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[From the Archive]

Shadow Dancing

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Infinity is a disco in Lower Manhattan. It is 3 a.m. on Friday, the dead of night, but the evening is not yet half over and there are still two thousand people here. Perhaps a third of them are crowded against the shoulder-high banquette that rims the floor, from which they can watch those parading before them or simply stare at themselves in the wall-to-wall mirrors that reflect unending images across the huge loft space. The mirrors are part of the show at Infinity, for not only can you watch your own image change beneath the flashing strobes, you can also dance with yourself, especially if you have brought a fan, or a tambourine, or a pole, or a great big hat. Such props give you something with which to balance your act, provide an acceptable foil. With the mirrors all around, you really don’t need a partner.

The center of the floor tonight is occupied by two middle-aged males dressed identically in improvised sailor costumes—strapless undershirts, white belled pants, gold spray-painted desert boots, brimmed Marine hats. The purple of the flashing lights makes white glow phosphorescent, so lots of people wear white to discos. The fantasy sailors do not need to look into the mirrors as they dance because they are the mirror images of each other.

To walk through the crowd at Infinity tonight is to walk through an exotic aviary where every variety of species is on display, usually single examples of each, but occasionally exhibited with an identical mate for the admiration of the passing public. A large German male dressed as a cowgirl watches a Spanish couple fox-trotting in black cutaways and patent pumps. A woman wearing a transparent plastic rain cape with only a garter belt and black stockings underneath wanders about alone. A young man in saddle shoes has strapped a life-size female doll to his ankles and wrists, and he moves lightly across the floor with her, unencumbered by the weight of the human shape. There is here a standard of conformity to the outrageous; one must put on a passing, pleasing show.

Illustration by Tom Wolfe, from the series In Our Time, a selection of which was published in Harper’s Magazine between 1977 and 1981

Infinity is not a gay disco, although it may appear that way at first because the gays display the most exotic plumage and put on the best show. Then, too, each of the two bars at Infinity is bracketed by a huge pair of pink neon phalluses, which glow in the night like homosexual icons. Infinity drew a gay crowd when it opened, but, as so often happens at discos in New York, the party crowd followed them there, straight society people. After the place had been written up and everybody knew it was chic, what is known on the scene as “the scurve” arrived—singles who live with roommates on the Upper East Side or in the middle-class neighborhoods of New Jersey and Long Island, people drifting around and trying to get picked up. Now young men cruise the banquettes each weekend, but the tone of the place is sufficiently gay that a woman can protect herself by adopting a fierce glare to indicate dykishness, or by staring fixedly at herself in the mirror (for self-absorption is respected here).

The music never stops at a disco, not for a single minute. Each song segues right into the next, the monotony of the bass pedal smoothing the transition. The lights are synchronized with the sound, and they never stop flashing except during the percussive interludes, when everything falls dark; then the whistles blow and the crowd yelps and hoots and barks as if hinting that a bacchanal is about to begin, but it never, never does begin, although everyone seems to be waiting for something to happen. After you’ve been in a disco for a while, after your senses have been operated upon by those bodies, you may begin to feel a disorientation of fancy within yourself, and you may attune yourself to the repetitive shifts of this electronic music of the spheres and fall into a kind of disco trance in which your brain turns off and you give yourself up to the sensations that envelop you. And suddenly whoever you thought you were when you walked in the door may no longer seem very important.

From “Disco,” which appeared in the October 1977 issue of Harper’s Magazine.


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June 2019