Welcome to the Discotheque

Ros Watkiss Singleton

Adam Friedman

A darkened room, pulsating lights, all-enveloping rhythmic music – at the disco. Discotheque, or disco, is used to define both a musical genre and a nightclub, offering patrons the opportunity to dance to uninterrupted recorded music. Believed to have originated in France, disco reached New York in 1962 and the United Kingdom shortly afterwards.  Originally an exclusive form of entertainment, for the wealthy and privileged, disco became a mainstream recreation following the success of the film Saturday Night Fever in 1977 – disco for the masses.

There was no single disco experience as venues differed wildly, from stylish expensive nightclubs in metropolitan areas to clubs and pubs in the suburbs. Generally, venues – the disco ‘spaces’ – were sophisticated and glamorous, offering clientele temporary escape from the burgeoning economic problems of everyday life in 1970s Britain. In cosmopolitan cities exclusive members’ only nightclubs operated strict entrance policies. But the essential elements of discotheque ‘space’ were (and are) rooms offering sufficient space for dancing and a continuous flow of high energy music.  The dimly lit disco spaces had revolving mirror (or glitter) balls suspended from the ceiling illuminated by spotlights; they reflected the movements of the dancers and cast myriad beams of light around the room. Spotlights and multi coloured strobe lights added intense and distinctive flashes of light and were synchronised to the thudding baseline of the music. Light effects drew attention to individual dancers in the audience, who became the focus of the ‘show’.

The disc jockey (DJ) orchestrated the lights and music and he, or she, was at the forefront of the disco experience. Gaps in the music, as records were changed, were incompatible with the expectations of the dancers, and to address this problem DJs began to overlap records or blend tracks into each other – ‘slip- cue’. There is no clear definition of disco music and the label refers to any fast-paced music that worked well in discotheques; the musical influences emanated from a number of different musical traditions, from Soul and R&B to the Philadelphia sound. The demand for continuous high energy dance music made the disc jockeys into musicians, as tracks lasting only three or four minutes were mixed and remixed to provide the dancers with an unbroken dance experience.  Some previously four minute tracks were transformed into extended 12-inch singles, or disco mixes, meaning that the disc jockeys became increasingly important as artistes, as they responded to the expectations of the crowds. Disco music was, and remains, fast and up tempo, based upon four-on-the floor rhythm pattern, with the bass drum accenting all four beats of 4/4 bars of music and the hi-hat cymbals playing on the off-beat. Electronic musical synthesizers were increasingly used by the early 1970s and disco tracks became more technologically sophisticated, with synthesizers’ capacity to replicate the sounds of musical instruments or to create artificial sounds.

Then I get night fever, night fever - We know how to do it - Gimme that night fever, night fever - We know how to show it

Preparation – ‘getting ready for the disco’ became increasingly complex. In the 1960s disco-wear was casual, in the sense that dancers tended to wear whatever they wanted; only the most exclusive venues insisted upon a dress code.  By the 1970s, dressing for the disco became ritualistic; regardless of gender, disco-wear was becoming more flamboyant, using shiny fabrics, often with a metallic sheen, satin, and sequins, all the more effective in the spinning disco lights. Dance wear, leotards, and Lycra, often accessorised with feather boas, scarves, or turbans, allowed dancers flexibility to perform increasingly complex dance moves. Colours became more lurid, often in neon shades and following the release of the film Saturday Night Fever (1977) some men could be seen in white, flared suits a la John Travolta.  Men also adopted the open-necked shirt and medallion look show-cased in the film. Hair and makeup changed to suit the new trends; sleek hair was considered passé for everyone.  Volume, curls, and ringlets abounded, often adorned with sequined headbands. In the fantasy world of the discotheque makeup was no longer subtle, as it had to compete with the harsh lighting – bright colours, metallic shades, false eyelashes, and face and body glitter were de rigour.

Once at the venue, dancing, the primary focus of the discotheque, offered new freedoms. A partner was no longer necessary; dancing became an individual affair, with freedom of expression and opportunity to showcase improvisational skills.  Disco dancing was a communal activity with improvised, personal moves. In this way it provided a specific form of social liberation eliminating the need for a partner. Dancing in couples was no longer a necessity, but individuals remained part of the dance floor collective – the crowd. In the inclusive atmosphere of the disco, previously marginalised groups were no longer singled out.

Disco music and the discotheque experience have been disparagingly dismissed by many journalists and rock critics as frivolous and inconsequential, particularly in the 1970s when the strident political protest of Punk was at its zenith. Nevertheless, for a few years ‘going to the disco’ became a national leisure pastime, which ostensibly transcended barriers of race, class, gender and sexuality. The disco experience became entertainment for the masses and interest in dancing was revived as it attained accessibility and mass popularity. Disco became main stream.

Alex Appleby


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