EVERYBODY DANCE NOW
“What eventually mobilized us was a desire equivalent or greater in force to the violence that had been used against us.”
“So there you have it, now, it’s all yours.”
I set out to write theory but ended up with a love letter. I wanted to find an archival counterexample to Pete Buttigeig’s dancing pole, to Frank Ocean’s PrEP party. I wanted to find the revolution on the dancefloor without ever dancing. I wanted to think about the party as a site of contact and possibility, a place to be anonymous or seen, a scene, a spectacle. But VS won’t let me forget my body. I present to her the idea of an essay and she replies with a project, a lifetime project with hazy boundaries that includes disco and drag shows, deep affinity paired with resentment. I ask logistical questions: How were people getting the supplies for the party? How was the space inside the party produced? What was the tension between the intrusion of the world into the party (AIDS, the cops) and the extrusion of the party into the world? VS wants me to come. She invites me: “I can try to get you into ‘the dance club’—let me know when you’re ready.”
Spandex was a dance party in Santiago, Chile during the early nineties, when the country elected its first democratic leader since 1973. Miguel Angel Soto Vidal, a Chilean teacher who has worked to document the eighties avant-garde performance scene, writes in “Repositorio Sobre El Colectivo De Arte Contemporaneo Chileno 80’s o una muy buena excusa para hablar del ‘under’...” (2011) that Spandex began as a way to fund costumes for the theater company Gran Circo and to “help save the dying [agónico] Esmerelda Theater,” which would become Spandex’s first physical space, followed by the Carerra and then the Bunker theaters.
Spandex hosted dancing, live music, drag, go-go dancers, performance art, and theater. The parties started at midnight. Vidal writes, “the music was varied, but House was starting to hit hard in those days. It was an open space where gays, heteros, punks, (wealthy) snobs, hippies, new wave and all types of people coexisted without distinction.” Set designer Daniel Palma, broadly recognized as the driving force behind the Spandex parties, is described by Spandex organizer Gladys “Lola” Hervia in an interview with fellow participant Elizabeth Patiño as “[wearing] bell bottom pants, a headband on his crazy diva hair, not giving a damn if the whole world knew how gay he was, especially in an uptight environment in which half of Chile was inside the closet! Daniel made things spectacular. [He’s] a creative that makes you work to the point of suffering.”
To me, Spandex is a space of queer aesthetic utopianism, following the work of José Esteban Muñoz: take a group of friends and lovers, a pile of thrift store junk, the right lighting, glue and dance music, and make a space where everything is beautiful. Feeling good is not a trap. Against political hopelessness—the impasse where we find ourselves— fun constitutes a crucial and radical fortification of public space in which to organize, dance, and fuck.
An early nineties article by Yuri Rojo in the Chilean tabloid paper Las Últimas Noticias, titled, “THE SAFE SEX PARTY OR WHAT DOES WATER DO TO THE FISH” describes the Spandex scene:
People are dancing where they please. On the stage, on a platform or in giant cubes there’s unbridled dancing between men and women, men with men, and women with women. Without malice. However you want. Everything is permitted...A punk hands out condoms left and right while on a giant screen, erotic scenes attract looks. Suddenly, a slogan appears supporting condom use as a way to protect yourself from AIDS...You couldn’t fit a needle at the bar counter. The atmosphere is charged and everyone is in their own vibe. There are sober people. But there’s also people who are really wasted.
Everything is permitted. I learned about Spandex from VS. I am gripped by the party because I love her, because I’m obsessed with this younger version of her, and because there is something crucial about (she would hate me to call it) intergenerational queer friendship and storytelling. There is something of great consequence about Spandex, this party that emerges from dictatorship, during the AIDS crisis. I want to learn something about making space for desire and fun during struggle, how the “Spandex hype” could be produced out of what VS and I start to refer to as the “sediment of death.”
