The Disco Lifestyle

Rarely does a dance movement fit so precisely within a decade.  Seventies Disco was born on Valentine's Day 1970, when David Manusco opened The Loft in New York City, and it rapidly faded in 1980.  When the Disco movement peaked in 1978-79, the demographic was predominantly white, heterosexual, urban and suburban middle class.  But it didn't begin that way.  For the first eight years, Disco was an underground movement.  Then the film Saturday Night Fever (December 1977) helped turn the simmering subculture into a mainstream fad, resulting is a 30-fold increase in disco clubs.

Who went to discos, and why?

There wasn't one definitive disco demographic.  The seventies saw the emergence of today's pluralism, where individual variety of interests and tastes surpasses mass trends and fads.  Thus several different populations were attracted to the disco scene.

One population was the generation of younger baby boomers who felt left out of the sixties counterculture revolution.  They were teens during the sixties, perhaps college students, but were bystanders watching the events from the sidelines.  Many were wistfully envious of the expanding freedoms which they saw the hippies create, from personal evolution and quests for enlightenment, to the sexual revolution.  Especially the sexual revolution.

As Bruce Pollack recalled in 1979, "We had been reminded once too often that we were just not with it.  Where they had long hair and Woodstock, we had nothing to clearly call our own.  We needed a kind of shared activity, scorned by our elders, which would bring us together as a group.  At the disco, we have forged a generational banner.  It's great to feel special at last."  For a significant population of boomers, the seventies were their turn.  With the price of admission to a disco, they could safely purchase a taste of the freedoms which they had only watched during the sixties.

But they adopted a wholly different aesthetic from the counterculture, because an important part of feeling special is being different — in this case different from the hippies.  A core element of the new disco scene was sophistication.  This meant upscale and classy, but keeping the counterculture emphasis on becoming personally evolved.  Sophistication was also defined by what it wasn't — it wasn't rustic country life and dressing down.  So the sexual liberation pioneered in the sixties was embraced, but as a glamorous urban version.

There was another reason for the change in aesthetics (the disco look) beyond change for change's sake, and this involved a second disco population:  the suburban middle class and blue collar working class.  Here we find the same upward mobility which has motivated the middle classes for two centuries.

Disco was appealing because its sophistication was a step up for them, but within reach.  All they had to do was dress up and pay the admission and they could live in an elegant, futuristic world for a night.  And hopefully mingle with people a step higher on the social ladder.

Disco music mirrored this sophistication, featuring orchestras (the Philadelphia Sound) with large string and brass sections.  Quite the opposite of small hard-hitting rock bands.  Intentionally opposite.

So for the middle and working class young Americans, the possibility of taking a step up in their lives was more compelling than dressing down.  That's essentially the story of Saturday Night Fever — the working class Italian American who was a hardware clerk by day and a Disco King by night.

Significantly, the discos also offered a taste of freedom and self actualization for three other subcultures during the seventies: Gays, Hispanics and African Americans.  After decades of marginalization for each of these minorities, they all found a supportive home in the discos.

1) Gays were the first, right from the beginning, when David Manusco opened The Loft, closely followed by The Gallery and the Paradise Garage, all in New York City.  After the counter-culture revolution of the sixties, there was now a relatively wider acceptance of gays in the media, followed by some legal freedoms in New York City in 1971.

2) Then New York City Latinos, largely Puerto Rican and Cuban, quickly joined the party with their couple dance traditions of Latinized 1950s rock'n'roll swing.  American popular culture had mostly given up partnered "touch" dancing in 1960, when the Twist changed the dynamic of social dancing.  But Hispanic dancers in New York had never stopped partnered dancing, partially because it was considered masculine for Latino men to dance, and had been for generations.  So for them, partnered couple dancing was preferred over solo dancing.

