'Life and Death on the Pulse Dance Floor', Tim Lawrence
Listen to 1525 Collective member Regina Eyite read an excerpt from sound scholar, Tim Lawrence's 'Life and Death on the Pulse Dance Floor'. In this text, Lawrence argues that queer Latinx communities were excluded from reports on the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016, reflecting the marginalisation of LGBTQI+ Latinx contributions to dance culture.
Writing the Latinx Dance Floor into Pulse and the History of Dance Culture
What, then, of the population that Mateen attacked—a population that has been, to varying degrees, left out of accounts of the massacre? Barbara Pomo and Ron Legler founded Pulse in 2004 in honour of Pomo’s brother, John, who died from AIDS in 1991, evoking his heartbeat in the club’s name. Located at 1912 South Orange Avenue, the venue promoted itself as “the hottest gay bar in Orlando”. Regular theme nights included Noche Latina on Mondays (featuring a Reggaetón dancehall soundtrack), Twisted Tuesdays (a talent night hosted by Axel Andrews and Kai’ja Adonis), College Night Wednesdays (hosted by Angelica Sanchez and weekly guests), Tease Thursdays (a burlesque show hosted by Lady Bri and Blade Matthews), Platinum Fridays (a hip-hop night hosted by Angelica Sanchez) and Upscale Latin Night on Saturdays (hosted by former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Kenya Michaels). Offering three rooms and a chic interior, the venue carried the promise of style, fabulousness and an escape from hardship. “Guests are free to choose which best suits their present mood”, Diego Wyatt of Next Magazine reported in February. “Some fall under the spellbinding mystery of the Adonis Room, an intimate space filled with beautiful male and female go-go dancers. Some head to the Lounge, complete with a state-of-the-art lighting and sound system, a dance floor, VIP area and the main bar. And others go for the patio, which is undergoing some sprucing up to accommodate the relaxed atmosphere. Each area has its own DJ and vibe. Translation: There’s something for everyone”.
Prior to the attack the club attracted an eclectic crowd made up of LGBTQ people and straight friends of all ages and ethnicities, with Saturdays particularly popular with queer Latinx dancers. “I was too white to fit in with Latinos and I was too Hispanic to fit in with white kids”, one told Matthew Rodriguez of mic.com. “But on Latino Night on Saturdays I didn’t feel that way. It was just literally a time and place where everyone could be together and enjoy yourselves”. Numerous drag performers got their start at the venue and indeed two trans women of colour were featured on publicity for the party that started on 11 June and ended with the massacre. Queer women were also a notable presence and, as Trish Bendixson notes, featured among the victims of the attack. Non-Latin migrants— including Mateen—were admitted into the mix. “I think Pulse differs from tourist clubs, as well as other local clubs, for a couple of reasons”, Pomo commented in an interview with Billboard the day after the killing spree. “One of our biggest goals was to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere that was family-like, with people who shared my vision”.
Continuing the legacy established by pioneering party spots such as the Loft, the Sanctuary, the Haven and the Limelight in early 1970s New York City, Pulse operated as cross between a home, a refuge, a community centre and a pleasure palace. “Growing up in a black and brown community where hyper-masculinity was acted out as a form of survival, I actually grew up hating on Pulse”, dance floor regular Daniel Leon-Davis recounts in Fusion. “In my community, like in so many others around the world, my identity as a gay man was viewed as a form of weakness. So much so that even when I came out, I refused to go to gay clubs because it meant that I would be one of ‘those gay men’”. Everything changed when he went to Pulse. “Over the next several years, Pulse became the place where my best friends learned to be themselves”, he adds. “Pulse was where I learned to love myself as a gay man. Pulse was where I learned to love my community”. Pomo also made a point of supporting local charities, raising funds for entertainers who wanted to enter pageants, educating around HIV/AIDS prevention and working in tandem with the straight community. “We were never exclusive of any person’s cause”, she maintained in her Billboard interview. “Our doors were open to everyone”. Pomo added: “People who aren’t out, people who are exploring, people who are transitioning need a place to do this without judgment, they need acceptance; this is what Pulse was always about”.
Operating at the intersection of race and class as well as sexuality and gender, Pulse is also rooted in the intertwining forces of colonialism and neoliberalism. With an estimated 1,000 Puerto Rican families currently relocating to Florida every month, the state is close to surpassing the total Puerto Rican population of New York, and Orlando remains one of the primary destinations for this transitory population. The underpinning reasons for the movement are clear: Congress has historically refused to act on the unincorporated colony’s seventy-billion dollar debt, leaving it unable to file for bankruptcy; its economy has stagnated since 2011; its population is declining; and its unemployment rate is twice as high as mainland US, with poverty three times as severe. As US citizens Puerto Ricans are also free to travel to the mainland, with Florida offering them the nearest landing point in the US as well as access to employers such as SeaWorld Orlando Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, Walt Disney World Resort and Legoland. In August 2015 the New York Times observed that the current wave of migration “is transforming a corridor of Central Florida that is increasingly viewed as economically powerful, culturally diverse and politically pivotal”. LGBTQ Puerto Ricans joined the migration to Orlando in part because of the city’s nightlife, with its ten-plus gay bars matching the total in Detroit, a city three times Orlando’s size, and Pulse offering queer migrants an opportunity to escape the “compulsory heterosexuality” of the city’s theme parks. Pomo notes that LGBTQ holidaymakers would head to the club as well.
