When will we dance again? The importance of clubbing as culture

‘On the dancefloors we totally lost ourselves and discovered ourselves’

During a cold January, as the pandemic rages and normality seems very distant, we wonder: when will we be able to dance - communally, sweatily, moving together as one, losing ourselves to the rhythm - again? Perhaps only when we’ve lost something do we most appreciate what we took for granted: one of those being the joy of moving to a beat, the shared release that dancing allows. Maybe we didn’t dance together enough when we were free to do it.

Long before Covid, there was a sense of loss of city nightlife, with the closure of clubs and culture spaces alongside the gradual conversion of city centres into streets of hotels; too much student accommodation and co-living, too little living city.

Picking up on that sense of loss of something important, and the growing mantra “clubbing is culture”, a stylish 21-minute film (a “mini-documentary”) persuasively, pulsatingly makes the case for the significance of clubbing culture and the night economy.

Philly McMahon of Thisispopbaby, a company that makes theatre and events across popular culture, counter culture, queer culture and high art, picks up on Armistead Maupin’s (Tales of the City) concepts of biological family and logical family. “I think on the dancefloors we all found our logical family, we found our tribe.” In Clubbing is Culture he says “a lot of the people I work with today I met on the dancefloors, that cathedral of dreams, the POD dancefloor. And we totally lost ourselves and discovered ourselves.” Clubbing, like other artforms, offers “the chance of understanding ourselves”, he says.

Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu has been vocal about the city’s life at night, including championing the idea of night markets. She’s also a member of the Night-time Economy Taskforce, established by Minister Catherine Martin last July and aiming to support a vibrant, diverse, and sustainable night-time economy in Ireland. The large taskforce has continued to work through the pandemic, offering hope that when all this is through, a viable, vibrant night-time life might be on the cards.

Chu talks in the film about how clubbing culture for her is “just endless, it’s unrestricted”. She says “clubbing is everything, it’s not just culture. It’s creativity, it’s fun, it’s mates. It’s business as well, and community, which is the most important thing.”

Chu says a city should value its night-time culture, recalling the scene in the 1990s/2000s, how clubs ensured parts of the city had a flow and life, which is now lost. “Night time culture is part of any city, adding to the sense of community, and fun, and something to offer instead of going out drinking.”

‘We can’t lose this’

The film is a collaboration between No More Hotels, which started as a protest against cultural hubs in Dublin being bulldozed to make way for hotels, along with Thinkhouse, an independent youth marketing agency, and Algorithm, a creative production studio that grew out of Dublin clubs and venues.

They got together for Culture Night, last September, mapping projections onto some of the city’s lost clubbing spots, to celebrate their richness and how they brought people together through art. Algorithm’s Kev Freeney says “Clubbing is for dancing, art, music and human expression. They’re versatile spaces where people from all backgrounds can come together to enjoy themselves - we can’t lose this.”

Jane McDaid from Thinkhouse points out the invitation for contributions to the Dublin City Development Plan (open until February 22nd, see consult.dublincity.ie) "allows us come together to shape a city that offers a vibrant night life culture. We hope this mini-documentary will remind people why clubbing is worth fighting for, worth representing and worth recognising as culture."

Those club projections they worked on together feature in the film, which is shot in black and white, making it doubly nostalgic at the height of this period when dancing seems most remote; a harking back to past glory. Even the captions for the various nightspots’ projections heighten the sense of loss: Formerly Tivoli Theatre, Formerly Hangar Nightclub, Formerly Bernard Shaw, Formerly the POD nightclub.

Dublin losing its soul

Having started No More Hotels in 2019, organising club nights to protect clubbing culture when Dublin was “losing her late night soul”, Andrea Horan now describes watching “the eradication of all the places to dance. We operate in terms of the market deciding, and there’s more money in student accommodation and hotels. And our question was, developers are in charge of making money and building hotels. Who’s in charge of making sure we have the facilities to be a city? Who’s in charge of making sure there’s somewhere for us to dance if everything is being pushed out to allow for the hotelification of the city?”

