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Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making
Fiona Buckland
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
$55.00, 224 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6497-4 (hardback).
$19.95, 224 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6498- 2 (paperback).

Guillaume Marche
Université de Paris 12

Fiona Buckland wrote Impossible Dance as the outcome of her research toward the completion of a Ph.D. in Performance Studies at New York University. The author’s project is to analyze the implications—both concrete and symbolic—of club-going among queers, i.e. non heterosexual individuals. As a scholar in performance studies she analyzes club-going as a particular form of performance and regards the activity club-goers engage in as a fully-fledged form of dancing: despite its lack of artistic recognition “improvised social dancing” is to her a highly significant form of expression and a locus where the subjective and the private interface with the collective and the public; hence her claim that improvised social dancing is one of the main venues for queers to create innovative “lifeworlds”—that is to say to accomplish performances enacting small-scale cultural change which may in turn evolve into broader alternative cultural paradigms available to a wider constituency.

The author describes her own study as a form of ethnography insofar as she engaged in participant observation, going to queer clubs in New York city in order to document the actual individual and collective performance, interpersonal interactions and social dynamics in these environments. As a long-time club-goer herself the author also includes in the field-notes on which her book is partly based reference to her own impressions, feelings and behavior. The study indeed does not present itself as an attempt to objectivize a social and cultural practice—rather as an endeavor to explore the deep, subjective implications of an often disregarded culture. Impossible Dance thus partly stems from a desire for self-exploration, and the researcher does negotiate her ambivalent position as observer and participant in a fruitful way, especially in confronting her own observation with twenty-two in-depth interviews with seventeen informants between May 1996 and August 1998 (a seven-page methodological appendix details her interviewing procedures).

After setting her study chronologically thanks to a useful fourteen-page “timeline” and introducing the purport of her work for a readership that may range from the general educated public to social and cultural studies specialists, Fiona Buckland firstly analyzes performance in queer clubs as a “theater of memory”—that is to say as a reconciliation of the collective and the social with the individual and the intimate. Drawing on Pierre Nora’s definitions of history and memory she characterizes improvised social dancing as an “environment of memory”, where memory is embodied because it is performed and where improvisation stands as a form of agency. Thus do club-goers engage in “map-drawing”—recounting the stories of their queer experience in the city and inscribing their individual behavior in a broader social context. Here Fiona Buckland articulates her key hypothesis that improvised social dancing is a way for queers to literally embody a memory that not only defies heteronormativity but also stands as an alternative to homonormativity—the marketable collective homosexual identity which she and her informants name “gay”, as opposed to “queer”.

Fiona Buckland then goes on to document the specifics of club-going, beginning with dress, which is meant to produce “fabulousness”—a way of looking daring and thus asserting a sartorial challenge to both heteronormativity and homonormativity. Queer world-making is indeed, according to Buckland, a specifically physical process—which embodies itself for instance in the habit of drug-taking to remove oneself from one’s ordinary-life body. But the mere fact of dancing should not be reduced to a simple question of movements since, she argues, it is a mode of claiming as queer a space which was not necessarily designed as such. Improvised social dancing thus makes the individual converge with the collective in that it literally creates an “imagined community” where previously there was none. Club-going must therefore be regarded as a consciously undertaken transformation of space.

The next chapter—aptly entitled “Slaves to the Rhythm?” (in an ironic allusion to Grace Jones)—more closely examines the interactions involved in improvised social dancing. Buckland here offers an analysis of the interactions between dancers as well as between dancers and D.J., based in part on a careful and enlightening analysis of the types of dance music used in queer clubs. This chapter is probably the most convincing in the book, since this is where the author displays her specific competence as a performance studies scholar to analyze dancers’ composition of movement in the three-dimensional environment of beat, tempo and space. Dancers indeed not only interact with the D.J. and with each other but also with the music itself, making it their own, for instance through the interpretation (in both senses of the term) of lyrics. Club-goers’ compositional practices thus resort to a form of “play” in that they create community at the same time as they allow individuals to accomplish an infinite variety of idiosyncratic self-expressions.

