotic-romantic encounters, and to dance together. Such men were known as mollies.
There are clues that Gay-related dance existed before the eighteenth century in various parts of the world, based on ethnographic records and traditional folklife of various peoples.
Dance, Trans, and Trance
Some cultures allow gender-variant people their own dance expression in traditions that pre-date Gay Liberation. Hijras (intersex people and effeminate males who may have their genitals cut off in honor of the Goddess Bahuchara) have dances that they perform at weddings, the birth of sons, and during Hindu festivals.
Dancing is intimately connected to experiences of ecstasy and altered states in both secular and religious settings. ‘Yan Daudu, effeminate males in Haussa society in Africa’s Sahel region, dance before groups of men in secular dancehall settings as well as go into trance during certain ceremonies. Effeminate male and masculine female shamans in several shamanic spiritual traditions dance as they enter into trance. In New World African religions (such as Candomblé, Umbanda, Vodou, and Santería-Lukumí), mediums may change genders when manifesting deities in a trance state, and they become gender-variant or same-sex oriented deities as well. Members of the Circuit community report having spiritual experiences on the dance floor. This is especially true for flaggers, people who wave large square pieces of cloth around their bodies as they dance (also known as flagging).
The original tango from Argentina is a sensual African Argentine folk dance from the late 1800s that was performed by male couples in Buenos Aires and Uruguay. Tango is syncopated dance for couples in 2/4 or 4/4 time. Bodies are pressed front-to-front against each other, the steps feature glides, and the performance is punctuated with sudden pauses (cortes or “cuts”). Once the dance was popularized in the Straight Argentine community, it lost much of its homoerotic and African Argentine history.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dance parties for same-sex couples were thrown in major cities in the USA and Europe. These parties reached a peak in the 1930s with drag balls, spectacular events often sponsored by African American organizations that included display of beautifully dressed males in drag who competed for prizes. Drag balls also featured same-sex dancing for male couples and female couples, many of whom also dressed in drag. By the mid-1930s, drag balls were shut down as the American government imposed strict moral codes against homosexuality and gender variance.
Clandestine dance parties, however, would continue. In urban centers or resorts that had large numbers of Gay people in quasi-legitimate nightclubs, authorities monitored dance protocol to make sure men were not dancing with men. This lead to peculiar customs in which men would all dance around a girl, while a watcher positioned over them would make sure the men did not touch each other more than necessary. For women, the dynamic was different in that American morality did not forbid women from dancing with women unless such dancing became overtly erotic.
Rules forbidding men from dancing together were not uniformly applied to all American communities, however. Within some ethnic groups, men are forbidden to dance with women, such as the Orthodox Jewish community. Others have forms of dance (Greek, African American) where men dance together as a matter of course, sometimes as teams. But the intimate front-to-front body position of the waltz, tango, jitterbug, swing, shag, and other forms was deemed inappropriate for men dancing with men.
One of the ways around the rule against men dancing with men was the line dance, a form of communal dancing in which people would line up shoulder-to-shoulder and perform the same steps. The Madison was one such dance. Based on a 6-count step (including one clap), a caller would announce a series of maneuvers, often with names taken from popular culture: Jackie Gleason (television star), Birdland (jazz club), Rifleman (television show), and Wilt Chamberlain (basketball star). With claims that it originated in the African American community in Columbus (Ohio), Baltimore (Maryland), and the Gay community on Fire Island (New York), the Madison swept through the USA.
After the Stonewall Riots, rules against men dancing with each other in Gay clubs were abolished, and women were able to dance more intimately with each other beyond the rules of propriety set in Straight venues. This occurred when the American dance scene had shifted away from coordinated couples dancing to the individual dancer with crazes such as the pony, Watusi, and twist. Soon, the ethic of do your thing (choreography as spontaneous and individual) became the rule for popular communal dance. The advent of clubs featuring psychedelic music, Motown, and richly percussive soul/funk further individualized folk choreography with go-go dancers, paid performers who would dance on a stage or large wooden box.
