Tim Lawrence's new book, Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor, 1980-83, which came out last month through Duke University Press, makes three core arguments. "First, New York experienced a community-driven cultural renaissance during the early 1980s that stands as one of the most influential in its, and perhaps in any city's, history," reads the books preface. "Second, the renaissance was rooted in opportunities that came to the fore during New York's shift from industrialism to post-industrialism, and it began to unravel when New York assumed the character of a neoliberal city organized around finance capital, gentrification, real estate inflation, and social regulation. Third, although party culture is routinely denigrated as a source of mindless hedonism and antisocial activity, it revealed its social, cultural, and even economic potential during the period examined here."
In this excerpt, Lawrence examines the unique spirit and subsequent influence of David Mancuso's The Loft.
David Mancuso read about Steve Dahl's anti-disco rally—which saw the Chicago rock DJ detonate a small mountain of forty thousand disco records during a baseball double-header—in the paper and that was it. "The disco sucks movement was more of an out-of-New-York phenomenon," notes the Loft party host. "New York was and remains different to the rest of the States, including Chicago. Out there they had this very negative perception of disco, but in New York it was part of this mix of cultures and different types of music." Mancuso had become a key figure in the popularization of disco when he cofounded the New York Record Pool, the first organization to arrange for record companies to provide DJs with promotional copies, yet he became wary when Studio 54 instituted a hierarchical door policy while promoting a wall-to-wall disco soundtrack that didn't embrace "the range of music that was coming out." That had never been an issue at the Loft, where maybe a third of Mancuso's selections could be categorized as disco, but as the juggernaut gained momentum the music's exhilarating potential became harder to hear. "If people had been able to listen to disco alongside other sounds they might not have thought it was so bad, but they were being hammered with it," adds Mancuso. "Once it became a formula you knew there was going to be a change. People didn't want a set of rules. They wanted to dance."
The Loft dated back to Saturday, 14 February 1970, when Mancuso staged a "Love Saves the Day" Valentine's bash that synthesized a startling range of influences. The flight of manufacturers from downtown enabled Mancuso to move into a warehouse space at 647 Broadway and shape an expansive form of partying. The advances of the golden age of stereo enabled him to maximize the musicality and, it followed, the social potential of the party experience. The Harlem rent-party tradition that dated back to the 1920s suggested a community-based model of unlicensed, private partying that could be sustained by donations. The civil rights, gay liberation, feminist, and antiwar movements fed into the rainbow coalition identifications of his come-as-you-are crowd. And Sister Alicia, who put on regular parties for the kids she cared for in the children's home where Mancuso grew up, inspired his unswerving desire to nurture an extended family of dispossessed dancers as well as his comforting use of children's birthday-party décor. The Loft host's balloon supplier must have counted him as its most lucrative customer.
Thinking of himself not as a DJ but as a party host who happened to select music, Mancuso pioneered the practice of weaving together records according to their lyrical messages as well as their instrumental grooves, forging a narrative arc of acid intensity as the songs harmonized across the course of a night. He also expanded the sonic range of the New York dance floor by selecting records such as "City, Country, City" by War, "I'm a Man" by Chicago, "Girl You Need a Change of Mind" by Eddie Kendricks, and "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango, which introduced Latin, African, rock, gospel, breakbeat, and even country elements while bedding an aesthetic that favored explorative records that reached dramatic crescendos. Admirers went on to model the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, Flamingo, 12 West, the Soho Place, Reade Street, and the Paradise Garage after Mancuso's party, making it the most influential of the 1970s. But following a troubling period that saw authorities close down the Broadway Loft and trigger a move to Prince Street that became embroiled in a legal struggle, the party regained its equilibrium. "A lot of lsd was being dropped in those days and a trip lasted twelve hours, so even if you weren't taking acid that was the vibe," notes the host. "By 3:30 the place would be packed and the parties would carry on until one in the afternoon, sometimes later. It was the whole cycle."
Invited to check out the Loft while dancing at a Long Island party in early 1980, Louis "Loose" Kee Jr. had already partied in Manhattan when his best friend (whose sister was dating Eddie Murphy) got him into Studio 54. He lapped up the theater of the entrance, the pyrotechnics of the interior, and the glamour of the crowd, yet none of that prepared him for the moment when he entered the Loft via the party's basement entrance on Mercer Street and immediately witnessed three guys, one with his legs spread, the other two positioned at the other end of the room, each waiting their turn to take a run at the first guy, fall onto their knees, and slide through his legs while doing a backbend. "I was like, 'Wow, where am I?' " he reminisces. "I knew I was home. I had been doing freestyle and doing the hustle in Long Island clubs for at least four years, and this was the first time I met people who were in a higher caliber than I was—and I was very good in Long Island."