The most critical of Buckland’s claims is that queer world-making in clubs is indeed political. Much in contradiction with some conventional analyses of social movements, which tend to regard practices centered on the self a “mindless” if not “dangerous surrendering of political agency”, she argues that the club is the site of “embodied practices of energy transmittal and movement mimesis” that are to be reinvested outside the club. She challenges both the views that clubbing is an extreme form of individualism and that it is generative of chaos, by considering that clubbers are engaged in a complex web of interpersonal interactions and that their practices revolve around the management of the constraint v. freedom tension that is imposed by the very spatial configuration of dance clubs. In offering recreation, clubs are “third spaces” outside of home and workplace where participants work out original ways of being together: this form of entertainment is therefore not reducible to an extreme form of individualistic capitalism, and thus to a diversion from transformative politics since its very existence is tantamount to a calling into question of the traditional dichotomies mind v. body, individual v. community, private v. public and market v. politics. Buckland analyzes in particular how individual and collective “kinespheres” interact for dancers to manage a synthesis between the expression of a personal style and the mimesis of, or adaptation to, others’ styles. Far from contradicting this hypothesis the sexual implication of the atmosphere in clubs is part and parcel of this dynamic of invention, as sexuality is the archetype of a highly individualized yet codified interpersonal relation displaying itself in physical behaviors.

Buckland goes on to study the pleasure element in club-going, by focusing in particular on the differing economies of the erotic gaze in lesbian and gay spaces. She claims that dancing can involve desire into a festive form of liberation, for example when go-go dancers create a collective dynamic by motivating others to dance rather than simply arousing them. Dancing may thus imply an economy of pleasure that transcends the body and “allow[s] a space of constantly refiguring possibilities to remain open”, so that instead of standing as obstacles on the way to political change physicality and pleasure may indeed be loci of open potentialities.

In the last two chapters of Impossible Dance Fiona Buckland evokes two specific contexts of queer club-going in New York city: Mayor Rudolf Giuliani’s rezoning policy and crack-down on non family-oriented businesses, and community initiatives in response to the impact of AIDS on the club scene. These serve as concrete illustrations of how improvised social dancing can produce resistance and change. In the first case, Buckland argues, some queers’ insistence on going on clubbing—despite growing and increasingly targeted obstacles to queer underground sex and club cultures—upholds a daring self-definition of queers, at a time when the gay mainstream has been emphasizing propriety and acceptability. Queerness in this context appears as an expression of diversity and a challenge to normativity, especially due to its insistence on sleazy sexiness, a working-class culture of rejection of elitism and a physicality of the moving body: whereas the motionless body is commodified, movement is a function of the body’s agency.

Another illustration of how queer “lifeworlds” operate lies in the Body Positive T-Dance, a monthly dance event for people affected or infected by HIV and AIDS in New York. The burden of physical attractiveness, often heavy in gay male environments, is all but irrelevant at the Body Positive T-Dance, where being able to join in with others in dancing is the only thing that really counts. Being oneself and interacting with others indeed by far overweigh the issues of body-image, so that the Body Positive T-Dance in effect operates as an assertion of community and life in the face of isolation and death. Participants’ various modes of contributing in the event in particular create a theater of memory which allows them to make sense of death, and thus to go on living without denying death—at a time when treatment improvements have made AIDS appear less deadly in the eyes of many and when, as a consequence, unsafe sexual practices are dangerously on the rise.

This well-written essay introduces the reader to its points in a gradual fashion: the author’s thesis builds up as the argument unfolds, which makes for a convincing piece of writing. The author’s analysis of movement in particular is both extremely precise and highly suggestive, so that the essentially non-verbal elements in dancing are rendered in a remarkably effective way. The author draws on a wide variety of theoretical references in the fields of philosophy, history, anthropology, musicology, cultural studies, performance studies and queer studies. This book is particularly valuable as it takes some of the most abstract tenets of queer studies to the field, to examine how performance actually operates—a much needed approach twelve years after the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. By focusing on this not very often studied, though highly prevalent aspect of queer experience Fiona Buckland’s study of “world-making” offers a very valuable contribution to the claim that creativity and subjective agency are crucial to social change.

The essay’s shortcomings lie firstly in its sometimes rather didactic tone in articulating what is more akin to a political agenda than to the prime focus of the analysis, for example in her lengthy evocation of the U.S. government’s insufficient response to AIDS or of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s reactionary “Quality of Life” campaign. The author moreover tends to take her informants’ words at their face value when they make claims as to how club-going matters, not only in their own lives, but also in the politics of queerness and in society at large. Even though she aptly emphasizes the clearly utopian quality of such queer world-making’s contribution to social change, the weak point in her argument lies in the demonstration of the actual impact of club-culture on the “outside world”. In addition she only seldom raises the arguably central issue of clubs’ status as commercial establishments and of whether it has any bearing on the nature of the “lifeworlds” they undeniably contribute to create.

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