NPR logo I Was Born On The Dance Floor: A Playlist For Pulse

I Was Born On The Dance Floor: A Playlist For Pulse

We asked eleven writers to share the songs that helped them make the dance floor home. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images hide caption

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Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

We asked eleven writers to share the songs that helped them make the dance floor home.

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

In the week since the bloody and obscene disruption in Orlando's Pulse nightclub challenged the spirit of hope the LGBTQ* community has so determinedly cultivated for decades, many beautiful words have been burnt into computer screens, offerings to the sacred dance floor. These eulogies have been personal and political, lauding club life as a source of personal awakening, activism and community building. The distant thump of dance music has run through all of these accounts. Different varieties of beats bounced against each other — the salsa and reggaeton played at Pulse that night; the house music that helped people cope with the decimation wrought by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s; the disco that first shaped the physical experience of post-Stonewall liberation, putting bodies together to sweat and cry out in joy.

To honor that music, we've asked eleven writers who've realized essential elements of themselves on such dance floors to share the songs that meant the most to them within that process. This is a playlist for Pulse, for the 49 dead and 53 wounded who each had their own song, the one that pulled him or her out of her perch at the bar, grinning and shaking that thing, that body that holds the soul; grasping the hand of a friend or lover while looking for a new smile to catch out, to keep growing the circle until it felt like it extended everywhere.

"People talk about liberation as if it's some kind of permanent state, as if you get liberated and that's it, you get some rights and that's it, you get some acknowledgment and that's it, happy now? But you're going back down into the muck of it every day; this world constricts," wrote the novelist Justin Torres in his own remembrance of such moments. The Pulse tragedy reasserted the cruel fact that liberation is a fragile right in a society still making its fitful trudge toward genuine tolerance. The mourning process reminds those who love to dance together of something else, too: Liberation is a practice, an insistently loving one, advanced every time people gather to shake off judgment and open their arms to life. The songs enable the practice. They are the conduits through which a superordinary current travels. To reclaim the religious language too often used to justify hate: The songs are the mantras, the beads dancers use when they pray. We present this playlist as a form of witness and of participating in the practice. Be free.

A Playlist For Pulse

  • CeCe Rogers and Marshall Jefferson, "Someday" (1987)

    The day after the massacre of so many queer people of color in Orlando, I kept returning to CeCe Rogers and Marshall Jefferson's "Someday" from 1987. It was a house anthem that I had heard over and over at the End Up in San Francisco when I was an underage go go dancer at Club Uranus, fresh out of the closet and fresh out of Kentucky. The pain and politics of "Someday" were oddly resonant in the late eighties, as the devastation of AIDS stalked our partygoing, and its references to oppression, prejudice, racism and fear indexed the very obstacles that made its lyrical promise of living as one family and making the world a Paradise so alluring, and, still, so distant. Absorbing the awful news from Florida, I played "Someday" over and over, and then dragged the file into Ableton Live editing software and just looped those gospel chords, listening to that cascading riff, trying to extract some balm. In doing so, I was replaying something that has already been replayed and re-used countless times, notably by Liquid for their rave homage/take off "Sweet Harmony" from 1992, which sped up the tempo and soldered breakbeats and rave stabs to the churchy chassis of the Chicago original (a process taken even further for the Concrete Jungle remix of Urban Shakedown's "Some Justice", which also raids "Someday" for vocal loops). In the wake of Orlando, I could hardly bear to hear the pain in Rogers' voice as he modulates upwards to sing that "It doesn't have to be like this".

