Fanning the Flames
The ancient and mystical art of fabric throwing unveiled
By Trenton Straube
Photography by Danielle Levitt
Throughout gay history – whether hiding, rioting, grieving or celebrating, we’ve always had dancing. Music styles, DJs and venues come and go faster than the flash of a strobe light, but as sure as a mirrorball spins in every club, dance culture itself has and will remain a staple of gay life.
Within this predominate counterculture, several sub-countercultures flourish. Making up one such tribe are the dervishes known as fan dancers. Unlike other dance clans that flourished in the heyday of gay disco – such as the music makers, those folk who brought finger symbols, tambourines, and clave’s onto the dance floor – fan dancers seem to be making a comeback on par with Cher these days.
So what is fanning? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Dancing with fans. And in more recent years, a variation of fanning called rag dancing, of flagging, has developed. This art form contains throwing, or “spinning,” a rectangular piece of fabric. It’s that simple. And it’s extremely complex.
The Origins of Fanning
Precisely how and where fanning developed is difficult to pinpoint. Candida Scott Piel, whom many consider the mother of today’s New York tribe, says that in the ‘70s a group of gay men visiting New York from San Francisco went out to a club called 12 West and witnessed several men – who were actually Broadway chorus boys – dancing with fans. The visitors returned to San Francisco, where they bought fans in Chinatown and began dancing with them in the popular club The Trocecdero. The paper fans soon fell apart, which let to the renovation of replacing the paper with fabric. Other technical improvements followed, including replacing the metal pin holding the fan’s spines together with waxed shoe lace or leather, and fan dancing as we know it was born. This, Piel adds, is “history as told to me by the late Frank Teramani of San Francisco, who was one of the Trocadero ‘Fantasy’ fan group.” Soon, fanning became an integral part of gay club life throughout the country. During its heyday in the late’70s and ‘80s, it flourished at clubs such as The Trocadero in San Francisco, The Hippo in Baltimore, the original COPA in Ft. Lauderdale and 2-4 Club in Philadelphia as well as at Flamingo, 12 West and The Saint in New York.
Throughout the country, dances consider making the fans a part of the community ritual, and over time, stylistic difference developed between the fanning tribes of the two coasts. As geography would dictate, San Francisco fans are more Asian in their look, while New York styles have a stronger Spanish influence. San Franciscan fans are less ornate and generally smaller because the fabric does not extend beyond the length of the spines. As a result, West Coast dancers usually hold the fans closer to their body and employ tighter movements. Toronto fans are generally smaller, says Brent Storey, who has been fanning there since ’82, though several fanners of that region employ multiple fans, sometimes as many as 10 at once. New York fanners – the flash size queens of the continent – often decorate the spines with elaborate patterns and extend the fabric beyond the spine or even drop out some of the spines altogether. A similar, extended-fabric style also developed strongly in Florida, which allows for lighter, billowy motions and requires more control of finger and hand movements.
Almost as quickly and serendipitously as fan dancing sprang up and spread around the country, the thriving art threatened to vanish into obscurity. You can guess the reason. By the ‘90s, AIDS had claimed many fan dancers, while countless others, devastated by the carnage all around them, simply stopped going out. The fan dancing community rapidly dwindled. “So many fan players had kept their cards close to their chests – had not shared their gift, their secrets of fan making and playing, “Piel explains, “So when they died, they left no legacy. And there were plenty who lived but who disappeared because the music disappeared and going out ceased to be a pleasant or friendly experience.”
The art form was on the verge of extinction until just recently. Newer generations of partygoers are becoming more receptive to the art, Piel says, and music styles are once again more conducive to fanning. Storey believes that drug use might also factor in the resurgence. “in the ‘80s, the drug of choice was MDA, which was speedy, visual and tactile. It became [difficult to find] around 1986, around the same time The Saint closed. Is it a coincidence,” he asks, “that fan popularity has grown with the current [vogue for] stimulants? Nowadays, we have ecstasy, which is speedy, visual and tactile, and it is once again in fashion to be high.”
Today, fan dancing flourishes primarily at circuit parties and other events that feature the softer, trippier sounds known as morning music. By the end of any set by DJs Susan Morabito, Warren Gluck, Julian Marsh or Buc, mobs of sweaty muscleboys give way to danners. “At the end of the last two Afterglow parties [on Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend in New York City], there was a tribe of fan dancers on the floor,” Gluck recalls. “It’s beautiful, like a ballet.”
