Since the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, Gay men have danced together in large numbers without fear of incarceration. Love of communal dancing led to the circuit, a series of weekend-long parties that privilege muscular, masculine beauty. Within the circuit is a handful of male performance artists in semi-drag who dance and lip-sync for the duration of a song. These entertainers often have backup dancers and exotic costumes, but the most important thing they bring to the stage is fierceness.
One of the best compliments in American LGBT folk speech is to be called “fierce.” One may have a fierce body, fierce haircut, fierce tattoo, fierce sense of humor, or fierce attitude. A drag king or queen in a eye-catching outfit may be fierce. DJs who get the crowd jumping are fierce. People who dance well are fierce. Those who are the life of the party are fierce. Fierceness is power. It is not, however, destructive power or deadly force—it is not savage, violent, ferocious, or terrible. Taken from the wordplay of African American Gay men in the ballroom scene, fierceness is often expressed as charismatic authority that demands admiration.
Power Infiniti (Dale Wilson) has been a performance artist since 1994. He and his fellow performance artists are unlikely superstars in the circuit world. They tend to be dark-skinned and slender rather than the typical light-skinned (before tanning), muscular Anglo or Hispanic circuit god that garners so much attention on and off the dance floor. In addition, performance artists flaunt femininity as well as masculinity in costume, makeup and choreography. They purposely situate themselves in a social limbo – physically fit but not muscle-bound, and androgynously feminine but not as feminine as a traditional drag queen.
That ambiguity is the beauty of the performance artist. The circuit scene is infamous for body fascists, attractive snobs who judge those around them on physical appearance and masculine demeanor – body fascism may also include racial bias. Such snobbery, ubiquitous in the Gay male community, is also found in the circuit milieu, and it creates tremendous anxiety for participants obsessed with having the right physique, face, and butchness. Performance artists undermine that anxiety by claiming for themselves the coin of the realm, favorable attention, without conforming to the dictates of body fascism, race, or butchness.
Roots of Fierceness: A Short History of Drag
The existence of Gay communities in history is often difficult to ascertain, due to moral censure of same-sex erotic-romantic love that not only discouraged such communities but also inspired scholars and legal authorities to erase any traces of it from the past. Nevertheless, evidence of Gay communities can be found in late seventeenth-early eighteenth century British police records concerning molly houses, secret places where mollies (slang for feminine males and men who desired sex with other men) would drink, sing, dance, and have sex. Some of the male participants would also dress as women. Molly houses were performance spaces, not only for cross-dressing but also for mock weddings and childbirths. Authorities shut the molly houses down in the early eighteenth century.
The late nineteenth-early twentieth century saw the rise of female impersonators in America, such as Julian Eltinge and Bert Savoy, both of whom were featured plying their craft in movies. Playing to the prejudices of his era, Eltinge portrayed himself as a masculine Straight man when not onstage. Savoy, however, did not. He was flamboyantly effeminate in his mannerisms, and he used camp (exaggerated dramatic presentation) as a vehicle for humor. Nationally famous for his comedy, his last words were uttered in 1923 while walking on a Long Island beach during a thunderstorm. “Ain’t Miss God cutting up something awful?” he exclaimed, just before being struck by a lightning bolt.
Eltinge and Savoy were public faces of a Gay underground culture that was emerging in New York City. Drag balls, gala events for cross-dressing males that can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, were gaining popularity. One particular drag ball in Harlem, called “the Hamilton Lodge Ball” or “Faggot’s Ball,” drew large numbers of onlookers and participants. These events featured not only drag but also acted as venues where people of the same sex could dance together as couples. Drag balls coincided with the pansy craze, a time when nightclubs featuring males in drag became a popular urban phenomenon, especially during prohibition. Authorities began shutting down drag balls and pansy clubs after Prohibition ended. Drag performances went underground until the 1950s when some bars in San Francisco (the Black Cat and Finocchio’s for men, Mona’s for women) banded together to change the city’s restrictive laws concerning drag.
The circuit began within a couple of years after the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, which occurred one month before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. In the first hours of June 28, the police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. The Stonewall Inn was a dive bar that featured watered-down drinks, a jukebox, and a dance floor. Gender- and orientation-variant people went there to cruise and dance. A flashing light was set up to let folks know when the police were coming (the bar had no liquor license, and cross-dressing was illegal), so the owners of the bar regularly paid the police to leave the bar alone, or at least give them a heads-up if a raid were to commence. That night, however, there was no warning. Males wearing feminine makeup had no time to wipe it off, and the officers forcibly escorted them and any females in men’s clothing to a paddy wagon outside of the club. A crowd gathered in front of Stonewall during the raid. Things got out of hand when those under arrest refused to cooperate, and bystanders began throwing things at the police, who ran back into the club until reinforcements arrived. For three days, the streets in Greenwich Village were the setting for confrontations between riot police and protesters, including chorus lines of drag queens putting on impromptu performances taunting the officers, then running away. When things settled down, New York City officials decided to quit enforcing laws forbidding cross-dressing and men dancing with men. Labeled the “Stonewall Riots,” the insurrection was marked by some violence (most of it against the protesters by police) but without fatalities, which could be attributed in part to protesters’ use of humor and dance rather than deadly force in their performance of resistance.
