Gothic Text files Spatial Boundaries, Etiquette and Interpersonal Interactions at a Gothic Club

Spatial Boundaries, Etiquette and Interpersonal Interactions at a Gothic Club

by William Bexton


Club dancing is often viewed as a highly social activity. The club experience often entails close contact with others, on and off the dance floor. The purpose of this study is to examine the interactions between people at gothic clubs. Most patrons of gothic clubs characterize themselves as extremely shy or solitary people. The social atmosphere created by a large group of such people should result in interactions much different from those found in an openly social situation. In particular, this study will examine the use of space by patrons on and off the dance floor, the etiquette and formal structure of personal interaction, and how supposedly shy or solitary people express themselves and present themselves to the public through dance and within the general social atmosphere provided by gothic clubs.

From what I experienced and observed during my fieldwork, I propose that the gothic club is a social domain within which there are many discrete "private" spaces filled by individuals. There are accepted ways to interact across these spatial boundaries. Accidental "border violations" and the reconciliatory actions following such an accident are governed by a similar set of accepted rules. These rules are designed to protect an individual's wish for privacy and continued self imposed separation from those around them, while still allowing some degree of meaningful social interaction to take place.

I conducted my fieldwork at three different sites in order to obtain a broader sample of behavior within the gothic genre. There are, however, some universal elements to the gothic club atmosphere. The lighting level is low. Smoke from smoke machines and cigarettes limits unobscured vision to a few feet; sporadic lighting adds to the effect. Candles provide flickery pools of light throughout the clubs - I took many of my research notes by candlelight. Incense and exotic cigarettes scent the air. Music ranges from a high, frantic, "violent whining sound" to a deep, somber drone. Club patrons wear almost exclusively black, though some wear white shirts (often ruffled) and tights. Most make their skin as pale as possible with foundations and powders and by avoiding sunlight during daylight hours. Black lipstick, eyeliner and fingernail polish is common, providing a striking contrast against white skin. Transvestitism is widespread, more so among men than women. Many men wear skirts or dresses; some women adopt clothing styles uniquely masculine, such as Victorian suits and jackets. Club personnel interact with patrons to a minimum.

The first club I visited, House of Usher, is a well established club that draws a large crowd weekly. People come from around the bay area, Santa Cruz and occasionally Los Angeles to visit Usher (the shortened name used by most patrons). The club consists of a sharply defined dance floor broken into sections by rows of columns, a lounge, two bars (one adjacent to the dance floor, one in the lounge), a stage in front of the dance floor, and a balcony that overlooks the dance floor.

The second club I conducted fieldwork at, A Winter Gone By, draws many of the same people that Usher does, though not as many people come from outside the bay area. The dance floor is larger than Usher's and is loosely defined by groups of tables and chairs around its perimeter. There is a lounge and bar in an adjacent room and a balcony overlooking the dance floor. A stage next to the dance floor is used by some patrons as an extension of the dance floor when the club becomes more crowded.

Death Guild, the third club in this study, draws a much smaller crowd than the first two. Many of the patrons know each other or have friends in common at the club. The dance floor is about as large as the floor at A Winter Gone By, is partially ringed by a balcony and is adjacent to a bar and billiards room. The balcony, which is often almost completely engulfed in darkness, is used as a lounge and extended dance floor when the main floor becomes crowded.

My first venture into the field, at House of Usher, was a bit disorienting. The combination of the dark, smoke and sporadic lighting (including strobe lights) made it difficult to maintain balance when standing still, let alone while dancing. For those first five hours, I sat at a corner table, observed and recorded.

By my second visit, this time to A Winter Gone By, I felt more sure of myself. In the four to five hours I spent there, I took a more active role than I had at Usher. I danced, chatted with patrons of the club and conducted a few short interviews.

My time at Death Guild was spent in much the same way as it was at A Winter Gone By, though perhaps I danced more during this third visit. I had the coincidental opportunity to observe the patrons of this club in a concert setting. The band Apocalypse Theater played for an hour or so some time after midnight. I switched back into observation mode for this small concert, then discussed the concert with a few patrons, danced, and left.

Overall, the research and fieldwork portion of this study was relatively relaxed. The loose social atmosphere provided by a club allowed me to enter and observe unnoticed (given proper attire) and to participate as an assumed member of the group. There is no taboo against watching other people at a gothic club; many patrons "people watch" when not dancing. I realized during these first few hours that observing dancers at a goth club is a bit like watching a performance art piece - many dancers act out or physically interpret the music to a high degree. After talking with some patrons, it became clear that many of them looked at dancing in the same way. My efforts of mapping out the dance floor and use of space on it were much simplified by the balconies at all three clubs. I was able to sit almost directly over the dancing areas and watch individual dancers closely without making it obvious to them and potentially distracting them or making them feel uncomfortable.

