Saturday, December 26, 2009

Echoes of a past life: A Ball of Mirrors

It's a cold and rainy day after Christmas. I spent part of the afternoon ripping Madonna CDs to my computer so that I could listen to them at my desk; it was a little like watching my life flash before my eyes. Sure she's celebrity at its worst: the fake English accent, the African child-stealing, the atrocious acting, the overall narcissism. But she's actually a talented musician with a point of view and a shrewd sensibility for brilliantly surfing trends in pop dance music, leaving her junior imitators floundering in her wake. I can wax rhapsodic about obscure spiritual jazz, Brazilian art music, and obscure seventies gay disco, but somehow Madonna, as mainstream as she is, has held my attention over the years.

I actually remember the first time I heard of her: it was shortly after I moved to New York City, I believe. A graffiti artist named Michael Stewart had been killed by NYC cops. This was the era of Keith Haring and that whole East Village art scene, and the artsy counter-culture looked out for one another. I was walking in the village and was handed a flyer for a benefit in Stewart's honor: there would be a quite unknown singer at the benefit and her name was Madonna. To my regret I didn't hang on to that flyer or attend the event; shortly thereafter I heard her name again on the radio, singing this catchy new tune called "Everybody" that was becoming a big hit: a catchy urban sound with just a schmear of new wave and NYC proto-hiphop. I'm sure she never looked back.

I used to love to go dancing; and dance music, being so tied to its age, paints an easily-traced story of the decades. While Madonna stepped onto the scene after the heydey of disco and my youth, she's been there ever since. For the record Madonna and I are about the same age, and I can't imagine putting my own achy 51-year-old body through a night of dancing like I used to; I'm surely in awe of Madonna's physical regimen.

I wrote this essay on the power and meaning of dancing for the Queer Pagans zine back in the 1990s. In Madonna years that would be about the time of "Bedtime Stories." (For the record my favorite Madonna album is probably "Ray of Light" from 1998; its spirituality and rock- and trancemusic-influenced intensity has really held up for me more than some of her more sugar-coated earlier material.) Anybody following my writing here will note a repeated reference to an episode recounted in an earlier piece "Will the Gay Movement Survive AIDS." I'm happy that the point of view in this piece some ten years later is so much less bleak.

I opened this article with a bit of ancient Greek pagan poetry: an excerpt from Euripides' "The Bacchae" beginning "When shall I dance once more with bare feet the all-night dances." Click on the graphic to read this full size; this is a scan from the original QP zine.


A Ball of Mirrors Like the Moon,
Communion, Like With God
by Ian Scott Horst
from QP #11, Ice & Promise 9994 [Feb. 1994]

I remember my first visit to a queer disco. It was in Chicago, probably late 1978. The place was the Bistro, located in a near-north noman's land home to low industrial buildings, drag clubs and leather bars. The crowd at the Bistro was mixed, a combination of gay men dressed down with fag-hags and adventuresome heterosexuals dressed up.

Near the entrance was a bar for serious drinkers and lost singles, but everyone else headed for the labrynthine arrangement of tables, potted palms, and velveteen divans circling the raised light-box that was the dance floor.

If I remember correctly, the dance floor was a checkerboard of flashing under-lit panels and shiny black gloss. At its edges were vents through which a dry ice fog would be pumped in the peak of our ecstasy. Hidden in a false ceiling above were trap doors from which confetti and feathers would swirl. Huge thumping speakers vibrated at the corners of the floor. Hanging from the rafters amidst a tangle of spinning colored lamps and flashing strobes was the mirrored ball, the ubiquitous idol we would worship there. For this disco was not just a place to socialize, but a place to lose oneself to the dance, to vibrate to rhythm until we soared through the very clouds to worship physical and spiritual ecstasy. Of course, a little LSD helped too.

Since it was the late '70s and not the late '80s, our dance was sexually charged ina way uncomplicated by mortal fear. And this was when we could dance to the entirety of Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park" suite without pangs of guilt or pains of betrayal over her as yet unuttered quips about "Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve."

