Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ortiz: On the (disco) beat

New York City dance journalist and critic Lori Ortiz talks about her first book, a cultural history of disco and its era.

Guillermo Canales and Kendra Jackson (photo by Lori Ortiz)
by Lori Ortiz
ABC-Clio/Greenwood, 2011

EYA: Your book--Disco Dance--is part of a series, The American Dance Floor, that includes Country & Western Dance, Latin Dance, Swing Dancing, Folk Dancing, Rock'n' Roll Dances of the 1950s, and an upcoming volume on hip hop. Some dance advocates have suggested that social dancing could be pathway to greater awareness and appreciation of concert dance by potential audiences in the US. Do you agree and see a valuable connection?

LO: Definitely, I do. When people have dance in their lives already, it opens them up to seeing dance, and vice versa. That is, seeing dance on stage can inspire people to get on the floor themselves, in classes or socially. Social and theatrical dance feed each other. Exposure to dance in any way shape or form can change things for a person. I, for example, took classes for many years and then started going to concerts and writing about them.

EYA: Yes, that's also the way I started, too: taking many classes, then wanting to write about dance! Let's look at the reverse, too. Are there valuable lessons for contemporary dance artists to learn from social dancing? Or, specifically, from the disco phenomenon and its culture?

LO: Ballet tradition came from social dance; ballets, for example those of Jerome Robbins, include waltzes.  Lots of contemporary dance artists bring club or social dance into their work. Neil Greenberg has a famous dance about disco. It's one I haven't seen, but I wish it would come back; the New York Public Library for the Peforming Arts has a video. Nicholas Leichter has a new dance to disco music. Sidra Bell, Karole Armitage, and many others have choreography that includes club dances associated with disco. Much of contemporary dance is about life...and that (especially for dancers maybe) includes social dancing. Disco may have been close to the hearts of dance artists who lived through the era. In our current, retro era, disco is still, or again, part of club culture...sans some of the bad stuff that went with it back in the day, hopefully.

EYA: The book surveys the rise of disco culture in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. What methods did you use to conduct your research?

LO: I inteviewed many dancers, DJs and clubgoers. I went to some of the revival scenes, Hustle festivals, and remembrance parties, and I met people from different cities at these gathering places. People at these parties were generous with me. I was lucky to research disco at a ripe point in time, around people with lucid memories. I was literally attending reenactments! I also saw about forty movies made in or made about the era. Of course I read the material out there, the great books and classic articles of the day as well as later research. I photographed the dancers. As a visual person, this helped me understand the movement better. I took a basic Hustle series at You Should Be Dancing and some introductory classes at Dancesport.

When I first started, in 2008, I found very little information. I found my first interviewees through HARO (Help a Reporter Out). Gradually, I found more information on the Web as the Web itself grew, and disco seemed to be coming back into favor.  It was most helpful listening to the music, frequenting the vintage record stores, and reading the liner notes. NYPL's performing arts collection had growing clippings folders. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture had books I couldn't find at the performing arts library. As the project continued, more and more You Tube and VH1 videos were posted. A complete Soul Train DVD came out.

Whenever I told people about my project, many had a disco story they were more than happy to share. I joined the circles of dancers in a peripheral place. I have to say that it was not all peaches and cream. There were also people who felt proprietary about their memories and practice and resented the intrusion. I met with resistance from some. I'd love to be out there with them dancing, but alas, I'm here typing.

EYA: Did your research lead you to new information or insights, anything that surprised you?

LO: I was surprised many times over. I was surprised at how beautiful the Hustle dance can look on those that have put in the work of perfecting it. I was surprised that there is a very organized contingent of Hustle dancers who continue to refine and perform it. Although these dancers, along with the general public, rejected the term disco, it didn't die. 

Journalist Lori Ortiz

EYA: Were you a fan of the music in the '70s? Did you go to the clubs? If so, is there anything that you miss about that time?

LO: John Travolta, aka Tony Manero, went to my high school. I was a Deadhead (I liked the Grateful Dead). After college I moved back to New York. No, as a painter just starting out, I did not go to Studio. People I knew curated art shows in Limelight and other clubs, I showed in them and went to the openings in the 80s. I don't miss that, but I'm grateful for any experience I had of it.

EYA: As with any pop music, you'll find some schlock as well as some unforgettable classics. When you were writing your book, did you pull out old LPs and cassettes?  Any personal favorites to share with us?

LO:  I had a Jackson Five album as a teen. I had nothing when I started this project. I had to collect it all anew. I loved it. It was very moving to hear Grace Jones sing "Tomorrow." Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" is a major VH1 classic. That song is inseparable from Jackson's performance. I went to sleep and woke up with "Blame It On The Boogie" in my head. The video of Sheila Reid skating to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" is absolute legend. I'm truly grateful to Bobby Viteritti, Ronald Ramdell and Billy Carroll— DJs who spent hours sharing music and stories with me. I bought Disco Box with wonderful liner notes by Brian Chin. I highly recommend this encyclopedic Rhino set.

EYA: Disco music and culture came under attack in the late '70s. Talk about that period and the reasons that an anti-disco movement arose in the US.

LO: Drugs, AIDS, crime, greed on the part of the club owners and the music industry--these associations enveloped disco, to name a few of the reasons. The word started to leave a bad taste in people's mouths. New pop music came to take its place. It became embarrassing to like disco AND dangerous. There were death threats!

EYA: The disco phenomenon eventually receded, but you detail the ways in which it still influences popular music. Tell us about some of them.

LO: DJs like to sample disco classics in new songs. You could say that "turntabling" started with disco. The art of the DJ developed in the disco era. The party atmosphere, the romance, has not died. Lady Gaga, Horsemeat Disco, and other performers and groups are directly building on disco. The ways are a bit different, but disco is music made for dancing. There are people out there on the floor. The interchange, the mixing, the dancing never died.

EYA: What kinds of readers will most benefit from Disco Dance?

The series is a library reference for high school and college kids. But disco suffered from erasure, so there is still a lot for most people to learn about the era, the dancing, and the music.  I talk about the gay liberation movement. That may feel too basic to some readers but, for context, that story needed to be retold in the book. I couldn't assume that the reader knew about Stonewall. I came across a wonderful NYPL exhibit on it. I also found a collection of Saint posters at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center here in New York. One was composed of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. That's in the book. I found a group of skaters in Central Park. A lot of this was discovery for me. Since there are so many facets within disco, more than likely, anyone who picks it up will find a lot they didn't know. No other book looks at disco dancing from this particular catch-all perspective.


Publisher's information
Disco Dance on Amazon.com
ReadingDance.com, the Web site of Lori Ortiz

Save the date: Lori Ortiz, author of Disco Dance and publisher of ReadingDance will talk in a Galapagos Art Space "Get Smart" event,  August 11, 8pm, in DUMBO! (information and tickets)

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