I have included with this report maps of each of the clubs and some samples of "private dance areas," the limits of which are defined by the movements of individual dancers around the floor through the course of a song. These areas sometimes overlap, but in each case, there is room enough for each dancer to occupy a discrete area of the dance floor with minimal physical contact with other dancers.

Something must be said for the concentration it takes to dance to gothic music at a goth club in what is considered a gothic dance style: the fluid twists and twirls, intricate gestures, "controlled falls" and spinning runs around the dance floor that seem to characterize gothic dancing require much agility, especially if one intends to stay on one's feet and out of the way of other dancers. I believe that this aspect of participant observation was most difficult for me: it required me to learn a suite of movements I was unaccustomed to in a fairly unfamiliar environment.

People met my requests for interviews with mixed responses. Many politely declined, often providing reasons as to why they were unable or unwilling to take part in the interviews. Those patrons that did take the role of informants were quite eager to do so. Some mentioned that they were quite willing to "educate" someone relatively new to gothic clubs; others simply found some level of fun in it. I tried to keep my interviews as close as possible to conversation (though somewhat guided), more on a friendly than "business" level. As the informants talked about different topics, I jotted down quotes or ideas presented by them that I felt had some significant bearing on this study.

I observed two general patterns of space use on the dance floor. The first group of dancers minimized movement as much as possible. They swayed slowly to the music, gesturing in circular motions with arms and hands. Gesturing, in this group the major component of dance, was in general directed inwards, towards the dancer, or upwards. The dancers defined a small personal space around themselves with their gestures that no other dancers entered. I wondered whether this minimalist use of space might be a reaction to crowded dancing conditions, but observed the same movement patterns when only four or five people were dancing. Dancers did, however, spread themselves across the dance floor as much as possible so that all were as far from each other as possible. "Small space" dancers I spoke with confirmed what I observed in uncrowded dancing conditions. When the dancing area does become crowded, small space dancers maintain their dancing style, though more attention is paid to arm movements and avoiding accidentally hitting surrounding dancers with incautious gestures.

Accidental intrusions into these personal spaces called for quick retreats by both parties. Collisions between dancers were rare, especially within this low movement group. When one did occur, however slight, both dancers apologized. The offending dancer often softly touched the "victim" on the arm or shoulder in a soothing way to strengthen the apology. When both parties were satisfied that friendly relations were maintained, dancing resumed.

The second major dance style I observed was highly athletic, consisting of twisting, spinning, at times violent movements. This group of dancers tended to circulate around the perimeter of the dance floor, sometimes making numerous jaunts around the floor and less volatile dancers (who tended to group towards the center of the dance floor) through the course of one song. When the dance area was not crowded, each of these dancers formed large areas that were exclusively theirs to dance in. These areas at times took up almost a half of the dance floor. Other dancers did occasionally enter this space, but only intruded one or two steps, then withdrew to an unclaimed area of the dance floor. These athletic dancers tended to blanket themselves from other dancers with as much empty space as possible. This serves the functional purpose of allowing them to make large movements without fear of a collision, but often this seclusion within a "private" dancing area is carried to a point beyond the necessity of physical space. This large space between dancers made them quite visible; I thought it might be a way for this group of dancers to "show off" or very publicly display themselves. After talking to some of these dancers, however, I found that in general they did not see their dancing habits in the way I had at all. Most of them described entering a trance-like state when they danced in which they were almost completely unaware of what was happening around them. When dancing conditions became crowded, some large space dancers stopped dancing, remarking that they "couldn't move at all with all those people out there." Some, however, continued to dance. Under these conditions, the large spaces claimed by these dancers were usually occupied by one or two small space dancers throughout the course of a song. The large space dancers maneuvered around these fairly stationary dancers within their space, treating them more as immovable objects than as intruders into their own space.

I wondered whether the trance state described by some large space dancers, combined with large movements, might make collisions fairly frequent. There were, however, almost no collisions. When asked how this was possible given their described mental separation from the reality of the dance floor, most of these dancers clarified their statements: "Oh, well, I can still see what's around me, but I don't really notice someone until they're right next to me. When I see them, I try to keep from running into them, but sometimes it doesn't work." The collisions that involve these large space dancers are often quite dramatic. Two bodies, one or both moving at a reasonably high speed, would try to occupy the same space at the same time. This was largely an unsuccessful venture. Limbs, hair and skirts tangled and moved abruptly at odd angles and were quickly re-collected by their somewhat shaken owners. Apologies were profuse and sincere, halting the dancing of both parties involved for good portions of the presently playing song. Hugs were sometimes exchanged as part of the apology; if this was forgone, the least physical contact was a hand squeeze or a comforting pat or rub on the shoulder, often combined with a curtsy or bow or some other physical show of respect. The offending dancer would often apologize a second time later in the evening, wanting to know if the "victim" had been hurt, and to make sure there were no hard feelings.

