Toronto
6 min

Law against the DJ

You better not kill the groove

Credit: David Hawe

It would seem a logical solution: I love boys and I love to dance, so where should I head on a lax Saturday evening? Why, Church St, of course.



I could go to Lüb (487 Church St), for example. The place, a horny den of gyrating men, has got lots of energy. Once inside, I bump against trademark club behaviour like over-the-top security egos and lippy divas. My ass shaking gets the typical club reactions – wandering hands over ass and crotch, with sweet smiles of you-do-me, me-do-you.



All this despite assistant manager Christina D’Alimonte’s firm stance that their posh and cheeky establishment does not feature dancing.



“We’re not against dancing, but it’s not what we’re doing here,” says D’Alimonte. “We’re not licensed for it, never thought about getting a dance licence; we’re a martini bar.”



As with many things in life, where you can dance is never simple. A Mecca for pillow-biting partiers, Church St is in fact governed by strict rules about how we shake our booties. New dance clubs in the area are outlawed, bars or lounges are permitted to use only 15 percent of their floor space for getting down (humping in the washroom not included) and noise restrictions prevent bars from using bass-blasting sound systems. Complainers keep Church from becoming thequeer reflection of the straight-dominated entertainment district centred at Richmond and John.



With its reputation as a night-life destination, most people would be surprised to know that in the gay village, only the Barn, Zipperz and Five are officially dance clubs. They exist because they posess entertainment permits that pre-date the 1986 zoning regulations. Fly, for example, is not zoned for dancing and survives by keeping noise to a minimum, thus avoiding complaints.



To balance gay party needs with a growing residential population around Church and Wellesley, the city expanded the club district in 1997. The dividing line winds its way up from Queens Quay: you can dance on Church St only south of Queen, and only on the west side. You can dance on both sides of Yonge until Gerrard, at which point you are again restricted to the west side until College St, where the district ends. For some, this might be a compromise, but Queen and Church is a long way for drunk fags to walk.



“The problem with dance clubs will always be the noise,” says Dennis O’Connor, chair of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Association. “Clubs empty out at four or five in the morning, the bass reverberates against the high rises of people wanting to sleep.”



Toronto’s downtown areas are residential and the city goes to great lengths to appease the blossoming condo community.



“The thought is,” explains O’Connor, who hears from disgruntled home owners after every weekend, “if we bitch enough we could get the city to force people on E, drinking and being rowdy into one area.” That being the official entertainment district.



The trick for bar owners seems to be staying under the radar of the complainers.



“Take Halloween,” says O’Connor. “The music is turned off at 11pm, but I still receive over two dozen bitter complaints about the music and it’s only one night out of the year.”



O’Connor has stories of people living within the ghetto who are working to have the noise cut-off time pushed up earlier. “People in the neighbourhood are very adamant about keeping it down.”



Keeping it down? I can’t ever remember a time when Church St kept it down. Morning, noon and night, the street is filled with the loud hoots and hollers of lesbian and fag ovations. A quick tour demonstrates that partying will spring up in the most inhospitable regulatory regime.



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George’s Play (507 Church St) has a line-up worse than the average dance club. A glance through the large windows shows off the spacious and luxurious wooden interior with a sparse crowd of timidly sauntering drinkers. The line at the door seems to be an attempt to prevent dancers from swelling into the place.



Those taken in by the groove of Latin rhythms cluster at the back of the bar near the DJ booth; there’s also a platform for the show-offs. The front, where people would normally sit in a lounge, is as sparely populated as the back is crowded.



Across the street at Woody’s (465/467 Church St), I just miss a drag show. They’re playing the kind of music that gets under your skin, leading to struggling fags restraining their shaking bums. I cut it loose with live wire Maha and a couple of his gorgeous accessories, not provoking much of a reaction beyond becoming pieces of scenery for those on the barstools. Most people don’t dance at Woody’s, but if you have the nerve, nobody’s going to stop you. It’s partly attributable to the fact it’s a neighbourhood-type crowd.



“We really like our established clientele,” says manager Dean Odorico. “We could have tried to be more dance if we wanted, but we find the dance clientele to be very transitory. A place fills up, then another place opens up and everyone files out.”



Next is Inspire (491 Church St), a tiny sliver of a place. Strategically placed tables give the look of a sit-down lounge, but on the weekends one discovers inside a calm crowd shaking its hips to soulful grooves, and an almost civilized college set. It’s not unlike Lüb, where the music gets louder the deeper you go into the club. From the street, everything looks serene, but….



“The zoning laws restrict a lot of business,” purrs the sexy Kitty Relee, owner of Inspire. “We’ve been thinking about doing more with the dancing, but for now our Friday dance nights are the most important.”



Our local city councillor Kyle Rae has become a lightening rod for annoyance at the city by-laws, perhaps because people must imagine his own restful sleep in his own ghetto-central condo to be at the forefront of his mind.



“I’m tired of everyone blaming me for by-laws that have been around since 1986,” Rae tells me over and over again. I’ve hit a sore spot. “There has been a bad history of nightclub owners who don’t care and continue to be negligent to their neighbourhoods.”



Rae points out that all a club owner needs to do is apply for separate zoning to make the jump from lounge to dancehall. But it is the prevailing opinion of the bar owners I spoke to that this zoning change is an impossible flight of fancy.



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North of Wellesley the crowds get a little more diverse, as more straights, lesbians and gay men bar hop happily together. I stop at The Looking Glass (582 Church St) where the Saturday night staff is just begging for you to dance.



“We don’t have an official dancefloor,” says owner Heather Mackenzie. “But we can’t stop people from moving. When you get good music eventually people are going to start dancing.”



Mackenzie says she originally considered getting a dance licence, but felt the city would never allow it.



“It’s a ridiculous law,” she says. “What harm is there in dancing? I understand the complications, but it’s really only one or two neighbours who complain over and over again, ruining it for everyone.” The music at the Looking Glass is definitely smart and soulful, though the wooden pub interior makes it feel a bit like cutting a rug in my grandfather’s stateroom.



Across the street is bar Babylon (553 Church St), a haven for the straight, semi-closeted and hardcore straight gay boys. For me, Babylon will always have the best music, dating back to the hard and heavy days of the electronic underground. The dancefloor (or, I should say, the place where people dance), hidden on top of two restaurant/lounge floors, is a cramped den of sweaty bodies. It’s like a mini-club that heats up faster than a steam room at Spa Excess. I get down for a few minutes with some drunken Aussies, but leave as the heat starts to choke me like a glove.



Indeed, footloose local fags all over the village are doing their part to have fun, even if it means using martini bars or lounges for their own debauched purposes. With bars expected to enforce Byzantine rules around the serving and consumption of alcohol, no reasonable city can ask them to still the shaking butts of their patrons.



It may become a bitter war we are only seeing the start of, as new condo owners – wanting to be closer to their people while forgetting about all the noise of a proud gay life – continue to flood into the neighbourhood.



My own conclusion is that the clubs, bars and lounges are hardly the problem at all; strolling around, the only real noise seeping onto Church St comes from the stereo back-up to lip-synching divas. I think most of the noise that the complainers seem to be attacking is the loud camaraderie of fags on the street. That’s a by-product of the ghetto – dance clubs or not.