Dance Music Is My Religion: Steve Weinstein on the Sacred Origins of Gay Circuit Parties
Circuit parties came to be defined as creating sacred spaces where gay men could converge to celebrate their identity without hostility or judgment.
(Photo via noiZe.buzz)
Raving and religion are not as far apart as you would think. In fact, "God is a DJ" and the all-powerful "church" of rave are such commonly-used metaphors that they have become timeworn adages. But in what other ways can dance music culture be compared to a spiritual practice? To explore this question, THUMP commissioned a series of essays this week loosely based on the themet: dance music is my religion. First, we had Dave 1 from Chromeo on how the threat of totalitarianism looms over what he calls "big hair metal EDM." Next up: noiZe editor Steve Weinstein on the ancient origins of "the circuit," a consortium of gay dance parties around the world.
Back in 2002, I "outed" the celebration of gay hedonism known as the Black Party to the wider world in a controversial article for the Village Voice. In my story, I described how the largest—and certainly longest—annual fetish party in New York City drew 8,000 people, nearly all men, to New York City's Roseland Ballroom for 17 hours of non-stop dancing and unbridled sex. I also explained how the impresario of the Saint, the legendary members-only, all-gay megaclub where the party originated, intended for it to recreates druidic rites of spring when the men would retreat into the forest, don animal skins and dance to drum beats to ensure a fertile planting season.
What especially galled many gay men was the use of the word "spirituality" to mask what they described in a flood of outraged letters as "romanticizing a culture" of "unsafe sex and drug abuse," "a confirmation of the very worst stereotypes of gay men," "self-destructive and dangerous activity," and even "sexual nihilism."
The controversy my article stirred up was part of a larger debate that has long raged among gay men over "the circuit," the annual round of international dance weekends that includes the Black Party. On the one side are those like ethnographer Mickey Weems, who consider such parties sacred rituals. On the other are those, such as the playwright Larry Kramer, who denounce these events as commercialized ventures that foster self-destructive behavior at the expense of real political activism.
The divide is as old as the modern gay-rights movement itself. In the explosion of energy that followed the riots at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, the Gay Activists Alliance held political meetings at an abandoned New York firehouse. Soon enough, the Saturday night dance parties became the proverbial tail wagging the dog. GAA died as the urge to dance dancing quickly overwhelmed political concerns.
Far from seeing this as catastrophic, Peter Shapiro in Turn the Beat Around, a 2005 history of disco, noted, "GAA lost momentum because, in a sense, the rise of the discotheque made activism largely irrelevant. Disco," he added, "was emblematic of a new kind of political resistance." In the decades after Stonewall, observers like David Nimmons, Cathy Crimmons and Barbara Ehrenrich wrote serious examinations of circuit parties as the vanguard in a movement that would fundamentally change and elevate the way everyone related to each other.
Circuit NoiZe, a national magazine covering this scene, was founded in 1993 with the specific mission of emphasizing the spiritual aspects of the circuit. Articles extolled the "spiritual power" of "a single dance floor organism" re-enacting the sacred rituals of pre-monotheistic ecstatic religions. The concept, however, long predates the magazine (now just noiZe, and of which I currently serve as editor).
In 1980, the late Bruce Mailman opened the Saint, the ultimate megaclub in New York's East Village. It was here that the Black Party was founded, and quickly became their signature event. For a few brief years from 1980 to 1988, the Saint served as a shrine to the 18-hour musical "journey" its thousands of gay members embarked on every Saturday night. In a doctrinal statement, Mailman wrote how ancient druidic rites of spring were a chief influence on the Black Party.
The Saint was destined to last only a few years, a victim of the AIDS epidemic that destroyed so many of its members. In its wake, however, DJs spread the gospel of the all-night journey. The first circuit parties, such as the Red Party in Columbus, Ohio, and Miami's White Party, 30 years strong as of this year, served as crucial fund-raisers for cash-starved local AIDS service organizations. Circuit parties came to be defined as creating sacred spaces where gay men could converge to celebrate their identity without hostility or judgment.
Even as they brought together a devastated and embattled community, however, several influential gay pundits led by Kramer railed against parties that, in their eyes, fostered the very behavior that created the epidemic in the first place. Their arguments would seem to have been justified by the way gay promoters moved into the scene with profit-making mega-events like the Palm Springs White Party. Just as raves morphed into EDM festivals overseen by conglomerates and soliciting corporate sponsors, so too, circuit parties became corporatized.
With the commercialization of the circuit, critics like Michelangelo Signorile saw them as anti-spiritual, superficial extensions of urban gay men consumed by drugs, body fascism and conspicuous consumption. In his 1997 book Life Outside, Signorile wrote of circuit parties in a chapter sarcastically titled "The Evangelical Church of the Circuit: "Gyms are the cult's temples. Nightclubs and sex clubs, its shrines. And the drugs … are the mystical elixirs and potions that will take us to a higher place where all is well and where we will bond with one another's souls."
By 2007, I found myself asking in Out magazine whether these parties could remain relevant in the face of widespread changes. With marriage and raising families becoming commonplace, what need is there for a "safe space" to celebrate our gayness?
In the ensuing years, however, the concept of the circuit party has spread to Latin America, Asia and Africa, and has become one of the most prominent ways gay men are making themselves visible. Bangkok's Songkran, which includes a foam party held at a gay sauna; Taipei's Jump, four days of parties held over New Year's; and Cape Town's MCQP have become significant events where gay men are once again asserting their identity by creating safe spaces of their own.
Even in the most developed Western democracies, circuit-style parties are thriving. Why? Seven years ago, DJ Manny Lehman told me, "We have to keep our subculture going, because it's important we keep what has made us unique and different. Yes, it will metamorphose. Kids might say 'This is tired.' But do they know how hard we worked for this?"
Today, many circuit-type events, such as Montreal's Black & Blue and Vienna's Love Ball, have successfully gay and straight revelers. I've attended both events several times, and I had a blast. But as great as these parties are, they don't negate the continuing importance of gathering together in a communal celebration of our sexuality.
In the seven years since my article in Out appeared, new parties like Orlando's One Magical Weekend, Wonderland and Masterbeat New Year's in L.A. and Ascension on Fire Island have proved the naysayers wrong. Other parties, like the Black Party, which will probably move to a more underground location in Brooklyn next year, continue to evolve.
When Weems wrote, "As a playground for body fascists and crack whores, the circuit has a sacred dimension," in The Fierce Tribe, he was being facetious, of course. But count me among those who see the tribal nature of the Circuit as all-the-more important. Because if we lose our identity, what good is equality?