Remembering Things

Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” Is Still an Undeniable Queer Banger

This tune – and the club night that carried its name – continues to illuminate the isolating, beautiful parts of the queer experience.

by Ben Charlie Smoke
06 March 2018, 11:30am

Image via "Dancing On My Own" video

Barely 17 and filled with a house party's beer and Bacardi Breezers, I came out for the first time. I remember sitting at the bus stop, the words kind of falling out of my mouth and into the street in front of me. I looked down to where the words would have landed, then to my friend Dan who I’d dragged outside with me, then back down – and in that moment, I knew what I'd said to be true. I stumbled back to the party, into its nu rave and smoke, recounting my realisation to each of my friends individually. Later, I sealed the deal by sucking off my pal Scott under a blanket in the living room as other party goers drank and slept around us, kicking off the preceding decade in very much the same vein within which it continued.

Most of my friends have a ‘coming out story’. That’s both to say that most of my friends are queer and that they all have a unique story draped over the experience of coming out – there are those who did it at school, those who waited till their late twenties. There are some who did it with a loud, unwieldy bang and others who whispered it so softly that no-one really heard or noticed. They’ve come out in tents, in church, at dinner, at a funeral (not recommended). They’ve written letters, or had awkward meandering conversations with their parents, or never have. But through the fabric of each of these stories, one singular thread runs through them all: isolation.

The exploration and acceptance of queerness can be an inherently lonely experience. In fact, queerness as a whole can be an inherently lonely experience. At the beginning of our lives as queer people we come out, often to mixed reviews, and spend our remaining years reliving that experience – coming out again and again and again, trying to find and craft our space in a world not really designed to fit our own. When we’re young especially, our queerness is considered in quiet, stolen moments. Once that seed is discovered, it needs time and space to germinate, often in the shadowy corners of our mind.

Two years after that very first foray into my own queerness, Robyn released her album Body Talk pt. 1 with lead single “Dancing On My Own”. At its core, the album is about loneliness and isolation. In a 2010 Pitchfork interview, Robyn said, “The whole album is about being lonely, but I think it’s interesting to put that idea into a club where a lot of people are crammed into a small room.” Of “Dancing On My Own” specifically, she said, “I’ve been touring a lot in the last three years, and spent a lot of time in clubs just watching people, and it became impossible to not use that lyric ‘dancing on my own’, because it’s such a beautiful picture.”

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the song. By the time I did, I’d made my way round several major cities and urban conurbations. Blanketed, hurried blowjobs remained a feature, though somewhat mercifully for all involved, my technique had improved. Like many young queer men, I parlayed my natural charm, big brown eyes and high cheekbones into a parade of sexual encounters, grasping towards a closeness I couldn’t quite understand or reach. I was drowning under waves of unrequited love for my best friend and clinging to the last vestiges of a life I thought I should be aiming for.

In the deliriously hot summer of 2010, my studio flat in the far reaches of east Bristol baked as my friends and friends of friends piled in for a post-Glastonbury party. Around midnight, I lost control of the music, and it ricocheted violently from Candi Staton to The Horrors, before landing on a tune I’d never heard before.

It started with a shudder; a kind of juddering heartbeat that races through the four minutes and 49 seconds of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” before finally succumbing to its own angst, floating away into silence in an ethereal glimmer. I remember looking out from my kitchen and seeing 'him', standing there with another guy. I remember that anxious heartbeat of the song's hammering synth matching the beat of my own. The longing and the sadness of the lyrics framing mine. That same agony that plays out in the cramped spaces between the bassline also playing out in the cramped confines of my flat.

American professor David Halperin wrote a book called How to Be Gay. It is not, in fact, a handy manual on homosexuality for beginners – though god knows there’s a market for that. The book talks of how queerness is uniquely positioned within minority or oppressed communities, as far as learning about your history, culture or identity is concerned. For the most part, queer people do not grow up with queer parents or family members. Often, we have little to no exposure to queer people in our lives, nor realistic, valid or complex role models in popular media.

Instead, we learn from each other in the bars and the clubs, in darkrooms and bedrooms. We learn from the people that we love, often who don’t love us back in the way we want or deserve. We learn from our collective trauma, from our collective loneliness. From that we fold pieces of culture – pieces of music and art and poetry – into the queer lexicon. Queerness exists on the streets, in beds and parks, pixels and billboards but it truly thrives in clubs. In these spaces, we get to paint our queerness over one another, up the walls and across the ceiling. Through a canon of bangers, curated collectively, we wrap our queerness around the thick mustiness of the air, and are, temporarily at least, swallowed by it. And so, from the second it was released, “Dancing On My Own” was subsumed into the musical vernacular of an entire generation of queers.

Image via Wikimedia

In 2013, a club night by the name of Dancing On My Own (DOMO) launched. After several iterations and incarnations, it landed in London’s Resistance Gallery and quickly gained popularity. Five years after first coming out, three after first hearing it in that cramped studio flat, and the song continued to haunt me. It followed me as I fought my way through the manic highs and depressive lows of my life, and finally it had found me again – though this time, it was different.

The thing about DOMO was that it wasn’t just any queer space. The Resistance Gallery is hidden behind an unassuming door on a cobbled London backstreet. It has most of the markers of a small east London venue: a compact bar, DJ booth, a stage with pound shop glitter curtains, and a smoking area surrounded by barbed wire and walls with broken glass embedded into them. Yet, somehow, this space was transformed once a month into a queer utopia.

I put a call out for photos and stories from DOMO to try and pinpoint what made it so magic in retrospect. Time and time again people messaged thanking me for reminding them of DOMO, but that they had no pictures. This is partly because, at a certain point in the night, the temperature would reach such balmy heights that at least half the room would strip to their underwear meaning indiscriminate photography was frowned upon. My pal Izzy messaged me to tell me there were “more boobs than Playboy, except not in an oppressive problematic way”.

The sweating, writing mass of bodies was an enjoyable feature of the evening’s frivolities, but it certainly wasn’t why it was so special. The truth, in fact, lies in Izzy’s follow up message: “I only went once and I spent all night kissing Lauren (my straight pal), it was my first kiss after my shitty, abusive ex-girlfriend and my sparkly Converse stuck to the floor and I’ve never felt more alive.”

Yet it wasn’t the kissing or the sticky floors that made it so special. It was that middle bit. The space for trauma, for the collective experiences of everyone in the room to come together and be held as we danced by ourselves. It was the club night, that finally made me realise how important and integral to the contemporary queer experience that “Dancing On My Own” truly is.

At every DOMO, the last song to play would alway be “Dancing on My Own”. As I sit it here now, I can remember the moment when the lights would go up, motioned by the lyrics in the song. I remember watching the joy in the faces of people around me, shouting the lyrics, grabbing their friends, sharing one last sweaty kiss as that erratic heartbeat finally teetered off into nothing.

But I can also remember seeing the sadness in the eyes of people as they left. And queerness can be sad. It’s lonely. It’s bleak. It’s also beautiful. Exciting. Breathless. And so is “Dancing On My Own”. When we as queer people dance to it, wherever we are, we’re dancing on our own, but as a collective own – together for the most fleeting of moments, against the world.

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