Flash back with us to the era of mood rings and platform shoes, strobe lights and mirror balls. In "Gotta Dance," the cover story from our February 1978 issue, Charles Monagan takes us inside Connecticut's disco subculture, where the scene was about being seen, and the right moves and wardrobe could transform an average guy- or girl next door into a dance-floor superstar … for the night, anyway.
In his final commentary as Connecticut Magazine's editor in 2013, Monagan reflected on working as a writer during that era, and on the unconventional style of this article in particular: "Many young magazine writers were pretty full of themselves back then, and I was one of them," he says. "It was fun to get carried away like that, the editors encouraged it and at least some readers professed to enjoy it."
This article is being posted to the web in February 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
Dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-(Hey! Super-glad you could make it!!)-dum-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-(Welcome to Discoland in the electric pink heart of a Friday midnight!)-dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-dum-(What?)-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-(WHAT???)-dum-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-(Hey! I can’t hear you! I SAID I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!)-dum-BOOM!-dum-(LET’S GO UP INTO THE DEEJAY’S BOOTH!!! C’MON!!!)-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!-dum-BOOM!-BOOM!-BOOM!-BOOM!!!....
Whew! That's better. Not quite as loud in here. Hoy, that floor is crowded. And funny how that bass line out there climbs down from the speakers and kicks you right in the chest; makes you fed like you’ve been slumming the medicine ball around with Sonny Liston. A-a-anyway, let's take a look at the action. Oh, before we begin, this here is Tod. Tod Bealls? He s the deejay here at the Nite Life Lounge. Got an ample eight thousand tunes up here to pick from. Does a good job, mixing funk for the funky crowd with disco for the disco crowd. Keeps 'em both unhappy, har! har! har! Jes' kidding, Tod, baby. Nice shirt, though. What’s that go for. about $40? Yeah, I figured at least. Goes nice with the suit. And, you were right, the green vest does go with the hay-colored suit!
You wannna drink? I'm having an Amaretto and cranberry juice. Yeah, really. Vitamin C. Really. Me? Jumpy? You're outta your mind, Jack. Never felt better in my life. Hey, how do you like the booth here? Little bit like the control tower at Bradley, don’t you think? Except for the turntables and albums, of course, Nice glass windows and blinking lights, though. Hey, Tod! Gotta make sure none of these people crash tonight, right? Screw you, too, baby!!
Great guy, huh? Hey, let's lake a look down on the dance floor now and see what we got. Tod's playing some of that funky stuff right now, the stuff you really don't have to know how to dance to in order to enjoy yourself. Sounds like James Brown. Quite a crowd out on the floor, moving around, flailing and feeling funky under the four refrigerator-size speakers, the flashing red, blue, green, and yellow lights, the big crystal globe and the whole solar system of smaller ones, spinning 'round, catching the light, and firing it back a hundred different ways. Yo, Tod! Hit that vertigo strobe, wouldja! There. Check this out. That strobe’s blinking ten times a second. Real freaky if you're high. Freaky enough if you're not. Seems to throw the whole joint off its axis. Makes you feel like you’re falling down a hole or something. You don’t even—Ho!! See that guy dance right into the mirror over there? Smashed right into it. Ha! Musta lost his way. Too high, probably caught a buzz before he got here and he's been drinking J. Walker Red all night to impress his date. Prolly—ooops!—Pro-bab-ly didn’t think the zucchini-colored three-piece suit could do the whole trick.
Hey, while we're at it, let’s check out some of the other threads here. Hmmm. Looks like Proper Attire all the way. L.L. Bean sells no shoes to this crowd, that’s for damn sure. This couple right below us. for instance, dancing like hell to this—what is it, Tod?—this O’Jays’ tune. Guy’s got on a black silk shirt cut to the sternum, aswim with what appear to be iridescent coelacanths. Girl answers with a particularly fluid number, a shimmering licorice whip waterfall cascading from shoulder to toe, opening every now and then to offer just the tiniest peep at the crawling flesh beneath. Girl knows what she’s doing, I guess. But she and the other girls here are showing an awful lot of back, if you know what I mean. I mean unblinking, somewhat menacing stares from the area of the bar.
