Flaggers find their zen, and community, in a resurging art form
For the last eight months, Carlos tells me the same thing:
“Oh my god. You haaaaavvve to see these boys with flags.”
It’s always in his morning-after voice, a blend of smoke and booze and after-hours gravel. His call never arrives before noon. When it does, he’s brimming with the previous night’s details, his vocab punched with phrases like “the bar,” “he was all about me,” and “chemical depression.” I love talking to the guy because I get a glimpse into gay club culture that’s never afforded to the straight, and each time he mentions the flaggers his blasé demeanor disappears and his voice gets this sing-song quality to it.
When Carlos talks about the flags, he begins with color, a brilliant assemblage of multi-dyed fabrics: lemon yellow, sea-foam green, candy reds and pinks. He recounts how each flag glowed in the club’s black light, how each movement was synchronized until the space around the flaggers is painted with silk. It all sounds like nothing I’d ever get to see at a straight club, where the visuals typically include dry ice, blinding strobes and a pack of Kendall boys groveling by the velvet rope.
Who are these flaggers? Where are they performing next?
“I don’t know; they just sort of show up,” he sighs. It’s part of our routine. I grill him, and he grows weary. Now that he’s through recounting his escapades, he wants to hang up, eat a bowl of Cheerios and go back to sleep. Before he does, he adds, “They are incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
* * *
For those in the know, flagging is hardly new. Flag lore has it that a gay contingent visiting New York from California was introduced to fanning (dancing with fans) in the mid-Seventies at the gay and then-hot spot, 12 West. The group returned to the West Coast and carried fanning into gay clubs in San Francisco. Soon enough, the art found its way to bars in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Fort Lauderdale, and fabric fans replaced paper ones that ultimately shredded. Fan dancing began to fade from gay night life by the nineties, when AIDS claimed the lives of many dancers before they had a chance to pass along their knowledge of the art.
Yet a new generation of clubbers revived fanning, first by spinning their T-shirts or bandanas in lieu of fans, then by stitching fabric flags from scratch. Call it what you want: rag-dancing, spinning linen, throwing fabric or flag dancing, the art has mutated, and today flagging graces clubs and circuit parties in Dallas, New York City, L.A., and as far away as Montreal and Sydney, Australia.
Some flaggers perform with troupes in choreographed dances, but many prefer to go it alone, freestyling their way through house and trance tracks. Standard sizes for flags are thirty-five inches in width and forty-five in length, but this too can vary. Some are doll-size while others fan out like enormous sails, and although websites like www.circuittoys.com hawk flags for $79.95, for the true devotee, buying pre-fabricated tools of the trade is a no-no. Instead, flags are often offered as gifts by the skilled to eager-to-learn novices, and purists claim that all flaggers should attempt to construct at least one flag on their own.
“The fabric is a physical manifestation of yourself. Every flagger should make one by hand,” says Angelo Marrero, a member of Tribal Force, South Florida’s only organized flagging clan. “It’s a labor of love.”
“It’s a very spiritual type of thing,” adds Dean Miner, who found his way to flagging last year at San Francisco’s Gay Pride. “Most flaggers I’ve seen aren’t doing it for the hell of it. There’s always an underlying story involved.” For the 31-year-old Miner, the motivation started with his illness. Born with chronic psoriasis, he’s taken meds that have permanently damaged his liver and that doctors say will shorten his life. He’s found that flagging is his most potent tonic.
“I was handed flags for the very first time last year at Gay Pride in San Francisco’s City Hall. It’s a seven-story atrium, and I ran around in the forbidden areas like the mad flagger,” he remembers with a laugh. “I liked it that much. I have a lot of anger because of my health, and flagging helps me release that. It’s a form of meditation.”
Both Miner and Marrero agreed to an early-morning demo on Lincoln Road. As they unfurl their flags from their knapsacks, Marrero points to the curtain weights sewn into each flag’s seam that help the fabric stretch to its full length. He refers to each flag by name — Fire for an orange and yellow number, Water and Ocean Wave for two blue-and-green chiffon fabrics. “They look like liquid in the black light,” he says.
They show how the flags should be held between the forefinger and the tip of the thumb. But it’s too windy, and the flags crumple up. We find an alcove between a gallery and a design group, and Marrero busts out the Fire flags. In a blink, the flags are streaming around him, yards of silk fluttering around his slim frame like wings. Marrero demonstrates how to do pinwheels and windmills. “It can be exhausting,” he claims as the fabric soars over his head. “You want the panel facing outward so that the fabric looks like one unit. Your hands should follow one another. We call them ‘master and servant.’ ”
“When I started, it took me like three months to learn to pinwheel,” Miner says from the corner where he’s spinning his Marilyn Monroe flag in figure eights. He notes the wrinkles across the fabric with dismay. “My children need to be ironed.”
When they insist I take a stab, I’m thinking, how hard can this be? But after a few attempts, the flags I’m holding look like little more than stringy dish rags, and I realize: Plenty. Marrero laughs and instructs me to move only my wrists and when I do, the fabric expands. Better, he says, and adds how he practices every day on his own or with his partner of four years, Robert Swafford. If there’s a gig booked, rehearsals ante up to ten to twelve hours a week. They’ve danced at clubs, but they’ve also flagged on Sunday afternoon at Flamingo Park and also at a few memorial services. Swafford was even approached by Disney officials during a business meeting in Orlando where he broke out his flags to release some tension. Marrero says he’d like to see flagging extend beyond the gay community. For Christmas, he and Robert sewed flags for Robert’s 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.
“They loved it,” recalls Marrero. “It’s not a sexually-oriented art form. It transcends all that.”