Discotheques and Resistance
The discotheque (from disco or “disc” and bibliotheque or “library,” a dance venue featuring pre-recorded music on disc-shaped vinyl LP records and 45 singles) in the 1960s was the site for technological innovations that transformed the folk art of the discaire (person responsible for music selection and record-playing). Discotheques originated in France in the early 1940s as a form of cultural resistance. A famous example was La Discothèque in Paris, which played jazz records during the German occupation, a subtle act of defiance since Nazis thought such music was inferior since jazz came from people of African descent. After World War II, discotheques spread to Britain in the 1960s and then to the USA. They would be the basis for both the underground Gay dance scene and the underground music scene in general.
Soon after Stonewall in 1969, Gay activists used dance events to raise money. The resounding popularity of these dances among Gay men in Manhattan led to club folklife based on recreational drugs other than alcohol and tobacco, and dance parties that would go from late in the evening until after sunrise. Places such as the Loft, Flamingo, Saint, and Paradise Garage featured state-of-the-art sound systems and lights syncopated to the beat of the music, a technological innovation originating in Gay clubs on Fire Island.
Using a technique developed by Terry Noel in the Manhattan nightclub Arthur during the 1960s, DJs (“disc jockeys”) began spinning nonstop from one song to the next on two turntables without a pause. Slip-cuing (mixing one record into the next without a change in the beat, something made possible by turntables that could be sped up or slowed down so that 4/4 songs could be synchronized at exactly the same pulse and beats per minute (bpm). Disco music in the 1970s featured a strong downbeat pulse at 120-130 bpm with a cadence similar to military march, and remixes of songs with extended beats at the beginning and end of the song enhanced the DJ’s ability to present an evening of music as one continuous beat.
Further innovations on the part of DJs, including the art of mixing songs on the pulse of the first beat of four in 4/4 time, created an aural environment in which dancers could enter into a state of sonic driving (altered state of conscious marked by the merging of the body-mind with the beat) that is the hallmark of African manifestation trance that was reinterpreted in African Christianity as a sign that the person in trance had received the Holy Spirit. Gay men began to describe the experience of dancing together for hours while intoxicated on club drugs as spiritual. Two major figures in the history of DJ folklife (both of them African American Gay men) have made statements supporting this notion. Larry Levan, resident DJ of Manhattan’s Paradise Garage, called his art form “disco evangelism.” Frankie Knuckles of Chicago’s Warehouse nightclub (the venue from which “house music” takes its name) described the Warehouse as “church for people who have fallen from grace.”
Performing the Body
Another early feature of Gay men’s dance folkways was the custom of removing one’s shirt, eroticizing the dance floor and making it a performance space for the presentation of the muscular body. The focus of performance would fall squarely on the attendees, much more so than the DJ, go-go dancers, or stage shows.
Dance Steps: YMCA
In 1978, the American disco group Village People released a song called “YMCA,” featuring lyrics about hostels run by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). On the surface, the Village People appear to be praising the YMCA, but the subtext is that YMCAs are places for men to have sex with other men. The song was immensely popular, and the Village People came up with a dance to go along with it to represent the letters Y, M, C, and A:
Y: arms extended straight from shoulder to fingertips above and diagonally away from the body
M: arms above the head turned inward, bent slightly inward at the elbow, hands flat and bent down at the wrists, middle fingertips touching
C: right arm curved over the head, fingertips curved diagonally down, left arm down facing outward and curved, fingertips curved diagonally up
A: both arms over the head, slightly bent inward at elbow, straight from elbow to fingertips, middle fingertips touching directly over the middle of the head
Despite the thinly-veiled Gay coding of the Village People and the song’s lyrics, the YMCA dance has become a popular American communal dance, especially during sporting events.
From Fanning to Flagging
In the early days of Gay men’s post-Stonewall dance culture in Manhattan, some dancers would bring in large fans and incorporate them into their moves. These fans would become progressively bigger, with cloth extending past the ribbing. Eventually, ribbing would be discarded altogether. Flags (large square cloths with one edge weighted with small metal pellets) would generate a new dance form called flagging, and a mini-community within the Circuit called flaggers.
