The booth had a door & the table had a door & the cup / had a door & the darkness had a door you fell right through, / you song in the head of a heathen.
— Yona Harvey, “Mary J. (Upswing)” from Hemming the Water (2013)
Feeling like a woman, looking like a man, / Sounding like a no-no, making what I can, / Whistling in the darkness, shining in the night, / Coming to conclusions: right is night is tight
— Grace Jones, “Walking in the Rain” (1981)
As I write this, I’m re-listening to Grace Jones’ iconic Nightclubbing album (1981). Its assortment of original songs and cover songs, fused with disco, riddim, and proto-darkwave, beckons me to dance. I dance in my livingroom, but this is a very different experience than slinking through the nightclubs that populate Grace Jones’ imagination. The dream nightclub, that Grace Jones herself would attend, is the best kind of cesspool — an ecstatic environment that seems to overtake its walls and floors just as much as it overtakes its people, every element coming to belong under the filter of neon lights and shadow, every discord becoming part of the night’s bacchanal song. On the best nights, dancing in a club feels like being mounted by a spirit: Your body moves perfectly and you are afraid of no one.
There’s something about Black nightlife that makes club-magic more probable for me. Maybe it’s a matter of attendees being on the same page about what we want: To have a good time and show what our bodies can do, nothing more, nothing less. I like dancing in places where no one’s worried about sweating up their outfit, where the nervous anticipation about who will warm up the dancefloor lasts for less than a moment — congregants unable to help themselves when a good beat comes on.
Nightlife, especially queer and black nightlife, hasn’t been policed and repressed just for bureaucracy’s sake. Nightlife has a way of getting people free, and oppressive forces don’t want oppressed people to know riotous fun. When we feel natural and powerful with each other — on a regular basis, no less — following rules that don’t fit who we want to be becomes less and less sensible. Policing and undue stigmas function to sanitize our social lives, and accordingly, our collective imagination. When we dance, we remember, perhaps, that our bodies are really ours — unruly or coordinated on a whim.
I’ve never understood the trope in white coming-of-age films where outcasts wallflower at parties, crossing their arms and inspecting the cool kids instead of dancing amongst themselves. I wasn’t raised to waste a groove. And I’d like my world like I’d like my club: borders fading until we’re skin-to-skin. Shared space becoming a welcome regularity.
References / Further Reading:
Song: “Family Affair” (2001) by Mary J. Blige
Book (Fiction): love conjure/blues (2004) by Sharon Bridgforth
Article: “Frankie Knuckles and Honey Dijon bring down the house” (2013), Interview Moderated by Austin Downey
Article: “A new documentary finally gives credit to the black queer people who built British nightlife” (2019) by Andy Polaris
Article: “Paradise Garage’s final nights: crying and dancing at the definitive rager of ’80s NYC” (2019), Text by Miss Rosen, Photography by Tina Paul
Article: “Grace Jones’ ‘Nightclubbing’ Turns 40 | Anniversary Retrospective” (2021) by Terry Nelson
Dramatic Film: Small Axe, Season 1, Episode 2: “Lovers Rock” (2020), dir. Steve McQueen
Documentary: Paris is Burning (1990), dir. Jennie Livingston
Documentary: Shakedown (2018), dir. Leilah Weinraub
Documentary: Studio 54 (2018), dir. Matt Tyrnauer
Documentary: Where Love Lives: A Story of Dancefloor Culture & Expression (2021), dir. Brilliams