Why having underground spaces is important for nightlife

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As the nightlife slowly reemerges from its hibernation during the pandemic and people are once again raring to dance together, having underground spaces is critical. File photo by JL JAVIER

It’s close to midnight and you’re walking through the streets of Metro Manila. You saunter down a dark street and find a small crowd gathered outside a dimly-lit place. At the door, the scent of liquor and cigarettes escape, and once you enter, your ears are assaulted with the kicking beat of techno. Everyone is dressed differently: there are thigh-high leather boots and outfits so scant they might as well be naked. Even the tote bag types are here.

This must be the place your parents warned you about, you think, but a look around the dark room proves otherwise. As everyone dances to the same beat, there is a sense of belonging and a loss of inhibition. A thought presents itself: is there more to the nightlife than waiting to see where you fall in between buzzed and blacked out?

This was the topic of conversation at "Because The Night (Belongs to Lovers)," a panel discussion for The Den’s sixth anniversary last Aug. 20. The panel featured musician and writer Mariah Reodica, drag queen and Elephant founder Shahani Gania, artist and production designer Paul Jatayna, and curator and creative director David Loughran. The discussion was moderated by artist Derek Tumala, who also created and programmed the talks for The Den's anniversary.

The dialogue’s main question: Is the nightlife as productive as the city’s waking hours? It may not seem like it at first glance. Loughran states, “People don’t see ‘the night’ as a space that is productive, that it can yield outcomes and results.”

But there is so much more than fun being had in these nights out. There are conversations that happen throughout the night that, more often than not, spill over into the day and affect the lives we live. Ideas on politics and worldviews are exchanged, plans for creative endeavors are made, and bonds are formed on the dance floor. “Even just occupying the space is productive,” Loughran says. “Maybe half of us work better at night. It’s just a matter of the work being done differently.”

The night also allows people to find and form communities, especially those that are outcast during the day. Gania’s underground queer party Elephant, which Jatayna co-organizes, serves as a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community. Parties like these allow people to be themselves and express themselves freely, through the way they dress, dance, and talk. “Kaya siya ‘underground’ kasi there is dissent,” Gania says. “[It can be] dissatisfaction towards the government, the norms and practices sa mundong ibabaw, or capitalistic ventures.”

The same is echoed by Reodica, who organizes gigs for independent and underground bands. For her, the nightlife is a place where one can find like-minded people. She notes that in the music scene, there too is a collective dissent against what the world at large thinks of what musicians do: “Dissent sa pagiging outsider, being misunderstood, or perhaps that playing music isn’t seen as a productive use of time, like sana nag-aral na lang sila.” She adds, “I think part of it is when you find like-minded people, you find that strength to [say], ‘Okay, ‘yung ginagawa ko, it’s not wrong, it’s not unusual.’”

This sense of community, being together, and equality is also present when people simply just dance. When techno plays, as it usually does in Elephant and other parties similar to it, it’s an equalizing experience, says Loughran. “You’re on your own dancing to just the beat, and then you see the entire room doing the same thing — it’s so equalizing.”

Jatayna adds that techno is part of the reason they mount Elephant in the first place: “When your music is techno, you’re dancing to a song with no lyrics… you lose your inhibition just by dancing to just the beat,” he explains. And that in itself is a key part of the queer experience, to discover what you can do with no holds barred. “It’s a way to explore your queerness with other people in one space.”

The act of leaving it all on the dance floor is also seen in the gig scene, says Reodica, through mosh pits: bodies slamming with each other, letting loose. At first it seemed too macho, but what changed Reodica’s mind was seeing how mosh pits could become a litmus test for the kind of people who would go to the gigs she organized. Ideally, women are encouraged to stay in front, and belongings are put in one place for safety.

"[W]hile the underground nightlife is a haven for being yourself, it is by no means a utopia that’s immune to the challenges that other scenes face."

All this is to say that while the underground nightlife is a haven for being yourself, it is by no means a utopia that’s immune to the challenges that other scenes face. Gania says that even after years of throwing parties, there is no money to be earned. But it’s worth it: creating safe spaces for marginalized communities is what makes it rewarding. “Safe spaces are for and by the most vulnerable to harm and abuse,” Gania says.

Then there is also the question of predatory individuals. At Elephant, Gania and Jatayna keep it simple: “Always side with the victims, kasi sila ‘yung nahihirapan,” Gania explains. “We as a community have to back the victim because that’s what makes a safe space.” Reodica adds that while she’s built up the grit to fend off predators, the burden should not fall on the vulnerable. “But I do see that scenes can regulate themselves,” she says. “That sense [of the crowd] keeping itself in check happens. But it can take time.”

Despite these hurdles, the benefits of having an opportunity to discover one’s self and finding a community far outweigh the drawbacks. And as the nightlife slowly reemerges from its hibernation during the pandemic, people are once again raring to dance together, which just shows how having underground spaces is critical.

What then makes it worth it to keep working in the underground scene? For Reodica, it’s being able to make music and share it with people. She says, “I’m lucky I get to make music — why would I take it for granted?” For Loughran, it’s being able to learn about the world in a different way from all these different people. Jatayna shares, “I find solace in doing it over and over again because I get to dance with people I like.” And finally, Gania sums it up with an analogy: “The most beautiful flowers grow underground. They take root and morph; it’s fulfilling for me to see that — a garden blooming.”