3) How about the music in 1972?  If you were transported back to an early seventies disco you might be surprised to hear only pop, soul and Motown music from the sixties.  Then a new sound hit New York in 1973, imported from Africa — the Soul Makossa single by Manu Dibango, which charged the Manhattan disco scene with a new energy.  It was stunningly unlike anything else at the time — a repetitious motif with no melody line, or story in the lyrics, and with a steady dance beat.  Soon this new sound was filled out with a larger Philly-style orchestral version, funky rhythms, and the next generation of Motown soul, all of which were primarily African-American.  Combined together, this became the definitive sound of the disco era.

So one could say that the original disco subculture (1970-77) was a fusion of (1) the gay urban party scene, (2) partnered dancing kept alive by Latinos, and (3) African American music.  Then once the ball was rolling, many other populations of Americans were also attracted to Discos, for a wide variety of reasons.  From there, Disco quickly spread to Europe and parts of Asia.

Does it seem odd that over a million white, straight, middle class and suburban Americans flocked to discos which were initially gay, black and Latino scenes?  No, because a core element of the disco scene was sophistication.  Sophistication meant wanting to see oneself as personally evolved.  The messages of the 1960s counterculture revolution had received endless press coverage, propagated in hundreds of popular songs, and glamorized in dozens of films.  By 1976 it had trickled down to the working class.  Rural bigotry was now seen as unsophisticated, as harshly depicted in the 1972 film Deliverance.  The term "homophobia" was coined at this time, around 1970, and was pejorative.  Both the suburban and blue collar kids liked to see themselves as evolving beyond that.  Seventies disco dancers may have been criticized at the time for their pursuit of superficial pleasures, but this was also a time of acceptance of otherness — more so than would be seen in the following decades.

The new freedoms were also expressed on the dance floor.  This could be the self expression of solo dancing, or the many shades of the sexual revolution played out in partner dancing, dressed up with disco fashions which often emphasized sexuality, and accompanied by overtly sexual lyrics in the new music... songs celebrating macho men and foxy ladies, love machines and "doing it."

Like most fads, Disco was also a way to be modern.  Beyond modern, it was futuristic — a major element of the disco scene.  Everything was state-of-the-art, from the latest look in club design to all-new fashions in all-new synthetic polyester fabrics.

Electronic synthesized dance music entered the disco scene in the late 70s, as the perfect match for state-of-the-art sound systems with hanging arrays of super-tweeters above mammoth subwoofers the size of minivans, illuminated with the highest-tech lighting, fog machines, computerized multimedia visuals (that was my job then), animated neon and multicolor lasers.  To quote Steve D'Acquisto, "It was like a cross between outer space and a big playhouse."

The dancers felt that Disco was a movement that they created.  But that was the original disco scene, before it became a fad.  The underground phase lasted a fairly long time – eight years – much longer than the two-year second phase, after Saturday Night Fever launched the discomania, when the number of dance clubs exploded from 1,500 to 45,000.  But soon Disco Fever became "last year's fad" – the sure death of any trend – and by 1980 it was proclaimed to be dead.

Disco lasted only a decade but it initiated several traditions that are still with us today, most notably in dance and dance music.

1)  While rock music in the 1970s was becoming a sit-down medium, with the stars up on the stage in the lights, and the audience listening in the dark below, Disco reversed this, putting the audience in the spotlight.

2)  The music changed to support this figure/ground reversal.  Song lyrics became intentionally uninteresting, while the rhythm become more insistently driving.  Two decades later, both of these trends would be refined even further in the 1990s rave scene, when minimalist music was given a dance beat, becoming Psy Trance, while House music continued the disco diva tradition.

3)  Disco brought the return of partnered dancing, after the drought of the 1960s when the Twist and other solo steps mostly replaced couple dancing.  As former disco dancer Joan Walton phrased it, "In the counterculture 60s, the woman's attitude was, You're not going to lead me anywhere, buster!  Then people rediscovered that collaborating with a partner to make a neat move happen was fun!"  So this was not actually a new change, but rather a correction to the 1960s change.

Richard Powers

On to the 1970s Disco dances