Love is the Message: Interpreting History through Dance Culture Elective

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in May at The Rivers School, and the Black Box Theater is filled with the thumping beats of nightclub dance music, curated by a guest DJ. The energetic scene was part of a class session from the new history elective “Love is the Message: A History of Dance Culture,” led by Matt Heck, director of The Conservatory Program at Rivers. Students and professional community members were invited to visit the class to hear from three guests, Leo Alarcon, Liza Sellars (aka Luna del Flor), and Caleaf Sellars (aka Big Leaf), all experienced artists and performers of house music, who shared stories about the genre, dance music culture, and the influence of those art forms on the community and on their lives. 
The celebration served as a final send-off to the class, which explores recent U.S. history (approximately 1970 to the present day) through the lens of dance music culture—that is to say, nightlife. The class focuses on the examples of three scenes in three cities: Disco in NYC; Chicago with the birth of house music in the early ’80s; and techno in Detroit. Students explored how those cultures developed alongside movements for social liberation and civil rights, and were inclusive of Black culture and LGBTQ culture.

Heck originally developed the class for Brandeis University, where Liza Sellars and Leo Alarcon were also invited guests. “I know them because I’ve been a part of the [house] community a long time,” shared Heck, who has been DJing since 1999. "And I'm immensely grateful that they were able to come to Rivers and give our students a window into this culture."

The panelists all shared a deep-rooted love for the music and the community of house music, starting when they were the age of many of the students in the room and spanning a period of over 30 years. They each spoke about how their different birthplaces, backgrounds, and musical influences all led them to the unifying and welcoming space of past Boston nightclub The Loft, which closed in 1995. 

Brooklyn native Caleaf Sellars (who is married to Liza Sellars) described his journey to house music from other musical influences like calypso, reggae, R&B music, and hip-hop, which led him to the house experience. “Hip-hop has a lot of different energy; the house experience was a little more loving and welcoming,” he said. And he described the parties—not for the early risers—that went from 12:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in some places. 

Nightclubs like The Loft were often secret communities, where “those who knew, knew.” As a 15-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant navigating a complex social scene, Alarcon found community in house music and at The Loft in Boston. On the outside and in day-to-day life, there seemed to be a rigid structure around who belonged in what spaces, he said. But “in this venue, this all disappeared; we were all one people. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it.”

For Liza Sellars, The Loft was an important part of her musical evolution very early in her career. “I was buying records of artists to study,” she recalled. “When I went to The Loft, I realized I knew nothing. It made me go out and buy more records.” 

“There was a culture there of DJs supporting DJs,” she said, which helped her grow.

Students in the class expressed curiosity about how the panelists formulate their own styles and decide what to play, as house music has many different subgenres. 

“Play everything that moves you,” emphasized Liza Sellars, who is inspired by varied influences from Latin music to flamenco to African beats. “As a DJ, you are creating music. You have to think about the relationship between the dancers.”

Caleaf Sellars added, that when playing in a space, “sometimes you have a plan, 20 or 30 songs you want to share with the world, but you have to read the room!” If you see people sitting it out, he said, that’s a chance to match the energy of the room. 

In this way, club culture also subverts expectations of traditional musical authorship, said Heck. 

“What is "live" in a club context? What happens to authorship when we're talking about DJs?” he asked. In a club scene, he said, the crowd becomes a creative collaborator: The DJ works with existing records that reflect personal influences but also responds to the energy of the crowd and to the dimensions of a particular space. The dancer and the DJ create a feedback loop. It's a social, collaborative system that only works when both are present.

Those present that Tuesday morning underwent their own version of that collaborative system. Following the panel discussion, students and guests were invited to a live DJ demonstration by Leo Alarcon, with an opportunity for everyone to take a closer look at the equipment and ask questions. And then, reading the energy in the room, Caleaf Sellars took to the dance floor—demonstrating that in this genre, the music, the movement, and the culture all come together to create a message of love.
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