The Circuit is a series of annual events known as Circuit parties, weekend-long dance parties for Gay men and their allies. It also refers to the community that produces and attends the parties. Male members of the Circuit community are called Circuit boys (which may be used in a playful or derogatory fashion), while members of any gender may be called Circuiteers.
As an expression of LGBTQ festive folklife, the Circuit involves sensual, hilarious, and spiritual performance of communal dance by men who typically remove their shirts when dancing. The Circuit is a competitive frame for the performance of nonviolent masculinity, gender fluidity, and muscle camp, outrageous effeminate behavior by muscular men.
The history of the Circuit may be divided into three phases: Manhattan-Fire Island, interregional, and post-9/11.The Manhattan-Fire Island Circuit refers to the seasonal movement of Gay men from Manhattan in the autumn, winter, and spring to Fire Island in the summer. Large dance spaces for Gay men in Manhattan blossomed immediately after the Stonewall Uprising. An atmosphere of greater tolerance of Gay people in general by New York City law enforcement authorities led to the creation of dance parties for hundreds and even thousands of participants. Such parties could not have been held before Stonewall because their sheer size would have been sufficient to have them shut down.
Initially, these events were fundraisers for Gay activists, but their popularity inspired entrepreneurs to open a series of members-only and increasingly extravagant dance venues for Gay men. Clubs such as the 12 Steps and Flamingo catered to Gay men who came from all over the USA, Canada, and Western Europe to immerse themselves in sound, lights, and a sea of shirtless men (the custom of dancing bare-chested originated very early in the scene when parties were thrown by activists). During summer months, clubs in the Fire Island towns of Cherry Grove and the Pines hosted much of the same crowd in venues such as the Ice Palace, Sandpiper, and the Palladium. Men who made the seasonal migration were called “circuit queens.”
Other cities began to copy the folkways of Manhattan/Fire Island Gay male clubs, installing similar sound systems, connecting lights to the sound systems so that lights would pulse to the beat, and hiring folk artists to control the lights and sound. The most important of these artists were the DJs, people who kept up with the latest dance music and knew how to slip cue, a technique that allows one song to play after another without a break in the beat. Music was tailored to a range of beats per minute (bpm) between 120-135. Songs were further modified so that the beginning and the end were extended beats without music, and released in the form of album-sized vinyl called 12” singles or disco singles. Gay male club folklife, which had initially been predominantly African American, Latin, and underground, took on mainstream proportions with the rise of disco and Straight clubs such as Studio 54.
Women were often denied admission or admitted in restricted numbers, and Straight men were not welcome. Clubs such as Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco and the Probe in Los Angeles promoted the club life found in the Manhattan/Fire Island Circuit. When cities such as Columbus, Ohio and Atlanta, Georgia had their own large-scale parties and staffed their events with DJs and light technicians imported from Manhattan, the second phase, Circuit-as-interregional, began. The Red Party in Columbus is considered the first Circuit party outside of Manhattan, although some give that distinction to Atlanta’s Hotlanta River Expo. At the same time, Manhattan increased its stature as the center of Gay male dance-oriented folklife with two iconic clubs, Paradise Garage (with DJ Larry Levan) and the Saint (DJs such as Michael Fierman, Sharon White, Robbie Leslie, and Warren Gluck), that influenced the worldwide underground dance scene in the first half of the 1980s.
Chicago also made a name for itself with the Warehouse and the Warehouse’s resident DJ Frankie Knuckles. The music Knuckles played at the Warehouse would eventually be known as house music.
AIDS and Rebirth
The AIDS crisis nearly brought the scene to a standstill in the mid- to late 1980s. The large number of dying men who were members of the Saint’s exclusive clientele gave rise to a new nickname for AIDS: the Saint disease. But after the trauma of losing the better part of a generation of Gay men, advances in medical treatment along with steroid use gave Gay men’s dance culture new energy. Events such as Miami White Party, Miami Winter Party, Chicago Hearts/Fireball, Halloween’s in New Orleans, Philadelphia Blue Ball, Houston Jungle, Dallas Purple Party, Montreal Black and Blue, Fire Island Morning Party, Toronto Unity, and DC Cherry were all AIDS fundraiser events that were prominent in the 1990s.
With the older Columbus Red Party and Atlanta Hotlanta River Expo, and events such as White Party-Palm Springs, San Diego Zoo Party, Provincetown indepenDance, Orlando events in early June, Sydney Mardi Gras, and Cape Town MCQP (Mother City Queer Project), Circuit parties set high standards for dance music, sound production, and DJs. This included Circuit remixes (digitally modified music, usually with enhanced percussion and iterations recurring on a 32, 64, and sometimes 128-count pulse) specifically tailored for the community.
As economies around the world began to falter in the first decade of the twenty-first century after the attacks against the USA on September 11, 2001, Circuit parties experienced a downturn.
Irresponsible drug use (especially GHB – from 1999-2005, it was common to see multiple ambulance runs for participants who overdosed), crystal sex (a combination of crystal methamphetamine, internet sites for sexual encounters, and 24-hour bathhouses), internet hook-up sites and phone apps for finding sexual partners, and the rise of Gay male-oriented sea cruises took participants away from the Circuit. In addition, trends concerning body image moved away from excess muscle that was evident in the Circuit, and the custom of removing one’s shirt in a nightclub was significantly reduced in many cities. The status of the DJ-as-celebrity was likewise minimized, and many of the events from the second Circuit have disappeared.
