When I look back on adolescence, I don’t really remember high school. What I remember most is a decrepit old building in the south end of Toronto, an abandoned warehouse that opened its doors at midnight on Saturdays to probably the best dance party Toronto ever had. More than that, it’s the house music I heard there, the energy that we took in and gave away dancing in what could have been the set for a film about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Dark, a bit creepy, barren, with untold corners and more hidey-holes than I was ever able to discover, the Twilight Zone held my friends and I in its hands, sheltering us in the basso thump-thump-thump of house-house-house-house music until we were ready to go our separate ways.
It’s hard to describe that period now, when dance music seems so devoid of heart and music is so desperately over-produced. Looking back I see the outrageous party that was disco fading into the seventies and early-eighties, trumped by the blaring homophobia of “I Hate Disco” tee-shirts, buttons and radio stations. As well, I see that the way we danced was shaped by the suppressed sexual fear and mourning of the first AIDS generation: we danced like we were in church, we danced like God was in the lilting movement of our bodies, the pop-pop-pop of the rolling chest-to-pelvis movement that came to be known as jacking.
In The Beginning There Was Jack intones the high priest of house: jack-jack-jack-jack-your-body. Dancing, the choreographer Michael Peters once told a workshop I was part of, is fucking; that is all you really need to know about it. Certainly at that age we were dancing more than we were fucking. Or more precisely, we were dancing together: two pressed together, three and four at a time, what safe sex advocates might now call outercourse, but what we called friendship. Our generation in Toronto came of age with a wave of West Indian immigrant children, brought from one post-colony to another to join their mothers, many of whom had originally come to Canada as temporarily-visa’d domestic workers. With the Jamaicans and Trinidadians came winding, a frankly erotic slow groove that stretched out the urgency of house and gave us our own particularly Atlantic interpretation of the music that lifted us into morning.
There was winding, there was grinding; but the deep dark caverns of the Zone sheltered all sorts of freaks, eccentrics and hopefuls. The grown man whose mother never let him take ballet so he’d show up at 6am as the sun came up and pirouette and grand-jete across the stage. The twins who came in matching Chanel suits, with wide circle skirts and pearls and twirled in unison on the stage. Those of us who met and fell in love and had our hearts broken for the first time, and the drama that ensued. The people we lost for a while to drugs. The men who began to disappear and who didn’t come back. The occasional fight, the occasional weapon.
But there was also the music. Nothing for me has ever recaptured the way that early house allowed us to come together. When I say it felt like church, it’s because with the last echoes of disco came the return of gospel: dance felt like prayer then because djs weren’t afraid of soaring melody – the opening chords of First Choice’s Let No Man Put Asunder, played for a few seconds and then held back was enough to make their entire crowd buckle under the unison of our desire. Give it to us, the ensuing roar begged the dj, and he held it back until we couldn’t take it any more. And then the room would explode and the crowd jumped up, jumped up and down like it was Carnival, one hand in air to shade us from the glory that was It’s not over between you and me/It’s not over, don’t want to be free/What has been joined by God/Let-No-Man-Put-Asunder. The melody, another song went, is good to me. The dark was even better – we held onto each other, we slipped by each other, full-bodies pressed up as the room went way beyond capacity.
Remember that the club opened at midnight. Zone regulars knew to go home after our first nightclub, nap for an hour or two and show up around 2:30 when the tourists went home. By four your shoes were off, by six your makeup had rubbed off and some of us were shirtless, or stripped down to our bras and ripped jeans, still dancing. What we were waiting for was the sun to rise up through the one window in the room, and for the dj to bring us home with the last mood shift of the night. By 6:30 and 7am, most everyone had gone home and you could and literally did spread your arms out. I remember some of us buying fans to dance to Malcolm McLaren’s Madame Butterfly, covering what felt like vast amounts of space in the emptying room. Most of all I remember the lilting bass line of the now-obscure Dennis Edwards’ song Don’t Look Any Further, a song (also a truly awful video – although who knew Siedah Garrett was so pretty) about two people who can’t find the words to describe their coming together – strange, when you think of the chances, that we both be in a state of mind. The song hesitates there and turns to the risks you take with your heart: too cool to be careless, looking for the right thing, oh baby, don’t look any further.
And then the sun would come up and everyone went home. And it was morning, some kind of morning, for all of us.
Kyla Wazana Tompkins: F2F