    Tragedies are tragic because they are avoidable. The force of this song confirms something essential to me: The pleasure and joy of gay dance music and gay dance spaces draw their fire from political imagination and political demand. Here it takes a radically counterfactual form, one cruelly apt to the question of gun control in America. The message is simple: We don't have to keep repeating ourselves. We could have a different world. House can be an escapist narcotic, an inert and formulaic placeholder for pious citations of long exhausted historical moments, but it can also sneak up on clichés and make their dry bones live. On the dance floor, you learn these things in your body. Rogers' reference to apartheid in South Africa is a case in point; in the wake of the end of apartheid, the meaning and valence of the song has been transformed within his own lifetime. But it's harder to measure the time it will take to get to where this song is going. "If we could just open our eyes / we could make our world a Paradise." If there's pain, it's the pain of waiting, of deferral, of counting our losses. As queers, how long will we have to wait for someday? DREW DANIEL

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  • Diana Ross, "Love Hangover" (1976)

    "Ahhhhh" was the sultry opening to "Love Hangover," disco's "it" song during the spring of 1976. With ex-Supreme Diana Ross singing dreamily, languidly, lustily, "Love Hangover" begins like a slinky seduction. By the time the song shifts into high gear, the dance floor where I most often danced, Ann Arbor's Rubaiyat Disco, was mobbed, and no one, even the most exuberant dancer, could do more than dance in place. Maybe we were responding exclusively to the infectiousness of this track, which Ross herself once described as not quite a song. But I suspect that for early adopters of disco like myself there was a joy in having this maligned genre affirmed by Ross. No singer that famous had yet ventured into our glitterball world. But there's something else about that song that I think explains why we so crowded the dance floor whenever it played. "If there's a cure for this, I don't want it" was Ross's first line. Sure, the song was about love, but for us — the sexual outsiders, the gender rebels — "Love Hangover" was about our love, queer love, and we weren't looking for a cure either. When I think about those disco days, and how queer people used the club, making ourselves over in the process, I flash back to that song, the feeling of brushing up against strangers, and the sensation of feeling free. ALICE ECHOLS

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  • Jennifer Lopez, "Waiting for Tonight" (1999)

    When I started the process of coming out around 1999, I was 19 years old and, shall we say, inexperienced. The all hours, 18-and- up club I frequented with my Gap co-workers was a dingy, druggy place in a scary part of town, a metaphorical world away from where I'd grown up. Needless to say, I loved it. Hearing "Waiting For Tonight" reminds me of nothing so much as the sensory confusion and heightened arousal of those first club experiences — making eyes with handsome strangers, awkwardly misreading signals and surrendering myself to the tangled mass of bodies on the dance floor while J. Lo torched the place with her vivid, breathless fantasies and those naughty conga drums. Closing the deal rarely exceeded the thrill of the chase for me, but "Waiting for Tonight" could always convince me that I just needed to try harder. JON FREEMAN

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  • Armand Van Helden ft. Duane Harden, "You Don't Know Me" (1999)

    In the early 1990s, I used to rent a room in New York's Flatiron district, right around the corner from the Sound Factory Bar at 12 West 21st street. Sleep was not an option while 4 a.m. dancing to DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Louie Vega; after a few sunset hours of puttering around the apartment, I'd hop the subway to honor my nine to five. By the mid- to late-'90s, The Octagon, Escuelita, Café Con Leche, Phab, Brooklyn Sensation and Langston's were among the trans-borough black and Latino gay clubs (or club nights) that formed my crew's weekly going-out ritual; these spaces were something of a contrast to the decidedly more mainstream (and much paler) megaclubs like Palladium, Twilo and Arena.

    For a transitional '90s moment, the idea of a hip-hop night in a gay club was still decidedly left-curve, so much so that I can recall lining up outside The Warehouse in the Bronx, waiting to get in, wondering if any of us might be mowed down by a drive-by shooter with a phobic axe to grind. I wonder if in our rush to mourn and find logic in the midst of the Orlando catastrophe we've managed to conflate the concept of the commercial, transactional gay nightclub as a safe space with the ideal of the gay nightclub as a convivial space. To attend an LGBT club in a straight-supremacist world used to mean — and in many places still means — that you're necessarily exposed in some way; there was always a bit of risk, and safety was rarely guaranteed (particularly if you weren't cisgender). And still, we flocked to spaces like Escuelita and Crash, hell bent on having a kiki-ing with friends, hot in pursuit of a date or a hook-up, dressed to the nines in stylized outfits, determined to see and be seen, awestruck by voguing mavericks battling it out and kinetically dancing the night away until our feet turned sore.

