The Kind of Places Discos Are
AROUND the world, millions of people every week are seeking out discotheques for entertainment. What kind of places are they going to? Are they all much alike?
Not necessarily. There can be considerable variety from one disco to another, for as Discothekin magazine says: “Disco is simply music and dance, and can be shaped into any form desired. People dictate the success of a club, and if the owner/manager is astute he can determine his clientele merely by defining, via the music, the atmosphere he desires to create—be it the Seventies, the Forties or even the Gay Nineties.”
There are even kiddie discos for children; others are designed particularly with their grandparents in mind. Regarding persons who are a little older, the Detroit Free Press observes: “It hasn’t been hard updating their lindy steps into the hustle and their fox trots into the foxy trot at subdued disco-supper lounges.”
Some places are classified as “restaurant-discos.” They may be restaurants during the earlier evening hours. But later at night they serve as discotheques. This enables the restaurateur to generate additional receipts during hours in which his restaurant would normally be closed. In Europe, most discos are places where one can dine and drink as well as dance.
So not all discos are the same; the name can be attached to quite differing kinds of places. But what is the essence—the very substance or soul—of disco? What life-style does it promote? How is this reflected in its music, its dancing, its dress, and so forth?
Disco—What It’s All About
Kitty Hanson, who has researched and written extensively on the subject, says of a modern disco: “Under the glittering canopy of lights, the floor seemed to heave with the pounding of feet, and the air began to crackle with sheer physical energy. Then the room exploded. Cries and calls and a thousand wildly waving arms filled the air as the music virtually lifted the dancers off their feet and off the floor. It was a simmering, sizzling moment of pure primitive emotion. It was the essence of the disco experience.”
What is this “pure primitive emotion”—the essence of the disco experience—that is elicited from dancers? Show Business, a professional trade journal, gives us an idea in its article “A Dynamic Decade of Disco,” saying:
“An aura of acceptance surrounds the disco trend . . . Antiquated sexual mores, which were successfully battled during the sixties, have yielded to a new sexual freedom in which people deal with their desires honestly and participate without guilt.
“Gays are dancing side-by-side with straights, and neither could care less. It is this multi-faceted freedom that constitutes the soul of the disco, and its heart is the pulsating disco beat.”
Free, liberated sexual expression—abandonment of restraints—that is the essence, the soul, of disco. Surely this is reminiscent of ancient fertility dances where worshipers broke loose in frenzied, passion-arousing movements that may well have culminated with participants engaging in sexual intercourse so as to coax “Mother Earth” to yield new crops.
True, not all discos necessarily encourage the casting off of inhibitions, but disco is identified with such a ‘sexually-freed’ life-style. “What differentiates discomania from most of its predecessors is its overt tendency to spill over into orgy,” explains Esquire magazine. “All disco is implicitly orgy . . . By offering the instant and total gratification of all sexual desires in an atmosphere of intense imaginative excitement, the disco-inspired orgy promotes the dawning of an exalted state of consciousness, of literal exstasis, or standing outside the body.”
Emphasis on Self
Some may think of disco particularly as a disciplined form of dance featuring the Hustle, and for some it may be that. Yet this really is not what disco is all about. Rather, the attention of dancers is generally focused not so much on dancing with someone else, but on doing one’s own thing—‘getting down’—as the saying is. The scene is one of sexual exhibitionism.
This self-indulgent thrust of the disco culture has been observed, and some thought-provoking comments have been made. Note the editorial “Disco, Narcissism & Society” in the New York Daily News of March 19, 1978:
“Separated by walls of deafening music and swept up in a frenzy of bright lights, dancers do their own thing seldom touching, never looking at each other, or even speaking. It’s a lot like standing in front of a mirror shouting, ‘me, me, me, me . . . ’ endlessly.
“This pure self-indulgence reflects a dangerously deep-rooted philosophy in our society. It preaches that anything an individual feels like doing is 100% right—no matter how it affects anyone else.
“The attitude shows up in our soaring divorce rate, our legions of broken families and in countless books and movements keyed to self-gratification and self-esteem.
“There is too little room for love in the philosophy that permeates the disco world. And that is a pity, for those who have forgotten—or never known—the joys of giving and sharing are missing the richest part of life.”
The Esquire article of June 20, 1978, has a similar thrust, being entitled “The Disco Style: Love Thyself.” “That disco has been built on a revival of ‘touch dancing’ or that it is focused on a step called the Latin Hustle,” it says, “is either wishful thinking by instructors at the Arthur Murray schools or just bad women’s page journalism. The truth is that today’s hip disco dancer is into the kind of one-man show that John Travolta puts on in the most exciting sequence of Saturday Night Fever.”
Since the movie Saturday Night Fever has had so much to do with the phenomenal growth and spread of disco, let’s consider it. What kind of life-style does that movie feature and, in effect, promote?
