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Emma Warren

Emma Warren is an author, music journalist and broadcaster. Warren was a founding contributor to cult music magazine Jockey Slut and worked at The Face during the 1990s. Her book, Dance Your Way Home, published in March 2023 by Faber, traces a social history of the dancefloor. The number of nightclubs in the UK has nearly halved since 2010, a result of escalating rents, withdrawn late-night licences, and a general trend towards the privatisation of public space. In her book, Warren explores the historic function dance has played in activating community, its uneasy relationship with authority and its therapeutic potential.

Interview by Matteo PiniPortrait by Camilla Greenwell

MATTEO PINI Where does dancing begin?
EMMA WARREN Dancing is something that happens in relation to music. Of course, you can dance without music. Plenty of people have their own particular dance forms, which generally don’t use music, say, contact improvisation in contemporary dance. But I think here, when we’re talking about dancing, we’re talking about responding to music and affecting the music that is made by the way that you’re moving to it.

MP What was the determining factor for the kinds of dancing you cover in this book?
EW I’m very interested in communality. All the things I do in my work and my life are to do with music, culture and community. I’m interested in dancing not in terms of performance and not in terms of skill, but in terms of how we do it together. Why do we dance together? What’s happening when we’re dancing together? How does that fit into music culture? I’ve been on a lot of culturally powerful dance floors over the years and a lot of people who have written books about them and made documentaries always focus on DJs, the producers, the promoters, the venues – everything apart the dancers. The dancers are the most numerous, yet we’re somehow also the most invisible.

MP In the book, you contact some of those artists, venues and promoters, and they all reinforce the importance of the dancer.
EW I was probably asking them different questions than they’re normally asked. I’m asking them to remember it from the position of the dance floor. A much higher proportion of DJs and producers than I realised were dancers themselves, sometimes at a very high level. There’s a whole load of people who were really influential in UK music culture, particularly in the late-1980s, early-1990s, who were also professional or semi-professional dancers: people like A Guy Called Gerald, Shut Up and Dance, and Fabio, who coinvented jungle music with Groove Rider, had an extremely important role to play. There’s a whole area of what you might call “DJ dancers” who have this role to play in a UK music culture that is not visible to the mainstream. Some of that has an aspect of racial politics in it: racist structures that only see what they want to see or privilege certain ways of seeing.

MP There’s that famous maxim “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. How did you find writing about something so ephemeral, something that literally disappears once you’ve completed the action?
EW The process of writing about dancing, in the same way as writing about music, involved me having to pull it up through my body. If I was writing about a particular era, like a grime era or a dubstep era, or something more recent like New London jazz, or something from a very long time ago like acid house, I would put on the music, turn it up, stand on my floor in my flat – the floor that was previously a dance floor in Scarborough before I bought it on eBay and laid it in my flat – and I would try and remember how I danced to that music. I would try and reconstitute the dance floor. It was body-based writing, and in a way didn’t feel at all ephemeral. Your body becomes stratified with new information, new gestural information, so you can’t actually get back to where you were before, but sometimes, I’d lift my knees and think: that’s how I felt. You can access a bit of the person you were if you try and move like you used to.

MP Would you say that dancing is inevitable? Or does space have to be created for dancing to happen?
EW Dance is essentially human and we’re more humane when we do it, so it’s inevitable in that sense. Do we need spaces to dance? Yes, most definitely, and we need more of them. One of the things that I hope my book does is to give people more language and framing to be able to advocate for why these things are important, which is a continuation of the work I did with “Document Your Culture”, the pamphlet I made, and a book I made before that, Make Some Space [2019]. I’m hoping to contribute to conversations about being able to understand why these places are important and advocate for them. I also think we need to agitate because these public spaces are ours. They’ve been sold off, but they’re ours – and we need them back. 

MP At what point did you notice the airport-security turn of clubbing?
EW There were some things that happened in the early 2000s, around security bouncers, door-person registration, a big tightening up of that process. At the same time, there were changes in the law to do with the government attempting to do something about binge drinking. They had the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England – AHRSE or “arse” – that conflated binge drinking with clubs, so a law was brought in which gave councils, the police and neighbours more opportunity to object and tighten things. There’s a period in the mid-2000s where things begin to get stricter, and by the time you reach the end days of Plastic People, around 2013 up to 2015 when it closed, then that is much more evident, with police vans outside and airport-style security. I feel very angry and aggrieved by the fact that nightclubs have an element of border patrol. Why do you have to show your passport? Not everyone has a passport! What about people who don’t have settled status? There are thousands of people who don’t have settled status. Are they not allowed in the dance? It’s just wrong, especially given the contribution of diaspora communities to UK music culture.

