'You Should Be Dancing'

Disco finally gets some respect

Created date

June 23rd, 2017
Disco ball.

It’s been 40 years since John Travolta donned his white suit and boogied across that illuminated dance floor in Saturday Night Fever. Released in 1977, the film brought disco, a cultural phenomenon born in urban dance clubs known as discotheques, into the mainstream. By 1978, there were 10,000 discotheques in the U.S.

Anchored by a driving “four-on-the-floor” beat, disco music mixed elements of funk, soul, pop, and salsa to create tracks so danceable, people simply had to move…and move…and move. 

Disco songs never seemed to end as skilled DJs matched beats, seamlessly segueing from one song to the next. Not aware that the music had changed, dancers hustled, bumped, and boogied all night long. 

‘I Will Survive’

“Love Train” by the O’Jays (1972) was the first disco song to hit number one on the Billboard charts. Barry White’s “Love’s Theme” was the second in 1974. Later, artists like the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and KC and the Sunshine Band recorded huge disco hits.

Up until the early 1970s, radio DJs had the power and influence to push songs to the top of the charts. Once people started going to discotheques, that power shifted to club DJs. Record companies quickly learned that if they could get someone like Richie Kaczor, a DJ at Studio 54, to play their song, they were sure to have a hit.  

It was Kaczor who first recognized the power of what was arguably the anthem of the disco era: Gloria Gaynor’s platinum hit “I Will Survive.” Released in 1978, the song won the first and only Grammy award for “Best Disco Recording.”  

Last year, the Library of Congress inducted the song into its National Recording Registry, giving both Gaynor and disco overall some long overdue respect. 

“I am thrilled that the Library of Congress has found my role in American music worthy to be commemorated by the inclusion of my recording of ‘I Will Survive’ in the National Recording Registry,” says Gaynor. “I think the one thing that disco has never gotten credit for is being the one type of music in history to truly bring together people from every nationality, race, creed, and age group. Disco music is alive and well, and living in the hearts of music lovers around the world.” 

The disco life

Emerging on the heels of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the Stonewall riots and beginning of the LGBT movement, the disco was where all of those groups converged. “They were all there in unison, having their victory dance,” says photographer Bill Bernstein. 

Bernstein photographed the disco era for The Village Voice and recently compiled those images into a book, Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs (Reel Art Press). “I realized that there was something really interesting going on at the disco from a cultural point of view,” says Bernstein. “It was this freedom of expression, this openness, acceptance, and inclusion that I had never seen before.”

He says that while celebrities like Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol were frequently seen in discos, what fascinated him were the characters he saw night after night in Manhattan clubs: the people who were “living the disco life.”

Disco Sally

One of Bernstein’s favorites was Sally Lippman, better known as Disco Sally. A retired attorney, Lippman was 77 and mourning the death of her husband when a friend invited her to Studio 54. Curious, Lippman accepted. She told The Washington Post that she “stuffed cotton in my ears” and went. 

Lippman loved it. The energy and the music. The dancing. The fun people. The flashing lights, however, bothered her eyes, so the next time she went disco dancing, she wore sunglasses. 

She wore those glasses often, becoming a regular at Studio 54. Disco Sally was never turned away at the door and never asked to pay the $10 admission. “Everyone should go to discos,” she said. “There would be no more wars.”

The look

Getting into the hottest discos was competitive. The best way to make it past a club’s bouncer was to look the part—the crazier the outfit, the better. Think sequined tube tops, platform shoes, bell-bottoms, hot pants, and gold lamé topped off with buckets of glitter. 

“The clothes we wear send a message about how the world perceives us,” says Emmy award-winning Tim Gunn, host of Project Runway. “It was a time of flamboyance. You wanted to be distinctive and different on that disco dance floor. It was really a giant runway of sorts.” 

Disco’s legacy

By the early 1980s, disco had lost its flash. Dismissed as manufactured music and vilified for being mindless and consumeristic, disco became a dirty word.

The passage of time has elevated disco’s status, and its influence on modern culture is undeniable. Today, top DJs like Calvin Harris and David Guetta don’t just play the hits, they make them. And the kind of acceptance and diversity that was once found only inside dance clubs has spread to virtually everywhere else. 

Feeling nostalgic for the disco era? A special “director’s cut” of Saturday Night Fever was released on Blu-ray earlier this year. As for the music, just listen to the latest from artists like Madonna, Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, and Justin Timberlake and you’ll discover that disco lives on. 

What was your favorite disco song? Tell us below in Comments.