The Queen of Disco, Gloria Gaynor, Performed My Nightlife Baptism

Gloria Gaynor
Gloria Gaynor
Courtesy of the artist
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December 31, 1996, was a typically cold New Year's Eve in Times Square. My friends and I were trapped in that glittery and dismal landscape while waiting for the ball to drop. As a teenager from Miami, I was dressed incredibly inappropriately in thin pants, slip-ons, and a borrowed coat. I shivered soberly in air thick with the scent of booze. I loathed a group of champagne-drunk dudes who wouldn't stop trying to talk to us yet envied their inebriation. Luckily, though, we gals had plans for the rest of the night. We were headed to see the "Queen of Disco" — Gloria Gaynor — perform at the Roxy NYC.

That year was almost right smack dab in the middle of the Roxy's 23-year reign as a Manhattan hot spot. It started as a roller rink, hosted hip-hop battles, and boasted one of the city's most popular gay nights. Madonna was even a repeat customer. And then there was me as a high-school senior. I remember being bathed in red lights at the club and hypnotized by Gaynor's presence and pipes. I was too young and way out of place, but that show was my nightlife baptism. Her songs led me through the door of the mundane to a place I adore, the magical all-night party.

Gaynor was likely on tour in '97 to promote the re-release of her album The Answer. I had no idea at the time. This was before the internet went mainstream, so I couldn't simply find her music on YouTube. Except for "I Will Survive," "Never Can Say Goodbye," and "I Am What I Am," it was all new to me. She launched her career with the jazz and R&B group the Soul Satisfiers in the '60s and became an all-out dance-club sensation by 1975. Odd fact: "I Will Survive" was actually released as a B-side before a Boston DJ uncovered and played it for obsessed ears. At one point, she returned to her Christian roots, rejecting disco, only to re-emerge as a gay icon.

You might wonder why a 17-year-old would want to see a performer whose greatest hit was released the year before she was born. But "I Will Survive" is an anthem that will forever give strength to the downtrodden. Survival is something teenagers know a lot about. I was a weird kid who didn't cave to social pressures, but I certainly thought about my shortcomings and bore the brunt of bullying because of my resistance to conformity. And though I hadn't even had my first kiss, I was excited to twirl and sing along with Gaynor to a song that made me feel heard, in a soulful rather than actual way. I hadn't kicked a romantic interest out the door yet, but I felt like I could if I had to and that life wouldn't end. That song lights up the parts of your brain that make you feel loved and strong enough to take care of you first for once.

I was also excited to go to the show because buying a ticket made it easier for us underage kids to get into clubs. New York in the '90s was teen-friendly, but either way, we were armed with our aloof stares and fake IDs and tickets. I wasn't a teen who tried to grow up too soon (hence the lack of romantic intimacy), but I loved going out and dancing in adult spaces. Sneaking past red ropes when I was too young to enter or too uncool to be invited was always exhilarating. I heard a doorman's "no" as a challenge. And I often found myself smiling at them with a drink in my hand from under the flashing club lights by the end of the night.

Back home in Miami, I was too protected by my parents to explore the Miami Beach scene. But on vacation in New York, I was able to test out what it was like being a grownup. When I hit college, I went full-on party animal and didn't stop for more than a decade. It's strange that when you're young, you see dance parties at clubs as the stuff of adulthood, but they're actually places where adults can act like children.

Miami, much like New York, with its 24-hour parties, allows for that nightlife break from the normal. You can take a dip in that unruly, unconscious space that society tries to control. I loved being able to dance and explore boundaries freely and to take risks in a relatively appropriate environment — like really big-kid daycare. I was kind of a serious, anxious kid, and in a sense, I had to grow up to enjoy my childhood. I cherished the times making friends of strangers, learning about new subcultures, soaking in different genres of music — it was something I wanted so badly to enjoy. And I did.

That night, champagne and Gaynor's music emboldened me to dance when I was not yet comfortable with my body. Her performance was a key that gave me access to that wild place when I was at the brink of adulthood. It was the first of many liberated nights to come.

Gloria Gaynor. 8 p.m. Friday, February 8, at Charles F. Dodge City Center, 601 City Center Way, Pembroke Pines; 954-392-9480; charlesfdodgecitycenter.com. Tickets cost $60 to $120.

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