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“It Was a Beautiful Thing:" Danceteria and the Birth of Madonna

Madonna wasn’t born in a board room but in the “a creative cauldron” of New York’s legendary club where LL Cool J worked the elevators, Sade tended bar and worlds of music, art and fashion collided like never before—or since.

The story of Madonna's origins as an artist is as important as the music itself in understanding the impact she's had on bringing the underground into the mainstream. A huge chapter in that now-infamous tale took place at New York City's legendary nightclub, Danceteria.

Unlike many of today's pop starlets, Madonna wasn't born in a board room. She's not a formula based on focus groups, Billboard charts, polls and Nielsen ratings. She isn't the brainchild of some calculating record exec, plotting from behind a desk. While her career and image may be no less calculated and carefully crafted than performers like Britney and Lady Gaga, the Queen of Pop's early influences were far more raw. What she is, is a member of a formidable group of artists who've impacted the world in a variety of meaningful (and entertaining) ways, all tracing their roots back to one spectacular moment in time: Danceteria. A dance club that NYC nightlife veteran Steve Lewis describes as having been "…a creative cauldron, like a brilliant comet that flew the sky and cut through all the other bullshit."


Lewis, a self-proclaimed "lifer" in the nightlife industry, is a legend in and of himself, having successfully worked in virtually every facet of nightclubs: From interior designer for some of New York's most famous venues and restaurants to event organizer, club operator, occasional DJ, historian and philanthropist. Since 2008, he's written "Goodnight Mr. Lewis," a nightlife column for Blackbook. Lewis' first gig in the clubs was at Danceteria, producing a series of epic fashion shows that introduced the industry to unknown designers from all over the world—Isabel Toledo, for one. He later went on to produce Moschino's first US fashion show.

Danceteria opened its doors in 1979 as the accidental anti-Studio 54 but Lewis says that comparing the two is doesn't tell the full story. "It's unfair to compare it to other clubs," he opines. "Studio 54 was the Michael Jordan of nightclubs. It was 2000 guys with their shirts unbuttoned down to their dicks asking you what your sign is, but then there'd be 100 of the most incredible people in the world like Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger."

"Danceteria was it's own beautiful thing," explains Lewis. "It was so inclusive of ideas and people, just an incredible burst of creativity. The VIP's weren't the most successful or famous people, it was the ones who were on the verge of something".

With 54 already legendary for its glittering exclusivity, Danceteria helped usher in a new type of dance club, marrying high and low brow with a genre-hopping roster of bands, artists, DJ's, video installations and events. Artists like The Smiths, Devo, Grace Jones, New Order, Run DMC, Whodini and countless others performed while Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vivienne Westwood, Cyndi Lauper and RuPaul hung out on the regular. The party raged all night, so Danceteria got the closing-time spillover from CBGB, discos, gay clubs and everything in between, creating a melting pot of people unlike anyone had ever seen.


"It was a nexus of the times," Lewis explains, "Danceteria wasn't the only club or the best, it just happened to strike gold at a very particular time and place."

Although over the course of its run, Danceteria inhabited three different NYC locations and one in the Hamptons, it was at the second spot, opened in 1982 at 30 West 21st Street, that hosted many of its most famous shows and faces. The club had three distinctly different floors: Level 1 was the dance floor, with DJ's often running 12 hour sets, mixing New Wave, punk, pop, disco, Cuban music, soul, rock, and basically anything else that would keep people moving. Level 2 housed the live performance stage, where bands would play and Lewis' fashion shows were held while Level 3 held a restaurant and the Danceteria Video Lounge. The first of its kind, the video lounge had resident artists VJ'ing live mixes of video art, found footage, (pre-MTV) music videos and musical performances. With all of this going on concurrently on a nightly basis, it was one of the first venues that provided a curated, multi-level, multimedia experience. "You didn't go to see one specific DJ, or for the night; you went for the club itself" says Lewis.

Although it's now most often associated with Madonna, Danceteria served as the jump-off for an insanely diverse array of artists and cultural icons. Sade was a bartender and also had her first live performance at the club in 1982. Keith Haring, The Beastie Boys and Party Monster Michael Alig were busboys while Debi Mazar and LL Cool J worked as elevator attendants.


Madonna's first live performance of her career, at Danceteria on December 16, 1982

Madonna, a part-time waitress, full-time dance floor presence and aspiring pop star, flush with ambition and charisma, found herself perched at this perfect cross-section of downtown New York's art, music and fashion worlds. While a fiercely competitive nature prevented her from being totally accepted into the scene, she soaked in all its prolific energy nonetheless and made friends with the right people.

One of those people was DJ Mark Kamins, a popular regular in the booth at Danceteria. After recording her first single, "Everybody," in 1982, she convinced him to play it during one of his sets, marking her official entree as a member of the artistic community. Shortly thereafter she gave her first ever live performance on the second floor stage at Danceteria to an extremely receptive crowd. Kamins, who had become Madonna's boyfriend by then, introduced her to an A&R guy from Sire records and her first record deal was signed. Madonna the pop singer was born with Danceteria, the wildly creative landscape that had helped to mold her, serving as the delivery room.

After the third location in Midtown and subsequent Hamptons incarnation, the club faded into infamy, as most New York clubs inevitably do. Today, anyone looking to experience a similarly exquisite cross-pollination of cultures and genres is basically fucked.


"There is no great club in New York City now—you have great nights but there is no club with the diversity that Danceteria had,"Lewis explains. "After the World Trade Center went down, people stopped mixing socially and nightlife has been segregated since. The hip-hop people hang out at hip-hop clubs, the EDM people go to the EDM clubs, etc."

Economics also plays a big part in the splintering of nightlife scenes. "Another byproduct of 9/11 is insurance rates going through the roof. Rent in Manhattan is insane for a place with the square footage that Danceteria had. It's a simple mathematical equation: You can't make rent on some rock 'n rollers having a few drinks. Now, your club VIPs are your high rollers, your guy with a Black Card. Bottle service and all that is about bringing in enough money to make a profit. Danceteria would never survive today. The world has changed."

Of course, Madonna has changed with it, shapeshifting into seemingly endless incarnations of singer, dancer, actress and performance artist. From the downtown hustler to icon, the up and comer to the Black Card holder. While her days at Danceteria are long past, the early exposure to that serendipitous collision of culture, art and music no doubt honed her ability to evolve constantly, try a multitude of genres without fear and incorporate elements of the underground into her music and image.

If anyone needs Malina Bickford, she'll be out back building a time machine or tweeting at @WeepingGraduate

Check out the rest of Madonna Mondays: 
Madonna's 56 Dance Singles, Ranked
Growing Up with Madonna
Who Made Madonna the Greatest Music Video Star Ever?