With Gay Liberation came fundraiser dances, which became so popular for Gay men that large clubs opened to cater to their desires. It was also the birth of DJ culture, including sound systems geared for the dance floor, lights that flashed to the pulse of the beat, and techniques for mixing one song into the next without a pause so that participants would stay on the dance floor. The epicenter of this subculture was Manhattan in the cooler months of the year, and Fire Island (a barrier island off the coast of Long Island) in the summer, as Gay men migrated from one to the other in what became known as the circuit. Men who made the seasonal pilgrimage were called “circuit queens.” The subculture of dancing, shirtless men in venues with state-of-the-art sound systems and DJ equipment was easily exportable, and its prefered genre of music, disco, went with it across the USA and around the globe. The Manhattan-Fire Island circuit spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Along with the rise of disco, drag culture (including the Imperial Court started by Sarria) continued to expand throughout the country.
The “Disco Sucks” Movement
Disco music had gained tremendous attention in the mid- to late ‘70s. But the genre was considered antithetical to rock music and Straight masculinity due to its association with the Gay male community and the influence of LGBT artists such as Sylvester and the Village People. On July 12, 1979 (three weeks after the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising), Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl supervised a Disco Demolition rally at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a baseball doubleheader between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox. Already having positioned himself as an anti-disco warrior, Dahl appeared on the field dressed in paramilitary gear, then proceeded to burn several thousand disco albums that fans had brought in exchange for reduced admission. The album-burning excited the overwhelmingly White male teenage spectators into a frenzy as they poured onto the field, ripped up the turf, set fires, and started fights while chanting, “Disco sucks!”
Disco Demolition was an excellent example of anti-communitas, and the publicity stunt succeeded in marginalizing the LGBT community from the mainstream, marking the end of the brief disco era that allowed people of different orientations and gender expression to gather together on the dance floor. Mel Cheren, founder of West End Records, explains the backlash:
The music market is largely a zero-sum game, so as disco rose, everything else had to fall… Rock had defined two generations of white middle-class straight baby-boomers, particularly guys. It spoke to them and for them, and now it was in danger of being relegated to a niche market itself by a new style dominated by black musicians and Gay promoters, producers, and tastemakers… Beneath the bitter complaints that disco was mindless, hedonistic, repetitive, pounding — exactly what critics had said about rock itself in its early years — there was this deeper complaint: disco was black and Hispanic. Disco was mindless and gay. Disco sucked.
But the disco sound was alive and well in Gay men’s clubs well into the ‘80s and beyond. DJs kept disco going with their own remixes (edited versions of songs) as well as new songs such as Jimmy Ruffin’s “Hold On (To My Love),” released in 1980, and Viola Wills’ cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “If You Could Read My Mind,” which remained staples in Gay male venues and circuit parties for the next two decades.
Disco’s Revenge and the Ballroom Scene
Two of the most important Gay DJs during the late 1970s were Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, friends who got their start playing records in the Continental Baths, a Gay men’s bathhouse in Manhattan. Levan was famous for his diva personality, boldness in music selection, and the incredible sound system he had set up in the Paradise Garage, the Manhattan nightclub in which he was the resident DJ (his music was called “the Garage sound”). For his part, Knuckles moved to Chicago, where he gained fame in a venue called the Warehouse for what became known as house music (named after the Warehouse but, in terms of its musical elements, originated with other Chicago DJs besides Knuckles, including Ron Hardy and the Hot Mix 5), which featured strong electronic beats and basslines.
Another facet of house music was the way in which it brought people from different backgrounds, races, gender expression, and orientations together. Knuckles described the Warehouse as “church for people who have fallen from grace,” and house music as “disco’s revenge.” He attributed the power of the music to the ways in which it invokes a spiritual experience for participants on the dance floor when social barriers between them fall, an experience that easily falls under the category of communitas:
For me, it’s definitely like church… Because, when you’ve got three thousand people in front of you, that’s three thousand different personalities. And when those three thousand personalities become one personality, it’s the most amazing thing. It’s like that in church. By the time the preacher gets everything going, or that choir gets everything going, at one particular point, when things start peaking, that whole room becomes one, and that’s the most amazing thing about it.
Meanwhile, the Manhattan/Fire Island circuit continued into the 1980s. Two large private clubs in Manhattan were prominent: the aforementioned Paradise Garage (a dancer’s club catering to a diverse crowd, primarily African American and Hispanic) and the Saint (a place to be seen, to find beautiful and predominantly White men, do drugs, dance, and have sex in its balcony).
From inner city drag during the 1980s came ballroom (or ball) culture, which featured underground communities that participated in balls: drag contests for realness (males passing as women, lower-class people passing as members of the upper class, contests for expressing masculinity and femininity by anyone of whatever gender or orientation). Each contestant typically belongs to a house: a group of competitors under a mother or father. House names are often taken from the world of fashion, such as the House of Dior and House of Blahnik. The emphasis on high fashion, however, does not restrain participants from calling each other “bitch,” “whore,” or “cunt” (to call something or someone “cunty” is a compliment in the ball community). Especially prominent are emcees (masters of ceremony) who maintain a running monologue-chant that may be peppered with obscenities during the proceedings.