Going to the Loft provided Loose with his first experience of dancing "with blacks, whites, old, young, straight, and gay in the same room," and he soon joined a "secret society" of Long Islanders who headed to the city every weekend as he wrapped up his shift at Blimpies at midnight, grabbed his bag, and headed straight to Prince Street. Mancuso's party was the "complete opposite" of Studio 54, where dancers would buy expensive outfits in order to be somebody and narcissism reigned. "The Loft wasn't about your dress and attire," he explains. "It was about being communal." Dancers wore functional T-shirts, military-style gas pants, and either Capezio jazz-dance shoes or five-dollar Chinese slippers. Many shredded the sleeves of their tees, threading beads onto the shred so they hung like braids. Some also attached an alligator clip adorned with a long feather to part of their clothing as an ornamental smoking accessory for when their joints burned down to the roach. "People dressed creatively and practically," notes the dancer.
The comparatively uncrowded basement became a favorite destination for those who needed a little more space. One popular maneuver involved dancers taking a so-called swan dive, or leaping in the air, landing on their hands, and taking their head through their arms. Zuleka, one of the regulars, liked to stand on her hands and bring her legs around until her toes were touching the front of her head. "You could find people doing tap dancing, you saw people doing ballet, you would see gymnastics, you would see early aerobics, you would see people who were inspired by martial arts movies," reminisces Loose. "There was one guy who had a bandana around his head and he would jump rope to the music or do push-ups to the music. One guy named Magic, he did magic. He would do card tricks or take a coin out of his ear. Then there was one girl who used to use her dress as a flag; that was the way she danced." Complementary styles proliferated. "You could do anything physical so long as it was fun. Anyone who was free-spirited was accepted."
Archie Burnett started to head to the Loft around the same time. Raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, he wasn't permitted to wear tattoos and was only supposed to dance in honor of God. "Friday night sunset to Saturday night sunset, you didn't do anything," he notes. "I was living at home so I had to do this on the sneak." A graphic design student who worked as a part-time usher at the Gramercy Theater, Burnett tested out moves he had seen on TV at Studio 54 rival New York, New York, until a friend from the playhouse took him to Prince Street. "At first I was freaked out by the noise," he remembers. "When David played certain tracks the screaming was so deafening I didn't know what was going on." Burnett appreciated the contrast with midtown—the lack of gawking, the way dancers showed respect for each other's space, and the informal dress code. "I came in with my L.A. style, knowing nothing at all," he adds. "I was very upright, had my arms swinging, and didn't shift my body weight." Learning from others, Burnett started to become part of the music. "If a track had syncopation I would dance to the drums," he explains. "On other tracks I would pick out the bass or whatever my instincts would tell me to ride on. I would also act out the vocals."
With Alvin Ailey of the multiracial Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater a presence alongside coteachers and students, the Loft doubled as a place of mutual learning, especially downstairs, where dancers continually exchanged moves. At the same time the nurturing environment encouraged participants to experience a sense of childlike freedom, allowing them to "regress to when" they "were nine years old," notes Burnett. (As domestic tensions deepened, the partygoer's mother told him, "You're doing the Devil's work! Come back to God!" But Burnett didn't agree and never missed a party.) Above all, the floor drew dancers into a web of interlocking, dynamic relationships in which sociality assumed forms that weren't immediately recognizable. "I could dance with two or three people at the same time," explains Loose. "Everyone gives you different rhythms, moves, and emotions, so on every turn I could pick up a little bit of what they were doing and add it to the repertoire of the dance." During peak hours dancers had to rein in their moves if they were on the main floor, yet by 8:00 am they could start to stretch out as Mancuso introduced records such as "America" from West Side Story. Come the afternoon, as the marathon drew to a close, the party host might put on The Nutcracker as his cat Sir Wolfie scampered around the room. "A lot of the guys who came to the parties had rough lives on the outside," offers Burnett. "The Loft was a sanctuary."
Copyright Duke University Press 2016