Triangle Vintage Dance Studio sits tucked behind a gas station and a strip mall in southeast Durham. Decor is minimal inside this unassuming rectangular building: a string of blue lights illuminates the doorway, a water cooler bubbles in a corner and a mirrored wall reflects rows of plastic chairs flanking the walls of the room. It’s the yellowed wood dance floor that draws people here, and every Friday a diverse group of people travel to it to dance the blues.
Blues night at the studio, hosted by the group RDU Blues, begins with an hour-long, fully-lit blues dance lesson. When the lesson is done, the lights are dimmed and a DJ cues up several hours of throbbing, loud blues music. Dancers trickle in, and by 10:30pm the music is booming, the dance floor is full, and the room is hot and sweaty.
When I first visited blues night, I expected to be greeted by a group of older, gender-normative white folks, a scene I would describe as a somewhat stereotypical crowd who spends Friday nights at a group dance hall. Instead, I was welcomed to the floor, and the community, by a group of diverse, young and old, gender conforming and nonconforming people coexisting and dancing in an undeniably queer space.
Blues music was originally made by black people, for black people. The genre, which grew from the musical and oral traditions of Southern African Americans, was an outlet for expressing heartbreak, unbelonging and loss in the decades following emancipation. For decades, blues dancing allowed people to embody the sorrow behind the music.
Queerness has been a part of blues music for over a century. 1920s blues stars Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the Mother and Empress of the Blues respectively, were both known for their fluid sexuality and non-conforming gender expression. Rainey's song, "Prove It On Me Blues” is a taunting acknowledgement of her interest in women, declaring that, “They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me//Sure got to prove it on me; Went out last night with a crowd of my friends//They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men." Bessie Smith, who was mentored by Ma Rainey, sang an indignant song entitled, “Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do”. The lyrics to which go — ”But I'm going to do just as I want to anyway// And don't care if they all despise me.”
Although Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith both had sexual relations with women, they did not openly identify as homosexual or queer. In the 1920s, queerness was not an acceptable social identity, but an underground culture. Queerness thrived as a performative act, an extension of the blues music. Blues performers like Gladys Bentley could be “male impersonators,” and men like Frankie Jaxon and Johnnie Woods could be “female impersonators.”
When blues music hit peak popularity in the 1940s and 50s, you could find blues dancing at juke joints and black neighborhood house parties in urban areas across the country. These parties and juke joints were safe spaces for black communities to respond to or temporarily forget the daily violence and discrimination they faced. In the black spaces of the past, and in queer blues spaces today, the close physical connection between two dancers is an unspoken acceptance of the other person’s body, expression, and emotion.
The organizers and instructors at RDU Blues often teach the black history of blues. After a recent beginner lesson, Caroline Leitschuh, an RDU Blues instructor who identifies as queer, reminded a group of new dancers, “We are celebrating a dance that is a black dance. It was created by a community that was struggling. Given current events, the black community is still struggling today and we need to be aware of that when we dance the blues.”
The genre and dance itself has been irreversibly changed by white appropriation. Blues scholar Glenn Hinson says, “What we call blues dancing today has been transformed to suit white audiences.” Whites reformed blues dancing into a teachable, reproducible form. Blues dancing became more rigid and mainstream, which in turn distanced the dance from its original significance to black communities. For instance, “buck dancing,” a type of male solo dance where men danced in competition with other men, was an early standard of blues dancing. The near disappearance of buck dancing points to the mainstream evolution of the dance. Still, Hinson says that, “Blues is still always an invocation of blackness.” The impulse to sing, play, and dance the blues still resonates with many people today, and as blues dancing communities reemerge, like the one in Durham, the cathartic dance is bringing together another group of marginalized Southerners.
In blues dancing two partners zip their bodies together. One person leads and the other follows. At RDU Blues night, some partners move creatively — twisting, twirling, and dipping; others, hardly move at all. Some dancers close their eyes and listen to the music and their partner’s body. It seems everyone who is dancing knows each other intimately, but at the end of a song, dancers share a smile, a thank you, and then move on to another partner.
Sam, a genderqueer blues dancing regular, says that you “fall in love a little bit” with every person you dance with. Ahmed, a 30-something Middle Eastern surgeon who’s danced salsa for years says, “You feel more free” with blues dancing. Carla, a Nicaraguan-American who has been dancing at RDU blues for several weeks says, “You know what this is? It’s call and response with your body.”
Not unlike historical blues dancing spaces like juke joints, RDU Blues provides a safe space for marginalized North Carolinians to relax and build community. Transgender activist and blues dancer Sam, who jokingly calls “RDU Blues “queer heaven,” says that it’s exhausting to live everyday as a trans-person knowing that, “the world hates me.” Stepping into the blues dancing space, he and other queer and transgender dancers can put discrimination in the back of their mind for few hours. Sam adds, “No one makes you feel uncomfortable. Everyone celebrates you.”
Queer spaces, spaces that foster creative, fluid expressions of gender, don’t happen by accident. They are built around firm community standards that protect and celebrate all people, particularly non-heteronormative genderqueer and transgender people who fear daily harassment. These standards are especially important when people agree to engage in close contact, like when they are dancing the blues.
Conscious of this, RDU Blues organizers use explicit and implicit standards to deliberately usher dancers towards a safe, free environment. Their anti-harassment policy, posted online, states they are “dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for every participant, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, physical appearance, body size, age, race or dance ability.” It’s a policy they pledge to enforce if violated. RDU Blues instructor Caroline Leitschuh, says a general rule at blues night is: “Don’t assume dance role. Lots of folks lead sometimes and follow other times, so don’t assume their role based on what they look like. It’s nice to ask your partner which role they would prefer for a given dance.”
RDU Blues night is not only for queer people. On any given week you will find a diverse group of dancers who run the gamut in age, gender expression, race and sexuality coexisting closely with joy and acceptance. On a recent Friday night, blues music filled the air of Triangle Vintage Dance studio and two men danced together in purple patterned leggings. A few feet away a woman with a shaved head and a leather dress danced alone. A man with pink fingernails and a flurry of other dancers with septum piercings and deliberately showcased tattoos glide across the worn floor, weaving between heterosexual couples of all ages.
Estu, an 81-year-old Japanese-American woman, has been dancing at RDU Blues nearly every Friday night for the past three years. She started dancing at age 60 because she, “always wanted to.” Etsu comes to RDU Blues because she loves to dance, and she accepts everyone in the space. “I see this becoming more common,” Etsu says, gesturing to two young men dancing in close embrace. She continues nodding her head to the music, waiting for the next dance. “Blues is about being receptive”, Etsu says, “I’m not an activist, but I feel so sad that some people become so fixed in their mindset.” When the song next song starts up, Etsu jumps in to find a partner.