There are several important structural and functional similarities between ballroom and Candomblé communities: within both are houses (casas) with a mother or father in charge. Both take in the dispossessed, especially people of color and those that are gender/orientation variant. Both involve dramatic performance of empowered identities, and both come out of communities descended from African slaves. Even more striking is the emphasis on the festive in song and dance as well as the subversion and reinforcement of gender. But the differences are even more profound, at least in terms of ideology. There is the sense of life and death in the sacred production of axé, while realness in the ballroom scene is a high form of outrageous play and not holiness per se. Still, Candomblé Ketu does have the orixá Exu, God of the Crossroads, who loves outrageous play and can be as entertaining and obscene as any ballroom emcee.
AIDS and the Rebirth of the Circuit
The onslaught of AIDS brought the scene to a standstill. So many men who were members of the Saint were stricken with the new plague that it was called the “the Saint disease.” Both the Saint and the Paradise Garage closed by the late 1980s. The ballroom scene likewise suffered: “The balls in 1981 and 1982 had a lot of diversity,” remembered Kevin Omni Burrus of the House of Omni. “There were many heterosexual males and females that attended the balls. This was probably due to it being the pre-HIV/AIDS era. And to be in the company with the kids [ball competitors] was legendary. The ball kids were the ones who could dress, party and turn it. The atmosphere was so different when we had a great mixture. You had the Latins, the Asians, the Caucasians. You had variety… Prior to HIV/AIDS, there was much more freedom and acceptance in the air.” Like the Disco Demolition, AIDS had created a rift between Straight and Gay communities.
The Gay male dance community slowly recovered. Fundraiser parties were thrown in various cities to raise money for HIV/AIDS research and charities. In the 1990s, the success of different medications and the prevalence of steroids to counter the body-wasting effects of HIV/AIDS led to an abundance of not just well-built men but also men (both HIV+ and HIV-) with bodybuilder physiques. Some of the fundraisers grew in size, and parties were added in a yearly calendar that took circuit boys to venues from coast to coast. The circuit generated its own set of DJs superstars, favorite divas (female singers such as Marsha Wash, Jeanie Tracey, Debra Cox, Ultra Naté, Peppa Mashé, Inaya Day, and Kristine W), light technicians, party producers, and performance artists.
Along with the resurrection of the circuit came the return of ballroom culture, which gained international attention when Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra released “Deep in Vogue” in 1989, and the pop singer Madonna incorporated ballroom icons in the video for her hit song, “Vogue” in 1990. Since that time, the ball scene has attracted an international audience, and ball houses have sprung up across the United States and beyond.
The ball scene is a counter-cultural movement that has made a strong impression on the African American community, particularly the African American Queer community. From Black Queers (who make up a sizeable percentage of LGBT entertainers), ball terminology has made its way into the LGBT community. The push for excellence in the performance of realness has made it possible for ball competitors to do well as entertainers in the circuit, which like the ball scene, is seen as a counter-culture in most of the country. The ball scene is also transgressive; one important feature of competitions is shade (doing or saying something that denigrates another person, often obliquely) and reading (criticizing someone). The competitiveness of a ball often leads to shade being thrown from one house against another as they vie for status.
As a result of AIDS/HIV activism and better treatment for the ill, the circuit was on the rise in the 1990s, as were steroids and drugs associated with dancing. Men who attended these parties set themselves apart from the general Gay male population. Circuiteers had their own music, specifically tailored to the dance floor with beats per minute (BPM) between 120-130, and sold by the DJs in the scene on compact discs in clubs and at events. Circuit queens were meticulous about their looks – the majority of them were physically fit, and a sizable minority (25-45 percent) were noticeably muscular. Costuming could be elaborate, depending on the party, but the typical dance floor uniform was a pair of jeans and a tank top or form-fitting T-shirt that was removed during the course of the evening. The best men’s accessory for a circuit party was a muscular physique. Circuiteers had their drugs of choice to enhance the dance experience, each with its own girl-name: Stacey (MDMA), Katie (ketamine), Gina (GHB), and Tina (crystal methamphetamine).
The goal of the circuit experience was multiple sensory overload that was centered on dancing. An astute DJ could literally move large numbers of participants onto the dance floor and keep them there for hours. Being in that mass of bodies (described often as a “sea of men”), all moving to the same beat in a large, dark venue with flashing, multicolored lights, was intoxicating all by itself. Given the appropriate dosage, the four girlfriends (Stacey, Katie, Gina, and Tina) could enhance perception of movement, music, and lights as well as loosen inhibitions. Dance floor etiquette had some basic rules, such as not touching anyone who did not want to be touched and (typically) not having actual sex. But it was not unusual for men to form lines of bodies back-to-front against each other (“the caterpillar”) to maximize sensual contact, or for men to have their hands down each other’s pants when the party was going strong.