And how about all these three-piece suits! Can you explain that? Can you? Looks like a prom in here. Some guys going with the jackets all the way, others dancing in the vests. Mostly dark suits and always the white shirt and dark tie. The white and black look good in the lights, especially the strobe: makes ’em look like jive spider plants under a short-circuiting grow light. You have to admit, though, that the suits do something for most of these guys. They look dapper and the girls go for that. Who cares if they stand three-deep at the mirror in the men’s room, and who cares if they actually seem to be dressing up more for the other guys (“This suit cost me $210, chump. How far did you have to chase one to get that?") than for any girls? The point is that, finally, the guys are starting to dress up to female standards. Of course, a few of the guys, dancing in the corners mostly, don’t look quite right all decked out like this. They look a little out of sync, a wee bit tricked up, a little, you know, weird—like Jimmy Carter carrying his own suitcases. It helps a lot if you know how to dance. It also helps if the suit comes close to fitting.
A-and looking around some more, who is this over here?!! The check out girl at Caldor's, for God's sake!! Freed from the cash register, she's dressed in this stoplight red plunging sex job, and, what's more, she's doing some kind of intense mating dance with a dude who looks like he just slopped out of an NBA locker room and got kidnapped on the way to his Rolls Royce! (Have to remember to give her a knowing little nod the next time I'm buying gardening gloves or discount Snickers—a-and just maybe check out the name on her nametag.) Anyway, it’s a pretty well-dressed jazzed up crew here tonight. No blue jeans, certainly no “Disco Sucks" T-shirts.
Now, I’m going to ask you to do something. I want you to squint your eyes and scan the whole deal. First off, you get the lights and their rainbow of color—squint your ears a little, too, for the bones of the ceaseless beat—and on the dance floor you can make out the glistening, lobbing heads going up and down and up and down and BOOM! and down and BOOM! and down, and you got the locomotive churning of the arms and legs and—there seems to be something else in motion with the music. It’s the jaws! Right! Everybody’s got the slick or two of Trident Sugarless in there, and even though it looks like they might be talking or singing along, they’re not. They’re chewing with the beat! It's a shame, sort of. For all the fancy duds and flashy jewelry and elegant poses, here they are chawing it up like a bull pen full of relief pitchers. But so what? It’s Friday night, the dreaded workweek is down the tubes, and it’s time for a little fun. And who knows where all this bodily contact might eventually lead?
Now look over the dance floor to the bar across the room. See that dark mass over there? The bar crowd. Must be two hundred of ’em. Just suckin’ down the sauce, guys mostly, watching the dancers, whittling away at those big iron logs of sports conversation, trying to make some girl. Trouble is, most of the girls over there want to dance and most of the guys don’t have the guts to ask ’em. Don’t wanna look foolish, you know. Don't want people talking about them. Don't have the right shoes on. or something. No one ever said this singles scene was a piece of cake. So you get loaded and reel out the door at two.
That takes care of two groups in here— the funk crowd and the Mr. Goodbar set. Now I want you to gaze back on the dance floor, or, rather, on those booths right next to the dance floor. See that group at the table there? You have to sort of wait for a space between the people moving on the floor. See ’em? Now I want you to open your eyes real wide and take a good look. The people in that group at the table are of a very social breed, my friend. They are the Disco Dancers. Notice how they stand a little bit apart from the crowd, a little aloof? They're more or less an unspoken presence at any disco, like Hell's Angels at a rock concert. This is because Disco Dancers think of dancing as a lot more than swing your partner on a Friday night. To them, dancing is the driving force of life. They carry the beat around with them all day like an alky brown-bags a bottle of wine. Waiting to uncork.
The guy in the Saltine three-piecer is Ron (Fifty) Piombo, twenty-seven, painstakingly dapper man-about-the-club, unofficial disco historian. The one in the vest is Eddie Manhattan. He prefers not to have his true identity bandied about. He’s quiet by the going standards around here, intelligent and helpless in the clutches of a good song and a good partner. He’s twenty-eight and a schoolteacher. Linda Cappello is eighteen, and by all accounts, the best female dancer at the Nite Life. She's the one in the brown- and-white dress with the full skirt that’s bound to turn some heads when she starts spinning out on the floor. Linda's regular partner, Dave, is here, and so is Debbie, dressed in a slinky sailor outfit.