MP You mention that your personal experience of raves was disconnected from the pervading drug culture at the time, and throughout the book, you question the dominant narratives behind the idea of rave culture in general.
EW When people say everybody was off their heads, my question is, who is your everybody? I was too young to be that off my head; I wasn’t taking drugs at that point. Obviously loads of other people were and obviously drugs are a really important part of all culture, of everything. I object to the conflation of the two, because it’s not always the case, and there will always be people who aren’t. Some of that is to do with the kind of dancing culture you’ve had yourself: in the book, Marsha Smith, a founding NTS host and brilliant DJ, talks about this. For her, growing up in a British Caribbean family, everyone was so used to dancing you didn’t need that little extra thing to help you. I wanted to offer a different perspective.

MP You’ve been present at a lot of incredible moments for music culture like rave, the origins of dubstep and Total Refreshment Centre more recently. Do you feel like you’ve been looking for community or has community been a by-product of your attendance of these spaces?
EW Firstly, on a clarification point, when I was going out as a 16-year-old in autumn 1988, the first thing I went to was the opening night of a club called Rage, which later went on to invent jungle after I’d moved away. We didn’t actually call it rave culture: that was something which came much later on. In fact, we didn’t even call it club culture. I remember at some point during the time in the mid-1990s, when I was working at Jockey Slut, one of the editors said to me: “Club culture? That’s a weird phrase.” It wasn’t considered cultural at all. Raves and the more hardcore side of things that were culturally influential were almost entirely invisible, and didn’t become visible for many years afterwards. I think I must have been craving it, and I do need it, I know that. I also think that if you’re lucky enough to ever stumble into somewhere that is culturally powerful, it’s really an amazing thing. Most people don’t experience it once. Once you’ve experienced it, you’re going to recognise it; you don’t have to be in it, you can just sometimes sense it around the corner or think something might be happening behind that door. Your radar becomes attuned.

MP During Covid-19, there was big talk of a new rave culture emerging, but I wouldn’t say that’s happened in the way that people were hoping for. Is a new rave culture still possible in the current moment?
EW Of course, and I think it is happening. I’m not in those places, and nor should I necessarily be. There are places which are happily intergenerational, and I’m grateful for that. We who have a few decades in the dance bring something as well. I saw some footage from Haseeb Iqbal’s night at the Bunker in Deptford, a tiny, brilliantly dirty, unfussy club. I didn’t see any of the things people criticise young people for – “they’re on their phones” or “they don’t know how to behave in a club” – I don’t see any evidence of that. I think there are pockets of people who are doing what they need to do for others at the pace they need it. A lot of people have terrible anxiety, so maybe big things are just not what’s needed, maybe it’s lots of little things, based around friendship groups and small communities. I see that happening.

MP Would you say that the dance is always political?
EW Yes, because it’s about relationships. And it’s about radical relationships. It’s difficult for us when we’re in the dance to know that we’re doing something political because it doesn’t really feel political. We’re not holding banners, we’re not discussing party politics, but it is unbelievably political. We know this by the way that powerful figures respond to it. Powerful figures and powerful entities don’t join in; they squash it. We know the dance is political because those with political power legislate against it. In Italy at the moment, Giorgia Meloni is using the wave of dances, and especially unlicensed dances, as a way of generating outrage. It’s a way for conservative politicians to make their mark, in the same way politicians introduce homophobic laws as well. Quite often, people who are strategically trying to get up the greasy pole will come in with a bit of law or a bit of legislation which hits a particular touch point. Questions of sexuality, questions of free movement of bodies, questions of women and their freedoms, questions of feminised men and their freedoms, questions of people who are racialised. We know it’s political because of how political people respond, and when we dance with people, we create bonds and relationships that are strengthening, and are not popular with those who would prefer to divide us. 

MP When you take away the spaces in which young people are able to be free and feel most like themselves, I wonder what impact that has on their view of the government, of themselves.
EW It’s very destructive, in every single way. People need spaces where they can be themselves, particularly young people. They’re the people who soak up so much of our overall social troubles; they’re blamed for things and hidden away. It’s our space: it’s a space for young people, it’s a space for middle-aged people, it’s a space for old people. To deny people the space to meet and socialise and dance, listen to music, do whatever they want, is extremely antidemocratic and damaging. ◉