    Even more than Ultra Naté's 1997 "Free," "You Don't Know Me" is the track that most reminds me of the inspirational anthem pop that 1990s NYC underground house made possible. Duane Harden's impassioned bleat surging atop Armand Van Helden's looping Carrie Lucas disco sample and Jaydee beat was the pre-9/11 zenith of transcendent dance floor pride. The sassy, clapback lyric — fusing self-esteem sentiments borrowed from ditties as diverse as La Cage Aux Folles' "I Am What I Am" and Billy Joel's "My Life" — rides along on a "don't judge me" message so in-your-face-potent you wish the Orlando shooter had heard it, internalized it and made much smarter, less lethal choices. Nearly two decades later, I've spent a fair amount of time in queer nightlife spaces in pockets of the world where homosexuality has yet to be decriminalized. There, like everywhere else, the pursuit of conviviality and personal liberation continues; even in the midst of resurgent attempts to repress the marginalized, we find a way to keep dancing. JASON KING

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  • Dinosaur L, "#5 (Go Bang!)" (1981)

    Thoughts spring to "That's Where the Happy People Go" by the Trammps, the first song to acknowledge the pivotal role played by the LGBTQ community in the formation of disco, and a sweet number to offset this bitterest of moments. They also turn to M.F.S.B.'s quintessential underground disco classic "Love Is the Message," because the desire to confront hatred with love has suffused responses to the massacre. Then there's Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", a near-mandatory selection given that so many partygoers realised their queer selves at Pulse, and also Joe Smooth's Chicago house classic "Promised Land" in the hope that "One day we will be free / From fighting, violence / People crying in the street."

    Not for the first time, I need a DJ to capture the layered complexity of what I'm feeling, to lead a dialogical journey that weaves together all of these records and so many more, because this form of extended conversation enables us to discover where we are and where we want to go, expressing our connectedness as the exchange unfolds. But if no DJ steps forward, I'll pick out for Dinosaur L's "#5 (Go Bang!)."

    First released by Arthur Russell on the album 24 24 Music in 1981 and remixed by François Kevorkian in 1982, "Go Bang!" gives the impression of doing everything at once as it meshes disco, funk, jazz, dub, new wave, opera and spoken-word chanting in a pulsating groove marked by high drama. The track captures New York party culture at its most mutant and vibrant, for just as nobody had a name for the wild range of sounds that fueled the city's definitively mixed crowds of the early 1970s, so the post-backlash period of the early 1980s witnessed the culture casting genre to one side as musicians captured the kaleidoscopic diversity of the city's dance crowds. "Go Bang" expresses not only male pleasure (listen to Julius Eastman's three-and-a-half octave organismic rendition of the title line) but also the the better-than-sex moment when an entire dance floor screams as a sublime record reaches its peak (captured in the line "I want to see all my friends at once go bang"). Whenever I hear this record played at a party, I and others enter into a circus of sounds, movements, gestures, expressions, touches and screams as the floor becomes a space of openness and expression that exceeds standard definitions of who we are, allowing us to become collectively who we want to be. If only the record never stopped. TIM LAWRENCE

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  • Aquarian Dream, "Phoenix" (1976)

    This gem, produced by jazz fusion drummer Norman Connors, embodies the sanctified feeling of gospel, a sound that suffused so much of early disco.