Now, we talk in her living room outside of Washington, D.C., where we met in 2008 at the University of Maryland. I was a creative writing student, into college radio station dance parties and student organizing. She was my teacher. We perplexed and were deeply drawn to each other. When she is exasperated with me, VS talks about our different class backgrounds, language barriers, our 22-year age difference, and that she is a sensitive Pisces and I am a monstrous Sagittarius. VS came to the United States in 1994 to attend school in Chicago, a move precipitated in part by her participation in the feminist author and activist Pia Barros’s writing workshop in Santiago (Pia once called me “la mala de V—”). In 2010, I went with VS and a group of students to Chile, where we watched drag performances at Bunker and met VS’s friend, Spandex organizer Daniel Palma. On a friend’s balcony in Santiago, VS and Daniel told stories about Spandex, about Chile at the end of the dictatorship. When I asked VS to work on this project about Spandex with me, it was a continuation of a conversation that we’ve been having for ten years, that will not end with this article. When I close my eyes and think of Spandex, I see VS and Dany dancing at Bunker in 2010 as much as I see the nineties video footage of Dany dancing, hair teased, in sparkling drag, at the Esmerelda Theater.
VS writes to me: “To me, this project has to do with existing clusters or pattern formations, things that you and I and many other people around us and before us have been contributing to. An energy. A multiplicity. A preliminary question could be: Under what circumstances is the embodiment of this phenomenon (the Spandex hype) made possible?”
She treats her own memories like mythology. She asks often when retelling, “Did this happen?” She tells me to cross-reference her “because a lot of these things feel unreal. Because a lot of it was just so...over the top.” As a participant, she is reticent to claim anything like ownership over Spandex, in part because she was younger than her friends who were organizers. She talks about Daniel dancing on a cube in leather hot pants but won’t admit she was up there too. Her wife teases her, “We know you were up there!” I call VS a Spandex kid and she says, “I don’t know, it’s kind of a mythical thing that doesn’t belong to me.”
JB Who does it belong to?
VS Andrés [Pérez], and Daniel [Palma], and [Carlos] Franco.
VS And a lot of other people. But mostly to them.
JB But do you think that that’s a gender thing? Because it seems like the ownership belongs to the gay boys.
VS Mm. Yeah.
JB But then also like, where are they?
VS Where are they?
VS They are dead.
JB Yeah, except for Dany.
As a young person growing up under the dictatorship, she “perceived Chile as an island of sorts. Because you’re looking at the mountains, literally. I’m never going to get over those mountains. And on the other side is the Pacific. Or Antarctica. Or the fucking desert! It [was] a period where only really wealthy people traveled. So you’re there.” VS recalls, “People had disappeared, and people... were in full mourning. There’s no room for individuality, body, nothing. It’s just this profound sadness.” In another moment, she says, “There was this sadness about the body, you know. The body was kind of vulnerable. I remember sex being kind of sad, small and naked like a little bird.” In contrast, at Spandex, and for VS, in any kind of erotic, collective work, “there’s an energy...that claims the body as something that needs to be brought back [from the dead], in an erotic way...What I was after, I guess, was rhythm. Something that would move me, where my body would actually enter into something.”
In 2019, the people of Chile rise up against political inertia and deeply entrenched economic disparity, exacerbated by new austerity measures and, finally, a fare hike in Santiago’s subways which sparks the first uprisings. At the second FTP protest in New York City, organized against the MTA and the NYPD’s violence particularly around fare evasion, people hold signs that read “from NYC to Santiago.” What VS wants from me, from my body, I feel most in protest spaces, in the street, surrounded by other bodies. She ties together protest and dance— “I’m...brought back from the dead when a certain type of wild and embodied humanity starts to buzz around me, within me...These are the bodies that rebel, rise, they riot and romp & wind each other up to the point in which one of them goes ahead and they all start jumping over the metro like deer leaping over a fence or a ditch: One, two, ten. Hundreds. Thousands… Over ONE MILLION in Plaza de la Dignidad!!!...This is the body that I’ve been trying to harness. It is made of collective desire and it’s the biggest motherfucking YES!”