"And the mist will wrap around us
And the crystal, if you touch it...
Driven together
And driven
- Andrew Eldritch, Sisters of Mercy

Both groups of dancers held the concept of a private space within the public dancing area in high regard. The atmosphere in the dance rooms was engineered to appeal to this concept. The smoky conditions on the dance floor made these inter-dancer boundaries more concrete. At times it was difficult to see anyone more than three feet away on the dance floor, especially considering that the overwhelmingly black-clothed dancers were already difficult to see against the dark background of the club walls. The dance floor lighting completed this illusion of physical boundaries. At times there was only strobe lighting, which made the smoke an almost solid grey wall around oneself. At other times, lights moved in geometric patterns over the floor and dancers. Dancers tended to avoid these circulating lights; the result was a light wall that separated dancers on either side of beams of light periodically.

The concert at Death Guild was unlike any concert I had ever seen. When one thinks of a rock concert, visions of milling, dancing bodies come to mind, with perhaps a pit, some stage divers, some fans screaming their devotion. This is nothing like a gothic concert, though the music at this concert was very rock-like. Those patrons that did gather in front of the stage were somber, stood almost perfectly motionless throughout the performance and did little more than lightly applaud at the end of each song. Some patrons sat on the floor in front of the stage; others sat at tables or booths or watched the performance quietly from the balcony. Patrons gathered on the dance floor in front of the stage were evenly spaced across the floor; few were closer to each other than three feet. The image that came to mind upon observing this was of guests at a funeral or somber occasion of some kind. I initially justified this somber gathering by deciding that no one really liked the band much, but my informants told me that this was typical of gothic concerts.

"Oooh, there's a nice dark corner! Let's sit there!"

Off the dance floor, almost all patrons chose to be fairly solitary. Occasionally small groups gathered for quiet conversation, but usually club patrons were found sitting or wandering about the club in pairs or singly. The preferred seats and tables were invariably in the darkest and most secluded corners of rooms. Eye contact with other patrons was brief, and seen by most informants as an intrusion into one's space. There was one set of conditions that made it acceptable to observe another patron: one could watch dancers from the balcony or from a table ringing the dance floor without disturbing anyone's sense of personal space. Though this behavior seems anti-social, especially within a social context, most patrons disagreed, instead expressing feelings resembling these:

"It's not that I'm really anti-social; I just like being by myself. I came here tonight with a couple of friends, but we all like to wander around by ourselves. Every once in a while we find each other and 'check in,' see what's up and babble to each other for a couple of minutes, then we go our own way again. I like a lot of the people here, and talk to some of them, but only a little bit at a time. I'm pretty shy...I mean really shy. I get nervous if I stay around the same person for a long time without any 'time off.' I guess sometimes people do bother me, but usually not. So I talk to people for a little while, then get back up and wander around by myself or dance or just sit by myself for a while."

Patrons have several accepted methods of "polite" intrusion into one another's personal space. The degree of solitude usually afforded to other individuals at a gothic club is such that when an introduction is given, it is taken as more than just a passing word. The person approached has the option of either ending the attempt at an introduction then, usually by excusing themselves to rejoin friends or dance (but also by attempting to ignore the person who approached them after the initial greeting), or to start a conversation with the person who has just approached them. Although not always the case, introducing oneself or continuing contact with a patron who has just approached someone indicates that one considers them a likely suitor or potential good friend. More often than not, at the end of an extended introduction and conversation, two patrons will exchange phone numbers. I asked some patrons whether people actually find similarities enough from a short conversation in a club to actually call someone later and seriously consider them as potential "relationship material" or as possible friends; in most cases the answer was yes. Most of the patrons have a few friends they originally met at gothic clubs; a good portion of these have had successful intimate relationships with people they met at gothic clubs.

The first introductory method is to comment politely about a piece of clothing worn, a hairstyle that one finds unusual or especially creative, or a dance style or skill level that one finds impressive. The patron offering the comment often clasps their hands in front of them or behind their backs, intruding as little as possible into the other person's space. Often the complementer leans forward slightly in a bow to express respect for the other person. The patron receiving the complement often bows slightly to the person who has approached them and indicates their acceptance of the complement with a few words of thanks.

The second method of introduction widely used is to directly introduce oneself, saying that they have seen the other person often at a club. The justification for such an introduction is that they have seen each other so often that they "might as well know each other." The person initiating contact with this method of introduction does not usually bow as in the first method of introduction described, but does occasionally, and the personal space of the person they are approaching is still greatly respected.

The third method of approach stems from the apology process described after an accidental collision while dancing. A patron will often apologize a second time off of the dance floor as an excuse to meet the person they ran in to. The person offering the apology approaches cautiously, bows and asks first if the other patron is "OK." The patron receiving the apology smiles and proclaims themselves in good health, thanks the person who has approached them and introduces themselves.