The Circuit and AIDS
The popularity of dance in New York City among Gay men led to a seasonal migration from Manhattan nightclubs in the autumn, winter, and spring to Fire Island clubs in the summer. Circuit queens were Gay men who would go to the most stylish salons, gymnasiums, bathhouses, bars, and nightclubs as well as the Manhattan/Fire Island circuit. Dance culture developed in New York (with parallel scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles) would eventually spread to other large cities, creating a trans-regional Circuit community.
The AIDS crisis decimated the Gay male dance scene in the mid-1980s. By the 1990s, however, the Circuit would return with fundraising dance events that stretched across an entire weekend. Elements of traditional Gay male folk’s dance were preserved, including sensual body-to-body dancing (either chest-to-chest or chest-to-back) by couples and by multiple men dancing in a chest-to-chest/chest-to-back line that has been labeled the caterpillar (alternative: conga line). One distinctive dance that emerged in the early 1980s Manhattan was called bruising, aggressive groin-to-groin thrusts performed by a couple dancing face to face, somewhat similar to the early twenty-first century Jamaican horizontal dance called daggering except that bruising is done while standing up, and thrusts are usually done with less force.
Novel dance moves emerged in the Circuit, such as the strike, a strong out-thrust of an arm in time with the pulse of a song. The strike arose as the pulse of Circuit music was set within a progressive and reliable 16-count, 32-count, 64-count, and even 128-count series of imbedded pulses, and as music incorporated short, rhythmic blasts of synthesized sound called synth stabs. Songs that are remixed (digitally remastered and extended) for the Circuit have their rhythms digitalized so that petite changes in rhythm over the course of the song are removed. This enables DJs to extend the mix of two simultaneously-played songs for 30 seconds or more simply by playing them at identical speeds that stay consistent over time, enhancing the sonic driving of the evening.
Popularity of the Circuit among Gay men and their allies led to a regular calendar of annual events in major cities and resorts. By the late 1990s, however, irresponsible drug use and allegations of unsafe sex began to undermine the reputations of Circuit events as proper means for raising money for people with AIDS. In response to these issues, harm reduction (using education to reduce drug abuse and unsafe sex) campaigns and the presence of medical volunteers to help those who have adverse reactions to club drugs were created. Legal issues stemming from militant government attitudes towards drug use (expressed as the “war on drugs”) in the USA stymied much of the harm reduction efforts in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Cities in Canada, such as Montreal and Toronto, have taken the lead in harm reduction efforts in Gay male festive culture.
Ballroom Scene and Floguing
With roots in the drag balls of the early twentieth century, the African American Ballroom scene (involving runway competition and dance/display movement systems such as voguing and popping) came into being at about the same time as the Circuit. Ball folklife has exerted tremendous influence on Gay communal dance, including the Circuit. The aforementioned strike most likely has its origins in Ballroom folk’s dance and aerobics competition.
The rise of the performance artist (a professional club dancer with shaved head and semi-drag who lip-synchs a popular club song, often accompanied with props and backup dancers) can likewise be traced to Ballroom children (participants) hired to perform at Circuit parties.
In turn, Ballroom folklife has been incorporating Circuit flagging into its performance repertoire. A fusion of Ballroom folk’s dance and flagging at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century has resulted in floguing, which incorporates flags and flagging into voguing and runway performance.
Burlesque, Country and Western
Traditional burlesque, feminine erotic folkdance associated with strippers and bump-and-grind (thrusting the pelvis in time with a strong beat) of hoochie-coochie (coochie or “vagina”) dancers dating back to the late 1800s, has been reintroduced to the festive culture of the Lesbian community as both a folk art and performance genre. After the Sex Wars (disputes over whether pornography was detrimental to women’s rights) of the early to mid-1980s, burlesque by women for women increased in popularity in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and has led to the creation of Lesbian burlesque spaces such as Montreal’s Cirque de Boudoir, which combines burlesque with circus acts and fetish.
For LGBTQ people who are fond of country and western music, line dancing (introduced as country and western dancing in the 1970s) has become popular, leading to dance troupes that perform in country music clubs and LGBTQ events. Gay rodeos also have dance events featuring couples-dancing (such as the Texas two-step and the western swing) line dancing, and dance competitions.
Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of t he Disc Jockey. New York: Grove, 2000.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.
Fikentscher, Kai. “You Better Work!” Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University, 2000.