The lights were dim and the room smelled like sweat and sweet perfume. The aromas twisted and blended under the heavy tracks of disco funk. Drag queens stomped from one end of the floor to the other, their massive wigs and elongated lashes shaking to the undulating beat. Gay men leaped and twirled around them, the drags cursing, “Get out of my DAMN way, boy!” The most feminine of females stretched and pranced. Their supporting men sat around, eyes glued to their women, daring any gay man to mistake them for anything other than straight. And there was glitter, lots of glitter.
Miss Aaliyah took this all in with one panoramic glance around Club 777 the minute she walked through the double red doors. Her lashes fluttered as she breathed in and out, her heart rate matching the time of the 120-bpm beats blasting through the passive speakers lining the DJ booth. The coke in her system sped everything up, hyper-stimulating her senses. The reds, blues, yellows, and pinks of the rotating disco ball sprung and assailed her. She held her ground and gave a wicked smile. She was ready.
A drag marched her way over to Aaliyah. She had a wig of long black hair in the style of Wonder Woman and she wore a yellow one-piece that had conical breasts and hugged her form well; she hardly looked a man.
“Well, well, Miss Aaliyah, baby. Look at you.”
The drag placed one hand on her hip, the other lifted and trailed Aaliyah from her thigh up, the triangular point of her acrylic nails creating a flourished arc.
“You look good, baby,” she said. She bent from her waist, keeping her spine straight as she peered closer at Aaliyah. She smirked. “Everything but your eyes, baby girl. That shit ain’t helping you.”
In black high-waist leggings, killer boots, and a crop top to finish, Aaliyah matched the stare the drag gave her. Aaliyah’s outfit was skintight and beautiful on her marvelously sculpted body. She had a printed scarf wrapped skillfully around her head like the reincarnation of beautiful Africa. She was gorgeous and she knew it. Her blood pressure rose up and up in a euphoric high and she found herself aching for battle.
“Candy,” Aaliyah responded with a vicious smile. She brought her hands up and pinched the ends of the conical breasts, revealing that there was nothing there. She looked up at the drag, “Nice breasts.”
Candy’s smile fell and she twitched her outfit out of Aaliyah’s hands.
“That’s Candy Kisses, bitch, and don’t forget it. That’s the name you’ll be hearing when I take you out.”
Aaliyah gave a lighthearted laugh as she worked through the erratic aches in her body. She shivered, ignoring the insistent itch crawling up and down her spine. Her tension rose, warning of an explosion.
“Oh, I don’t think that will be happening tonight,” she responded. “The music is good, it’s in my veins, and it looks like I’m gonna be living tonight,” she crooned, her hands caressing herself to the soft tunes playing in the background.
I’m not even nervous, Aaliyah thought shakily. She was so high right now the only thing she could focus on was the upcoming dance battles—she was dying to waack, to let loose and fly. She glanced around the room at all the men, women, and genders in-between. Waacking was what drew them, a chance to be free and express themselves for who they were. Tonight was the night to live. Oh, not tonight, she laughed to herself, this shit is mine.
A part of her registered Candy Kisses walking away, the tall drag muttering under her breath, “Damn crackhead. Doin’ blow n’ shit.”
Aaliyah stared at Candy’s one-piece as she catwalked across the floor, a crinoline skirt poofed out along the upper hips ending abruptly by half her ass. I love her outfit, Aaliyah thought as she began to trail Candy.
“Candy!” she called.
The drag turned around, rolling her shoulder, ever the diva.
“Come dance with me,” Aaliyah said sweetly.
The large queen smiled. The rules of the waack scene were larger than them all and despite the cattiness and ferocious displays of gay culture and womanhood, there wasn’t a soul in here that would deny a little bit of get-down with another body. Candy reached over with her powerful arm and grabbed onto Aaliyah’s hand. She yanked her up and pulled her towards the center of the room where the disco ball continued on it’s never ending revolution, shedding bursts of color along every wall in the room. Candy Kisses swept down the middle, the other dancers spreading out to form one aisle soul train style. The crinoline poof of her skirt reflected light along its yellow threads. Circular spotlights searched the room, caught wind of Candy and Aaliyah’s entrance onto the dance floor, and, quickly focused in on the two women.
