Dancing Creates Community: Why Clubbing Culture is Important

A club mix to set the scene. Listen whilst you read…

In the last couple of years melbourne and sydney have seen the closure of many of their queer nightclubs, including clubs Mercat Basement, which closed in 2017 (Webb 2016), and Hugs & Kisses and Lounge, which closed just this year (Buckley 2019). Developers and hospitality groups are buying up these venues with 24-hour licences (Buckley 2018; 2019). As a result of changing policy and laws, such as the removal of liquor and sounds licenses that stop venues being able to stay open, sell alcohol, and play music late at night, it has become more difficult to open new queer nightclubbing spaces. According to the owner of Hugs & Kisses, Hugo Atkins, ‘It seems like it’s getting harder and harder for these sorts of things to exist … thinking about what certain scenes and cultures are going to do and not having a place to express themselves is quite sad for a city like Melbourne.’ (Buckley 2019).

Hugs & Kisses Source

What are these scenes and why are they important?

These scenes are communities of practice, and spaces for collective effervescence, but more importantly spaces for marginalised people, especially queer and gender diverse people and people of colour, to come together and find safe spaces to create community. Yes, nightclubs are known for being spaces of risky behaviour, such as sex and drug taking. But, I think, more importantly, they are also spaces of free form dancing where you are ‘forced to occupy your body—to take up space, and to navigate other bodies’, says DJ Sezzo (Bugg 2018). Clubbing culture offers both something fundamental to being human—dancing and moving to a rhythm (LaMothe 2019) and something radical in that it is ‘process of shaping an encounter through the collective inscription of individual subjectivity’ (Bugg 2018). This second point means that it is a radical space where expression of difference is fundamental to constructing community (Bugg 2018).


Photograph by Mia Allen

These clubs are also liminal spaces of queer expression (Olds & DJ Sezzo 2018). Prominent melbourne DJ and clup theoriest, DJ Sezzo, believes that beyond self-expression, these places are places of community and resistance (Thompson 2018). Resistance to the dominant hetero-normative culture. Resistance to the dominant white colonial structure. Resistance in the form of bringing marginalised people together and creating a space where they can ‘experience each other in a joyful way’, says DJ Sezzo (Thompson 2018). Resistance by queering the city. And resistance, I would argue, in contributing to creating activist communities that extend beyond the club, communities that challenge the State, communities that, as I myself have experienced, go out and support Indigenous lead protests such as the protection of the Djab Wurrung trees.

DJ Brooke Powers long time resident of the club Hugs & Kisses reflects saying, ‘We knew it was our space and we could be whoever we wanted to be.’ (Buckley 2019). What happens when these spaces are shut down? It is yet to be seen in melbourne what the community response will be.

NB: I have purposefully not capitalised ‘melbourne’ and ‘sydney’ in order to deligitimise these names of colonisers on land that always was and always will be Aboriginal land.


Buckley, N 2018, ‘Longstanding Nightclub Lounge Forced to Close After 29 Years’, Broadsheet, 13 December, <https://www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/entertainment/article/longstanding-nightclub-lounge-forced-close-after-29-years&gt;.

Buckley, N 2019, ‘Gallery: Eight Years of Melbourne’s Wildly Romantic Nightclub Hugs & Kisses’, Broadsheet, 17 January, <https://www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/entertainment/gallery/gallery-eight-years-melbournes-wildly-romantic-nightclub-hugs-kisses?fbclid=IwAR1W4yTJMt3LCxoVg-li2q5W0ofjFhNYaVViPXu4vCh5XbC84gBDL9FH91w&gt;.

Bugg, E 2018, ‘PRECOG Review: Co-opting The Tote for the futures of tomorrow’, Difficult Fun, May 20, <https://difficultfun.com/2018/05/20/live-review-precog-next-wave-x-liquid-architecture/&gt;.

LaMothe, K 2019, ‘The dancing species: how moving together in time helps make us human’, Aeon, 4 June, <https://aeon.co/ideas/the-dancing-species-how-moving-together-in-time-helps-make-us-human?fbclid=IwAR03zVvA1pbMN9RhO9UoX351mEzQd1-rO3yEqxEsNRF5RXP3KB7FbTxDZes&gt;.