The Dancers are sitting on the sidelines because Tod up here in the booth has gone on a funk bender, and for the time being will not play any disco music. Tod is doing this for two reasons. The main reason is that Nite Life coowner Marty Ferrari is here tonight, and he likes funk music. The other reason is that funk music, with its looser, header beat, is easier to dance to. You don’t have to hold and work in tandem with your partner. You just get out on the floor and do whatever moves you. That's why the dance floor is full right now. And that's why the Dancers are getting a little ticked off. They didn't practice their disco moves all week long to come here tonight and watch everyone else. They came here tonight so everyone else could watch them.
So let’s leave the gang smoldering in their booths for a little while as we try to figure out what makes them dance, why they would choose to spend half their waking lives in a disco. To do that, we must first figure out where the music and the clubs came from. So you put a quarter in Ron Piombo, and out pops a skeletal disco history.
“Let's go back six years." Piombo says. "The years 1970 and 1971 were the peak for rock 'n roll—heavy rock, a lot of guitars and screaming psychedelic stuff. This was the pinnacle for groups like The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones. They were totally in control of the young music- scene at the time. Shortly thereafter, that would be 1972, there was the introduction of funk music to the rock scene. Groups responsible for the beginning of funk would be the revival of James Brown, Tower of Power, yeah, I would say especially Tower of Power and, I would say, Santana, and of course Stevie Wonder is somewhere in the middle. Slowly but surely, I would say by late '74, funk sort of took over the whole trip. I figure funk was really responsible for people getting away from the bar and onto the dance floor. It wasn't contact dancing like disco, but it was people dancing closer together.”
Disco Dancer Eddie Manhattan takes over: “The Bump was the very first thing that brought on touch dancing between a guy and a girl. It was something that two people could actually practice and get down to a pattern."
The Bump caught on because it was fun, it was sexy, and just about anyone could do it—bump hips with your partner at rhythmic intervals. But down in New York something else was brewing. The music and dancing in the Hispanic community was getting a lot of ink because the music (salsa) was infectious and the dancing (The Hustle) was stylish. The dancing was also fairly serious in that the more you practiced, the better you looked. And looks were becoming everything.
Discos sprang up on the upper East Side, and fashionable, much-photographed people started going to them. The discos featured excellent sound systems, visual excitement, nonstop, cleverly mixed music, and lots of people dressed to slay. At the turn of the decade, the fad spread out of the Apple, and the first big-time disco in the state opened in New Haven. It was called the Snow Chicken, then the Neuter Rooster, and now it's known as the Coop de Ville. It remains the best disco in Connecticut. Other lively spots have opened in the meantime throughout the state.
Anyway, when disco hit the fan, a lot of people were waiting to dance with partners again, and more than a few were willing to plunge headfirst into the whole scene.
Disco Dancer Linda Cappello describes herself as “always a mental case about dancing." A few years ago, she used to go to dance spots to watch her friend Debbie Chouinard go through the moves. Linda wanted to watch and learn and practice and get good and then go dancing herself.
“Doing these dances well is not a gift," she says. “You have to learn it. When I first went to watch Debbie, I said, ’Oh, I’ll never be able to get it right.’ But she taught me the steps and the turns, and I practiced and practiced, and I finally got it.”
Linda now comes to the Nite Life just about every night. “I even find myself thinking about it during the day while I'm at work [as a plumbing supplies sales- person]. I sit there thinking about dancing or about what I’m going to wear that night. It’s almost like a drug; I have to have it every night."
Meanwhile, Debbie Chouinard, Linda's teacher, is in a jam. Linda is now a better dancer than she is. This may be partly due to natural ability, but it's also due to the fact that Debbie stopped dancing several months ago, following some emotional crisis. She wants to make a comeback, but several months is a long time in terms of disco dancing. A lot of new turns have filtered up from New York in that time, and Debbie doesn't know any of them. Since she won’t get out on the dance floor until she has the new moves mastered, all she can do is sit and stew.
