Meet Me Under the Disco Ball: A History of Nightlife's Most Enduring Symbol
From "myriad reflector" to dancefloor staple, Nicky Siano, Rob Da Bank, and more on the spinning beacon of light that never dies.
It's hard to deny that the disco ball is our most treasured party symbol. Reflecting fractals of light from above the dancefloor and pulling our focus to the center of it, the mirrorball tells everyone: this is where the action is. There is no more reliable witness to the ups and downs of clublife than the disco ball, omnipresent and omniscient. As Tracey Thorn sings in "Mirrorball," the 1996 tune from her group Everything But The Girl, "the lovely mirrorball reflected back them all, every triumph, every fight under disco light."
Yet, as is the case for many party icons, the disco ball's origins are a bit sketchy. While the disco ball came to power in the 70s as part of the disco era, the origins of the spinning reflector can be traced to nearly 100 years before Donna Summer topped a single chart. The first documented appearance of the disco ball goes as far back as 1897, where an issue of the Electrical Worker, the publication of an electrician's union in Charlestown, Massachusetts discusses the group's annual party and its most notable decorations. The group's initials (N.B.E.W.) were illuminated with "incandescent lamps of various colors on wire mesh over the ballroom" and another light (a carbon arc lamp, now embraced by steampunk enthusiasts) flashed on a "mirrored ball."
According to archival photos, mirror balls appeared in an assortment of locations, typically those related to social functions. Nearly 30 years after those electricians created a mirror ball for their shindig, an inventor named Louis B. Woeste filed a patent for an object he called a "myriad reflector." The 1924 US patent filing describes the device as a "sphere, yet any other geometrical form-may be substituted therefor, which is preferably hollow and has its surface covered with a multitude of mirrors."
After almost half a century in the dark, the disco ball made its big return at the dawn of the disco era. New York's disco king, the DJ Nicky Siano, was there for its revival. "It's been around forever, but they weren't called disco balls back then," he tells THUMP. "There was no name like that. When I came on the scene it was called the mirrored ball, because there hadn't been that transition yet; Billboard didn't decide to make billions off an industry that we created, and label it disco."
As a young New Yorker, Siano became enamored with the blossoming club culture of the early 70s. One of his first encounters with a disco ball happened at David Mancuso's famed East Village disco holy ground, The Loft. "I was just 15 and it was so striking how [the mirrored ball] was used. The room had no other light, and when [light on the ball] went out, you were in total darkness."
Siano went on to open his own club, The Gallery, which of course need its own disco ball to rival Mancuso's. "I think the largest mirrored ball at the time was 24 inches, but we didn't want that, we wanted a 36 inch ball. We had to order it special," Siano says. "I just remember when we put it up at The Gallery, people started spinning it and eventually we had to get a special motor that wouldn't tangle up, so we could hang the ball right above the dancers reach. People would still jump up and hit it though."
Siano recalls a time when one of The Loft's 48 inch balls fell on an unassuming dancer's head during a party (mercifully, it was hollow). He also remembers when New York house legend Larry Levan would take mid-set trips to the dancefloor where he would climb a ladder and meticulously spot clean the disco ball's mirror tiles. Levan wanted perfection.
As the disco scene grew in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal, San Francisco, and Paris, the disco ball went with it. It would be hard for any particular city to lay claim to the disco ball's origins, but because of how Siano, Levan, and Mancuso used their disco balls as part of the sensory bliss of the disco scene and later, the house scene, it became an integral part of clubbing's formative years.
The end of the disco era—with a backlash embodied by Chicago's Disco Demolition Night and eventually its demise prompted by the AIDS crisis—meant an end to the decadence and glam of the 70s. By the early 80s, disco music's time in the mainstream spotlight was over but the disco ball itself endured. While still a fixture above dancefloors, it had also been absorbed by non-dance sides of music culture in the 90s. Neil Young and Sarah McLachlan each had albums named Mirrorball (in 1995 and 1999, respectively). On U2's infamous 1997 PopMart tour, Bono emerged from a massive mirror ball-plated lemon (a fruit that would go on to symbolize the success of both the tour and its related album).
By the early 00s, disco balls began to return to nightlife's iconography in pieces, refracting light across the video for Sophie Ellis-Bextor's 2001 tune "Murder On The Dance Floor" and immortalizing excess in Who Da Funk's 2002 tune "Shiny Disco Balls." On her 2006 Confessions Tour, Madonna first appeared on stage emerging from a disco ball that had descended from the ceiling while singing her song "Future Lovers" and a cover of disco queen Donna Summers and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love." Similarly, on her X2008 tour, Kylie Minogue first appears on stage atop a mirror-plated disco skull that descended from the ceiling. Except for Justin Timberlake's famous destruction of one on the cover of 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds, the disco ball has been mostly embraced in the last decade and a half (some would say JT actually likes it too).
Today you can buy a disco ball anywhere from Spencer's Gifts to Bed Bath and Beyond, but in the disco era, they were harder to find. At that time, Omega National Products was making more disco balls than anyone in the world. The Louisville, Kentucky-based company even pioneered the manufacturing of mirror sheets that cover a variety of objects from walls to Rolls Royces.