Circuit boys lived for these weekend-long dance events, usually travelling together in tight-knit groups of friends. Although a circuit party did not usually have competitions per se (Hotlanta and IML were exceptions), the parties were, and still are, arenas for competition. Walking into an event is exhilarating but also terrifying – everyone is watching each other, and not always with benign intent. The most attractive men can be brutal in their disdain for anyone they feel was not of their calibre, proof of Georg Simmel’s observation that vanity is the need for others in order to despise them. This is one major reason why people travel in packs and use the girlfriends – egos are on the line. When snubbed by the object of one’s desires, a crowded dance floor can feel like the loneliest place on earth. The so-called A-List participants are not immune to intimidation. They also risk having their hopes crushed when swimming in the circles of the elect, and everyone knows that looks do not last forever. A flaw in character or being messy when improperly dosed can bring down even the mighty. To ease tensions, it is also not unusual for participants to engage in hilarious behavior. Since positive attention is the coin of the realm, such antics are especially important in helping uptight people relax, laugh at themselves and each other, and have fun.
The greatest pleasure of all occurs when the DJ packs the dance floor, raises the energy of the crowd, and brings everyone to a shared state of sensory overload that shatters barriers between them. Participants become one body-mind, a phenomenon that I call transcendent solidarity. It is a communitas moment, a respite from all the judgment, anxiety, and arrogance that alienate people. In the social engineering that circuit party promoters, sound engineers, set designers, light technicians, and DJs are adept, a properly executed performance artist show is one means for generating transcendental solidarity.
Miami, EDM, and the Circuit
Chicago and New York were not the only centers of dance music and Gay male festive culture. Miami has been internationally famous as a focal point for electronic dance music (EDM) since the 1980s, and has had circuit parties since the early 1990s. Miami is the home of the Winter Music Conference (WMC), a week-long gathering of EDM and house music industry people since 1985. Miami is also the home of Ultra, a massive EDM festival that started in 1999 (Ultra draws 100,000-150,000 people), and El Festival de la Calle Ocho, a Cuban-inspired Latin American street party in its Little Havana neighborhood that attracts over one million people.
One reason for the city’s centrality in the dance music scene is its history as a crossroads between mainstream America and Latin America, particularly Cuba. “Miami has always had its own distinct sound which was based heavily on the clave or Afro-Cuban rhythms,” said Ray Kirk of WMC. “This sound became dominant in a lot of the ‘90s house vibes being created by MURK [a Miami underground house music team made up of Oscar G and Robert Falcon] and Gay DJs Abel [Aguilera], Peter Rauhofer, Danny Tenaglia and Junior Vasquez.” When Cuban refugees fled their country after Fidel Castro took over, Miami benefited from the culture the refugees brought with them, including rhythms used in Cuban folk music and Santería-Lukumí, African Cuban religion based heavily on Yoruba spiritual praxes. “The clave sound has existed here for decades,” said Kirk, “in the Afro-Cuban jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s, in the ‘70s labels like TK Disco that brought this sound to the clubs and discotheques, and in the ‘80s Miami’s freestyle sound used the clave as its base, which of course segued into the ‘90s house scene and the Yemaya Y Ochun!! Party.”
There has also been a thriving Gay male club scene. “Clubs such Warsaw [Theatre] and Paragon in the early ‘90s ushered in a period of unadulterated fun and debauchery with the Sunday T-Dance at Warsaw and foam parties at Amnesia, – the heyday as I like to call it,” recounted Kirk. When Warsaw Theatre and Paragon closed, “the boys were jonesing for a new megaclub and Salvation was the answer. The vibe [at Salvation] was your typical circuit vibe: hot shirtless sweaty men high on a bump of K [ketamine] and banging circuit and tribal house music.”
Miami and Kitty Meow
To understand the story of Power Infiniti, it is best to start with his mentor and friend, Kitty Meow. Born Shawn Palacious in Nassau, the Bahamas, Palacious moved to the USA for boarding school. While in fashion school around 1991, he began hitting the Miami club scene. “I was not fully formed yet,” Palacious said about the early days, referring to his eventual transformation into Kitty Meow. He became a club kid (a dance club attendee who dresses up in eye-catching outfits and makeup). His fashion sense and training in design caught the attention of party promoters, including Suzanne Barsch, who introduced New York and Hollywood celebrities to Miami nightlife.
Palacious was approached to compete in Miami’s ballroom scene: “I didn’t want to at first because I did not belong to a ballroom house,” he said. “With encouragement from my friends, I didn’t say I was affiliated with a house, but rather to a temple: the Temple of Kitty Meow,” and she took “Kitty Meow” as her performance name. Kitty became known in both the club scene and the ball scene in Miami. When a new mega-club called Paragon opened in South Beach, Miami under promoter Mike Mazon, Kitty participated in the extravagant opening: “There were a hundred people in costume along the road in front of Paragon. The police had to close the road due to the crush of people trying to get in.” With her connections with Suzanne Barsch and the nationally famous Paragon nightclub (a connection she kept alive when Paragon closed, then reopened as Level), Kitty became a Miami celebrity and was hired to perform at major circuit parties in the USA, such as Palm Springs White Party and Miami’s own White Party. But she did not perform in traditional drag: “I never felt right impersonating a real girl. I just feel more comfortable in semi-drag.”
Kitty also became part of a jet-set that travelled to major cities in the USA and Europe, and she became friends with Kevin Aviance, another person of color who performed in semi-drag, had associations with the ball and circuit communities, and had formed her own troupe: The Cunties. Kevin was particularly affiliated with DJ Junior Vasquez (who had residencies in various Manhattan clubs such as Twilo and Sound Factory). For her part, Kitty was closely associated with South Beach clubs Paragon, Salvation, and Level, and with DJ Abel Aguilera. It was while working with Salvation after Paragon closed that Power Infiniti caught Kitty’s eye.