Miner chimes in. “Sometimes, organized religion has turned on our sexuality. We’re looking for another kind of spirituality.” With that he turns and lovingly folds up his flags. I give Marrero back his, but before he puts them away, he gives them a quick whirl. An old Cuban lady pushing an empty wheelchair stops and exclaims “Aye, qué lindo.” She stretches out a crooked finger and Marrero graciously holds the flags out to her so she can get a closer look. When she’s finished with her appraisal, she shuffles off, lifts one hand in the air, and cries, “Sigue torriendo!”
“That’s the kind of reaction we get,” says a smiling Marrero.
* * *
Salvation nightclub is a crater of shirtless men churning in a wash of blue light. The party on this night, dubbed “Tropical Heat,” is one of thirteen bashes connected to Winter Party. The annual circuit party, in its eighth season, draws thousands of club boys from across the country and has raised over a million dollars for local organizations serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. But tonight, nobody’s talking charity.
It’s all about dancing, dilated pupils, trim waists and pick-up lines. A giant blow-up star floats from a chain hooked to the ceiling. Beneath it, what looks like the populace of Miami Beach is intent on grinding hips to beats so loud the floor continually vibrates. I scream at the guy next to me and ask if he knows where the flaggers will perform. He shakes his head and sweat flies off the tips of his drenched hair. A muscle boy in a thong and a gladiator helmet struts by, and a series of heads whiplash in his direction.
It takes ten minutes to find the stage, another twenty to squeeze through the wall o’ skin and get there. The tip of a yellow flag floats from behind a partition. Tribal Force has performed a half-dozen times at the club, and management claims that its seen-it-all patrons are never bored with the show. A light man stationed on the second floor plays with illuminating each flag’s surface, and the DJ is consulted so the show melds into hisevening’s theme. Then there are flag changes, music selections, rehearsals. It’s a lot of work for a twelve-minute set.
Marrero appears from behind the wall dressed in slim black pants and is, of course, shirtless. All of Tribal Force’s four-man crew dresses the same way. Part of the illusion relies on the flaggers disappearing and allowing the day-glow fabrics to take center stage. When the first drawn out measures of a Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” remix begins, Marrero strides out and spins his yellow and blue flag around his body, his already tanned torso even darker in the black light. Unbelievably, most of the mass stops its dancing and cruising and takes in the show. Another flagger steps out, and by the time the booming crescendo of drums kicks in, all four members of the group are dipping and rolling silk-like fountains from their hands. Foam flakes drop from the ceiling and the crowd woooos and claps straight through the last three minutes of the set.
Backstage, the troupe is panting and exhilarated. Miner rushes up to congratulate them. Earlier he hypothesized that Tribal Force was Salvation’s cheerleaders, and Marrero agrees. “We want to charge the energy of the club. We even hand them out. You get a feel for people who are open.”
* * *
Revered by flaggers everywhere as the godmother of flagging, Candida Scott Piel is worried. “It bothers me that you can buy a bag of flags at your local rainbow tchotchkes store,” she exclaims from New York, where she works as a community liaison for the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Over the phone, Piel’s voice has a Betty Davis timbre and, like Davis, she speaks with a resolute authority.
“I’ve taught it all, fans and flags, and it upsets me when it becomes a performance instead of a ceremony,” says Piel, whose fanning knowledge hails back to the the form’s original heyday in New York. “A lot of it has become a June Taylor Dance Show. I’m scared that with this performance thing it all becomes about a cult of the body, when it should be something about sharing. It ought to be something where somebody old and ancient can get out a pair and we can judge him by the magic and not by, ‘Oh yeah, but he doesn’t have steroid tits.’ What kind of a tribe is it that kills off its elders? It should be about connection.”
When informed of Marrero’s and Miner’s devotion, she sounds a bit less ruffled. But she has a point. A handful of people at Salvation speculated that one of the reasons behind flagging’s renaissance was because the flaggers were getting prettier. And younger.
Yet, at one of Winter Party’s last soirees on 14th Street’s beach, there are flaggers as young as 19 and as old as 40-plus. They’ve carved off a section of sand by the northwest gate. More than five thousand revelers are in attendance, and by some act of God I’ve managed to find Carlos and his clique. We mosh our way past a strand of blue canopied booths selling cocktails, past a man-roiling expanse of dance floor draped in faux vines and jungle flowers, past a small set of bleachers until we finally reach the flaggers.
“They’re like their own subculture,”‘ Carlos notes. A friend quips, “Honey, they’re just fags with flags.” The group cracks up, but they stay and watch for a while as two-dozen flaggers freestyle to gay house anthem “People Get Ready.” Men throw tie-dye, crepe, lamé and silk. Some are just fooling around, flapping the fabric like a handkerchief, but others wear a Zen-like expression and they tilt their heads toward the sun, eyes closed, smiling, all the while spinning and spinning. Marrero calls it the point of release, when a flagger forgets his body and technique and just flows. I catch him and his partner docking, mirroring one another’s moves in rhythm. A skateboard kid in another corner twirls a pair of retro white fans with glittering spines, and Miner’s found a new student, a woman wearing stilettos and spilling out of her bikini. Everyone who passes stops and ogles the microcosm of flags. It’s impossible not to.
By nightfall the party’s thinned out, and I wait for Carlos and company to decide where they’re going to eat before hightailing it over to the next party at Opium Garden. We’re standing by the front gate when I hear a man’s voice float out of the darkness … “How beautiful.”
I turn to see what he’s already watching: cruise ships dragging their lights across the horizon, a dark sky, an indigo ocean. And in the middle of a blotch of white light on the sand, a flagger swings two enormous gold foil flags, the size of refrigerators, the size of elevators. They spin around him like a slow-rolling propeller. After a moment, another man unpacks his flags and joins him.
Thanks to Randy Earwood for saving this article when it was published