In both cities, the revolution begins with turnstile jumpers, autonomous actions, and coordinated marches. Protestors chant: “Evadir, no pagar: otra forma de luchar!” President Sebastián Piñera declares the country “at war against a dangerous enemy”; First Lady Cecilia Morel compares the protestors to an “alien invasion.” Piñera is the first right-wing president democratically elected since the 1950s, and his administration has deep historical ties to the Pinochet regime. The current violence feels historically iterative: the circumstances that spark the uprising in 2019 are exactly the circumstances of austerity and privatization that Milton Friedman and the South American, University of Chicago-trained economists known as the “Chicago boys” were looking for in the early seventies when they pushed for Chile to be transformed into a free-market laboratory.
In Chile the constitution was never rewritten after the return to democracy, not even during the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, who had been imprisoned under the dictatorship. In other words, the foundation for the re-emergence of fascism was always there. A state of emergency is declared in Chile in October 2019, and Piñera authorizes the deployment of the Chilean Army against the people for the first time since the dictatorship. VS texts me on November 1st, “Están matando a mi gente otra vez, JB.” The police shoot so many people in the eyes with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters that a bandaged eye becomes a symbol of the protests. In 2019, a group tries to revive Spandex, and an indignant voice on Facebook writes, “SI NO ES CON DANIEL PALMA, NO ES SPANDEX.” The hashtag #NoEstamosEnGuerra is listed on the party’s website. In the spring of 2020, the uprising in Chile, like in New York, is temporarily shifted out of the streets in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic. President Sebastián Piñera is photographed in the deserted Plaza de la Dignidad. The sight of him, posing in front of the graffiti calling for his removal, outrages quarantined Chileans. The music group Illapu tweets in response: “The Plaza belongs to the people. We will return with more force, and we will be millions.”
In 1973, democracy in Chile falls to a US-backed military coup against the elected socialist leader of Chile, Salvador Allende. Leftists, academics, artists and students are rounded up and arrested, tortured and disappeared. In Santiago, a five-year-old girl is told nothing but sees violence and death without explanation. “The fracture was that I wasn’t told anything,” VS says. “That I was a child and I woke up one day and there were all these noises, and people came in and left a gun on top of the table, and they set up a fire at night, because there were takeovers. A lot like what is happening now. And nobody said anything. I have no language for that.”
There was the “sound of helicopters, bombs, shooting somewhere nearby, a wall I saw with huge bloodstains, military tanks in the streets; my mom had an accident and I saw one of her fingers (this is how I remember it) dangling from her hand (they put it back, I don’t know how)... After that, going to the cementerio general with my grandma and seeing military vehicles and being told repeatedly, to stay quiet and not to look in that direction.” In the soccer stadium, fascists break the hands of folk singer Víctor Jara before murdering him. In 2020, a far right group vandalizes Jara’s memorial with the graffiti “no hay mano.”