Miami and Power Infiniti
Dale Wilson was born in Scarborough, Tobago. His parents were of Caribbean descent: his mother was Trinidadian and his father Jamaican. Soon after his birth, they moved to New York City, then to Miami, Florida. Growing up was not easy for young Dale. His father was physically abusive to his mother, brother, and himself. Small of stature, he learned to defend himself outside of the home with such robustness that his friends called him Power. His mother insisted on sending her boys to private school, a financial burden to which her husband did not always contribute. At the age of nineteen, he moved in with his boss from work after being displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Liberated from the strident anti-LGBT conditioning he received from his Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing, he was dazzled by Miami’s vibrant Gay male club scene, which included circuit culture. He remembered standing on Ocean Drive in Miami’s South Beach, making a vow to himself that he would “conquer the city.”
While in Miami, he joined the ballroom scene and learned the art of fierceness: “My connection with the Ballroom scene started a couple years after coming out, with me taking notice of the children of the House of Xxcentrika serving drama on the dance floor,” he said in a 2007 interview:
A ball thrown by diva Jo-Jo Infiniti,, who really opened up the ballroom scene in Florida, was the first time I got to see underground talent up close. These kids were doing things that, if displayed on any stage at any circuit party, would make the boys and girls of clubland gag [watch the performance in amazement]. I soon opened up my own house, the House of Righteous Shade, and went head-to-head in ballroom competitions with other Florida houses, like the House of Lords, House of Xxcentrika, and (at the time) our archrivals, the House of Infiniti.
As Dale Wilson became Power Infiniti, she left the ballroom scene when she decided to make it as a performer in Miami. “After a few years, I wanted to make my mark on the club scene, including the circuit,” she said. “I left my House [and competition in the Ballroom scene] in ‘97. My friendship with Jo-Jo Infiniti, however, remained solid and as a result, I eventually became a member of the House of Infiniti. I’ve been an Infiniti ever since, which is why my full name is Power Infiniti.” Power’s time in the ball scene honed her skills, especially in terms of confidence that fierceness entails:
When a ballroom competitor switches to the circuit, the need for drama and shade is greatly reduced. The things the kids do for a ballroom contest are so much more amazing than what we do during a circuit performance because the ballroom crowd is a tough crowd to please. If you want 10’s across the board [approval from the judges and crowd], you’d better be able to turn it or you will get chopped [disqualified] and told to sit down.
The skills that hPower learned as a ballroom competitor (especially the confidence that comes with fierceness) were crucial in getting her renown, especially her experience in the competitive category known as bizarre. This category is the most creative of all categories – “bizarre” means going beyond gender realness and into the realm of sci-fi-like fantasy. “I started as a club kid, then learned the art of traditional drag, But the need to be bizarre and different helped morph me into the image people see today.” She took the costuming and makeup she had learned in the ball scene and worked it into choreographed routines, which meant that her expression of bizarre (which in ball competition might include elaborate costumes that do not lend themselves easily to exuberant dance moves) was expressed in form-fitting, sensual clothing. Like Kitty Meow and Kevin Aviance, Power became a ballroom-circuit hybrid, just as the drag aspects of her costuming blended feminine and masculine elements.
Before Dale entered the circuit scene as a performance artist, he was a drag queen in South Beach, a role that he felt never quite fit him but was necessary for him at that point to make it in the Gay male club scene. “I had to make a decision,” he said, “either to get a boyfriend or do drag. The men I wanted were not into queens. So I chose career over love.” But like Kitty Meow, Power Infiniti was never really comfortable presenting himself as totally feminine; the sensuous androgyny of circuit performance was more his style.
Salvation and Abel
The rise of the circuit in the late 1990s coincided with the increasingly vibrant Miami party scene. Power described the energy of those days: “The Miami club scene from 1997 to 2002 can be described with two words: ‘bigger’ and ‘better.’ There was just more of everything. More boys, bigger venues, bigger parties, bigger shows, more decadence, more of a mix between Straight and Gay, and more time to party, since the 5 am closing time wasn’t enforced back then.” In the midst of the flourishing scene, Salvation nightclub gained prominence as a destination for circuit boys, not only during the major circuit events such as the White Party on American Thanksgiving weekend and the Winter Party in early March, but every Saturday night. It was a space that Power remembered well:
Salvation was appropriately called ‘The World’s Only Weekly Circuit Party.’ Salvation was located on Miami Beach, tucked away on West Avenue and 17th Street. It was a huge multi-story venue. Downstairs was the main room. Huge dance floor and stage. In the four corners of the dance floor were huge speakers with platforms in front of the them where the go-go gods [muscular dancersl] would hype the energy. Upstairs would open on busier weekends. We would hold the crowd in a separate room at the beginning of the night and then open the main doors around 11 or 12 to a show. From there the party took off. We would then time another show to be put on right at the peak of the night’s energy, and after that one final one around close of the night.
One reason for Salvation’s popularity, Power said, was the crowd it drew:
The crowd at Salvation was beautiful, energetic, and music-driven. At that time, most of the gay population lived on or around South Beach, so we had our core locals that were faithful to Salvation every week. They took the time to dress fashion forward but not too dressy, as most ended up with shirts off anyways. They knew their music. They knew their divas. There was such excitement around Saturday nights every week. It was the place to see and be seen.
