By Erin Sherbert
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Tequila shots, flirtatious conversation, and a DJ spinning Abba moved 29-year-old Tom Shepard and some friends to get off their barstools and boogie. They'd barely started shaking their hips to "Dancing Queen" when a bouncer in the popular gay bar Midnight Sun tapped on their shoulders. If they didn't stop gyrating to the music, Shepard and his friends were told, they'd have to leave.
Dancing, the bouncer explained, is illegal.
In the Castro, a dozen or so bars clustered between 16th and 19th streets cater to a range of tastes: leather at Daddy's, African-American men and their admirers at the Pendulum, the tie-and-sweater crowd at Midnight Sun. The one thing these eclectic environs have in common, though, is the requirement that patrons keep their feet firmly planted on the floor. Someone who busts a move might well get busted.
Dancing is legal at only one bar in the Castro, the Cafe. So earlier this month, when former Cafe manager Morgan Gorrono prepared to open the first new bar in the area in three years, hopes were raised that perhaps plans for more dancing might be afoot.
But there will be no dancing at Gorrono's new club, the Bar, either. Strict zoning laws and determined neighbors who battle noise at every turn -- and consider dancing particularly noisy -- make it nearly impossible to obtain a dance permit in the Castro.
Gorrono is a rare example of someone beating the odds. It took years of protracted negotiations by the tenacious bar manager to win permission for one, small hardwood dance floor in the Cafe.
When he left the Cafe to open the Bar, Gorrono says he didn't have the moxie to fight the Planning Commission and neighborhood groups all over again. "I'd love to have dancing here," says Gorrono. "But the process is too hard, too mentally and financially draining."
The Castro may carry world renown as San Francisco's gay mecca, but for the time being it will remain a place where flirtatious, tequila-tinged young men dance at their own peril.
That's not right, Gorrono and others say, for a neighborhood synonymous with gay pride, freedom, and celebration.
"The Castro is the heart of the gay community and our gathering place," Gorrono says. "It is a worldwide destination that should have the magic of Mardi Gras. It should be a place where gay people can be free, have fun -- and dance."
Bargoers like Shepard say they find the restrictions perplexing: The neighborhood is already lined with bars playing music late into the night. What difference would dancing make?
"It just looks ridiculous that every bar you go into you have to do the stand-and-model thing," Shepard says. "There's only so much small talk you can make. People like to wiggle."
Bar managers like Kevin Kropp of Harvey's at the corner of 18th and Castro agree the no-dance rules are silly. But comply Kropp must, lest neighbors call the police and turn him in.
"It gets real embarrassing when you have to go up to a tourist and tell them to stop dancing or you'll have to throw them out. They look at you like it's so absurd," Kropp says. "I just tell them, 'Remember that town, in that movie Footloose with Kevin Bacon? We live there.' "
But members of neighborhood groups, themselves mostly gay, like to point out that Mardi Gras isn't an everyday event. The Castro, the neighbors say, is also a place where folks work, live, and have to get up in the morning.
Longtime residents who once gave the Castro its party image in the 1970s are now middle-aged, settled down, and defining a quieter, gentler Castro.
The Castro is zoned as a mixed residential and commercial district, making it difficult for bars to obtain dance permits. When Gorrono first tried to bring dancing to the Cafe seven years ago, he was daunted by the 170 failed permit applications he counted over 15 years -- 17 alone for the bar he was about to manage. It took two years of acrimonious public hearings fueled by the scorn of neighbors before dancing was OK'd for the Cafe in 1993.
The bar had to spend thousands of dollars for improvements like soundproofing. No bar in the neighborhood has been able to add dancing since, and when the venerable Phoenix bar closed in 1996, the Cafe became the last place to dance in the Castro.
"The original dance license is on my wall at home because everyone said it couldn't be done," Gorrono says.
Demand for dancing in the Castro was high then, with customers signing petitions urging permit approval. Now, blocklong lines form outside the door of the Cafe by 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The bar is packed on weeknights and Sundays, too. The crowds are good for the Cafe, but prove that there is a bigger market for dancing, Gorrono says.
Outside the Castro, there are a handful of gay dance bars scattered around the city, like the Stud on Harrison and N'Touch on Polk Street. Some straight dance clubs also host gay nights, like "Universe" on Saturdays and "Fag Fridays" at the Endup. But Gorrono says the limit of choice in the Castro is glaring.