There will never be another Taproom
The wrinkles around the old man’s eyes crease, but his bright eyes stares directly at the camera as he says : “There will never be another Palladium.”
The documentary cuts to the next speaker, a woman, covering up for her lost youth with thick make-up. She is emphatic when she echoes, “There will NEVER be another Palladium.”
When they were young and lithe, these dancers swirled around New York’s Palladium Ballroom in its heyday in the 1950s. And they haven’t re-discovered the magic since.
Professor Ananya Kabir played this clip about the Palladium Era from the documentary “La Epoca” as part of her inaugural lecture at King’s College London, “The Secret History of the Dancefloor.” Once the epicenter of the Latin dance scene in New York, the Palladium ballroom has since been replaced by a set of NYU dorms.
Professor Kabir’s lecture was part of the 2014 Arts & Humanities festival at King’s. The next day featured a panel discussion with three international DJs. Discussion leader Madison Moore, a postdoctoral researcher at King’s, asked the three DJs assembled about nightclubs and spaces that defined an entire era– returning to the Palladium theme. Each of them recounted a shimmering image of dancefloor that stayed in their memories.
When listening to these discussions, I slipped into my own reveries: I could imagine the faces of my college friends, fifty years older than they are now.
The camera would cut to each of them in turn and they would say, “There will never be another Taproom.”
I went to college in Lawrence, Kansas. In a nation of dying Main Streets, Lawrence is known for having a vibrant downtown. Right off our main street (in this case called Massachusetts Street) was the Eighth Street Taproom or The Taproom or Taproom or, later, just Tap. Mythical, magical Tap, which certainly defined the Saturday nights for several golden years of my college experience. We were in a different time and a different place than the dancers who lit up the Palladium floor, but I like to think that the energy was the same.
Taproom was no good before midnight and the bar closed at three. So each of our Saturday nights were packed into three hardcore, sweaty hours. They were never long enough. As Professor Kabir mentioned in her lecture, the perfect dance floor often rhymes with a desperate desire for “more…”
On the nights we partied before heading to Taproom, the time passed in the blink of an eye. On nights I didn’t go out, the evenings dragged on for an eternity as I fought waves of tiredness. When 12am hit, time went into hyper-drive. We were on our way towards the dance floor.
One of my friends, Sonya, wrote: My most vivid and fond memory is the clock striking midnight. It was like a dog whistle went off in the streets that only my favorite people could hear, drawing them to the Taproom like rats to the Pied Piper’s song. The dance floor would be empty or just warming up and then, come midnight, people would stream down the stairs, fill the tiny room and get sweaty, fast.
Cover was $3 and, seeing as I was both student-poor and straight from high school where all parties were free, I still remember feeling like the entry was extravagant… but worth it.
At the door, you’d get carded, pay the bouncer, walk quickly through the bar, make a hard right by the battered pool table and take the staircase down. All that was left were few more steps and then you’d be getting down. The music, the heat and the sweaty smell would rise up, beckoning you home.
The theme of this year’s Arts and Humanities Council Festival was ‘Underground.’ In her lecture, Professor Kabir discussed the idea of an ideal dancefloor being ‘deep, where the sun don’t shine’ as the song famously goes. In her lecture, she evoked the ‘dance parties’ held by slaves in dark, forest clearings, spaces of physical, mental and spiritual liberation far from the masters’ gaze and control. Our need for escape was obviously not defined by inhumane circumstances as it was for slaves—if we were fleeing something—it was schoolwork or stress or a break-up. Or maybe it was just a human desire to escape from reality for a bit.
The underground vibe was certainly one of the magical qualities of Taproom, defined by a low ceiling and moving bodies. As my friend Sonya wrote, “The fact that it was a basement added to this hideout, our-space, judgment-free vibe.’
Somehow, Taproom managed this business where it was small and easy to crowd (lessening the worry of looking like a fool) but magically not so small that I ever remember getting bumped around uncomfortably or shoved on repeatedly by the too-drunk girl behind me, which is now a problem at every.freaking.dance.night.