Out of the “sediment of death” wrought by the dictatorship emerges a dance party that revels in excess, with gogo dancers and performance art and drag queens. The first Spandex parties were held at Teatro Esmeralda in 1991, after the 1988 plebiscite that ousted Pinochet from power. Before Spandex there is Matucana 19 Garage, an epicenter of the punk scene, and there is Qasar, “a really underground gay club [that] had operated through the whole dictatorship...And they did drag shows,” VS tells me, “super critical of the government.” It is the late eighties, the dictatorship is on its way out. “The gay scene was completely [male]. If there were women, they were one in every hundred, at Qasar.” There is still a curfew but punks, mostly young men—hypermasculine perhaps but not militaristic, not fascist—wait in line to get into Matucana, where they will dance hard and fast to loud music. “Spandex started ’91. So Matucana was under Pinochet. And Spandex was under democracy...Daniel [Palma] said that we were so gullible to even believe that the democracy [was real] in any way, but the police came in regularly...The police always came to Spandex to bust the party. The police are the same, everything is the same as before. So the only thing which is different [after the end of the dictatorship], and it’s not happened yet at Spandex, is the neoliberal...availability of credit.” The criminalization of queer and positive bodies is accompanied by the criminalization of safer sex practices, signaling state death sentences on queer people, before the availability of any life-prolonging treatments for HIV/AIDS. “As for the intrusion of AIDS into that environment, Spandex made a point of promoting safe sex. They did a campaign, handed out condoms to the crowd, Daniel et al., did a stunt where they (he and other boys) would ‘teach women’...how to put a condom on a dildo with their mouth. Now, the reality is that most of my guy gay friends were far from sold on the use of preservatives and they actually preferred not to use them. For women, on the other hand, the concern for unwanted pregnancies demanded more discipline.… [It was] during my first years living in Chicago while dealing with the whole cultural shock and shit and missing my people and my country like a fucking raging beast... That was the period when I started getting the news that many of my friends from Spandex had AIDS, were ill, dying or had already died.”
VS remembers police trucks driving by and shooting water cannons at the people in line for Matucana. She remembers walking into Matucana once and seeing a banner that ran from ceiling to floor with the body of Marilyn Monroe and the head of Pinochet. “People would throw entire drinks at it...They would fling drinks at it. So that was kind of like the energy there. Matucana was sordid, experimental; there was something about that kind of angry, dissonant, seizure-y kind of dancing that my body really needed, and needed to do that with others who weren’t there to dance with one partner but just there to be part of that larger animal.”
If Matucana was angry and political, Spandex was erotic, a fantasy space: “At Matucana you moved aggressively. At Spandex it was a lot more fluid. Intentional.” Once, driving in my car in College Park, Maryland, VS tells me a story about Spandex: Everyone is dancing, maybe to C+C Music Factory, and the music changes to an Argentinian band called Sumo—the song is “Mejor No Hablar de Ciertas Cosas”—and then images are projected over the dancefloor. Music videos were shown onscreen at Spandex; VS says, “Watching videos, believe it or not, was of interest because Chile has always had a super engaged music scene and, at that time, music videos weren’t widely available. Just imagine that for a moment.” But these videos were news footage of La Moneda, the presidential palace, burning, during the coup in 1973. VS describes this as an intrusion of the real. She remembers this as a moment in which people stopped dancing, and it was hard to start again. At least that night.
What do we have to disavow to comply with structures of violence? What disrupts our ability to comply? VS points to the rhizome (she often sticks her tongue out in mock distaste before referencing Deleuze, though I don’t know if she notices): “Any point of a rhizome can be connected to [any] other, and must be.” I ask her, insistently, about the politics of the space—for her, it’s always about the bodies: “the way people moved in that space. It didn’t feel like a pose, it felt more like a sincere and collective hedonistic attitude.” As always, I am insistent in my desire for a straightforward political implication; VS says, sure, “...people had separately, knowing that or not, a political existence that was made more evident when we were all in that room.” But for her, political existence “[was] intensified by music, and [the] ability to touch and smell others...For other people, heavy drugs...And sex, of course.” Compliance is disrupted by seduction into an affective, collective body. When that song comes on.
VS (writing): “JB records my erratic monologue about M19 & Spandex, and I’m left with the sense that what was exciting (erotic) about those experiences (M19 & Spandex) had to do with encountering or coming into contact with a relational body. By that, I mean that my body was configured, modified, reformulated by other bodies undergoing the same type of transformations through music, movement, and physical proximity.”
Where there is coercion, there can be no seduction; this is something VS has made clear to me over and over. If the dictatorship, if fascism is about coercion, both liberation and neoliberalism are about seduction. She wants to seduce me. She wants me to dance.