“So often with clubbing and the night time economy – and I hate that we have to justify everything with a financial impact – there’s a feeling from people in power that they’re more of a hindrance or messy, rather than what it brings” and there was little support initially for clubbing culture early in the pandemic. But clubs and arts and culture are so intertwined, says Horan, pointing to people like McMahon (“he brings clubs to theatre and theatre to clubs”) and artists like Krystal Klear and Mano Le Tough, who were playing to thousands weekly, releasing music, collaborating. “It couldn’t be any more ‘culture’ yet there’s no acknowledgement of what they’re bringing to the table in a wider spectrum.”

She sees it’s changing now, “with Hazel Chu a great advocate for clubbing and the night-time economy, and Catherine Martin’s night time task force, and the Give Us The Night campaign”, and is optimistic for the future, after Covid.

While McMahon values the creative richness and adventures that “shaped me as a young person”, along with others he met on the dancefloor, journalist Una Mullally puts clubbing into a personal-political context, saying “it has chiselled my thinking, my politics”. Discussions around personal freedom and liberty are tied into what we “allow” people to do at night time and where we offer them the space to do that. “The freer, the more liberated, the more progressive a club culture, the freer, the more liberated, progressive a country,” Mullally says. The clubbing scene changed her life trajectory, when friends emigrated, and she had lost her job, bringing an egalitarianism and optimism to her life: “the sense of discovery during the arc of an evening into a morning”. Plus, if she had left the country “I’d have missed out on a bloody social revolution!”

She traces the significance of clubbing back to “the miners having their head cracked open and rave culture emerging, or disco and its intersection with the later LGBT rights movement in the US, or the amount of DIY grassroots clubbing culture that was happening in Ireland. It’s no accident that massive youth-led grassroots political movements emerged from that. Of course it did.” She grins. “Everybody knows when people are hanging out and talking late at night, you start to solve the world!”

While the film champions clubbing and the night economy, and is almost plaintive about what might be lost, even before Covid crashed into our lives, a music video released in December, We Will Dance Again, is like a wistful ode, a promise and statement of intent for after we have waited this out.

The nightclub Mother’s “love letter to the dance floor” – to nighttime culture, queer spaces and the creativity of those who make club nights, live experiences and gigs – features events promoter Cormac Cashman’s words voiced by actor Shaun Dunne, with music by Irish electronic powerhouse, Daithí. It longs for a time when “others’ breath will hold no threat, just double droplets of dance tunes and fresh sweat. We will dance again.”

Videographer Joe McGovern had “a collection of shots from Mother, beautiful moments of people being free on the dance floor, being happy, being together. Moments captured back in that different world we used to inhabit on a Saturday night. When we put Cormac’s words and Daithi’s soundtrack over the video, it turned into what feels like an anthem for hope.”

For Daithí, the club Mother “is a perfect example of the thing I’ve missed most this year, the sheer power of an amazing party, the connection that is felt between people dancing in a club”. Cashman comments: “There is something magic about people being together on a dance floor. It unites us. I wanted to write a love letter to the dance floor. This piece was a shout out to everyone on stage, everyone behind the scenes and for those who miss having a dance together. It’s for everyone, whatever your dance floor is. It’s about hope and reassurance.”

In ways Cashman's words stands for everything we've put on hold, and how we will embrace it again, when all this is past: "We will dance again. Our lights will flicker back to life and that long unsounded base will shake the dust from our sedentary souls. We will dance again. The floor will fill with bodies moving as one, a mirage of tangled lovers, lost in music. Home….

"We will dance again. A reprise of normality, together majestically. Raving to the rhythm of Robyn but no longer dancing on our own. We will dance again. It will be bliss. We are family. We've got this."

- Find the full version of Clubbing is Culture on YouTube.

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