Flagging and The New School
A variant of fanning that is rapidly gaining in popularity, flagging evolved from fanners and dancers stripping off their T-shirts and spinning them, an apt Chicagoans reffered to as “spinnin’ linen.” Bandanas were also used, as were scarves with coins sewn in pockets to give the dancer control of the fabric’s motion. Contemporary flags, more correctly called rags, are basically a rectangle of fabric with curtain weight sewn along the two out edges of one corner.
“I think New York and Florida went to rags sooner [that San Francisco],” says Chuck Webster, a dancer known as Fan Daddy in San Francisco, who learned the art about 18 years ago. “We old timers held on to our fans, but flags can be spectacular.” Brent Ragan, a flagger in Los Angeles, traces the birth of the current West Coast flagging explosion to one morning a few years ago on Fire Island. That was where he approached Piel and Stephen DeRose regarding the art. “She dumped this huge box of flags outdoors as the sun was coming up and said, ‘I’ll teach you, but you should teach five more.’” Ragan says that he and an entire group of bodybuilder/circuit boys connected over the art of flagging. “Our original group,” he says, “can now look around and see all the people we raised.” In fact, flagging became so widespread that Ragan stopped doing it. “About a year ago,” he says, “it was so popular that there was never room on stage—there would always be 20 flaggers or more.”
Flagging is rapidly outstripping the growth of traditional fanning in part because the rags are easy to construct and transport. They’re extremely popular in San Francisco, where recently, more than 100 fabric throwers participated in a flagging party at Golden Gate Park. And rags are gaining popularity in New York where the fabrics tend to be firmer and shinier than those of the California tribe. San Franciscan flaggers spin slower and often incorporate body movements. They are apt to organize troupes and spin rags as a planned group activity. In New York, it’s all about speed – partially because club music here is harder. As in the fanning tribes, flagging styles and techniques are passed along orally from generation to generation. Rag dancer can be found at clubs as well as circuit parties, and they tend to be more accepting of techno and hard house music.
“There is something ancient and primal about fan playing that is far older than gay dance culture,”
– Candida Scott Piel
AIDS, Muscles and Marabou
Some fanners claim that fan dancing is connected to an old school of queerness, one that carries associations with effeminacy and with AIDS. Those who came out in the ‘80s suffered from an AIDS-driven internalized homophobia, Piel says. They felt that “if they didn’t associate themselves with vestiges of the ‘70s/Saint era, that if they didn’t fan or play finger cymbals, then they wouldn’t get it.” But that’s changing. “There is something ancient and primal about fan playing that is far older than gay dance culture,” Piel says. “Some gay kids in the next batch coming out and up respond on an instinctual basis when first seeing it. It strikes a chord in them that’s free of the rage and rejection felt by those just five or 10 years older.”
Furthermore, there are old school fan dancers who believe that the public perceives flagging to be more acceptable and masculine than fanning since it is relatively new and has been embraced by the young, buff circuit boy set. George Jagatic, a flagger who was instrumental in developing the art form in California, was surprised to find a dearth of flagging in New York when he moved here two years ago. While he doesn’t connect rag dancing with a rebellion against AIDS or effeminacy, he does believe that there is a “serious element of masculinity in New York that hinders creativity.” He warns there are strong gender issues New Yorkers have to deal with before they’ll allow themselves to have fun and be creative.
Spirituality and Community
The Deadheads of the gay scene, fanners and flaggers find spiritual and communal meaning in their art. Some dance alone in the privacy of their homes as if engrossed in prayer; others fall into Zen-like trances on the dance floor. To throw fabric is to answer a calling and embark on an intensely personal journey. Most dancers, if asked how they got started will begin their testimony with an anecdote along the lines of, “I saw someone doing it and I just had to try it, so I approached so-and-so one night, and they taught me. I’ve done it ever since.” There is always the act of asking for and receiving the gift.
Phillip Kimball always associated fanning with his friend Jonathan. The two would watch fanners at circuit parties. Then, three years ago at Sound Factory Bar, Kimball saw Piel fanning and approached her. “She gave me a set of fans, and I started from there,” Kimball says. “It was all about my friend Jonathan. He had just passed, and it was a connection to him. It took a long time to get comfortable doing it in front of people – someone told me that’s called fan shame.” Nowadays, Kimball fans in daylight in public spaces while wearing his headphones.
