The Ecstasy & Pain of NYC's Lost LGBTQ Dance Scene

"I still run into people today on the train who say, 'Because of you, I lost my job.'" While most New York stories that begin this way don't tend to end well, David DePino sounds warm, even delighted as he shares this information with Billboard.

That's because the New York mainstay is a special case. And in a way, he always has been.

The strangers randomly haranguing DePino on NYC transit are referring to his mid '80s DJ sets at the Chelsea club Tracks, where he oversaw Tuesday dance throwdowns that prevented many a patron from getting to work on time. That venue, like the legendary Paradise Garage where DePino first cut his teeth on the turntables, was a cradle of gay nightlife in the Reagan Era, back when mainstream acceptance was a distant dream and acknowledgment by the White House of the growing AIDS/HIV epidemic wasn't even close to a reality.

In the face of outright hostility or, at best, indifference from the wider populace, DePino helped solidify a place for New York City's LGBTQ population to not just belong but find ecstatic release: the dancefloor. And that's exactly what an illuminating exhibit at the New York Historical Society, Stonewall at 50, is celebrating this year (with parts of the exhibit running through Dec. 1).

"Prior to that, little clubs were open during the week, but they were basically bars with tiny little dancefloors," DePino recalls. "They weren't places that held thousands of people on a weekday. I was the one who changed it."

That claim might sound boastful taken on its own, but speaking to DePino at length, it's clear the LGBTQ dance scene pioneer maintains, if anything, a humble astonishment about the indelible impact of his life.

"It sorta feels like the Tom Hanks movie [Forrest] Gump, where they put him in all the situations," DePino opines in his unmistakable Noo Yawk accent. The idea of a 'gay Gump' might sound like a painfully glib Hollywood movie pitch, but for DePino, it's not inaccurate. For example: As a closeted teenage son of Italian-American parents, DePino found himself traipsing around Greenwich Village with a friend looking for a pair of glasses similar to what Granny wore on The Beverly Hillbillies ("if you're not a certain age, you don't know what those are," he explains). That day was June 28, 1969; just hours later, the Stonewall Riots began, kicking off what many perceive as the modern movement for LGBTQ rights. 

"I wanted to tell everybody I was right outside of it, but I didn't because it was being promoted as the gay club and at that time I was 15, 16 and I wasn't going to tell my family nothing about gay," explains DePino, who never formally came out to his parents.

From there, his upward trajectory into queer history continued -- despite any particular ambitions on his end. After getting a gig at the Lutheran church-turned-gay discotheque The Sanctuary, he eventually found his way to the game-changing, now-defunct dance club Paradise Garage, working closely with the incalculably influential Larry Levan. 

"I never wanted to be a DJ," DePino says casually. "Larry made me a DJ because he needed someone to open for him who he could trust who was not hungry for his job. So I made it my business to be good and make the people happy until he came. He was my best friend and I wanted to be good for him."

That, however, was no easy task.

"Larry was a star," recalls Krishna Stone, a veteran of the late '70s/'80s NYC dance scene who is now director of community relations at Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC). "He would have three turntables going and he would mix the same song over and over again to build to an orgiastic, rapturous moment. He kept building and building [a song] until everybody was screaming. It was unbelievable to bear witness to."

"The important thing was the journey of the evening," DePino emphasizes. "You didn't go to the Garage to go to a club -- you went to go to Larry's house party."

Even if he didn't intend to become a pioneering queer DJ, a heartfelt desire to earn his keep as Levan's opener turned DePino into a formidable force when he eventually scored his Tuesday night slot at Tracks in the mid '80s. And while his DJ skills were part of the equation, his marketing savvy certainly helped.

"I went to the Village, went to Midtown, and every handsome gay boy I saw I gave a complementary [entry] card to," DePino recalls of his trial period at Tracks. "I filled it with pretty people, and pretty people attract pretty people. Before long I was getting the Asian crowd, the Hispanic crowd, the Black crowd, the white crowd." The patrons came in two waves: "From six 'til 8 or 11 o'clock, there were all young kids in their suits coming straight from work. And I would have another crowd around 9, 10 o'clock at night who obviously didn't work -- or didn't care -- and they would stay 'til 6 in the morning," he says, tipping to the aforementioned New Yorkers who still approach him to let him know his DJ sets cost them their jobs. "It was very sweaty," he laughs.

Even so, DePino says it wasn't a hookup scene, insisting it was more about "heavy duty dancing" than meeting people to go home with. 

"The clubs back in the late '70s and early '80s were like faith communities; they were sacred especially for gay men, lesbians and transgender folks," Stone says, echoing DePino's characterization of the scene as something defined by more than libido. "The DJs played with a purpose. The way the DJs mixed their music was to give the attendees that experience of rapture, as Black ministers would work people into a frenzy."

Just as a minister might spend a few days workshopping a sermon, DePino recalls how Levan would plot his weekend DJ sets at Paradise Garage. "He would be cleaning the mirror ball or setting something up and I'd put on 15, 20, 30 new pieces of music that came out that week," he remembers. "Sometimes they had two, three mixes so you had to listen to all of them, and he'd give me the thumbs up or thumbs down from the dancefloor on what he liked."

