Arts & Entertainment
5 min

We should be dancing, Part 1

Toronto dancefloors are vanishing, leaving few places to bust a move

John Caffery, by day a coordinator at Supporting our Youth, DJs the Mighty Real and Pitbull parties. Credit: Drasko Bogdanovic

Dance is a joyful expression of the body that brings community together, yet for queer people in Toronto, it’s getting harder to get down. Nightlife in our city is rapidly changing, and finding somewhere to work it out on the dancefloor is increasingly difficult.

A collision of factors is making it challenging to open new spaces or convert existing venues to feature a DJ booth and a dancefloor. No single factor is responsible, but there is a perfect storm for business owners and promoters trying to get gays dancing. City zoning and bylaws have created a web of red tape, and the gentrification of downtown and the recent recession have left many too broke to afford double-digit cover charges.

With all the growth in our city, the dearth of welcoming venues with good sound systems and dancefloors is surprising, especially given that Toronto once had so many, like Stages, Boots and the Boom Boom Room. Those treasured spaces, and others like them, have become unrecognizable as property owners change nightlife hotspots into gyms and condominiums. Throw in some pressure by city council to ban electronic dance music (EDM) on the CNE grounds and you have a political and economic shift that leaves me looking for Kevin Bacon, because it seems we are living in the movie Footloose!

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti recently put forth a motion that EDM be banned at the CNE, even though EDM events are huge revenue generators for Toronto. His argument is that MDMA and ecstasy use “is not what city property and taxpayers’ money should be used for.” But Mammoliti doesn’t realize that many drug users are taxpayers, too; in fact, some are elected officials. The owner of Muzik nightclub, also on CNE grounds and where Rob Ford notoriously partied with Justin Bieber, initially complained that the nearby city-hosted events were unfair competition. When that argument went nowhere, Mammoliti suggested that the EDM events would ruin the youth of Toronto, similar to arguments against rock and roll or hip hop in earlier generations.

This isn’t the first time Toronto has gone through a fight like this. Mayoral candidate Olivia Chow cheered when councillors overturned the EDM ban in May, saying, “I helped organize the ‘I Dance’ campaign that helped overturn a one-month ban for exactly the same thing. Mel Lastman was the mayor at the time banning electronic dance music on city properties; we mobilized a huge campaign and had 20,000 people at Nathan Phillips Square and the vote was reversed. This time, it is my stepson [Councillor] Mike Layton’s [turn].”

“While not condoning the drug use, it’s going to happen and this is a way of reducing the risk,” Layton says. “[Mammoliti] was trying to make an emotional argument to fit his financial one and was using words that he knew would strike chords with people.”

Mammoliti, who seemed concerned about the issue, initially didn’t bother to show up to council to vote, nor would he respond when contacted by Xtra. Mayoral candidate David Soknacki says, “I have a real concern that by simply writing a bylaw that people think the problem goes away, but it doesn’t; the problem just moves to other spaces, probably unregulated spaces, and the opportunity for risk and danger really increases. The fact that we are talking about public versus private space, and one operator and a lack of competition, are all secondary to the main issue that people are safe.”

There is a history of pressure from within city government to crack down on regulated spaces to dance. Exacerbating the challenge for Torontonians who own clubs or want to dance in them are broader political and economic issues, such as the fact that zoning laws limit new dance clubs to south of Queen Street. In addition, property owners have been choosing to develop condominiums where clubs once existed and, for many, life in Toronto is increasingly less affordable.

Encroaching gentrification also continues to affect downtown. The owners of Fly and Zipperz, for instance, say their upcoming closures were caused by rising rents. “I don’t think people want to pay the cover charges they used to, and it’s not just Toronto,” Fly general manager Gilles Belanger says. “My colleagues in LA used to charge $20 cover and now they charge $5. Maybe people will see that it does cost money to do things. You pay $40 to go to a movie . . . it’s hard to bring in an international DJ and pay the rent. A club like this could work if it were open four nights a week, but that is not happening in Toronto. If you look at what is happening anywhere that has great real estate, it is losing its spaces, and a nightclub can’t make the same amount of money as a 14-storey condo.”

“I’ve always lived around nightlife because I’ve always been lower income,” Toronto music writer Benjamin Boles says. “Nightlife doesn’t go where rich people live, and when rich people start moving into a neighbourhood, suddenly nightlife that has been there a long time is a problem.”

There was a time when the city tried to focus new dancefloor zoning in the entertainment district. “It made sense at the time because all the garment factories had closed because of NAFTA; nothing was going on there, but since then things have changed,” Chow says. Now, the number of nightclubs has decreased significantly, but the zoning laws prevent new nightclubs from opening outside that area. Bars are licensed as restaurants, which means a certain number of seats and only a small space dedicated to entertainment, such as a stage or dancefloor. This is why so many queer parties are pushing aside the chairs at night for dancing.

Belanger goes on to say, “I would do gay events in straight clubs. I think the challenge is going to be trying to find interesting spaces in the downtown area. People may have to get out of their comfort zones a little bit, but there are some great dancefloors in the city.” There is a queer history of using straight spaces for events that goes back to Industry and Limelight, and that history is alive today with parties such as Yes Yes Y’all and Hotnuts.

“For a period,” DJ Denise Benson says, “every sizable, interesting straight bar venue had really vibrant queer nights. We are talking 300 to 700 people a week, and they were weeklies, not the monthlies like we see now, so there has been a whole shift in the number of bars, the size of bars, how much dancing can or can not happen and the number of mixed nights out there.”

It all leaves Toronto’s nightlife listings looking a little thin, and the fact that so many queer people hook up online and avoid bars altogether doesn’t help. But, Benson says, “It can’t all be Grindr!”

Toronto’s dancing feet might rest on unsteady ground, but one thing is always certain: queers will figure out where to go. “People are going to dance — it is primordial!” says Chow.