The world does not always understand that those within a subculture are merely people, and that when people are targeted for being different, humanity suffers a loss of itself. — Gothic Volunteer Alliance
In nightclubs from Hollywood to Manhattan, I’ve seen my fair share of characters. San Diego’s typically tame, but the longer I stared at the man dancing in Kava Lounge one recent Saturday, the more certain I became that he would make it into my top five.
He was Asian, older — I’d guess 50-something, though his hair was all pepper and no salt. He wore large, ’80s-style wire-rimmed glasses and sported a slender mustache and goatee. He was adorned all in black, save for the blue-and-purple design emblazoned on his button-down shirt, which he’d tucked into his slacks. A gold pendant in the shape of a coffin dangled from the gold chain around his neck, and his hands were in fingerless gloves. But the pièce de résistance was the sizable Chinese fan made of purple silk, on which two white dragons were painted on either side of a yin yang symbol. It wasn’t the prop alone I found impressive, but how he twirled, flipped, and flared it open as he danced in the mist of the fog machine.
I leaned closer to my friend Robin so she could hear me over the music and said, “That guy is rad. I just want to scoop him up and take him home. What’s his deal?”
“Who, Leigh? He’s been a fixture of the goth scene for years.” Robin whipped out her camera to join me in capturing Leigh’s awesomeness. “He doesn’t get on the dance floor without his fan,” she explained as we clicked away. “It’s an extension of his personality. You should hear the noise that thing makes when he opens it — it’s so freakin’ loud, it’s like a whip!” Like any seasoned celeb, Leigh was impervious to the strobe-y flashes of light illuminating his moves.
Beside Leigh was a man wearing sunglasses who was “sweeping the floor” with his trench coat while his female companion (dressed in a purple, Victorian-style, lace-up shirt) combined other goth moves such as “kicking the Smurf” and “grabbing the bat.” The moves were new to me — my dancing tends to look something like an ecstasy-driven seizure. These people were slower, more methodical in their movements, like spiders swimming.
It had been a while since I stood on a dance floor. When I was a single woman, I had been an avid clubber. The blend of friends and music, combined with hours of dancing, were exhilarating. My favorite haunts were gay clubs such as Montage and Rich’s — where not only was my unrestrained application of glitter appreciated, but I didn’t have to worry about pushy dudes interpreting a woman’s dancing as an invitation to grind up against her.
During our first year together, David and I hit up Club Sabbat, which gave us an excuse to dress up in some of our hotter closet items (my corsets, his custom knee-high boots). But David wasn’t into dancing the way I was, and when it came to choosing whether to go dancing with friends or do anything else with my boyfriend, the “anything else” prevailed.
Robin and I met and became fast friends on a recent Wednesday night at the Tractor Room, during a party put on by Legit Radio, the internet radio station on which Robin (a professional mixtress of music) currently hosts a show each week. It was after the party, when we were noshing on a burger at Starlite, that Robin handed me a flier for Ascension at Kava Lounge, one of the five clubs she DJs in town.
“I’ve never been good at dancing to anything slower than techno,” I warned Robin as we stood outside the club, absorbing some of the cool night air before she had to go in and start her set. “Not that I consider myself ‘good’ at dancing to any beat,” I clarified.
Robin rolled her eyes — cornflower-blue orbs ringed in black liner — and dismissed my attempt at self-deprecation with a laugh. Her black hair was slicked back into a low ponytail, revealing ten small silver hoops up each earlobe. Her scarlet lips seemed fixed in a playful smirk. Now that I could see her entire ensemble in the streetlight, I realized the extent of how underdressed I was in my cashmere hoodie and pants adorned with silver rings and buckles. Robin wore black ruffled boy shorts over tights with crisscross cutouts on the outer leg and Doc Marten–style lace-up, buckled boots. Her inky button-down coat — cropped to the waist in front but reaching her knees in back — was simultaneously feminine and militaristic. The coat sleeves laced from her shoulders to her wrists, and her hands were covered in fingerless lace gloves. I made a mental note not to return to one of Robin’s clubs without first busting out my rubber collar, the one that makes me look like Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
One of the three major tenets of the gothic subculture is fashion (the others being music and art). Unfortunately, those in the mainstream assign negative connotations to gothic fashion. Robin told me about a horrible incident that occurred in Old Town four years ago. She, her husband, and friends were walking to dinner when two men, one a Navy SEAL, assaulted them. What began as taunting with slurs like “goth faggot” ended in Robin’s husband being so brutally beaten he required reconstructive surgery.
Being targeted for their appearance is one of the reasons Robin and her friends founded the Gothic Volunteer Alliance. Volunteers, most of them dressed in snazzy black, participate in beach and neighborhood cleanups, put on fundraisers for suicide-prevention and animal-protection organizations, and maintain the Old Town Native Plant Garden, among other things. When they’re not volunteering around town, they’re getting together for recreational events such as karaoke, ice-skating, and bowling.
Though I have a deep appreciation for the dark trinity forming the label, I wouldn’t classify myself as “goth,” just as I wouldn’t call myself a “burner” simply because I’ve been to Burning Man. Appreciation for (or occasional participation in) a lifestyle isn’t the same as living it. When it comes to music (on which many subcultures are based), I’m more eclectic than anything. I dug dancing to the dark, industrial tunes Robin spun, but I’m also keen on everything from Enya to Eminem, Andrew Lloyd Webber to the White Stripes, and Postal Service to Propellerheads. If I were to file myself, I’d have to cross-reference raver, rockabilly, goth, hipster, fetish, and, perhaps the most accurate, geek.
David sidled up to me on the dance floor. As I watched him gyrate with a goofy smile on his face, it struck me that he was actually having fun in a club. “Hey, beh-beh!” I shouted into his ear. “Do you know where my Maleficent collar is?” David’s enthusiastic nod signaled that he had grokked the reason for my asking.