It was from curated club experiences like these that modern dance culture took shape. Rebecca Klassen, assistant curator of material culture at the New York Historical Society, recently interviewed around 50 people in preparation for helming the nightlife portion of the transcendent Stonewall at 50 exhibit. Speaking to a variety of scene veterans (including Stone, whom she lauds as possessing "a steel trap mind for songs played in mixes" back then), Klassen emphasizes that dance culture as we know it "starts much earlier" than most people realize. "It's in Manhattan discos," she says. "These behavioral, performative patterns come from disco – having a whistle, baby powder on the floor, dance styles, all of this comes from New York in the '60s and '70s."

While the historical chronology of dance culture's evolution remains woefully under-reported when compared to that of rock or hip-hop, one thing is certain: the music industry was paying attention at the time.

"Mixes were a priority for alternative artists in the '80s… without having to address the straight/gay issue," says former artist manager and publicist Michael Pagnotta, who worked with Erasure and George Michael over the years. "Those [mixes] were their ambassadors in the clubs to that audience. The clubs were where hip, progressive, oftentimes gay people went to dance…. You were reaching them where they lived and giving them something special – and maybe with something more interesting than what's on the album. The remix thing picked up in the '80s… having great mixes is about the best marketing in gay clubs you can do."

Back then, much like now, LGBTQ spaces brought in celebrities who appealed to a more heteronormative crowd. And while hardly as elitist as Studio 54, Paradise Garage still attracted an enviable roster of A-listers: "We had Madonna, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder. Boy George used to come all the time," DePino recollects.  

Of course, it wasn't just famous straight people who zeroed in on the groundbreaking scene. Plugged-in NYC denizens realized its importance, too. Stone, who first experienced Paradise Garage a few years after it opened when she moved to New York in 1978 from Philadelphia, identifies as straight but was hellbent on attending the exclusively queer Saturday night parties. "The trick was to get the gold membership card," she says. "Friday had more a mix of straight and gay, but Saturday was the night if you were really serious, and you needed that gold card.

"I got the information you needed to be a lesbian if you were going to get a gold card, so I borrowed a friend's combat boots, wore black jeans, a black tee shirt, no makeup. When I got up to the desk [the guy] was like, 'oh, you're a lesbian, you're okay.' So that's how I got it. It is pretty funny," she admits.

Stone's Paradise Garage gold card is one of more than 180 objects on display as part of the Stonewall exhibit's room dedicated to LGBTQ nightlife. Sadly, but understandably, that portion isn't overflowing with vintage photographs. "There's a real dearth of photographs from the '80s," curator Klassen says. Part of that speaks to an access issue before cell phone cameras became the norm, but "also privacy issues with LGBTQ clubs," she says, pointing out many attendees didn't want physical evidence of their patronage. 

The fact that a straight woman's Paradise Garage membership card is one of the more readily available pieces of historical memorabilia from the era speaks to a tragic truth as well -- like Larry Levan, a number of those who frequented New York's LGBTQ dance clubs aren't around anymore. 

"What was happening in the clubs was very eerie," Stone recalls of the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. "I would go to a dance club and see a DJ and then the next time I would go back, he was gone. People, largely gay men, were disappearing. Even though I began to understand what was going on, it was very frightening because it felt very quiet."

"It changed the makeup of the crowd," DePino says of spinning at the now-shuttered venue Sound Factory in the early '90s. "I knew if I played [MFSB's] 'Love Is the Message' which of the ball kids were going to get into a vogue battle.... So I'd look around for the faces I knew were going to make everybody make a [dance] circle around them, but suddenly they weren't there anymore."

In 1988, amfAR (a nonprofit foundation for AIDS research) estimates that 61,000 Americans died as a result of the AIDS/HIV epidemic; by 1993, it was up to 234,000.

"It became very exhausting to go to memorial services, especially when the family members would not honor who these men really were. It was very draining," Stone says. "I threw myself into volunteering and going to marches and rallies and candlelight vigils and then I became a staffer [at GHMC, which formed in the early '80s to combat the AIDS epidemic]."

"To be honest, I went into a little bit of depression. Almost weekly I was going to one or two funerals," DePino says. "When you're 25, 30 years old, you shouldn't have buried 100 friends. You're not supposed to bury people until you're in your sixties and seventies. It was a hard time." But after a rough period, he "started to see the light at the end of the tunnel… some of my friends who were ill were taking medication and surviving." 

Now, with various drugs capable of rendering HIV+ individuals undetectable, the epidemic appears to be more manageable. And while DePino is grateful the death toll has lessened, he wishes younger generations were more aware of the potential dangers. "These young kids don't think they need condoms anymore; they think they take a pill and it's okay," he sighs. "But sometimes you can't tell a 20-year-old anything. When I was 20 I didn't want to hear it from nobody either," he admits. "Somebody handsome looks at you a certain way, and all bets are off. It's part of growing up."

Even if generational amnesia is a symptom of today's more mainstream-visible LGBTQ community, DePino recognizes the value of progress -- and wishes his mother could have lived to see it.

"With my family, I didn't come out and say it. I think my parents knew but I remember once my mother said, 'Are you happy in your life?' I said yes. She said, 'if you're unhappy, we'll go away, the two of us, and you can live your life however you want to.' I said, 'I don't know what you're talking about, I'm very happy.' I think that was her way of reaching out.

"I always thought she was afraid for me. She didn't look at it sexually as much as what quality of life I would have. She didn't live long enough to see the change. I think now she would see the Stonewall celebrations in the street, even Yankee Stadium putting a plaque in Monument Park to Stonewall," he says. "Things are changing, and I think if she was alive now, she would close her eyes happier knowing I wouldn't be sad and lonely."