She gives me homework. We watch Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami. She most wants me to see a scene of Grace spinning on the dancefloor, with all the people and lights becoming blurs around her. She says, “How can I explain it—that’s Spandex.” We go to the National Museum of African American History and marvel at how dinky and craft-store the costumes of Earth Wind and Fire’s Verdine White look in the daylight, versus how glorious they look on stage. Of Spandex, Lola tells Patiño in her interview, “there was no money for decorations so the vibe had to be made theatrically with lights that would cover all the ugly parts.” VS wants me to watch a Donna Summer video where she, out of the blue, breaks into robot-dancing while singing “I Feel Love.” When shelter-in-place cancels our plans to see each other, VS sends me playlists. We are both exhausted by remote communication. I am listening to music more than usual.
In 2010, chain-smoking on their friend Alejandro Rogazy’s balcony in Santiago, I sat next to VS and Daniel and listened to them recount a story that I made VS tell me again, recently: The police came into Spandex and arrested a bunch of people, including Daniel and Andres. VS says she wasn’t there at the time. “[Carlos] Franco [who performed under the name Divina Extravaganza] sent some people to find me. We drove over to the station with a friend of mine and two other Spandex go-gos. Daniel had been taken practically naked (in a pair of red-patent leather hot-pants and some red and blue bowling shoes); there were a bunch [of] scantily-clad folks at the station with him.” In 2010 this story feels like magic, like a minor Stonewall.
“[I was] feeling festive and shameless, in heels and a tight black dress. I did approach one of the guards at the station and asked him to let us in to give the kids their clothes. From here on out, it’s partial memory and things that other people have told me about this episode. Apparently, I was this towering creature standing in front of a significantly shorter guard equipped with a machine gun. Apparently, I was trying to sweet talk the guy a bit, which led me to move closer and closer to him until the tip of his machine gun was up against my hip bone (we were facing each other)...I kept asking the guy to let me in, and—as a way to emphasize the urgency of my request—I would press my body slightly against his friggen machine gun.” I imagine VS twenty years earlier, imposingly tall and thin with extremely long hair, hair longer than the hem of her black dress, pressing against the guard’s gun. The slippages of gender and desire at Spandex take on new meanings at the police station.
“The guard wouldn’t move, he’d just say, ‘No señorita, no puede pasar.’ I’m told by my friend Danaeh (the driver, a girl, who had gotten out of the car with me and was also flashing some curves—she had them, I didn’t) that I would insist and tell the guard, ‘I know that you can’t let me in, but what if we both go?’ To be honest with you, I do remember the scene, even the pressing [against the officer’s gun for an extended period of time] part...The part that doesn’t make sense to me is why that guard would let me do that...Bottom line here is, if they already had half of a circus inside the station, why would those guards put up with more clowns? I don’t know, doesn’t make sense. The kids did get their clothes and my friend drove me home at 7am....The next time I showed my face in the nightlife, everybody was giving me shit about ‘putting pressure on the police’ on behalf of the Spandex prisoners. I honestly think that it was Franco and the others taking serious poetic license with this whole thing, because the whole business of rubbing against an officer’s weapon for a long time, seems out of character for all of us involved.”
I admit to VS that I experience a kind of historical longing about Spandex, a weird temporal jealousy that edges dangerously on nostalgia. I complain, “Why wasn’t I there!” and VS asks, “If you had been there would you have been fucking someone upstairs, or sitting there having a drink, or doodling at the counter?” What are the conditions under which someone can be swept up in something?
V, you are terrified of permanence and I am obsessed with it. We each keep archives of the other. You say, “I can’t fucking commit to language,” but you talk more than anyone I know. I like language because it doesn’t die. You want to leave no trace, but you text me because I love texting, you email me love letters. I don’t respond often enough—this is my response, for what it’s worth. For you I am trying to remember the feeling of being on the dancefloor, the experience of being embodied without self-consciousness, of being a body in a crowd of other bodies.
JB How did Spandex end? How did the party end?
VS To me the party doesn’t end.
JB But literally, how did the party end?
VS Nothing about this is literal to me. ⊱