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.