V&A Dundee

Dancing in Safe Spaces: Exploring Club Culture's Queer Foundations

From humble house parties to the heaving dancefloor of Paradise Garage, New York's club scene of the 1970s and 80s emerged from the city's LGBTQ+, Black and Latinx communities. Night Fever Assistant Curator Lauren Bassam traces the roots of today's DIY dance culture back to the pioneers who created their own spaces to party.

Written by: Lauren Bassam

In our recent online talk Dancing with Myself, artist and dance-practitioner Saoirse Amris Anis and I discussed the evolution of at home dance parties, and how these are great centres for self-expression, joy and self-care. Whether simple solo parties for yourself (a glass of wine in hand and a Spotify playlist on the go) or a communal digital meet-up like Club Quarantine, the importance of carving out space for self-expression and the celebration of a good old-fashioned boogie is, always, paramount.

During the discussion, and my research leading up to it, I came to understand more about the queer dance club spaces of New York of the 1970s and noticed how similar ideals within these spaces transcend space and time – resonating with ideas about self-expression, and safe and expression-led spaces, we have today.

Black and white image of people dancing in a packed club
Revellers on the dancefloor at Paradise Garage, New York, 1978 - credit Bill Bernstein/David Hill Gallery, London

I felt the story of the Paradise Garage, and its origins in the LOVE SAVES THE DAY parties at David Mancuso’s The Loft represent part of a wider history; a tangible link backwards and to the content of the Night Fever exhibition, that demonstrates that - whilst the parties may have changed geographical space, time and location - the ideas and ethos remain the same.

(In fact, on display as part of the exhibition we even have a reproduction LOVE SAVES THE DAY neon - in bright pink of course - above the silent disco area, a nod to the continued influence of Mancuso’s on dance music history).

Creating something just for yourself and your friends - somewhere people feel safe to be themselves - often leads to a wider audience.

The story starts, somewhat humbly, on Saturday, Feb. 14, 1970 - Valentine's Day. David Mancuso, a 25-year-old upstate-to-New-York transplant, had bought himself a rather ostentatious loft space on 647 Broadway. A rent party (another grand tradition of Great Migration-era Harlem Renaissance sessions, involving music, dancing, and a donation to help the host make ends meet that month) became the necessary means to help his cash flow in renting such an amazing space.

Cue the creation of one of the most infamous dance parties in New York, and arguably the forerunner the great disco behemoth Studio 54 later in the same decade. Roughly 100 people showed up that first night, a mix of dedicated dancers, friends, members of the Black and queer community, as well as artists and musicians. There are wonderful photographs from this first evening, dancers with their legs akimbo, twirling and strutting around the loft.

For $2.50, they were treated to cloak room, food and drinks (no alcohol; this required a license) and Mancuso playing music. Balloons and streamers filled the space, with the furniture pushed aside or rearranged to aid the dancers in strutting their stuff. The sound system was on point (a credit to David Mancuso's own musical pretences) and the dance moves became something of legend, talked about with hush reverence by the various people who attend over the decades to come. Each time Love Saves the Day was hosted at Mancuso’s loft, it grew in size and reputation– with the police eventually trying to shut down the dance parties, classing them as illegal club nights.

Black and white image of DJ Larry Levan in Paradise Garage, New York, 1979.
DJ Larry Levan in Paradise Garage, New York, 1979 - credit Bill Bernstein/David Hill Gallery, London.

What The Loft and subsequent iterations of the Love Saves the Day parties show is that creating something just for yourself and your friends - somewhere people feel safe to be themselves - often leads to a wider audience. Nights like Mancuso’s arguably led to a proliferation of these kind of spaces, like The Saint and ultimately Paradise Garage. Places where a wider audience can congregate and share an experience; a feeling and sense of self, shared, together, to dance and meet.

Each house party, DJ set, or sweaty kiss on a dancefloor pays homage to an alternate origin story; often one built on the backs of queer or Black spaces of the past.

With the help of DJ Larry Levan, artist Keith Haring and owner Michael Brody, Paradise Garage became the next hip dance-spot to personify this feeling. A converted parking garage saw the spinning of some serious vinyl to a crowd of predominantly gay Black men and wider members of the LGBTQ+ community, spawning its own genre of music and style of DJ-ing that remains highly influential today.

In the Night Fever exhibition itself we have the original sketches for Larry Levan’s DIY DJ booth and soundsystem set up – as well as film footage showing Keith Haring’s amazing painted images that lined The Garage walls. Levan himself looms over the visitors, blown up to beyond life size, headphones in hand, vinyl on the decks – a poignant reminder of the importance of black queer creatives in the history of dance music.

Artist Keith Haring standing in front of a yellow and black mural at Area in New York
Artist Keith Haring was a regular at many of New York's iconic club nights - credit Volker Hinz.

The Garage manifested the same spirit as the Loft, in so far as it was created off the cuff, with little money, but big ideas. It's something that feels vey similar to the online dance-party experiences of the pandemic - whether organised nights (the likes Club Quarantine, PSSY Palace or BBZ) or ad-hoc affairs organised with friends over Zoom, soundtracked by synced YouTube Playlists. These dance parties have the same magic – created out of nothing by people looking to feel part of something, to create space for themselves for joy and for inclusion. A place filled with people just wanting to dance and feel free.

A ‘build it and they will come’ mentality underpins how we look back at the past and present too – just as Paradise Garage eventually had disco legends like Grace Jones perform on its humble stage, so too have DJs, performers and artists flocked to online platforms to strut their stuff virtually. Acts as diverse as Sophie Ellis Bextor, Jarvis Cocker and Mal Bloom have all hosted at-home DJ sets. They have become their own versions of David Mancuso, inviting us into their living rooms and kitchens as they play sets for us to enjoy, clad in our own disco outfits (though maybe not as outrageous as Grace Jones’ painted body suit!).

We must remember them as the pioneers of an industry so often whitewashed for a more palatable, straight version of history.

What is key is an understanding that no idea is new – that each house party, DJ set, or sweaty kiss on a dancefloor pays homage to an alternate origin story; often one built on the backs of queer or Black spaces of the past; spaces that inhabit similar corners, and that embody the DIY approach of coming from nothing to create a mainstream appeal.

Really, we are just the next generation of revellers trying to redefine our own joy, accidentally calling back to the ghosts of dance floors past, and envoking the spirit of Mancuso, Levan and Haring in the process. Some were lost to the last pandemic that ravaged the queer community; we must remember them as the pioneers of an industry so often whitewashed for a more palatable, straight version of history - one that the misses out the messy, joyful, DIY queer spaces of the past.