"Our company started in the mid-1940s as a furniture manufacturer, and we started making disco balls here in the 1950s," 20-year Omega veteran Toni Lehring tells THUMP. "We were already making mirrors at the time for art-deco furniture, and then they came up with the idea of making these flexible mirror sheets that could cover everything from trash cans to Kleenex boxes—even a set of grand pianos owned by Liberace. Then we got approached to make disco balls."
In the company's early years, Lehring says 20 to 30 young women (during WWII, in particular) led the manufacturing of mirror balls, which ranged in size from two-inches to six-feet in diameter. Many of them came at the request of amusement parks and jukeboxes that wanted to include the balls as part of their attractions. "The dance halls, roller rinks, and speakeasies came after, and we were the ones making them," says Lehring. "As time went on and the foreign market started to make a lot, we began to sell away some of the disco ball molds to other manufacturers."
At its peak, Lehring says Omega made 90% of the world's mirror balls. At that time, their 48 inch balls were retailing for nearly $4,000, a hefty price at the time. "Most Louisvillians weren't aware that most of the disco balls were made here in their city," Lehring says. While the company is no longer the only game in disco ball business, it's still part of their product line (in addition to wine racks and decorative valences). Omega still has some disco balls hanging in the building's windows, most of the archives and photos of some of the more dazzling creations from the last fifty years were lost during an office move. And lest you think the people making the disco balls are club kids themselves, Lehring describes her colleagues as "regular manufacturing people that get up and go to work everyday" who work in what she calls an "overly basic" office. None of us have dyed hair or crazy tattoos or anything," she laughs.
Omega still makes flexible mirror sheets for high-profile disco balls as seen on Dancing With the Stars, the Oscars, and on Madonna's tours. The company regularly fields requests for custom disco balls but often passes. Someone recently asked for a mirror-covered basketball for a bar mitzvah. The city of Louisville even asked the company to beat the current record for largest disco ball in the world, as determined by the Guinness Book itself. It could have effectively made Louisville, mostly known for its baseball bats, the unlikely world capital of the disco ball. For reasons Lehring wouldn't get into, Omega declined the request.
Kentucky's loss is England's gain as the man behind the world's biggest disco ball is British DJ, radio host, and Bestival organizer Rob Da Bank. Rob teamed up with disco legend Nile Rodgers in 2014 to create the largest disco ball of all time. Covered in 2,500 individually mirrored tiles, and standing three stories tall, the structure beat out the previous record holder, presented at a event in Russia DJ'd by Maya Jane Coles in 2012.
"We wanted to create a big party for the festival's massive finale on Sunday where Nile was headlining and thought... 'how can we make it more special?'" says Bank. "We found these guys who specialize in big shows for festivals—stuff like hundreds of multi-colored balloons—and they started on the design." Bestival's record ball would actually turn out to be inflatable, expanding to its four-story tall mass over a couple of hours.
Jump back across the pond to Brooklyn, where the disco ball at Verboten remains a pivotal centerpiece amidst the club's futuristic 3-D mapping. It even has a name: Jessica. "My partner Jen and I got into dance music at places like Twilo, Limelight and Sound Factory—all places with unique disco balls," says Verboten co-owner John Perez. "When the DJ would play one of 'our' songs, we'd find each other directly under the disco ball to share a dance. To paraphrase 'The Dude,' they really tie the room together."
In Brooklyn we go hard. Read more about Verboten
For Verboten lighting director Gary Hunt, the disco ball remains a key aspect of his work even though more advanced technology is at his disposal. "It has much more of a personality than a laser or an LED fixture, which is why I end up naming them," Hunt says of Jessica. "It's also one of the safest hallucinogenic effects ever created—probably why it's stuck around for so long. Jessica is like a big voice in the sky, telling people to dance, and forget about their problems."
Verboten has a number of miniature disco balls hanging in its main room as a tribute to Jeffrey Gamblero, AKA the famed NYC graffiti artist Korn, who was close to the club's inner circle and sadly passed away last year.
"I created the Disco Ball Universe Project, where I placed six smaller disco balls around the room, each having its own a dedicated lighting fixture," Hunt says. "When the room is filled with a good amount of haze it creates a sense of being in outer space and floating in music. It really is something special to witness."
As decades pass, new trends in music come and go and new technologies change the ways lights are used inside clubs but the technology of the disco ball and its presence has remained relatively consistent. In a culture that shifts so rapidly, how could something like a disco ball remain so untouched?
For almost everyone, the answer seems to come down to nostalgia. Disco balls remind everyone in clubland of a simpler time when the music was pure and the feelings were good. We feel their magic when a disco ball's glowing tiles fill our favorite rooms with just enough light to dance to. It's kind of like visiting a beautiful landmark in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood—no matter what sprouts up around it (from techno to EDM), you know that disco ball will always be there for you.
Shine on disco ball, shine on.
David Garber is THUMP's homepage editor. Send him disco-ball related tips and other shiny objects on Twitter.