A PICTURE OF DISCO CHILDREN
In the photo, I see no skinned knees, no overturned lips or bowed heads. My sister and I wear matching running suits: white terrycloth and metallic blue satin with purple stripes. We are young enough to smile until all of our teeth show. Our chins lift up on their own. These are pigtail-to-pigtail grins. Our hands clasp at the bottom of the frame. The sun is our spotlight. This is a picture of disco children.
Sometimes I spring up, as happy as the smaller girl in the photo, to the call of Olivia Newton-John or Linda Rondstadt, and twist, stomp, shake what my mama gave me. As if my mama is still holding my hands, steadying my movements, and nodding her head so I’ll feel the beat of the Bee Gees’ club hit, or the bass of Stevie Nicks’s raspy plea. Now, when the disco whines from my car radio, my voice cracks and my finger moves skyward at the crescendo of each predictable musical bridge. And on those nights when I just stare at the ceiling, Stevie soothes me until I feel as carefree as I felt in my orange and yellow nursery—I want to find its old safari wallpaper and surround myself with it, spin around, remind myself that my scenery, or at least my perspective of it, needs to keep changing. Keep on moving. Keep on looking for a light in the middle of the night. I wonder if these voices were the first I heard, if they harmonized with my mother’s, in my newly formed but open ears.
Critics of disco say it was not serious like rock, its more masculine radio replacement. That it was merely one in a series of one-night stands the mainstream held with soul, funk, and salsa. Shame, shame, shame. That it triggers memories of forgettable clothing styles, lifestyle choices, and other widespread attempts to forget the sixties. Forget the war. Forget the missile crisis. Forget the oil crisis. Forget what you did last night.
Don’t look back, disco said, so why look back to it? Without the seventies, the new wave of Duran Durans, Cars, and Thrillers could not have soared to the skyscraper heights of the eighties. That bouncy sound and the androgynous figure behind the keyboard stood on a dance floor foundation. Tweak the make-up, spike the hair, taper the pants, slow down the beat and loop it. Throw it in the microwave and voila! A new genre that defines itself by what it isn’t: its precursor.
Later I learned that with electronic music, beats change if you wait long enough. Also, flutes and violins, even if artificial, are still detectable behind the hard-hitting drum and bass. My mother wonders how I could love techno’s repetitive noises and still, in the car, reach over to flick her blinker off if it stays on too long. (The blinker, I want to tell her, never changes, does not signal a musical turning point.)
Right now I don’t live in one of those rare cable radio districts that favors round-the-clock disco, so I listen to the electronica channel. I read the captions, which repeat if I wait long enough. They tell me house music was born from disco (just like me). It expresses the mood of Detroit and Chicago in the late seventies and early eighties, after young hearts had run free and the squeal of industry slowed to a rusty and repetitive thud. Before I rediscovered disco, I subscribed only to hip-hop: first the popular varieties, and then those my sister showed me. It too builds from disco rhythms. I love knowing that Will Smith is really just the greatest dancer, or that Rapper’s Delight is Chic’s Good Times before they bit the dust. The Black Eyed Peas’s joint is not only the jam, but it’s the word. It’s got groove, it’s got feeling. It’s the time, the place, the motion.
Still, I have to ask disco, “How can I hold you when you ain’t even mine?” I love disco but I don’t know pills or underground club busts. I know only its remnants, the way hippies of my too-late generation love the Dead without knowing draft cards or the road or flashbacks. Yet disco welcomes me still, invites me to befriend it. Come one come all—even adult film star Andrea True beckoned women of the seventies to the floor as she sang, More, more, more! (How do like it? How do you like it?)
Carlos Fuentes opens “How I Started to Write” with the chaos of his birth, which began in a theater during La Boheme. Born in one country and baptized in another, Fuentes spent the better part of his life searching for his origins. As he traveled the Americas, he absorbed the rhythms that made him what he was: Mexican, writer, bohemian. But the culture in which he was created came to him only gradually—he had to listen for it to help him remember who he was.
When I was born, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” was in everyone’s ears. Only when I was twenty-four did I begin to hear it. For eight months of that year, I lived in my sister’s home in Connecticut, where, on the radio were Dido, Nelly Furtado, Craig David. It was an unfamiliar house where I trudged through my first freelance writing assignment and stayed alert with the help of the all-disco cable radio channel. My sister came home in the evenings and laughed at her greeting from KC and the Sunshine Band or Sly and the Family Stone.
But it comforted her. If we’d not been so shy, I could imagine us in that place, the August moisture pulling back the curtains, as we'd be twirling and hustling away after a lonely day’s work. I imagine her arm around my shoulder as we giggle and catch our breath before deciding on dinner. I liked that time between work and dinner; I was not ready then to move on. Those oscillating fans and ticking cymbals led the soundtrack of my development. I also imagine my mother and sister dancing years before I was born, when my parents thought my sister would maintain her position as their baby. My mother twirls her and tells her she is such a good dancer, she is the prettiest dancer. Then I think of a real scene my sister recently shared with me. After a week with our aunt and the flu, she and my brother answered the door to greet my parents, and to meet new baby me. My mother introduced me, I imagine, with a steady gaze into their faces—to let them know I was their baby too—while my father set a needle on a new record. He held me up. My first dance. Stevie Wonder asked them, Isn’t she lovely, to which they replied with sways, twirls, and, probably, giggles.
Not that we are a family at home with ourselves in motion. At weddings, we might move toward the music one or two at a time, but never more than four up on the floor. My mother and stepfather watch from their chairs and coffee cups. Their wedding included no dancing. Instead we all sat still as my brother jammed with step-cousins. Their rhythms clashed until he found the right chords on his bass, an instrument he learned by ear. Unlike disco, it was an unpredictable musical transition.
The night my sister was married, disco pulled friends and grandparents and aunts from their cocktails. The women hustled while the violins and whistles transported them back to The Love Boat. Those silly medley segments from Off the Wall, Staying Alive, and We Are Family brought us together to sweat, laugh, mock, and hold each other’s hands while we screamed the words we knew by heart—these are the moments my sister chose for her short video of that event.
And it is not the bridal garb, with its chiffon headscarf and daisy beading that we all remember from the wedding day. Nor the dress for which my mother spent nine months creating prototypes and modifications, then pieced together before the final flourish of hand-stitched embellishments, the dress that made mascara run down my mother’s face as she held both of my sister’s hands and told her she was the prettiest, she was her baby girl. No, what everyone remembers are the groomsmen’s polyester tuxedos—in pastels and ruffles—from the rehearsal dinner. (What I remember is the pounding rain on the roof, the trumpets, the keyboards, the kicking drums in my chest.)
And the Tick of the disco cymbal? It's the Tock of my mother’s heart. How could she not have danced, in her chiffon headscarves, while she created me, the last disco baby? Disco led the beat her finger kept as it tapped my siblings on the shoulders, before I cut in. Disco is the beat of a heart that is safe, ignorant, admired. Its repetition brings a trance. Our ears remember. We twist, we point, we get down.
So I’ll turn on the radio, play that funky music. Join hands! We should be dancing! Shake shake shake! Don’t stop till you get enough! Send me forget-me-nots—help me to remember.
fiction poetry "fact" photography