Candy circled around the middle of the floor, her arms raised, calling the spirit of the room into her womb. She gathered it all within her like a mother incasing her house. The lights shined brilliantly, jumping off of her golden suit. She was opulent and resplendent like a queen, like a superhero, like womanhood on fire. Her waist and ribs began to sway to the undercurrent rhythm of the approaching house track. Barely moving two inches, her movements were deliberate and building up with the rising crescendo. She undulated. The bass hit. She contracted. Suddenly, she became a swirl of swivels and looping arms. Her hands worked their way from her wide hips, trailing up her chest. She caressed her face and quickly jolted her arm back down. She raised one giant row of lashes at Aaliyah and rolled a shoulder back.
Her eyes spoke, “Come on, boo boo.”
Aaliyah, so small and fragile compared to Candy, did not wait for her to tug a second time. I have enough swirling within me to last an eternity, she thought. She closed her eyes and quieted her mind, slowing everything down despite their urgent need to scream and speed. Aaliyah found her focus on the music, the rhythmic consistent clang of snare rising in her throat. She let her soul consume it. Her body bobbed up and down, lifting from her heels and lowering, rising and falling. She took one deliberate step forward, then another. One long toned patent covered leg emerged in the spotlight. The other dancers around them stopped and began to watch, forming a circle for the two women calling for attention—demanding it for themselves. Aaliyah became the focus.
Her arms flew out to her sides, an extension of herself. Pulling the energy through her fingertips, her fingers slowly curled in, carrying the souls of the room, including her own. She began to groove to the music that flowed within her, her body nothing more than a receptor. Her legs led her on a slow diagonal across the circle. She lifted her eyes, taking a moment to make eye contact with each and every one of the onlookers. They could feel her power quaking within her. The girl has GOT a story. Her movements thundered as she let one expression fly out after the other; in the roll of a shoulder, in the bump of a hip, slow grind, circling to the floor, she’s back up, she hits. POSE. Drawing life back in with her breath, she continued on her way—a furious beauty. She didn’t even notice that the eyes began to look a different way.
A man came strutting, two stepping to the middle of the circle, where Aaliyah was still dancing. Candy Kisses let out a feminine laugh. She bowed slightly and backed away.
A sharp male voice cut through the music, “O.K, BOO BOO. We all wanna get off, but you gonna have to wait your turn. NOW SHOO.”
The man was clad in black shorts that hugged his body like the tightest of briefs. The latex fabric flashed brightly in the room. He was bare-chested with a draping black vest, the hood drawn up in monk style fashion. He wore a diamond-encrusted snapback and shades with the darkest of tint, obscuring any hint of what he looked like beneath all that shadow. He raised one hand in the air with a flourish and smiled something large, his dazzling whites in direct opposition to the blackness of his skin.
“LOVES! Ladies, whores, and boys!”
He directed his gaze at Aaliyah and spoke towards the side of his mike, “Shoo, baby.”
Aaliyah shyly backed out of his spotlight. He smiled again.
“My name is SAPPHIRE LEE and I am here to tell you all once thing.”
The music cut. His voice became utterly serious.
“Disco ain’t dead yet, Bitch.” He took a deep breath. “Welcome to the DISCOOO!”
He swept his arms across the room as the volume of the music rose then subsided. He spun in place, laughed into the mike, fisted his hand, and magnificently placed it on his hip. POSE.
The crowd whooped and hollered to all the razzmatazz of the ball, the energy pulsating through the room as Aaliyah wove her way to a corner seat. Candy Kisses plopped down next to her and pulled out a caboodle kit. She pulled out container after container of stage makeup, glitter, blush, and shine. The queen repainted her face recreating a flawless finish.
