Dancing means freedom: disability & disco

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” – Friedrich Nietzsche.

Disco – the music of beautiful people, the Avant Garde, the creative and the marginalised, was for music and drug lovers alike. It was a cultural revolution in a time of social unrest, whilst the gay rights movement, the women’s movement and of course the civil rights movement were making momentum, changing the world forever. Disco was at the heart of it, and everyone was invited to the party.

For one of the first times, your race, religion, gender and sexuality did not matter. All that was needed was the music, a sense of hedonism.  The more extravagant the dress and behaviour, the better. All prejudices were left at the door. When people discuss disco, of course drugs and sex get top billing, but beyond these was a sense of acceptance and indeed family. Women could be exactly who they wanted to be, to be as sexual as they wanted, with no judgement. Disco turned women into queens of music and dance. You just have to listen to Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ to understand the impact of women of colour on the scene.

The music being played at the clubs was by openly gay men. ‘Hits’ were passed on to DJs then pushed underground to be played in the more obscure disco clubs. Slowly but surely the movement grew and clubs like the infamous Studio 54 were born.

Dancing can mean freedom for some of us with mobility issues. Gay clubs and dance music in general have always been more welcoming and accessible, although for those who are wheelchair users, I still see very little evidence of accessibility being addressed correctly at many clubs – and I have yet to see a photo of a wheelchair user getting down on the dance floor at Studio 54. However, that was Seventies New York, and times have changed…slightly. Music still continues to transcend all barriers and the spirit of disco is still felt today.

In the Nineties, clubs like Popstars and Trash Palace welcomed a diverse mixture of people, including myself, a person with cerebral palsy. A late night impromptu Goldfrapp three song set at Popstarz (at The Scala), Immodestly Blaize gogo-dancing at the front of the stage is particularly memorable. Indeed Goldfrapp’s single ‘Ride a White Horse’ was influenced by the disco era.

“Memorable” – a night with Goldfrapp & Immodesty Blaize

Also memorable were nights at Trash Palace … perhaps forgoing the one night that the doorman thought I was too drunk to get in. My dear friend pipped up and shouted at him “ She’s not drunk, she has spina bifida!” To this day, we still speak of his mortification at identifying the completely wrong disability. I however found it hilarious (and to be fair we were somewhat squiffy). The door man was very apologetic, many cocktails were drunk that night whilst I danced, in my slightly wobbly way, until 4am in the morning. This acceptance and diversity started with disco. Despite disability and disabled rights movements taking longer to be recognised by society, as a marginalised group, people with disabilities felt embraced by disco and the freedom to be part of a growing movement was accepted.

White horses & accessibility for all (next time, side saddles)!

Whatever your body’s ability, the joy of the music, combined with the beats has always had the ability to transport. Dancing has always been a way to express my more sensual side as an adult. My mother loved to dance, and I grew up learning to love and accept my body through the power of movement and pure abandonment. As an adult, when I was on the dance floor, it ceased to matter that I had mobility issues. My hips could still move to the rhythm, the music moving through my body like a familiar, adored lover. My body, for that moment, was at home with itself. They say music saves, and it has saved me each and every time I dance.

As the Seventies moved into the Eighties the AIDS epidemic took hold (as did the fear and lack of knowledge about the disease), and the formally glorious clubs started to close, leaving an opening for the burgeoning punk scene. The memories stayed, paving the way for other music scenes and clubs to embrace the otherwise marginalised. Disco explored a complete freedom of expression.  Even for those who never liked the music, the impact of its cultural revolution cannot be denied. It was coming off the back of the Sixties and the hippy movement. Hallucinogenic drugs and free love were experienced again through rave music in our Second Summer of Love. In a way, it was a natural progression. It allowed women and men an equal playing field when it came to sexuality and expression. For myself, that also meant that sexuality and disability could be combined. The right to feel sexually expressive belonged to everyone. Love it, or hate it, disco paved the way for a brand new era in musical, culture, art and sex.

As Nile Rodgers said, “disco was the first time everyone was fine with everyone else’s culture” Disco was perhaps one of the first ‘safe spaces’ for people on the outskirts of society, for those who felt unsafe elsewhere. Disco’s acceptance of everyone opened up a new and glorious world for those whose existences and identities had been held to account by a bigoted world for too long.

By Lisa Jenkins

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