“Just watching [Linda] on the dance floor, I wish I were out there," she says. “My whole life is dancing. It always was and always will be. I just hate coming here and silting watching her or anybody else, because I want to be out there because I used to do it almost every night and I miss it so much. And I do dwell on it. And sometimes I catch myself dwelling on it too much."
Ron Piombo: “When you get totally into this disco trip, it really becomes a big part of your life. As soon as I get off work [as a carpet layer], I start thinking about it. It makes you something special. You don’t just have to hang around and drink. It’s a way of communicating with people on a different level."
Eddie Manhattan: “It's an addiction, a true addiction. It gels to the point where I tease myself sometimes by saying, ’Go ahead, see if you can go someplace else on a Friday night.' But then it gets to be 10:30, and you start to shake and you gotta come here and dance.
“It’s perfection in music. With a live band you might get one guy off-key or you're not sure what band will be playing where on what weekend. With disco, with records, everything is exactly the way you want to hear it. You're getting to hear the thing at a decent volume on a quality system, just like it's supposed to be by the artists themselves. Thai's better than the artist themselves. You are hearing it perfect. And the beat has got to be there, that dumdum-BOOM!-dum-dum-BOOM!”
Which brings us back out to the dance floor. It's now about 1:15 A.M., Saturday, and a change has come over the Nite Life. Tod has finally relented. He has put a song called “San Francisco” by the Village People on the turntable, and as if by some elaborate plan, the funk crowd scrams off the floor to make way for the Dancers. It’s the moment they’ve been waiting for all week. “San Francisco” is unquestionably a disco tune—the skipping beat and singing strings require some fancy footwork. It’s not for the unsure or the faint of heart, nor are the other songs Tod plays in the next half-hour.
So the crowd pulls back toward the bar and becomes what Ron Piombo proudly calls "the audience." And it’s true that a lot of them are watching. They're watching because it’s fun and because the Dancers turn out to be really good.
Caught in the swirl of light and the thunderstorm of sound, Eddie starts out dancing with Linda. Immediately, they mesh beautifully—the steady footwork, the spins, the dazzling variety of turns, all of it imperceptively signaled in the hands and aided by the illusory quality of the lights. They are floating along when Dave, Linda’s regular partner, appears on the edge of the floor. As if in a trance, he begins to dance by himself, and it is only after a minute or so that you can see he is slowly moving closer to the dancing couple. He is cutting in. The smoothest job I've ever seen. He is at Eddie’s shoulder, and Eddie, acceding gracefully, is all smiles as he dances off the floor. The crowd loves it. They don’t applaud or anything, of course, but you can see they appreciate real talent.
The music shifts to “Can’t Turn You Loose” by Anthony White, a song with a lot of drive in it. Dave and Linda go right to it. Linda is in heaven. She’s the only female dancer here who really knows her stuff. She knows the moves and she knows the songs so well that her eyes are practically closed. It’s like a dream Spotlight Dance with Dick Clark waiting in the wings to come out and ask your name and age. Lord take me now.
So let’s leave them right here, as Ron moves onto the floor to take Dave’s place as Linda’s disco suitor and the crowd swells and the music reaches an appropriate level for going-on-two-in-the-morning. Watch Ron and think of the work he’s put into this thing, the hours of practice, the time spent agonizing over a suit, the earnest overall effort, all for moments like this.
“If you don’t share your accomplishments with a group of people, it isn’t worth a dime,” he says. “This is your avenue to being something special, to being noticed, to be somebody different."
And how about Linda? As I head out the door and head into the glum reality of a Waterbury night, I think of her recollection of an earlier night of magic.
“We danced for four hours and we were sweating, but we didn’t sit down. The music was fantastic. Nothing could stop us. If the place blew up and the music went off, you would still be dancing. If there’s a fight, you don’t know. I’ve been on the dance floor and not known if it was for five minutes or for an hour. That’s how bad it is. That’s how good it is."