Bryan C. Cole Smith, who lives in South Jersey near Philadelphia, also testifies that the fanning community spiritually affected him. HIV-positive himself, at one point, he had lost most of his fanning family to AIDS. “I went several years and rarely saw other fanners,” Cole Smith says. “Then I went to Washington, D.C. for my birthday. The AIDS quilt was being displayed. It was the first birthday after I lost my partner, and I was very depressed. I was talked into going to one of the dance parties. I took my fans, intending to grieve, celebrate and forget in the flowing fabric and soothing music. Imagine my surprise when I walked in to see about 15 fanners around the stage. My life changed the moment I met Candida [Scott Piel]. She offered me a pair of white silk fans to play. As I touched those fans, my heart felt light for the first time in months. The fans lifted me, and together we soared higher and farther than I had in a very long time.”
For others, especially the newer generation of dancers, there is no connection to past good times or lost loved ones.
Yet the art transforms their lives. For most, the fabric becomes an extension of their bodies that they can move to the music. “I can express the music fluidly through the motion of the fabric,” says Ragan. “I just totally let go of control.”
“It’s a nice spiritual head space,” adds Franklin Fry, a fanner. “It gives you a space and time to not think of anything except how the fabric flows,” this state of being, in essence, is meditation. “I firmly believe that fanning increases my t-cells and reduces my stress,” Cole Smith says, “and it makes me horny as hell!”
Such metaphysical experiences lead the dancers to form strong bonds among themselves. These bonds are further reinforced by a shared oral history of lore, etiquette and technique. “I have recognized a couple of rag-fan players as having been taught by Stephen DeRose,” says Piel, who learned fanning and flagging in ’93 from Jeffrey Reichlin and others. “I can tell [Stephen’s] direct descendants but don’t necessarily recognize my own lineage many generations down the line, to a degree that it is both spooky and fun.”
“I firmly believe that fanning increases my t-cells and reduces my stress, and it makes me horny as hell!”
– Bryan C. Cole Smith
Another communal ritual is the act of making fans and flags—that’s no small task. As flagger Steven DeRose explains while sifting through the mounds of colorful fabric that comprise his flag collection, there are fabrics to suit every mood or musical style. Shimmery fabric reflects club lighting well, heavier fabric flows better for outdoor flagging, and neon colors glow vibrantly under black lights. Rag spinners and fanners alike bring fan/rag bags to clubs so they’ll have an assortment to choose from as the night progresses.
Fan construction is more intricate and allows for ornamentation – fanners can elaborately decorate fan spines as well as add marabou feathers, string tape and beads to their works. “you’re creating something therapeutic,” says Barbara Good, a fanner. “Each [fan] has a power, is a magical transformation tool.”
“It’s a beautiful way to express yourself, so the fans should absolutely be individual,” adds fanner Gigi Walters.
Stephen Kosiorek, a pupil of Jagatic who mostly flags, says he likes the art because there is a tightly knit community, yet the performancs remains primarily individual. On one end of the spectrum, he says, are those who find the art very spiritual, and on opposite end are boys who dance on boxes to get more attention.
As charismatic leaders in different regions and in various generations have applied the art to their needs and styles, various philosophies regarding acceptable use of the gift have organically developed. For example, San Francisco transplant Jagatic notes that fanners in New York are more “self indulgent,” that they focus on themselves and often go into trancelike states while dancing. They also never choreograph together. He believes in connecting with the audience while flagging, in “creating a non-verbal language I can share.” And he’s organized to the point of becoming the artistic director of a newly formed flagging troupe, a direction that many in the old school would frown upon.
Regardless of their personal viewpoints, most dancers retain a reverence and respect for their fellow tribe members. After all, most of the dancers are traveling a similar journey, one that began when they asked for and received their gifts. And one that, sooner or later, will lead them to the point when they become teachers and pass on their knowledge.
“I see it going in the direction of giving the gift as opposed to receiving it,” Kosiorek says. “It’s my turn to offer it to the next generation, someone who comes up and says, ‘That’s really neat. I’d like to learn.’”