The Freedom of Four Walls and Beyond

The recipe is simple. Start with a floor, a ceiling, and four walls. Add decks, a DJ, and a sound system. Then, open the doors and let the pilgrims flow. Garnish as necessary. This mixture of space, sound, and soul has the potency to outlive the night, the power to influence life not only on the weekend, and the potential to change society for the better, for good. Let´s join us in this journey to discover the freedom behind four wells.

Birthed in traditionally marginalised communities, modern-day club culture has since its inception possessed this revolutionary ability. Hundreds of bodies move, each an individual dancing alone, each a part of something greater, dancing together – atop the concrete meadow are kaleidoscopic flowers swaying in the 120BPM breeze.

Progress and freedom post-Stonewall

Seven months post-Stonewall, again in New York City there emerged another movement of social progress and freedom – this time not on the street, but rather in David Mancuso’s loft on Broadway. Coins and cans that had in the Summer of 1969 flown through the Manhattan sky now found themselves serving as entry fees and fuel for the inaugural party at The Loft on Valentine’s Day, 1970.

A social utopia is born. Music, dance. Freedom, harmony. All sexualities, races, classes, genders, and ages weaved “themselves into the party’s untearable fabric.” Loft regular Mark Riley recounts how “there were people who didn’t know that they were part of a community that accepted them until they started going.”

Several factors were at play in fostering such a sense of community and acceptance. Mancuso himself nurtured it. $2.50 was the non-compulsory entry fee and paid only by those who could afford it. This fee was, furthermore, not-for-profit, funding instead refreshments for the party and the cost of the rent. Hand-written IOU notes were accepted.

There was, says New York DJ and Mancuso disciple Danny Krivit, “membership not for its exclusivity, but for its community.” Behaviours change when individuals feel themselves part of something. Creating and nurturing a greater cause often brings out the best in people. Perhaps as a result of this, individual expression was celebrated and protected – for women, The Loft was almost unique in offering a space where one could dance in comfort, without having to repel unwanted advances.

Granted it began in the years before camera-phone ubiquity, but very little visual evidence exists from the early days of Mancuso’s sanctuary. Releasing dancers from privacy-related concerns creates a space of relaxation and openness, where people live in the moment, drift in and out of interaction, and may dance as if alone in a twilit room – camera lenses are unwelcome eyes peering through the ajar door.

And so, a blueprint for space, sound, and soul is laid out. The Loft showed us what a club – although Mancuso rejected that title – could and should be. But what happens when the needle hits the dead wax. What happens when beer-stained shoes shuffle from dancefloor to street. What happens when stars are swallowed by the sun.

They shine nonetheless. Communities forged on the dancefloor do not exist exclusively on it. Support structures are established, the definitive example of which takes us away from dancefloors per se, but remains within the realm of club culture.

That is, the tradition of Ballroom, where LGBTQ+ individuals join a family, forge a community, and walk the runway in drag balls. In a society where deviations from what is considered “normal” are punished with the violence of all kinds – verbal, physical, legal, economic, and so on – the value of a second family, potentially after losing one’s first, cannot be underestimated, the value of slipping the chains of oppression is monumental.

Freedom - Ballroom

The first act of resistance is committed so. But it does not stop there. Just as those from marginalised communities gain a home away from home inside the four walls of a club, outside a greater sense of tolerance and acceptance is fostered likewise. If you have ever spent an evening bingeing RuPaul’s Drag Race, if Madonna’s Vogue is a fixture on your pre-drinks playlist, or if “spilling the tea” is part of your vocabulary, you have queer Black and Brown pioneers of the ballroom to thank for it. They did it. Respect that and support them.

Back on the dancefloor, the same feelings flourish. Tilman Brembs, raver and cleaner at Tresor in post-Wall Berlin, describes how “because you were meeting so many completely different people, your tolerance grew a little every day. You became more open, more relaxed” (Der Klang der Familie, Felix Denk, Sven von Thuelen, 2014, Books on Demand, Norderstadt).

Of course, spending seven sweaty hours on a dancefloor is not to everyone’s taste, and from the outside looking in, it may be difficult to comprehend the nightclub’s value – a remedy for this is to simply listen, look, and learn. In the face of page upon page of testimony to the club’s power and galleries of proof, it is impossible to deny. From the inside looking around, all barriers are eroded by nocturnal waves washing over the club.

These waves, however, must start crashing. Idealised conceptions of the club are a distinctly achievable, but not yet universal, reality. Many problems exist. Even in spaces which claim to be safe are people subjected to discrimination and abuse – recent scandals demonstrate that clearly. Meanwhile, in society at large, gender-based violence remains a scourge, basic healthcare is denied to millions of people, and identity is cruelly weaponised by reactionary riff-raff.

Three examples, only, from a list that stretches disturbingly long. While nightclubs do offer a certain level of escape from and resistance to such injustice, artist and activist Terre Thaemlitz warns us against following “absurdly abstract notions like ‘love is the answer” or accepting in bad faith that “dancing or making music is enough to change the world” – such superficial platitudes serve nothing but the status quo and extinguish the club’s power like rainfall on a bonfire.

The freedom within the four walls must break through them, the runway must extend to the street, and the revolutionary potential of the club must be realised in all areas of life.