Olds, S & DJ Sezzo 2018, ‘Club Theory: two recombinant texts on the impossible space between theory + experience by Sally Olds & DJ Sezzo’, AQNB, 3 May, <https://www.aqnb.com/2018/05/03/club-theory-two-recombinant-texts-on-the-impossible-space-between-theory-experience-by-sally-olds-dj-sezzo/&gt;.

Thompson, C 2018, ‘This DJ Is Breaking Through The White-Male-Dominated Nightlife Scene’, Whimn, 12 December, <https://www.whimn.com.au/play/unwind/this-dj-is-breaking-through-the-whitemaledominated-nightlife-scene/news-story/0d151955e176e64a5059d2102cfde55b&gt;.

Webb, A 2016, ‘Melbourne’s Mercat Basement to close in February’, Resident Advisor, 28 September, <https://www.residentadvisor.net/news/36604?fbclid=IwAR1JPe7fYjLwc1dSFLXbfly1n03sHRzUnd5LhvqQaP5YaWzV10l4o1bl3Yo&gt;.

Subtle Diasporic Traits

Image Source: BBC

In posting the following memes, there was a discussion of whether I was obliged to ‘decode’ them for the ‘outsiders’. This left me in a complex position as the whole point of Subtle Asian Traits is that these experiences don’t need to be explained for the target audience (to be explored in greater depth below).

To put it succinctly, if not a bit crudely (my apologies) – if you don’t get it then it wasn’t made for you.

As of the beginning of June 2019 the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits (SAT) has nearly 1.4 million members – one of many Subtle Traits groups inspired by the group Subtle Private School Traits (R.I.P.), it has taken news feeds by storm. Or at the very least, those belonging to the children of Asian diasporas. Created in September 2018 by a group of Melbourne friends who had met in Chinese school, it was merely meant to be a fun distraction from high school exams.

Ok, not to be lame, but this one actually made me laugh out loud. (Image Source: Yahoo)

SAT had humble beginnings: it was simply a small space to share jokes and memes that characterised the Asian-Australian experience; the “little things in our lives that no one talked about before” (Mao 2018), and most wouldn’t understand. Of course, the internet caught wind, and what had begun as a bit of fun instead tapped into something young, complicated and international. It has connected a borderless generation who are gradually coming into their own ethnic-national identity that is typically articulated as “too white to be asian but too asian to be white” (Lin 2018). There is a loneliness to being a diasporic Asian (not to mention a serious lack of representation), and with it comes a lack of belonging, to a nation or ethnic group (Wu and Yuan 2018). The constant bouncing between the culture of our heritage and that of the Western country we call home, and the struggles of being so ungrounded in place and culture is a complicated, exhausting experience to navigate or even articulate. For many SAT is a relief – “it’s a chance to belong for once without having to try” (Kwai 2018), nothing has to be explained, and for once another ‘insider‘ is putting words (or memes) to our experience. Finally, we have found a place that we can truly and unapologetically claim as our own.

This is not to imply that SAT is a perfect, safe multicultural haven. Not only is there a lack of representation of non-East Asians (specifically South Asians), but some critics argue that it perpetuates negative stereotypes (such as the ‘Tiger Mum’ and ‘Model Minority’), reinforces internalised racism and self-hate and makes joke of people’s own legitimate trauma and suffering (Mao 2018).

Anne Gu, co-founder, has responded to these criticisms, seeing the capacity to even express these negative experiences in the first place as “healing through humour” (Mao 2018), with the hope that people will come to have greater confidence and pride in their culture. The group aims to be as inclusive a space as possible, however it is ultimately dependent on the kind of posts people submit. (Image Source: Yahoo)

The idea of the ethnographic field as being “this town” or “this specific place” is becoming increasingly unraveled as space, both digital and physical, are redefined and people move with an increasing amount of frequency across the globe. Almost like an initiation rite in the anthropological academy, being able to understand and talk authoritatively about at least one place (and by extension being able to physically map/bound it) has traditionally been a key point of your academic identity (Kohn 2011). However anthropologists don’t study villages, they study in villages (Geertz 1973, p. 22) – “our real work is with people who happen to occupy a place in space… sometimes understanding [that] is not the most defining element of our encounter with them”. The community is not a static entity and cultural practices and identities are not bound to the ‘local’ (Coleman and Collins 2011). Rather than trying to fixate these communities in one moment of space and time, ’the field’ requires new ways of thinking as it it no longer (or ever was) a geographical location (Strauss 2000). Cultural capital constantly has to be reproduced, embodied and expressed through the individual, not by institutions or specific geographical locations (Coleman and Collins 2011).