Salvation was also the residence of DJ Abel Aguilera, a Miami native and Cuban American who gained a following for himself by playing and remixing songs with a strong Latin flavor to them. Not only was DJ Abel popular in Miami – he had a following all over the USA wherever circuit events were held. “Abel was the captain of the ship and took us on a musical Journey every week,” said Power. “Now people usually pay big ticket prices to hear him when he comes to their city or circuit party event. We had him every week. Add to that the South Beach boys: seven hundred to a thousand of the hottest bodies moving and partying on the dance floor, hands in the air, living for the vibe.” The combination of Latin-infused music, large venue, and a large number of regular clientele put Salvation on the map for circuiteers from Los Angeles to London and from Toronto to São Paulo.
The circuit world in the late twentieth-early twenty-first century was centered around the cult of the DJ, which even today is different from the craven DJ adoration of the Straight EDM crowd. At Ultra, Miami’s massive EDM festival for example, the mostly Straight audience typically faces a superstar DJ for the entire set, which might go for an hour or less. In the circuit, a DJ might play music for six hours or longer, and the crowd is more concerned with flirting, dancing, and romancing than fixating on whoever was in the DJ booth. According to Abel, “The DJ takes you on a journey – I lift you up, we reach a peak, then I bring you down at the end of the set.” The journey is a shared adventure for all, even as flirting, joking, and throwing shade went on between participants. The job of a good DJ is to provide an epic soundtrack for dance floor drama.
Due to the intimacy of the circuit community, most anyone can get to know at least one famous DJ, and DJs knew the limits of their power. The first rule is to keep the pulse of the music going as not to throw off participants in their performance of communal dance. Circuit venues have dance boxes and stages, not only for go-go dancers but also for participants to show off their moves. When Power signed on as performance artist, he knew his role was to work with DJ Abel, not compete with him. Each of the three shows for an evening at Salvation was the length of a song that the performance artist chose in advance. It was then up to the performance artist to choreograph the show with costumes, dancers, and props, and up to the DJ to fit the song into the evening’s musical flow. Although the performance artist was the star while the song played, Power recognized that the DJ was the star for the night:
I always looked at myself as the accessory to the night, not the main feature. That role went to Abel. I have always believed that the most legendary clubs are clubs where the music comes first, and Abel was the Dj-producer that drove the feeling and energy, every week, to hundreds of fans. I always collaborated with him when doing my shows because the shows and the music had to marry perfectly to add to the night. A show can accentuate a musical journey if both the Dj and the performer work together. If not, a show can take away from a night just as easily.
Abel Aguilera played music for radio and clubs before he got into the circuit scene. “My first circuit break was White Party ‘90 at Paragon,” he said, noting that the nightclub Paragon had opened some eight months earlier. Miami’s White Party is held on American Thanksgiving weekend, and is one of the longest running HIV/AIDS benefits in the USA, and Abel’s debut opened the door to many more events across the nation. He also made his mark on the dance music charts, producing and remixing songs with his characteristic Latin flair. Abel attracted both the circuit crowd and the ballroom children, including the House of Infiniti to which Power belonged. “The Infinitis used to follow me,” Abel said. “I saw something in Power that drew my attention,” so he pushed to have Power as a professional performer each week at Salvation. But their relationship began earlier, when Abel was a DJ at Paragon. Abel invited Power and others in the ballroom scene to perform onstage during his sets – this was not a paid gig, but it got them in the club free of charge. Power remembered how important it was for him to get recognition from people in the club world:
Abel helped me out when nobody else would. When I first came into the South Beach scene, people treated me like Texas dirt, noonch kapoonch [unimportant]. One week, I went to Paragon and patiently stood at door. The doorman looked right through me as if I was invisible, even as he opened the velvet rope to let others in. Feeling humiliated, I walked away. Afterwards, I spoke with Abel and asked him if me and some of the ballroom kids could go to the club and turn it out onstage as he DJ’ed. Abel put us on the guestlist, and the next week that same doorman had no choice but to open the rope and let us prance in. I never forgot how Abel gave me life that night.
Abel and Power have a close relationship forged from years of working together. When Abel talks about Power, he switches genders; sometimes he refers to Power as feminine, sometimes as masculine, depending on whether he is talking about Power the onstage performer or Power offstage. During the course of a conversation Abel and I had in July 2016, he described how the two of them collaborated on a performance for Salvation or a major circuit event. “Unless we used a classic, the performances were done with cutting-edge songs. Whatever remixes I was working on were available to her [Power].” Abel recalled Power having a penchant for excellence: “Sometimes she would pay for backup dancers out of her own pocket, just for the show.” But what struck Abel was the nature of Power the performance artist: “He wasn’t like your typical drag queen. He’s not a drag queen – he’s a performance artist.”