Tables were haphazardly shoved to the side to make room for boogey-ing. An awkward pole stood in the room and we turned it into a brilliant dance prop. You could swing around it and, when the music got suitably dirty and you felt just wild enough, you could pole dance on it for a few silly minutes.
I even used the pole occasionally to put distance between myself and some eager suitors. But, that said, one of the things that made Taproom so special was the low ratio of creepy people. Instead, there was a quirky cast of characters that showed up—I got to know many of them, making the space more comfortable. But there was enough rotation and movement that there was always the possibility of fresh interactions and new people.
Something to be said of the Taproom: at the time, I was so focused on the seamless vibe of connected energy that I never bothered to appreciate the relative diversity of those assembled. If you started asking around, we were a diverse bunch of kids—especially in Kansas terms. Hailing from big cities—DC, Atlanta, Chicago—and small Kansas towns, boy and girls, gay and straight and undecided, of different ethnic backgrounds. But it’s true that, if you looked at us, we were mostly the same age—while we were townies and students, dropouts and honors students. But there was at least one exception. One older man, maybe in his fifties, would come every Saturday to dance. His dance skills were miles beyond our own, and he’d rarely interact with anyone, just seeming to dance in a trance. I admired him from afar.
Then, one perfect night, he took my hand and we started to dance together. An exhilarating, Taproom dream-come-true. I still count it as one of my best dancefloor achievements ever.
I found out, years later, that this dancer had marked everyone’s memory, though only one person actually knew his name: Oliver T Hall.
As Professor Kabir said about the perfect dance floor, of course, there was “scandal and desirability. But there was also another ingredient— democracy, open-ness to all, the possibility of dancing with anyone.” The Palladium was known as a mecca of diversity in its day, drawing all different people from all different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.
At Tap, I don’t remember snubs; I don’t remember judgment. I remember feeling both sexy and safe at the same time.
The DJs (Stackswell and Candlepants) were friends, and so were the barmen. One was doe-eyed and I had been desperately in love him in high school. At Tap, bags didn’t get stolen, they got piled behind the DJ’s booth and on benches. There was nothing to fear, we were at home.
In her lecture, Professor Kabir quoted the song: ‘where the sun don’t shine/ is a place I call home where the planetary alignment is right/ and the DJ cuts out the light.”
But what knitted our nights together and created the vibe was the music. Sonya described it like this:
I didn’t know all the songs but I always got a sense they were available on vinyl and had emotion behind them. You didn’t know the words, necessarily, but you feel that they’re about heartbreak or desire or partying-down, and you could let yourself go to the idea and feel it.
As Professor Kabir said, the dance floor is “about primal scenes played out over and over again in a way that makes the actors forget and remember at the same time.”
Another friend, Liz, wrote of the Taproom:
The type of music isn’t super important to a perfect dance night. Most of the time I don’t know the music and I don’t look it up afterwards. But at Taproom, it’s the soul nights that I remember most.
Ahhhhhhh, Gold Label Soul with Sadie Soul. Taproom was always great, but Sadie Soul nights brought the party to a whole different level. Those nights—and also the nights called The Breakdown— brought a heavy dose of soul to remixed dance, RnB, hip-hop, funk and Latin music from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.
I had never heard anything better. I remember, tingling with dirtiness, as I sang the words to Khia’s My Neck My Back.
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Womack & Womack would shout Teardrops.
Then, Michael Jackson would come on and I’d be close to crying as I said my ABCs.
I could dance all night, but, sometimes, my friends, breathless from the trapped heat, would want to push open the heavy back door and converge with the smokers on the staircase that led up to the sidewalk, to wash our sweaty bodies in the icy air of Kansas winters.
Then, you’d plunge back into the music, the madness—for me, never soon enough. I wanted every second of those three hours. I knew something magic was happening on that dance floor. But what made it so?
My friend, Lily, wrote:
I was the convergence of a massive, interconnected net of people who enjoyed getting down to the same dirty music.