    I first heard this cut about 25 years after it was first released and had drifted into obscurity. I had just graduated college and moved to Philly for a music critic internship. Soon after moving there, I became something of a club head. There was virtually no gay club life in my native Little Rock, Ark., and Philly back then still had several hot joints. This one spot, whose name I've long forgotten, played a mix of new and classic dance cuts and drew a beautiful, intergenerational, mostly black and brown crowd. The night the DJ threw on "Phoenix," the older queens whooped and filled the floor right away. Younger ones joined, too. Usually the wallflower, I couldn't resist and ended up dancing with a slim, flirty older guy who sang the lyrics as he danced, hands lifted. After the song segued into another cut, I leaned into the guy's ear and asked him the title of the song.

    "'Phoenix,' baby," he said."Aquarian Dream."

    It took me almost a decade to find a copy of that song, which transformed that narrow, sweaty space into a righteous sanctuary. Named for the mythical bird that rose strong and glorious from ashes and flames, "Phoenix" celebrates the resiliency of the human spirit, something to remember as we grieve the tragedy at Pulse. And as we grieve, perhaps the spirited horns, strings, percussion and churchy vocals will help us imagine a better place for the 49 gone. Their spirits dance on as the song evokes the flight metaphor found in many gospel songs: "Fly, fly away." RASHOD OLLISON

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  • Jeanie Tracy, "Time Bomb" (1984)

    I hadn't experienced sex yet, but when my pointy-toed boots hit the dance floor of the Lost & Found in Washington D.C., my teenage body throbbed with lust, passion and desire. Those same sensations pile up in climax upon climax on this lost classic by Jeanie Tracy, the Houston-born singer that stepped in as Sylvester's primary backing vocalist after Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes graduated to fame as the Weathergirls. (I've never been able to find complete credits for this track, but I choose to believe that's Sylvester, the Queen of Disco, wailing away behind Jeanie throughout this gem.) I blasted "Time Bomb" in my suburban Virginia bedroom and on my first Walkman to sustain me during long, lonely weeks at school, but it never sounded as full and alive as it did in those fleeting moments when I dared to detonate into my true self, one among many, on Saturday nights at the L&F. KURT B. REIGHLEY

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  • Paul van Dyk ft. Saint Etienne - Tell Me Why (The Riddle) (2000)

    The beat and sequencer matrix is familiar to fans of the German DJ whose trance productions were all the rage in big cities during the Y2K era. But the synth strings cresting over those beats? Impossible by himself. Collaborating with the British dance pop trio coaxed out the best from each other: Saint Etienne got sinew and muscle, van Dyk got pastels and melodies. Thank Sarah Cracknell, the Holy Spirit of Wistfulness, repeating, "When the morning comes/and the snow is falling" after wondering if she could open her heart again. Tweaking and peaking, months after the ebb of my own unrequited crush, I danced to this 2000 British hit at a defunct Miami club's gay night, aware that several hundred damp strangers and my three friends had known nothing better than this moment but would know much better moments when the morning came and the sun was rising. ALFRED SOTO

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  • Aly-Us, "Follow Me" (1992)

    I owe so much of my life, interests, salvation to vogueing — its execution, its specter, its soundtrack — that very specifically black and Latino and gay and trans and New York subculture that has quite literally depended upon the club (or community center, or VFW, or high school gym) as a sanctuary for survival. I owe so much to its practitioners, its DJs, its participants, for teaching me new ways to be free by example, and for exemplifying transcendence through dance, and for expanding and illuminating ingenious new avenues for femininity to me, a straight, cis Latina from Wyoming. Voguing is a space where words like "soft" and "cunt" and "pussy," often derogatory in less open spaces, are compliments of the highest order, particularly when accompanied by unwavering displays of athleticism that equate them with physical power, too.