Kitty Meow, Kevin Aviance, Flava
Like drag queens, performance artists would lip-sync to a popular dance hit onstage. Unlike drag queens, however, there was no banter, no tipping, and the artist would leave the stage right after the song was finished, so there was no break in the groove that the DJ had worked so hard to create. Typically, these performances (called “hot spots”) were a welcome break for the sweating masses on a packed dance floor, who were free to keep moving to the beat as the show went on. When Power entered the Miami scene, Kitty Meow had already made his mark as a performance artist, and the two became friends, along with a third performance artist diva, Flava (who gained fame in Los Angeles), and Kevin Aviance (who became a club icon while working with DJ Junior Vasquez). All four performance artist adopted a similar semi-drag look:
Long before there was an official circuit scene, there were performers that were using androgyny [shaved heads, semi-drag]. Much respect has to be given to my sister Kitty Meow; though not alone in her styling because Kevin Aviance would also perform quite androgynous from time to time, she did in fact help to pioneer the circuit scene. So I would have to say in the Circuit scene, it pretty much started with Kitty Meow.
None of the four performance artists mentioned in this chapter is White/Anglo, and only Flava (Mark Martinez) is not African American. Each of them made it in a world where the majority of American participants, promoters, and DJs are not people of color. Of the four, two of them (Power and Kitty) are children of immigrants. And although he grew up in the USA, Power was not a citizen until 2016.
Dance Floor Spirituality
As a space in which Gay men and their allies can dance, flirt, and get intoxicated for over the course of a weekend, circuit parties can sometimes take on a sense of the sacred. Hours of sonically-driven movement for participants in altered states can generate transcendent solidarity, a synchronization of the collective body-mind of the dance floor crowd in which everyone is simultaneously performer and observer. Circuiteers who report the feeling of joy that arises at such moments often describe it in spiritual terms, as a return to the dawn of spiritual impulses among members of our species untold millennia ago. Such descriptions are similar to those coming from aficionados of deep house music pioneered by DJs such as Frankie Knuckles and his “church for people who have fallen from grace.” And deep house music sometimes dovetails with the circuit sound; both favor soulful women’s vocals and the occasional remixes of Gospel-inspired songs such as “Rise Up (Put Your Faith in Jesus”), “This Joy,” “He Is the Joy” as well as various praise-songs to Yoruba deities such as Eshu, Shango, and Oshun. That same spiritual resonance can be seen in the name of the club, Salvation. Like the Saint in Manhattan, the effect of Salvation on the Gay male dance community was so pronounced that Salvation parties continued to be thrown in Miami and in Europe, just as Saint parties have been thrown in Manhattan, long after both clubs shut their doors.
Despite the significant differences between a circuit party and a Spirit-filled church service or traditional African ceremony, I have heard men with an Evangelist Christian background say that going to a circuit party is like going to church. The same is true for Lorenzo Cardim de Almeida, a member of the Candomblé community who was born in Bahia and moved to Washington, DC. He went to his first circuit party in 1999 (DC’s Cherry Party):
I felt like I was in a trance, like I would at a festa. It was spiritual. When you go to a festa, with the music, singing, the drums, the clapping, everybody’s energy is focused on the same place. It puts you into something that is bigger than yourself. The same thing when I go to a circuit party, with the music, the beat, everybody dancing. When I’m dancing in the circuit, I feel like I’m not in my body any more. As simply as I can say it, it’s a religious experience when you combine the music, drums, and beat… After a circuit party, I feel the same way as I would if I were coming back from a Candomblé ceremony. I have an energy that I can’t fake.
But the much-desired pleasure of transcendent solidarity can be demolished by body fascism and clique-ish behavior. This is where performance artists can make a difference. Echoing the sentiments of DJ Frankie Knuckles, Power feels that his art form has a spiritual dimension to it:
When I perform, my attitude is this: “If I feel it, yo’ ass is gonna feel it too.” Performance art is definitely spiritual. I feel like I’m taking you to church, so to speak. If someone is truly passionate about the message or the energy that they are giving, you can’t help but feel it, much like a preacher who catches the spirit when he speaks and the rest of the church catches it with him. It’s no different.
I witnessed one such performance by Power in 2003 that had a strong religious dimension built into it:
I was performing for Fireball, Chicago’s now dismantled circuit party, and I decided to do a song called “Children of the World” because of the message of the song, which was all about unity. The producers of my event had access to a gospel choir and the rest, as they say, was history. The crowd gagged when, in the middle of the show, walking down the middle of the dance floor was a fully-robed Gospel choir! They joined me onstage, and the choir, coupled with an incredible cast of hot, near-naked dancers representing different races and religions, made for an amazing show.
To fully appreciate the rich interplay between religious symbolism, homoerotic-romantic attraction between men, and the pulse of house music (“Children of the World” is a deep house song) for that particular moment in circuit history, it is worth looking back at the mystics of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote of union with Allah, which he compared to homoerotic-romantic love between men. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was obsessed with kissing Jesus on the mouth, and Saint John of the Cross compared his soul’s love for Jesus to a woman sneaking out of the house to meet her lover. Chaitanya was so enamored with the spiritual-erotic love that Radha had for Krishna that he sought to become her and feel her desire – the list goes on. It is therefore fitting that, as mystics utilize erotic language to describe the transcendent joy of experiencing God, circuit DJs and performance artists utilize songs with religious content to enhance the sensual experience of dance floor communitas, when all the barriers imposed by body fascism, status, race, and anything else that divides the Gay male community fall away.
