Gay Men Can't Dance

A tamer, older Castro shuns its party roots

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.

"We know this isn't Peoria, and we don't want it to be," says Lion Barnett, president of the 100-member Eureka Valley Promotion Association. "But we don't want Coney Island, either."

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.

Winning his dance permit was not the end of Gorrono's headaches. The Cafe received countless noise complaints from angry neighbors, and Gorrono has been personally cited four times by police after neighbors dropped a dime on his club.

Barbara Campagnoli knows the Cafe well. She works in the Police Department's permit office, which issues and oversees dance permits after they are approved by the Planning Commission. Police officers often have to go into the Cafe to measure sound levels and respond to neighbor complaints.

"It's not that we don't allow dancing, we just don't allow music to escape from the premises. If the walls are shaking at 1 a.m. and you can hear 'thump, thump, thump' while people are trying to sleep, we will respond," Campagnoli says.

But the officer gives Gorrono and the Cafe credit for trying to accommodate their neighbors. "They know how difficult it is to get a permit, and now that they have one, they know they must toe the line," Campagnoli says. "The Cafe may get a lot of complaints, but they've been good at trying to stay on top of things."

Gorrono says it puzzles him that anyone who chooses to live at the corner of Market and Castro would complain about noisy bars. "It's like moving next to the airport and calling United to say, 'Excuse me, can you stop flying here? It's too noisy,' " Gorrono jokes.

Jason Smith, a city planner, says neighborhood opposition plays a major role in the Planning Commission's decisions to grant the conditional-use permits that allow dancing in bars. And knowing the odds are against them, many bars won't even try to apply for dancing anymore.

"Bar owners realize how difficult it is," Smith says. "They know the history."

Part of the debate over dancing in the Castro today stems from efforts to reconcile the neighborhood's wild history with its newer, more mature character. Tourists expect the Castro to live up to its stereotype, while longtime residents who partied in their youth and survived the scourge of AIDS now embody a more serene Castro Street.

"There was a very crazy, out-of-control sense in this neighborhood 20 years ago. There was literally dancing in the streets," recalls Patrick Batt, 52-year-old president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro. "Now it is quieter. People my age are less likely to go out anymore, and a nesting mentality has set in."

As head of the merchants association, Batt tries to promote business growth, but he doesn't necessarily see dancing as good for business since it is an after-hours activity. Batt admits, though, that he does hear the same question from countless tourists: "Where's the party?"

"They do look perplexed, as if to say, 'Jeez, I'm in the Castro and how come nothing's going on?' " Batt says. "But tourists will always have a different perception from reality. Gay means less about 'party' than it did before. This is not a 4 or 5 in the morning kind of neighborhood anymore. People have jobs and lives and other things to do."

Batt's pro-business vision is not so much about bars as restaurants and bookstores. His group wants to keep chain stores out, and deal with issues like panhandling and clean streets. The business owners want to create a thriving gay community that doesn't revolve around a barstool or disco ball.

Bar owner Gorrono sees it differently.
"All the guys who made noise in the 1970s just want it to be quiet for them now that they are older, married, and don't want to go out anymore," he says.

Kropp, who manages Harvey's, agrees: "There is an incredible irony that the guys who were having sex in the bushes 20 years ago are now calling the cops because someone is stepping on the grass."

Neighborhood association president Barnett defends the middle-aged gay population's shift toward a calmer Castro.

"This is not about being anti-young, -dancing, or -fun. It's about respect," Barnett says. "Yes, this area is a gay mecca, but it should be a model of how we want to be. Why are people sedate in Walnut Creek and then become hooligans in the Castro? Why do gay people have to scream every time they come out of a bar, or pee in people's gardens? It doesn't make sense."

Dancing, Barnett says, exacerbates the problem. He is not against dancing per se, he says, but thinks bars have a hard time being responsible when it comes to controlling noise levels and rowdy patrons.

"I went to bars and danced a long time ago, before and during disco," says Barnett, 49. "Younger guys should have a place to go and have fun. But why does the music have to blast so loud? Has everyone under 30 turned deaf? People can dance with the volume at a sensible level, but it has definitely gone up in the last 20 years -- and I'm not saying that just because I'm old."

While the older Castro generation is looking to diversify the neighborhood's businesses and remove sex as the prime definition of gay, bar owner Gorrono argues that dancing fits with that maturing mind-set. Gay bars are no longer just about cruising for sex, he says, so dancing adds a fun, safe element to gay socializing.

"It's great to see a young person who has turned 21, and has been waiting to get into a gay bar just so he can dance and express his happiness and freedom," Gorrono says.

Back at the Midnight Sun in the Castro, where Abba music plays on disco oldies night, the customers try not to tap their toes. To compensate for no dance floor, the bar runs comedy clips and music videos on overhead TV screens. There are also theme nights with video dating games, movies, and Ally McBeal on Mondays.

But bar manager Lon Bartlett says he still has to tell people to keep their feet on the floor from time to time.

"You don't have to dance here," he tells them, "to have a lot of fun.

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