Nevertheless, the Circuit expanded internationally to Toronto, Barcelona, Berlin, Puerto Vallarta (Mexico), Bahia (Brazil), and Rio de Janeiro. Circuit parties have also been held in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, with Circuit-inspired events in Israel, Britain, Japan, and the Netherlands as well as continued success of at least one summer event held on Fire Island.
With the success of the Circuit in general, identity-specific parties arose. There are Circuit parties catering to Bears, Leatherfolk, African Americans, and women. Some of the major parties also had separate Leather and women’s events as part of their weekend itineraries. But the ethic of inclusiveness at the door still prevailed – anyone could attend these parties if they so chose.
Circuit culture includes different performance genres, the most prominent being the DJ.
DJs in the Circuit will mix (transition fro one song to another) seamlessly so that the participants cannot tell when one song ends and another begins. DJs must be able to match up the beats of two songs on the 32-count, the standard length of a dance music song’s stanza. By choosing music that allows the energy of the dance floor to build, DJs can progressively raise the level of communal involvement until participants spontaneously raise their hands in the air, shout, and move with vigor. Circuit DJs liken such moments to orgasm and the music prior to that moment as foreplay. Dancers also frame the experience in sexual terms, telling DJs, “Bitch, you worked my pussy!” This is especially amusing when the speaker is a man and the DJ is a woman.
Circuit parties are designed so that the focus is on the dance floor. Participants are the premier entertainment, and people often feel performance anxiety when they initially arrive. One of the key features of a Circuit party is the experience of immersion, reflected in Circuit folk speech when the dance floor is described as a sea of men. It is important that the dance floor be large and crowded, allowing participants to feel part of a much larger body and lose their initial anxiety. Men may dance by themselves, with a partner, or with multiple partners.
In the center of the dance floor, there may be no room to do much more than bounce up and down in one place. Another option is sensuous dance, which can include anything people can do with their clothes on. In some events (such as the New York Black Party), it is not uncommon to see men engaging in sex on the dance floor as well. For the most part, however, people are there for the pleasures of dance, not the raw heat of orgasm.
Events feature raised platforms and dance boxes for go-go dancers and participants. Box dancing allows people to escape the anonymity of the dance floor and display their bodies-in-movement, a significant feature of individual dance performance.
Display also includes the performance of humor. Verbal skills are highly valued in an environment where many people are cracked (intoxicated on other substances than alcohol or marijuana). A well-built man who can instantly change his bearing from masculine to effeminate may gain favorable attention from those around him. This display of muscle camp also serves to undermine one of the more negative aspects of Circuit parties: body fascism, which is disdain for others who are not beautiful or as physically fit.
Another performance genre among participants is flagging, waving bright-colored squares of soft cloth (flags) around one’s body. Flags have one edge that has metal pellets sewn into it so that the cloth will open when moved in a horizontal 8 pattern. Originating with fan dancing in the early days after Stonewall, flagging became a Circuit folk dance genre, with practitioners forming into groups known as tribes or families. The physical space needed to flag is about six times that of a regular dancer, so flaggers will often go to stages or dance boxes as not to hit others with the weighted edge of their flags. Since it is a dance form that discourages intimate physical contact with other dancers, flaggers nevertheless feel the sensual touch of their flags on their arms, backs, chests, and heads. The pellets only hurt when they directly hit the skin, not as the cloth glides over the skin. For many flaggers, their art is a highly introverted and spiritual experience. And because flagging is visually appealing to the eye, the performance tends to be exhibitionistic as well as introspective.
The performance artist is a person in who lip-syncs to a popular dance song. Outfits may be grand spectacle or trimmed down to allow the artist to dance. The typical performance artist is an African American male with a shaved head, extreme theatrical makeup, and in semi-feminine drag. Most of them have a history in the Ballroom scene, and are usually accompanied by back-up dancers and large-scale props. A key feature of performance artistry is fierceness (embodied confidence in motion), a much-desired commodity for regular participants on the dance floor as well.
Performance artists give the dancers a brief break from the intense scrutiny and social drama that occurs on the dance floor. Performances are usually under ten minutes, and the best ones smoothly mix in and out of the musical flow of the evening. Performance artists include Kitty Meow, Power Infiniti, Flava, Fierce, Lena Love (biologically female), and Kevin Aviance.
In terms of performance, the Circuit is a frame in which participants may express nonviolent masculinity through dance. Privileging the physically fit body in the Circuit community is similar to performancein the Straight bodybuilding community in that muscle in the Circuit is displayed as a sign of manly beauty. In contrast with bodybuilding, however, there is much less emphasis on physical strength, and manly beauty is framed in terms of the homoerotic.
Posing (except as a joke) and exhibitions of physical strength are not performance genres on the dance floor. The muscular body is meant to entice and attract, not defend and repel, thus undermining its utility as a fighting machine, and is at its most beautiful when its owner can dance, laugh, and have fun.
Heitz, David. “Men Behaving Badly.” The Advocate, July 8, 1997, 26-29.
Weems, Mickey. The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit. Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2008.