by Xavier Caylor
(with contributions by Phillip Bryan and Alan Gentry)
Originally written for Flagger Weekend 4, 2007
The first story I remember hearing on the dance floor involving spinning was the story of Rumi. He was a 13th century scholar who taught by sharing the stories he gained in his many travels. He had many followers, and one changed his life forever. Rumi took Shams, a beautiful young dervish, for his lover. Their affair was cut short when, one night, Shams disappeared, never to be seen again.
Rumi was heartbroken at the disappearance of his greatest love. With profound grief he gave up everything and went searching for Shams. One day weeks later, while traveling down a road outside of Damascus, “it” happened. He heard the striking of a blacksmith’s hammer and in it, the beat of all life. Rumi started to spin. Round and round.
No, he was not spinning flags. That comes later in the story.
He spun his body around and around. With one hand pointed to the earth and the other to the sky Rumi started channeling spirit. His students became the followers of a new religion now known as the Whirling Dervishes.
I know what you’re thinking: “This is a far cry from what we I’m doing with yards of fabric and black light under a disco ball!”
Well, it’s not that far off. Rumi connected with the beat of life and pushed his body to follow that beat. His thoughts left him and, while meditating, he healed his grief. Many religions use meditation but this one specifically uses spinning with music to find inner peace and spirit. Are you making the connection now?
Big leap, to the end of the 19th Century: Enter Loie Fuller
Where else but vacationing in Fire Island would I first learn about Loie Fuller. At the end of the 19th century, Loie worked for her supper by dancing for the East coast elite. She was a pioneer for her time, developing her famous “Serpentine Dance”, manipulating hundreds of yards of white silk.
Loie was an out lesbian, which may have been the reason she left the USA for a more appreciative audience in Paris. There she was said to be “the embodiment of Art Nouveau” as a dancer for the Follies Bergère. Loie strove to illuminate her white silk on the dark stage. She patented several types of lighting using chemical compounds for creating color gels and chemical salts to create luminescent effects on her silks. Her quest to glow in the dark even moved her to ask Madame Curie for uranium. (Madame Curie denied her request, by the way.)
Loie felt her art expressed a shared intimacy with her audience and preferred not to be filmed. Some argue that what Loie did is not quite flagging, but it was very close. Sometimes working with dowels, other times with weights, the images she worked towards propelled her towards international recognition. Loie Fuller’s legacy is taught to all beginning dance students. Today, her work is being recreated by Jody Sperling (images of Jody are easy to find and offer a glimpse into Loie).
I learned the details of Asian fan dancing through the oral history of remaining fanners in San Francisco. Korean Fan Dancing is probably the most noteworthy. Japanese Geisha’s danced with fans. In Kabuki Theater, stories such as “Sakura Sakura” were told by manipulating open and closed fans. Deadly fans with spines of sharp knives were employed by martial arts masters.
Fans have been part of many cultures. In Spain, dancers’ fans are merely two dowels connecting the ends of fabric. In the United States, fans were most notably wielded by Sally Rand, a 1930’s diva who became famous for hiding her breasts with ostrich feather fans. Though Sally was not the first to play spines, she definitely was the most famous, bringing them to the national spotlight on the stage and in movies.
There is a story of a group of gay men from San Franciscan traveling in New York City who observed another group of men (Broadway performers) playing fans at a club called 12 West. They were enthralled and decided to search for fans back home in Chinatown – effectively bringing fan dancing to the West Coast. Along the way, paper was replaced by fabric that would stand up to a hot disco.
This story exemplifies things we already know: our community takes from mainstream society and embellishes it to fabulousness. Could fan dancing have been the precursor for flag dancing?
Late Twentieth century
Who was the first person to sew curtain weights into silk flags? Who made the correlation to black lights in a club? In fact, who was the first to imitate Sally Rand or Loie Fuller? Did they wait until the 70’s? The Olympic sport of rhythmic gymnastics was established in Europe around the time of Loie Fuller; could there be some connection?
Many feel fanning and flagging was born beneath the disco balls in the 1970’s. Whether it was fan dancers whittling away at their spines and replacing them with weights, bartenders spinning their rags and wet t-shirts, or some other clever form of imitation – the truth has been lost in the shroud of secrets and competition that would define the era. The one thing agreed upon is it was born in the gay community.
In the 70’s, free expression was second only to the experience of flagging itself. There’s no doubt our clever brothers and sisters brought fan and flag dancing to gay pride marches, clubs and competitions in droves. In big city clubs like The Saint and the Trocadero the flow arts grew right along side other burgeoning gay identities.
These clubs became covens for regulars to play. Their art was passed in a way that was similar to the leather community – master to student. Secrets were kept and the communities were not inclusive. You wouldn’t dare play your wares in a club with an established group of regulars you didn’t know.
Clandestine attitudes contributed to the information gap, when the epidemic took so many artists. They died and took their stories and secrets with them. The celebration of uniqueness became disdain for our past. The arts were packed up, put away, or buried.
Re-emergence was cumbersome but eminent. Suddenly, there were large benefit parties thrown to raise funds for AIDS research. Drug therapies, frequent flier miles and the party circuit changed our embattled community’s outlook around overnight. People started traveling around the country and this new generation of naive club-goers eagerly pursued, learned, and shared the spin arts again.
Circuit parties became opportunities to see and try flagging. With only hints of the territorial divisiveness that preceded it, flagging experienced a surge in popularity. Now, a more inclusive community has grown, supporting several flag oriented workshops, troupes, parties and other events (including Flagger Weekend). There are Flagging in the Park gatherings, designated flagging spaces at major dance parties, and even professional dance companies.
Attending a circuit party in a major city was no longer the only way to access the greater flagging tribe. Websites like flaggercentral.com became true social networking communities for flow artists. Forum and discussion groups like SpinTribe encouraged lively discussions across the globe. Both shared (previously secret) knowledge about the arts of flag creation
and dancing. These and other online resources have brought together artists who would normally only get exposure to flagging from one of the “gay Meccas.”
What comes next?
Flagging has attained exposure and accessibility in many new media; the art form appears in music videos, CD and magazine covers, movies, documentaries, websites, football halftime shows, and community events. Flag dancing has also expanded into other demographics; no longer seen as an exclusively gay art form, flagging is now enjoyed and embraced by conventional society.
Now that flagging has grown into a community of artists, it has much easier accessibility and heightened visibility. Flag dancing has begun to attract the attention of dancers in other disciplines such as poi, staff, etc. Our art form has evolved to the point where we have joined the greater artistic community of Flow Artists, learning from other disciplines and sharing our art.