It is interesting to me that pre-AIDS gay male culture was wrapped so inseparably with the dance. The disco become a kind of ritual religion, a spinning, whirling rite, a prelude to sexual abandon, a cultural center, a meeting ground. It was also, of course, self-absorbed, inward-looking and narcissistic. It was as though the mirror ball was not just a mechanism for spinning colored rays about the dance floor but a glittering symbol intoxicating us with our own images. For as we spun about the floor we found ourselves pulled in, to our center, finding our souls touched by the fire but in a way that left each alone, as though dreaming. It is an odd thing to be able to dance in a crowded floor and find the crowd melt aaway and disappear as the music seizes control.

Those were the days, you may remember, of the great schism between boys and girls. Chicago, like New York, is a big city, and there was little of that brother-and-sister-under-fier camaraderie of 1970s small town queer America. We dancing queens assumed at the time that lesbians were all stomping around the woods with their shirts off criticizing us for our puerile humor and hedonistic excesses. I suspect the truth is that queer women were undergoing their own formatice ecstasies, dancing in new found and self-shaped freedom.

Who would have dreamed this future, there, under those circumstances? Yet that which is dear to us now grew from seeds in those times. Even Queer Pagans as both people and thing owe direct lineage to those times of the dreaming dance. Starhawk's "The Spiral Dance" was first published in 1979, and is to considerable extent a product of the separatist lesbian feminist culture of that time. "The Spiral Dance" was a major force in opening Paganism to an audience beyond the heterosexist orthodox English traditionalist Wiccans. The Radical Faeries were officially founded also in 1979,a product of the new gay male self-awareness albeit in rejection of its materialism. And from the Faeries Pagans learned much about ritual innovation.

And so eventually the world spun on. I remember in the mid '80s going out with a friend to soem short-lived dance club in Manhattan. It was a weeknight, and the place was empty. Alone on the dance floor was a man with a pair of fans, lost in music. He was beautiful, his face a portrait of rapture, his solitude exquisite, lost in an act of inner communion both furious and serene. By chance we found out his name, and to sum up the 1980s, a month or two later we read his obituary in the gay press.

But the dance that is life continued, and something happened, at least to me, at the turn of the decade.

Jutting off the edge of Greenwich Village into the Hudson are the remnants of several abandoned piers. For years these piers were a kind of seedy sexual Disneyland. Even when there was no more privacy when the buildings on these piers were dissembled and carted away, the sex continued. Eventually the organizers of lesbian and gay pride day decided to throw an after-parade party, a dance, on one of these piers. And it was magic.

Under the sky, with laserbeams and fireworks instead of spinning lamps, with speakers two stories tall, thousands of us danced together. Queer people, men and women, survivors, entranced together, raising a powerful energy. It was different this time: we were high on adrenaline and pride. Instead of feeling like a vortex, pulling it all inside, I felt like bursting, like exploding with queer fire into an expanding, sweaty mass of brothers and sisters. Our mouths were open, roaring joy. Within the year I became a Pagan.

Dance is madness. Invisible bonds spring from music, wrapping themselves about your limbs, writhing around your hips, pulling and turning, transforming your body into the manic puppet of energy, of ecstasy. It is a seizure of the spirit. Open yourself to the invisible fury. Surrender to it. Cut the bonds of self-consciousness. Let it go. Become invisible. Dream a new world.

Accept communion.


  1. Beautiful. Ian, I've been meaning to start following your blog for some time. Have you read Barbara Ehrenreich's book about group dancing?

  2. Hey Jon! Thanks for dropping by. I will checkout your own blog as well.

    I haven't read that Barbara Ehrenreich; I like her, I will look for it. I haven't read her newest one either, but I love what I've read about it, the one about how being fake positive and optimistic all the time is fucking up the country. Brilliant.

    My offline reading has suffered lately; I need new glasses and better lighting. Well, and younger eyes.

    Gonna check out your blog as well.
    Peace, buddy.

  3. found your blog just now through thelink you posted on JMG. i couldn't agree with you more about the community that dancing in the clubs back then afforded gay men. growing up, as i suspect many of us were, i was a loner, and totally convinced i was the only gay man in the world. the dance clubs i found in new york and LA unleashed a wave of love in me for lack of another word, and i was able to be part of a greater whole. then the 80s came and it became more of a greater 'hole' as friends died, seemingly every other week.

    thanks for your writing on the subject. i'm 52 and i'd bet we probably were at the same clubs at the same time on occasion.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Casey. It's interesting how the reputation in popular memory for disco is all about decadence and drugs--and I'm not saying there was none of that--but for gay men it was about the magical shared experience.