As Leeds played host to the world's biggest disco ball, Oliver Walkden was in amongst it as Duke Studio's provided a lesson in disco culture.
What do you think of when I say disco? Something anachronic, maybe. It’s the word your nan uses to refer to a party, envisaging a traffic-signal style lighting set up in the local Labour Club. It’s the music I used to associate with sofa adverts. It’s the phenomenon that is viewed nostalgically through heavily repeated documentaries on BBC4 in the dead of night. It’s certainly not something that has a lot of currency.
The club-goers (not disco-frequenters) of Leeds have a taste for techno: futuristic, polished and tough. The futurism of disco, and its position at the root of all dance music genres, is forgotten. The various aspects of disco culture that make it so rich are condensed down into cliche, or into a retrospectively-delivered joke.
This is one of the reasons why you might be sceptical of an event like the Big Disco. Would it simply perpetuate these cliches, and carry out a tainted, modern (but not modernised) view of disco culture? Or could it do something else?
What this event reveals is a desire to understand disco, or at least to put its principles into practice, rather than lock them away in history.
(Photo: Tom Joy)
The essence of disco is so important to Leeds, a city that prides itself on its club culture and love of a party. Its people love to gather, to interact, to drink, and to dance, whether it be in its clubs, or a basement in the student area of Hyde Park, or a cooperative venue such as Wharf Chambers. These are the principles of disco: to allow voices and bodies to mingle in safe spaces.
What better city, then, in which to erect the world’s largest disco ball, first seen at Bestival a few years ago? As it was raised above Sheaf Street, and the sun beamed across Leeds, the mass of people below was reflected; everyone could see one another, a group of people all gathered with the same intent. It was nice to see that the team at Sheaf Street made a family event out of something that could easily descend into depravity. Kids joined their parents, who had no doubt once enjoyed themselves at a disco, and as the adults danced to tracks that reminded them of their youth (Chic, The O’Jays, Donna Summer), their children were given an education in vogue and more at various stalls that had been set up. A mantle seemed to be being passed on.
A banner at the back of the stage (occupied by the strong line up of Greg Wilson, DJ Yoda, Utah Saints and other local selectors) read ‘Together in Electric Dreams’: a reminder that disco has much more in common with electronic music that meets the eye. It is a unifying force, one that historically supported minority groups when no-one else would. Incredibly, divine intervention reminded the crowd of this fact: as the ball reached its highest point an expansive, perfectly formed rainbow appeared behind it - the insignia of queer culture occurring naturally in the most serendipitous way. Something magical was happening here.
The disco ball, in spite of rain and gusts of wind, span into the evening, as parties and after parties across the city ensued. The one hope that I had leaving the event was that the ball would continue to spin in people’s minds; that the joy that dancing, creative expression and music brought to the crowd on this stunning day in South Leeds will repeat itself forever, from generation to generation.
(Photo: Elouisa Georgiou)
Words by Oliver Walkden
Photos courtesy of Big Disco