People unfamiliar with these acceptable methods of introduction often meet with a cold half acknowledgment of their approach and a quick escape by the person they have accidentally offended with their inept approach. The night I observed at A Winter Gone By, there was such an incident. A somewhat inebriated man dressed in white basketball shoes, blue jeans and a white tee shirt, a definite fashion error at a gothic club, incautiously approached a couple sitting at a table, cheerily and unceremoniously plopped himself down next to them on the bench they were sitting on (much too close; he bumped into the young man he sat down next to and did not move away, as would have been considered appropriate), loudly said hello and asked them to tell him "what this place was about," and if they wouldn't come dance with him. The two regulars accosted by this man looked somewhat bemusedly at each other, then turned as one to their attacker. The nearer of the two told the man that they were sorry, "but We dance by ourselves here. I think you should try it." The man looked somewhat taken aback, but left, realizing that the couple had turned their attention towards each other and were decidedly ignoring him. I heard the other patron in the couple remark after the offending man had left that, "someone doesn't belong here." The couple chuckled briefly and then returned to their conversation. Informants asked about this exchange said that it happens occasionally, though most newcomers are brought to the club by someone familiar with the local social conventions. The reaction by the offended regulars to this intrusion was seen as an acceptable response to an individual seen as socially inept.

The social atmosphere created by these rules of engagement suit the regular patrons of gothic clubs well. Most patrons expressed a disillusionment with the more gregarious social interactions and "herd mentality" of popular culture; the formalized social interactions and uses of exclusionary personal space allow them to interact with people they have at least musical and dance tastes in common with and provide them with a method of expression through individualistic dance that one would be hard pressed to find outside the domain of the gothic genre.

In most popular dance clubs, there is little emphasis on the individual and even less attention to needs of personal space. Dancing becomes a highly social group activity in which many people dance within a close proximity to each other. Body contact is frequent and accepted; to interact and feel comfortable in such a situation, one needs to at least partially sacrifice the concept of individuality and the sacredness of inviolate personal space. One needs to be content to dance in a relatively inexpressive style typified by a bouncing or swaying movement (rave, techno, hip-hop dance styles), group dancing (country line dancing), or formalized dancing (ballroom, square dance, etc.) all almost devoid of unique expressive movement, all but formalized dance devoid of intricate or movement.

The regular patrons of gothic clubs find the sacrifice of personal space, individuality and expression necessary to dance in these types of clubs an unacceptable compromise of their privacy and individuality. The space needs afforded to dancers in a gothi c club allow individuals to maintain a private space around themselves and room to express themselves individually in their dance styles. The etiquette of the apology on the dance floor re-affirms this sense of separatism when it is violated.

"Small talk stinks!"
- Peter Murphy, Bauhaus

Off the dance floor, the rules of social interaction encountered in a gothic club allow people to keep a firm sense of individuality by partially excluding others from the space they occupy and feel comfortable in. The interactions that do occur are courteous and generally sincere; the thought and time that one must put into such interaction dissuades one from petty or meaningless interaction.

The withdrawn and isolated nature the patrons of Death Guild displayed during the concert there is a further extension of both the on- and off-dance floor actions that typify the social setting of a gothic club. The dance floor ceased to be a dance floor once there were non-dancing patrons there to watch the band. The physical separation between the concert watchers and their demure state firmly and silently stated to all around them that they still held their private space in high regard and that all social rules applied - concert or no concert.

For many of the regular patrons, gothic clubs are their only real places of voluntary social interaction outside of small gatherings of friends. Many of the regulars at these clubs love dancing and enjoy meeting new people, but would not feel comfortable doing so in an atmosphere less structured and accepting of a private nature than that of a gothic club. On nights when there are not gothic clubs (all in the area are one day a week clubs), the regular patrons stay at home. I explored the internet some and found a newsgroup called alt.gothic, which was created as a worldwide forum for "goths". One post I ran across on this group read:

"no clubs tonight...<sigh>...i guess i'll stay home and talk to my computer..."

Most of the patrons of the clubs I visited do go to the gothic clubs they like whenever possible; if there were more that they liked, many of the regulars would frequent them in addition to the clubs they already visit weekly.

The social conventions presented in this paper create a space in which people who do not like prolonged close contact with others may function in a relaxed and comfortable state. I have little doubt that if these clubs did not exist, there would be a reasonably sized population of private people "stewing in their own juices" at home, avoiding most social contact. The gothic club is one of the only institutions in which an individual who needs concrete personal space and privacy can enjoy dancing, social interaction and display a creative and expressive personality. People are social creatures. We are defined by the culture we have built around ourselves. In a "global community," as all western-influenced areas of the world are, it is important to find a sub-culture one feels comfortable in. For those among us who have a need for both privacy and social activity, the gothic club may indeed be an ideal.