But spirituality need not be limited to a religious context. One of the perennial songs in the circuit from 1997 to 2003 was “High” by the Lighthouse Family (François K Vocal 12”). When “High” was released in 1997, it was not originally a dance tune. But the lyrics resonated with the dance floor experience, especially that of the drug-addled circuit: the refrain was “One day we’re gonna fly so high.” François K’s deep house remix added a strong beat and a sassy piano background/solo to it – his version took the circuit by storm. When “High” came on, circuiteers would seek out their loved ones or friends and dance with their arms around each other – it evoked affection rather than erotic sensuality, and in doing so, represented a different facet of ecstatic dance.
One of Power’s most poignant memories was when he and Kitty Meow performed this song in 1999. “One show in Salvation, we took a chance on an oldie but goodie, a beautiful come-together song: ‘High’ by the Lighthouse Family. Abel was spinning that night. We didn’t know how the crowd would react.” Circuit queens are infamous for rejecting songs that are deemed out of date, and “High” had been out for a couple of years. “But the feeling in the room when that song was performed was one of love and unity. The show was a collaboration between myself and Kitty [Meow]. We had beautiful costuming – that’s all I can remember of the show.” But he clearly remembered the crowd. “There were hands in the air, people singing along and crying.”
The differences between the “Children of the World” performance in Chicago and the “High” performance in Miami’s Salvation are significant. The Chicago show had overt religious referents embedded in it, while there were no such referents in the Salvation show. The reaction of the crowd in each was also different, as was the moment in history: during the Chicago show in 2003, the crowd was dumbfounded, watching intently as Power, the choir, and the dancers fiercely undermined the propaganda against the LGBT community spread by extremist Conservative Christians and encouraged by the Bush administration (Gay men were intrinsically anti-American and should never openly serve in the military) as it prepared America for the Iraq invasion one month later. I saw no people in the crowd who were dancing, singing, or waving their arms (they did express their pleasure at the end of the performance, however). The “High” crowd in 1999, on the other hand, was participatory throughout the performance, waving their arms in the air and singing along. Nevertheless, both events reflected the spiritual ecstasy of transcendent solidarity. Perhaps Lorenzo Cardim de Almeida is correct in his proposal that the combination of rhythm and dancing in itself can trigger something profoundly spiritual when people of diverse religious backgrounds come together, even when they are horny, cracked out, and obsessed with physical beauty.
Decline, Steady-State, and an International Tour
The circuit scene began a slow decline after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The administration of George W. Bush linked terrorism to the recreational drug trade, and a false report linking MDMA to permanent brain damage was used to shut down raves (the Straight equivalent of a circuit party, but more underground and with a younger constituency) as well as the availability of the drug. The substances that were easiest to obtain, GHB and crystal methamphetamine, were also the most potentially harmful. Even before 9/11, fallout from circuiteers requiring hospitalization or even dying from GHB overdose brought unwanted attention to the events, and crystal meth addiction became a serious concern of the LGBT community, especially for Gay men who were engaging in “crystal sex,” orgiastic marathons that could go on for 24 hours or longer, resulting in a spike in HIV/AIDS seroconversion. In addition to these problems, there was less disposable income to spend on circuit parties as the economy worsened prior to 2008. By 2006, the number of events plummeted.
As well as pushing the nation into two wars and escalating the war on drugs, the Bush Administration also encouraged unprecedented attacks on the Gay male community. Men’s sites online for erotic picture-sharing were threatened with lawsuits based on loosely interpreted laws against pornography, and the movement against marriage equality (a key plank in Bush’s 2004 platform for re-election) often featured advertisements with two men kissing or holding hands, sometimes contrasted with pictures of male soldiers on the battlefield. The message was simple: Gay men were the antithesis of the brave American warrior. At the same time, other social factors were coming into play. Treatments for HIV/AIDS were improving dramatically, and the urgency of fundraising that fueled many of the circuit events diminished.
The result of all these changes was a circuit community that was no longer large enough to generate its own music or an extensive calendar of events. Nevertheless, the scene did not die. The White Party-Palm Springs, White Party Miami, Winter Party, Gay Disney events, Pines Party, Alegria (in multiple cities), Splash, Halloween New Orleans, and Black Party New York survived. In addition, there are new events since 2005: Demence in Brussels, Song Kran in Bangkok, and Circuit Festival in Barcelona. DJs such as Abel are still performing to large crowds, and performance artists such as Power Infiniti are still hitting the stage.
DJ Power Infiniti
I started Djing in 2003 i made my dj debut at twist. It has been a mainstay in the Miami gay scene. Residency at liquid in tampa as of 2017 as well as special performances around the country. People appreciated the music i used when i turned people oue\t on stage. No dj forced me to perform a song i didnt like, so becoming Dj power infiniti was a progression from my work as a pa. Always invisioned meself as a dj, i just didnt know how. Drag queen Connie casserole was an inspiration Dj Drew tribe got me started during house parties in ft lauder 2003 im trinidadian with a jamaican father percussion and rhythm are in myblood. When people hear me im always percussion driven abel rauhofer and paulo playing yhose tribal cunty beats once a month queen of the night tampa open mike somebody gave me a chance this is my way to pay it forward. A lot of performers do not feel the need to perform every single pa in their own local communities inspired future pas.