Another friend, Sarah, said:
Being surrounded by people you know all doing the same thing you love to do – dance to fucking amazing music – is such a powerful experience and it’s such a simple concept.
At three, the bar would close and we’d spill out into the night. Sometimes, someone would drive us home. More often, we’d troop through the length of the town– exuberant still, falling giddily against friends and calling out to others, stopping for pizza slices along the way.
I remember a series of magical walks home from Tap with first loves, sweat drying as we tentatively held hands and kissed under streetlights.
The next morning, I’d be tired or a little sore, but mostly exuberant. As Sunday continued, the magic would wear off, homework would take over my tired, foggy brain and Monday, and classes, would come all too soon. The arc of the week would bend away from the dancefloor magic. But as the week came to a close, emotion and anticipation– desire for those sweaty hours– began to creep back into our skins, our souls.
When I asked them, most of my friends said that Taproom ended for us when we graduated from college.
But for me, there was another change. Taproom wasn’t destroyed like the Palladium… but it was renovated and got windows at some point. This suddenly made it look inviting, like a place you wanted to be and, consequently, ruined the underground dynamic completely. People who went to attractive-looking bars started invading our bar. Floods of so-called bros in team shirt and caps came in with over made-up girlfriends. The Taproom was probably making more money but the magic was ebbing away.
In any case, the golden era was over. Many of us moved away at that point, as well. We had graduated university. My friend Sarah stuck around a little longer than some of us, to finish her second and third degrees. She described seeing one of Taproom’s golden era dancers, Deek, who was a few years older than us, showing up on the floor after the era had ended:
I remember one night during senior year, I went to Taproom, and in cruised Deek, looking hip and making a bee-line down to the dancefloor to groove. When we all finally trickled down there, Deek was dancing, alone, in a sea of bros. He would bump into someone and, without missing a beat, just turn around and start dancing the other way. I remember watching him and feeling so conflicted about the situation. Deek was part of the heyday of Taproom for me, and here he was, alone in a crowd and without friends on the dancefloor. Was I going to end up that way, too?
Some of the DJs moved on, too, and packed their vinyl with them, bringing it to other dancefloors, in other cities.
This year, another part of the Taproom was lost forever—DJ Stackswell or Matt Brenner—one of the DJs who shaped our nights—was killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York. One of my clearest memories of him will always be watching him lean back to kiss his girlfriend while simultaneously and seamlessly blending from one track into another, never missing a beat.
But the end of this era doesn’t stop us from continuously looking for it. My friend, Lily, and Matt Brenner’s former girlfriend, now lives in Washington, DC.
It’s kind of like the Taproom, she says about her favorite bar, giving it the highest form of praise.
Frequently, one of us will write a Facebook post from San Diego or Los Angeles or Portland or New York, and mention a night that somehow captured the magic of the Taproom.
This longing for the Taproom has made me philosophize about what made it so special. It was many things—the music, the space, the moment. But mostly, I think it was the collective emotion of the place. We all experienced it together. And without the joyous, dancing mass of us at the core, the Taproom might have just been a basement room.
As my friend Katie wrote:
Now that I’ve been to much nicer bars and more polished dance floors, it is amazing that what was essentially a black, grungy basement full of clueless college kids “dancing” to soul music had more vibrancy than any will-call-tickets, craft-cocktail, bottle-service lounge that’s marketed to us now. And the lack of creepy people! That was a huge factor. I never felt remotely unsafe in a room that, empty of patrons, probably looked like something out of Dexter.
But did Taproom reach out to us? Or did we make Taproom? Did the Palladium pull in the people who made up its golden era? Or did the combination of people on the floor create its magic energy?
My friend Lily said:
Taproom only “died” because we all left. I’m sure it’s still magic for other people … but our time there passed.
Last New Years, while visiting home, I accompanied my little sister and her friends to the Taproom.
“I remember that this was your place,” she said, “So it’ll be fun.”
It was fun, but the whole night, I wasn’t dancing with my sister and her friends. I was dancing with ghosts.