It wouldn’t be a true SAT article without at least one boba meme (Source: KnowYourMeme)

For the majority of members of SAT, we have been brought up as hybrid children betwixt and between worlds – neither fully Asian nor fully Western – we have grown up living this experience of an unbounded and unmappable culture as our reality. Through SAT, we are finally getting a chance to articulate it and what it means (Wu and Yuan 2018) and in turn produce our own cultural capital.

Har gow slaps but go off (Image source: KnowYourMeme)

In an increasingly complex world, what a culture and what an ethnicity is is still being contested, and as anthropologists and ethnographers it can be difficult to do justice to that complexity. I think what SAT does is reveal a particular, increasingly prominent mode of cultural and ethnic experience that is not bounded by space or a singular ‘cultural’ distinction, but rather the in-between. These ideas aren’t new – people have always felt dislocated in culture and place through practices such as intermarriage. Rather the extent and breadth of them are becoming more fully realised outside academia. Through the global sphere of the Internet SAT has become a platform that has helped people explore their shared struggles and experiences in a safe space – a reminder that we’re not alone (Wu and Yuan 2018).

“We labeled the group [Facebook category] as ‘family,’ so that’s what the group’s purpose is, to allow people to feel like they all belong to something.” – Anne Gu, co-founder of SAT (Wu and Yuan 2018)

Banner Source


Julia’s article on ‘The Field’

Coleman, S. and P. Collins  2011, Dislocating Anthropology?:  Bases of Longing and Belonging in the Analysis  of Contemporary Societies, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge.

Geertz, C 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York.

Kohn, T.  2011, ‘New Ways to Frame an Answer to ‘Where did you do your fieldwork?”, in Coleman, S. and P. Collins (eds.)  Dislocating Anthropology: Bases of longing and belonging in the analysis of contemporary societies, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge, pp. 81-95.

Kwai, I 2018, ‘How ‘Subtle Asian Traits’ Became a Global Hit’, Article, New York Times, 11 Dec, viewed 7 June, <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/11/world/australia/subtle-asian-traits-facebook-group.html&gt;

Lin, K 2018, ‘The Story of the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook GroupLin, Article, The New Yorker, 22 Dec, viewed 7 June, <https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-story-of-the-subtle-asian-traits-facebook-group&gt;

Mao, F 2018, ‘Subtle Asian Traits: When memes become a diaspora phenomenon’, Article, 19 Dec, BBC, viewed 7 June, <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-46394931&gt;

Strauss, S. 2000,  ‘Locating Yoga: ethnography and transnational practice’, in Amit, V . (ed) Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World, Routledge, London, pp. 162- 194.

Wu, N and Yuan, K 2018, ‘The Meme-ification of Asianness’, Article, The Atlantic, 27 Dec, viewed 7 June, <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/12/the-asian-identity-according-to-subtle-asian-traits/579037/&gt;

And for a bit of pop culture:

If you want to smile (because we’re finally being represented in Hollywood): peruse through Fresh Off the Boat, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Always Be My Maybe, and Crazy, Rich Asians (probably not a shock to any Asians reading this). Abominable is coming out later this year; and Bao made us all cry last year, and although no other Sandra Oh role will ever be as iconic as Vice Principal Gupta in The Princess Diaries, Killing Eve gets pretty close.

And I know it’s cheesy, but it’s also iconic (I literally only got a Stan account to watch it): Bend it Like Beckham

One Day at a Time, although a show about a Cuban-American family living in LA, has never made me feel so ‘seen’ as a migrant (the queer representation, generational and cultural divides and family structure certainly help). It’ll make you laugh and cry your heart out.

The Astonishing Color of After is a wonderful coming-of-age novel. The Kiss Quotient is a sweet romance, and Ms. Marvel is great for all the superhero fans out there. The Wrath and the Dawn and An Ember in the Ashes are both beautiful fantasy novels, and Warcross is pure, fun sci-fi.

Holding Out For a Hero: Is Myth Just Spicy Ethnography?

The rise of Marvel’s domination over the box office doesn’t come as a particular surprise to me – we’ve always loved heroes. From Batman, to Indiana Jones, to Luke Skywalker, to Harry Potter, our history and literary canon is saturated with them.