She glanced up at Aaliyah. “Ugh. The lighting in this room is complete bullshit. How we spose to make sure we ain’t hot messes?” She shook her head, causing her horsehair locks to flutter. She snapped her mirror closed and placed her elbows on the table, her chin upon her hands. She looked at Aaliyah intently, ignoring Sapphire Lee who was beginning the competition. A silence sat between them. The last Candy had seen Aaliyah, she was dancing poorly and with hardly any passion.
“You couldn’t do all that before, baby,” she said casually. “That blow helping you out?”
The one thing about Balls is that they last forever.
Aaliyah stumbled out the back porch of the club after the third break in the competition; she was exhausted and sweaty, but she had secured her spot in the semi-finals. She could relax.
Other dancers hung out in the fresh air; some were competitors who had long since struck out. Aaliyah recognized two of them from back home, Frances and Bri, hanging out with some guy. She remembered watching those two get down when she used to go to MacArthur Park with her brother Toussaint for his pickup games. She would never admit it, but those two girls were the reason why she wanted to pick up dance in the first place. They were, to her, the first representation of what it meant to be a strong and confident woman—a happy one, without ugliness or hardship.
Frances spotted her and smiled kindly, waving her hand. Aaliyah waved back and sighed quietly to herself. Even out here, huh? she thought to herself. There isn’t anywhere to get away from them.Frances and Bri were part of the reason why Aaliyah insisted on getting out of her home city—there was no room for her. She would have been dancing in their shadows. But now, she’d made her name and was proud of it. She wouldn’t hesitate to go toe to toe against either of them. And it was great, because Frances had made it into semis as well. When the guy with Frances looked to see who she was waving at, Aaliyah made eye contact with him and quickly looked away. Her heart was beating fast. Damn coke, she thought to herself.
Aaliyah dropped gratefully into a lawn chair. She was shaky and didn’t feel like dealing with awkward conversations with people she only sort of knew. Just cause we come from the same place doesn’t mean we got to be friendly with each other, she thought.
Sapphire Lee’s voice could be heard booming off the mike. He was announcing another winner. It was some girl from the Netherlands. Many of the dancers began to walk back inside, dropping their cigarette butts as they left.
Frances and Bri smiled at Aaliyah as they passed.
“Hey, good stuff out there,” Bri said, raising her fist.
“Good luck in semis,” Frances said with a wink.
Aaliyah smiled back, “You too, girl.”
As the porch emptied, Aaliyah slumped deeper into her chair. Her legs shook, tremors lacing up her spine, as ugly memories pushed their way to the surface. She thought of her mom, her skin paled, spittle dripping from her mouth, unconscious on the kitchen floor, the patio, the bathroom—anywhere and everywhere each time she took too much. Her mother’s image morphed into a reflective mirror and Aaliyah groaned, ignoring the emptiness she felt ever since her mother walked out on them.
She scanned all of the empty seats then pulled a plastic pouch from her bra. She quickly drew a line on the arm her lawn and snorted, squeezing her eyes shut. She sighed, tilting her head back. Go away now, she thought. She stayed like that for a couple of minutes, listening to the pounding music outside of herself and the irritating noise of Sapphire’s voice.
When she got up and turned around, she saw the guy Bri and Frances were with earlier. He was in the corner, a cigarette in hand, looking at her casually. She paused.
“How long you been there?” she asked.
He blew smoke. “I’ve been here,” he said.
She tried to focus against the colors rising in her body. The guy leaned against the wall, tilting his head to the sky each time he exhaled. He had long hair tied into a bun, his skin was golden brown, glowing, and his eyes were slit like a snake’s.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“That your first tonight?” he asked, his hand indicating the nonexistent line.
“Why?” she asked suspiciously.
He shrugged his shoulders, “Never mind then.”
Sapphire Lee called Aaliyah’s name insistently from inside.
“Looks like they’re calling you, Miss Aaliyah.”
“What’s your name?” she asked again.