The Dancers on Discotechnique
Ron Piombo: “Dancing disco is not something you learn in ten minutes or in one day or one week, then forget about it because you know everything. It’s a very competitive thing. We take dancing as seriously as a professional dancer does. We are tremendously dedicated. I remember people going down to New York, learning the new turns, and then coming back and practicing until five in the morning so they could go to the Nite Life the next night and do it right."
Linda Cappello: “If your regular partner is here when you walk in, it’s like you’re married. If you’re not available when your partner’s favorite song comes on, you're in trouble. We don’t hang around each other, we don’t date, we don’t call each other, but if he doesn’t dance with me, I’m mad at him. The other night we were both here and a good song came on and he went and got somebody else. I wanted to go out on the dance floor and strangle him."
Eddie Manhattan: “You start with a basic step and then it’s like an erector set; you have to build on the base. You work with the spins and the turns, like how many times you’re going to spin your partner. The guys are the choreographers and they have to know how to use the beat. The girls have to have a real good set of basic steps."
Ron, again: “Ideally, you should never say a word to your partner while you dance. It doesn’t look good. It makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing.”
The Dancers on Disco Dandies
"At least half my money goes for clothes.”
“Three-piece suits for men, $50 shoes.”
“If you’re going to be totally into this thing, you have to have something new every couple of weeks."
“Girls have to dress very feminine.”
"I buy something new every week just to come here.”
“A guys got to be a trend setter with his suits. He can't be behind."
“Jewelry’s a big trip, too. Most guys wear gold.”
“Disco people don’t wear Levi’s."
"My mother will kill me.”
Ron Piombo: "I have about ten pairs of dress pants, four pairs of patent leather shoes, three pairs of other ’dance shoes.’ I have six suits and I’d say about twenty $30 shirts that go with the dress pants. Maybe a half-dozen sweaters, maybe another four or five sports jackets that I wear as a combination thing with the suits. In all, maybe $2,000 worth of dancing clothes.”
Tod Bealls: "Combinations are the trick. I wore my hay-colored suit this week and this is the first time I ever wore my green vest with it and it looked good. I didn’t think it would but I tried it on and it looked real good. Sometimes you think maybe it won’t look good, but then you stand in front of the mirror and you lake it off and put it on. I’m a fanatic in the bathroom. I’ll stand there for hours."
Eddie Manhattan: "Your pants are tailored to different heights so you can wear them with different shoes. Your pants have to hang just right."
Ron, again: “If you want to see what the latest suit is. just check out what the best dancer is wearing.”
Tod, again: “People who go to the same club all dress the same, like the same type of music, have the same hair styles, chew the same type of gum, and do the same type of things.”
The Dancers on Disco Feedback
Linda Cappello: "I get just as much excitement out of dancing as I would get being in a dark corner with a guy. No, I think it’s more exciting to dance. I get off on it, I do."
Ron Piombo: “Disco builds your confidence. When rock was really cooking, there were a lot of guys who didn’t feel that confident about themselves, so they just sort of got screwed up all night and hid in the corner. But when disco came in, there was the whole thing with proper attire, and that brought in a different class of people. And that is really the whole disco trip: proper attire. It's a flashy type of situation."
Eddie Manhattan: “It all comes down to either being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. I like being a big fish
Ron, again: "The biggest thing about disco is that you're on display, let's face it. If you come in and get on the dance floor and you cook and there's 250 people here, you’re no longer an average-looking guy. You’re a dancer. Girls who wouldn’t ordinarily look at you twice are now interested; you’re a challenge to them because they can’t dance like you. And that’s really the biggest thing with this disco trip: You're out there, people are looking at you, you become socially acceptable, and you don’t have to be a millionaire to make yourself known in a joint."
Ron, again: “Disco dancing offers a physical thing. You're with this person, you're touching, and it opens up a whole new thing. It makes you feel more comfortable. You dance instead of standing at the bar wondering if you should put your arm around this girl or grab her cheek or be touchy with her."
Eddie, again: "I woke up Sunday morning and I was still moving. That’s no lie. I’m telling you I was still going lying flat on my back in bed."
Kinetic Cuts for Disco Dancing