“Saturday Night Fever”
The main character of the movie lives for just one thing—to shine at the disco on Saturday night. The sexual escapades of the disco crowd are featured, including oral sex, which is performed out in the car during interludes to the dancing. The language is of the filthiest kind. Yet all of this is presented as normal—the way of life among those who go to discos. In a news article, “Why Teenagers Should Not See ‘Saturday Night Fever,’” New York psychologist Dr. Herbert Hoffman says:
“What Travolta and his friends are teaching teenage boys is to become sexually involved with girls without any romantic feelings whatsoever, to use girls as sex objects, to depersonalize the entire sexual experience.
“The ideas that teenagers will carry away with them from this movie can tragically damage their entire lives.
“Young boys will be out to ‘score’ with the opposite sex, with the idea that a relationship with a girl is an accomplishment to brag about to friends in order to enhance group standing.
“Young girls will be convinced either that promiscuity may be required to insure popularity, or that men are after ‘only one thing.’ In either case, their opportunity for deep and lasting emotional involvement is jeopardized.
“It’s a sick movie to allow susceptible teenagers to see.”
Yet millions of youths around the world, often along with their parents, have flocked to this movie, making it one of the biggest box-office successes in history. As noted, it features what disco is all about. But so do other aspects of the disco scene.
Music, Dress and Drugs
As its popularity grows, there are few people who are not familiar with the sound of disco music. Many well-known songs of earlier decades have been blended with the pulsating beat of disco. As they get used to these tunes, even some older persons who liked the originals find enjoyment in listening to the updated versions. But again, what is often a dominant thrust of disco music?
Reporting on one of the popular disco groups, Discoworld says: “On ‘Baby I’m On Fire,’ from their current album, ‘Arabian Nights,’ the three women pant and purr ‘Oooh, I’m on fire.’ A phallic saxophone enters, turning the song into a fabulous soundtrack for a Times Square peep show.” Then the magazine adds: “The sex-charged style of the Ritchie Family falls within the sphere of the main thrust of today’s disco music, which is to celebrate pleasure.”
Disco’s blatant exploitation of sex, including attempts to arouse listeners sexually, was also noted in Time magazine. Its article “Gaudy Reign of the Disco Queen” said: “Back in 1976 . . . she got a gold record by simulating orgasm 22 times.”
Disco album covers, too, give an idea of the type of music they contain. Nudity is sometimes featured, although sexual exploitation is often more subtle. Discoworld says of one cover: “The stances of Jaqui and Dodie, combined with Ednah’s, create a three-letter symbol which on casual observation is invisible to consciousness, but instantly perceivable at the unconscious level: S-E-X.”
The dress styles of the disco crowd are also in keeping with the emphasis on sex. The book Disco Fever shows a photograph of a dancer at a New York disco. Her dress is slit to the waist and her leg is uplifted, showing an inside view of almost her entire thigh. The caption reads: “The scene . . . sums up the appeal of disco.” Paulette Weiss, staff writer of Stereo Review magazine, says of those caught up in the disco experience: “I’ve seen women strip off their clothes on a dance floor.”
In keeping with the disco emphasis on so-called “pleasure,” drugs flow freely at discos. Recently a drug arrest at the best known disco in New York city hit the headlines. But the New York Daily News observed: “The discovery of drugs in Studio 54 will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in the place, according to regulars. Cocaine and marijuana reportedly have been exchanged, sold and used openly there since the place was opened in April of last year.”—December 15, 1978.
Sound and Lights
Sound and lights are generally considered vital to the disco experience. The sound is not simply heard; it is so overwhelming that it is felt.
But can sound that powerful be dangerous? A recent news report from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said: “The possibility that discotheques are hazardous to health has caused the government to hold off issuing licenses to 20 establishments in the southern city of Porto Alegre pending a medical investigation.” The question may well have been about noise levels, and understandably so.
Last year the sound was checked at discos on Long Island, New York, in the United States, and inspectors found 18 establishments that had noise levels of over 95 decibels for more than 30 seconds. Each was forced to post a warning sign at its entrance: “SOUND LEVELS WITHIN MAY CAUSE PERMANENT HEARING IMPAIRMENT.” Medical research indicates that noise levels commonly experienced at discos can cause lasting damage to certain people’s hearing, particularly those exposed to such noise levels on a regular basis.
The lights, too, pose a possible health hazard. How so? Well, certain discos have laser light systems. “If the beam enters your eye,” says Professor Paul L. Ziemer of Purdue University, “you could get a burn on the retina—a permanent blind spot.” In addition, the strobe lighting, which flickers in time with the music’s beat, can produce dizziness, nausea and hallucinatory fits. Among those who have issued warnings about this is the British government, which did so in a booklet on safety in schools.
Does this consideration of disco—its roots and the kind of places discos are—help you to see why those Christian overseers gathered in Brooklyn, New York, last December were concerned about the growing popularity of disco?
However, many people enjoy disco because of the very things about them that others consider hazardous. They believe that any risks are minimal, and that they are worth taking to enjoy what they consider to be a pleasurable time. Really, how great are the dangers? Does going to discos pose risks to a person’s lasting welfare and happiness? These are matters for us to consider.
[Blurb on page 11]
“Sex is monopolizing disco. . . . Dirty disco is making money—a lot of it—and more record companies and radio stations are jumping on the bandwagon.”—US, January 9, 1979.