    Adjacent to this is "Follow Me," the 1992 New York City anthem by house trio Aly-us, and one of the most generous songs I've ever heard — a song that, 24 years later, still has the capacity to uplift me more than 30 years in the church ever did. Specifically anti-racism, its gospel (and gospel influences) resonates for any time and place. Its essential openness and light even now encourages the best possible scenario: a dancefloor of hands lifted in ecstatic prayer, the physical sensation of being truly free. It explicitly imagines the club as a site of inclusivity and the body as its own locus of worship. Follow me... why don't you follow me... to a place where we can be free. This is as plainspoken a mission of house music as there's ever been, an enduring staple of the queer dancefloor that can still elevate the club to a higher place. There's love to share. Can you feel it? It's in the air. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

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  • Deee-Lite, "Good Beat" (1991)

    I met David Diaz on the parched, scraggly playground for "upper graders" at our Inland Empire elementary school in Southern California, within months of my arrival to the States in 1983. We were both 10, and as he describes it, "Karen was playing soccer with the boys, and I was playing Chinese jump rope with the girls." When we were on a class field trip to the murky, man-made Lake Perris, David rode with me and a few other kids in my folks' conversion van, prompting my mom to think wishfully that we were "an item." I suppose we were. How we were became increasingly apparent as we matured awkwardly into our teendom, trying slyly to fit within whatever acceptable parameters of gender-bending the late '80s and early '90s afforded. At one point we both had hairdos resembling Mario Lopez's mullet in Saved by the Bell, though I could never achieve the lustrousness of David's, since he has naturally curly hair, and like most Asian girls of the era, I needed a "body wave" just to get mine to take any sort of shape. It was in our senior year as theater kids and members of the Thespian club that David — who, in a rehearsed cosmopolitan accent, I started calling "Dahv" — brought Deee-Lite's World Clique album to our protoqueer (but really already totally queer), theater dork cast parties.

    While our hetero-confident peers were gregariously practicing their prom night grind to the album's highest charting hit, "Groove is in the Heart" (portending its subsequent popularity at many of the straight weddings we'd end up going to years later), Dahv brought us to the house with the nonchalant, cumulative build of "Good Beat." We'd ease into the song with simple, pulsating movements of the head and chest, nodding our assent to the beat that would eventually animate our flesh as if we were elastic, ecstatic windsocks. We sang along with our priestess, Lady Miss Kier (from New York City via Youngstown, Ohio): "Everything will be alright when you feel it tonight." "Good Beat" propelled those of us piled into my grandma's Ford Escort station wagon across the full 55 miles of freeway that led to Arena, in the eastern part of West Hollywood. Arena was the 18-and-over queer Latino club where we could do everything for real with other brown queers like us: the intimate strangers who knew when to break out in a tight, rhythmical unison with "zoo wah zoo wah zoo wah da da...zoo wah...zoo zoo wah...." We came to the rest of our lives together there to the "Good Beat," to the promise of things getting better, blissfully oblivious to our future worlds in which such scenes of becoming are so easily annihilated. KAREN TONGSON

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  • Sarah Dash, "Sinner Man" (1978)

    I'll never forget dancing to Sarah Dash's "Sinner Man" because I heard it for the very first time at my very first gay disco. My friends Jim and Julie and I had just graduated from high school in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y. and I was about to leave for college in New York City. I wasn't out even to myself yet, but this was 1979, and we already knew the hippest and most urbane version of ANYTHING was gay. So we went to a downtown gay club called Jim's, and right away spot two of our English teachers. Then this song comes on, about an otherwise strong-willed woman's attraction to what's forbidden. It's sung by one of the ex-members of Labelle, so she really belts, and it's got one of Tom Moulton's classic mixes that breaks down as the background vocalists chant, "Holding me, touching me, sinner man" while the track builds more powerful than ever — as if surrendering to what's supposedly bad for you can make you stronger if you're able to learn from it. That, for me, was the gay experience in a nutshell. Soon after, Jim, Julie and I all came out, and a few years after that, our social studies teacher Tim Mains became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in all of New York State. I'm sure there are people in our hometown who still think we're all sinners, but I wouldn't have made it out alive if I'd believed that. BARRY WALTERS

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