Saturday 11 June started out as a regular Latin night with DJ Ray Rivera, a.k.a. DJ Infinite, selecting a mix of hip hop, R&B and reggaeton, or “old school” as he put it in a Facebook exchange, with DJ Flawless and DJ Simo holding down the other two rooms. When Mateen began his rampage Rivera initially thought that someone was letting off firecrackers, reports Asawin Suebsaeng; then he turned the music down and understood what was going on. Sourced from the biographical testimonies and photographs posted on social media by lovers, family members and friends, a person-by person roll call of those who died conveys the connectedness as well as the pluralism of the social coalition that gathered on the floor that night. “Maybe your Ma blessed you on the way out the door”, Torres writes in his tribute to the dead, imagining the multiplicity of circumstances that might have preceded their congregation. “Maybe she wrapped a plate for you in the fridge so you don’t come home and mess up her kitchen with your hunger. Maybe your Tia dropped you off, gave you cab money home. Maybe you had to get a sitter. Maybe you’ve yet to come out to your family at all, or maybe your family kicked you out years ago”.
Torres offers further scenarios that articulate the way the sonic and social underpinnings of the Pulse dance floor stretch across time and space in transglocal fashion, to cite J. Blake Scott and Rebecca Dingo’s evocation of culture combines the global and the local while “moving through space or across lines, as well as changing the nature of something”, in the words of anthropologist Aihwa Ong. In the run-up to Mateen’s attack the Pulse floor connected the disparate yet intertwining experiences of, to reference Torres’s diverse community further, the dancer whose lover decided to stay at home to the one who is allowed to stray, the one who is flush to the one who is broke, the one who doesn’t speak Spanish to the one who barely speaks English, and so on, until he finally asks after the dancer who might be undocumented, a common experience in the Latinx community, not solely in terms of the estimated eleven-million migrants who lack authorisation to live in the US, but also in terms of societal location.
The lack of authorization extends to Latin music, which until recently barely figured in a field that was assumed to consist of a binary exchange between black and white musicians and listenerships. John Storm Roberts addressed the erasure when he argued that “Latin music has been the greatest outside influence on the popular music of the United States”, and Ned Sublette developed the analysis by showing how the “commonplaces of Cuban music became commonplaces of American music” by 1951. Raquel Rivera carried the analysis to hip-hop, noting how New York Puerto Ricans were “integral” to the culture since its inception. Ed Morales went on to trace the Latin influence on rock, hip hop and other sounds in Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond, and Jim McCarthy and Ron Sansoe extended the analysis in the Voices of Latin Rock. César Miguel Rondón’s Spanish history of salsa came out in English three years later, after which the authors of Reggaeton pointed to how the sound emerged as a transnational Jamaican, Nuyorican, Panamanian and Puerto Rican music with no singular place of origin. More recently, Juliet McMains has tracked the development of salsa dance in New York, Los Angeles and Miami as well as its relationship to salsa music. However, the Latin influence on DJ culture, disco, house music and other electronic dance sounds remains largely undocumented, and that left the impression that either the sound of the music or the sexuality of a significant number of its makers weren’t sufficiently Latin, or weren’t primed for easy integration into stories about national and diasporic musical movements. In this manner the queerest strand of Latinx culture has passed under-historicised, right up to the point when Mateen’s assault on the culture revealed just how easy it remains to erase Latinx queerness.
The totality of these elements show how Pulse negotiated the precarious divide between loss and creation, between violence and love, from the day it opened, and not simply the night Mateen entered the venue armed with a gun. Just as José Esteban Muñoz points to the way that queer racialised hope and loss come intertwined, with the work of building a utopia left to those whose lives have been damaged, so Pulse dancers have long been habituated to negotiating the violence of homophobia, racism and poverty. If Mateen’s attack took their experience of violence to levels none of them can have imagined, the utopian worldmaking goes on because it was already mandatory, because it cannot be extinguished, and because violence breeds resourcefulness. Pulse’s purpose has never been more urgent, its task to negotiating the local, the national and the transnational never clearer. At the same time, queer latinidad voices and sounds are resisting their erasure. Anger and grief are fuelling joy and resistance. As Pomo’s new motto puts it, “Our hearts are broken but our Pulse is strong”.