But what is the enduring appeal of the heroic figure? Well, with a little bit of help from the ancient past, maybe anthropology can help answer that question.

The first heroes of the Western canon – Heracles, Odysseus, Achilles – they arguably aren’t so different from those that we know and love in fiction today.

That is, if you consider the ancient and mythic definition of the hero: exceptional humans who operate in a realm more closely connected with the divine than most mortals yet are still undeniably tethered to the human world (Posthumous, 2011).

They possess these god-like capacities and abilities, allowing them to achieve what we could only dream of, and yet they are ultimately always going to be hindered by their inherent humanity and all of the flaws and consequences that come alongside it. It’s not called an Achilles heel for nothing; but these characters are loveable because they’re so imperfect (Campbell 1988).

Operating within this arguably liminal space between the divine and mortals allows us to think beyond the limitations of mortality to ‘what if’ and ‘what could be’ with wide-eyed wonder, taking us out of the mundanity of our own lives and ascending to the realm of the gods. Yet these stories are still firmly rooted in questions of what it means to be human and flawed; to eternal struggles of good and evil, life and death, love and war. To me it is this interplay between the fantastical and the real that captures our attention and our love, and in the process better allows us to understand who we are.

Is this perspective ahistorical? Maybe, but why is so much tension devoted to which side, Light or Dark, people will fall in Star Wars? Why do superheroes always have flaws, whether they be physical (ie Kryptonite) or personal (ie Captain America: Civil War)? Why does Game of Thrones revolve around human politics instead of dragons?

More importantly however, what the hell does myth have to do with anthropology?

The meaning of hero myths is still widely debated. However, Joseph Campbell (1988) argues that “myths are the stories of our search through the ages for truth” (p.4). It is the experience of life, and the adventure of the hero that is the adventure of being alive (Campbell 1988).

In the way that myths can help us better understand who we are in our culturally-specific context, such is also the role of the anthropologist, and to me it’s foolish to assume that anthropology is restricted to the realm of the objective, ‘real’ world (Sarah touches upon this in her article on future worlds). As Geertz (1973, p.16) writes, ethnographic pieces “can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned’”; anthropological writings are themselves interpretations (See: Julia’s art vs science article).

“…Reality is not other than the stories told about it” (Rapport 1994, cited in Craith and Kockel 2014) and it is part of the human condition to create these stories – both anthropology and hero myths serve as a medium to do so. As such, they both suffer under the same flaw that their truths are inherently partial and incomplete, composed of blurred lines between reality and imagination. However, this is not “an opposition between truth and falsehood” (Craith and Kockel 2014, p.695), rather, it is a recognition of the human reality of both ethnographic work and hero myths and their aim to tell stories that “ring true” from a human perspective (Craith and Kockel 2014).

So why do we love superheroes? Well… I think because, like anthropology, the best stories, the best myths, the best superhero films, serve to tell of the human condition as they are inherently grounded in it; they just takes you out of the mundanity of your own life and into the magic of the liminal world, allowing you to believe otherwise.

Image Source: Wired


Campbell, J 1988, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, New York.

Craith, M. N., and Kockel, U. 2014. ‘BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN LITERATURE AND ANTHROPOLOGY. A BRITISH PERSPECTIVE’, Ethnologie francaise, vol. 44, pp. 689-697.

Crespi, M 1990, ‘The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell’. American Anthropologist, vol. 92 , no. 4. pp. 1104

Geertz, C 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books, New York, pp. 3–30.

Posthumus, L. 2011, ‘Agents of transformation: the function of hybrid monsters’, Hybrid monsters in the Classical World: the nature and function of hybrid monsters in Greek mythology, MPhil (Ancient Studies) Thesis, University of Stellenbosch.

Sarah’s article on Future Worlds

My article on Liminality

Julia’s article on Art vs Science?

And for those who want a bit more myth in their life:

If you want to dive straight in to the original texts themselves, then consider: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; Euripides’ Medea, Hecuba and Trojan Women (my personal favourites); Aeschuylus’ Oresteia; Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (for the myth of Cupid and Psyche).

For slightly more digestible myths: Stephen Fry’s, Mythos and Heroes; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

For a more fictionalised retelling: Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe; and I know it’s middle grade, but The Percy Jackson series still has the best chaotic good demigod representation I’ve ever read (just don’t touch the films)