Only When I’m Dancing Can I Feel This Free

Queer liberation, dreams, and self-discovery on the dance floor

By Alfred Soto

To discuss Latin American culture without mentioning the role of dancing would be myopic; to discuss gay culture without mentioning the role of dancing is to ignore an essential component of self-definition. With more than a hundred dead or wounded at Pulse in Orlando, it’s worth noting that it was the gay club’s Latin night that drew the formidable crowd. That the massacre took place as Pride events unfold in glitter and sweat from coast to coast, in a city with one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the country, adds more poignancy than the heart can stand.

A more than decent simulacrum for a good fuck, dancing is how many queer men and women learned to yield to superficiality. A good beat. An amazing stranger. Content-free and proud. Blitheness is the queer’s gift to culture. Homosexuals begin their self-development upon realizing the extent to which they’re different from siblings and friends; we prepare faces for the faces we will meet. Those with the panache can “camp,” or create an exaggerated version or distortion of themselves. But for those who let the rhythm get ’em, dancing has a particular significance. Shunned by friends, thrown out of their homes, banished to metaphorical cities on the plain, they find on crowded dance floors a sense of fellowship that is no less deep for being ephemeral. And, no, rhythm isn’t even required — that’s the point. We’re figuring ourselves out in those spaces, a beer at a time, yielding to that frisson triggered by a passing glance, a smile at the bar, an unexpected nudge on the floor itself. Even our Latin American straight brethren understand that hip-shaking and a faint loosening of the shoulders remain among the few permissible expiations of machismo. Just don’t remind them.

The politics of dancing is the politics of feeling good; the politics of dancing is also the politics of willing yourself to feel good. Pop is replete with miniature psychodramas in which memory and desire, subject and object, play out on the dance floor. The teen in The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” gets a happy ending. So does Sylvester in 1978’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” For others, the scenarios were more fraught. In Donna Summer’s “Love’s Unkind,” released in 1977, the clomping girl-group beat forces Summer to the sideline, “standing on the outside of the inside where I wanna be.” Shannon’s forlorn “Let the Music Play” literalizes the trauma: Freestyle’s urtext depicts a couple for whom sharing dance-floor space presents a congeries of competing lusts, where the right signals go to the wrong people, the wrong ones go to the wrong people, and in the meantime the androgynously sung refrain repeats “Let the music play” as if in prayer.

Because queer lives were for decades subject to the caprices of the state, we retain a sense of our bodies as palimpsests on which childhood hurts, adolescent disappointments, and the meek adjustments of adulthood are written in luminous ink. Provided that it’s big and loud, I can dance to anything. Thirty years ago, Madonna wrote and recorded an ode to gorgeous Puerto Rican boys. Not before or since has she sounded this addled, this horny. But the marvelous bridge in “Into the Groove” suggests that the knowledge of a fiction justifies itself. “Live out your fantasies here with me,” she implores. She gets it. The opposite of fiction isn’t “reality” — it’s “falsehood.” Fiction refreshes life.

Let Madonna’s ode serve as elegy. We mourn the dead in Orlando. We honor them by continuing their work — which is to say, by continuing their play. Only when we’re dancing can we feel this free.