He dropped his cigarette and looked down as he crushed it beneath the sole of his oxfords. He looked back at Aaliyah, “Johnson.” He walked towards the door and stopped briefly by her shoulder, leaning in. He tapped his nose, “Wipe it.”
Aaliyah self-consciously wiped at her nostrils, residue of whitewalls on her fingertips. She brushed it along her thigh and followed the man named Johnson back inside.
Aaliyah hopped from foot to foot, hovering on the line between the spotlight and the darkened room. Her name was called immediately after the Dutch girl’s. Frances had beat Candy. Everyone held their breath waiting to see who would be in the final round. If Aaliyah made it through, she knew who she would be dealing with and that gave her both satisfaction and nervous tension.
Sapphire Lee floated into the spotlight, his darkness blazing. Disco music thrummed like a heartbeat, reverberating in the spine of each body in that room.
“Ladies, are you ready?”
Aaliyah eyed the Dutch girl like she hated her. She nodded. The Dutch girl nodded. What was her name? Aaliyah thought. She couldn’t remember. Sapphire Lee nodded solemnly at them both.
“Winner of semis’ moves on to finals against Frances Baby. Winner of that gets the title, Winner of Disco Funk, a pretty golden trophy, and that fat grand. I asked, are you girls ready?”
The two girls nodded. Sapphire turned to face the crowd, his arms sweeping outwards.
“Is the crowd ready?”
The room erupted into cheers and screams. Dancers and onlookers yelled out for their favorites. Aaliyah could see Frances and Bri watching intently, their legs elegantly folded beneath them. In the corner, Candy Kisses glowered, watching.
“Then, my loves,” Sapphire spoke sweetly. “Let’s dance.”
He bowed low and retreated just as the spotlight turned off and the music ceased. For a split second, the room was in complete darkness and silence. Then the speakers blared. The spotlight glared on followed by the disco ball and moving lights. Everything pulsed with energy, Aaliyah and the Dutch woman focused, zoning in on the song. Who knew it? Who would get it first?
“Fucking balls,” Aaliyah said under her breath. She didn’t know the song. Her heart beat frantically in her chest; she didn’t want the other girl taking it first.
She jumped to the middle of the floor, passion seething through her teeth as she eyed the other woman dangerously. Nobody’s taking my spot in the final, she thought. This is my win.
The drums pounded through her fingers as she mimicked the beat. The snare caught, Aaliyah jumped back, clicking her tall heels together. She melted from her knees, hands gracefully curving down. As her body moved, her mind travelled outward, mixing and melting with the music. She didn’t know the song, but she could feel it. She closed her eyes against the onslaught of lights. With her mind’s eye, she looked at the Music and said, “How do you do?” The Music laughed. They embraced. Music leaned in and whispered into her ear, “You know me.” Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled, her body tracing the accents in the music. Freak the beat! Her mind cried out, but she didn’t need direction. She knew what to do. She moved, breaking down into grooves. Her body was the composition line leading the music. She stopped. POSE.
Two seconds of silence. Mouths dropped open. The crowd began to scream. Aaliyah didn’t move an inch, frozen into her pose, eyeing the other woman. With an exhale of shaky breath, she dropped her arms, staring at the foreigner.
“Try me, baby,” Aaliyah said.
The Dutch woman began to move, encouraging hoots from the crowd revving her up. Aaliyah turned away and scanned the crowd. She saw Johnson along the outer rim. They made eye contact and he smiled, shaking his head. Aaliyah didn’t turn around to watch the Dutch woman’s round. She already knew this was hers. The crowd already knew it was hers as did the judges. Even the Dutch woman knew it. The minute Aaliyah went off, everyone knew it was a win. Aaliyah decided, instead, to spend the girl’s round adjusting her shoes, checking her hair and scarf.
Then Sapphire Lee appeared back in the circle, his arm waving back and forth.
“Hot DAMN. I believe that is what you call a BATTLE. Do you agree?”
The crowd yelled, fists pumping. Some shook their heads; many smiled.
“So I have GOT to ask,” he said, exaggeratingly, his upper body collapsing down as he looked at the three judges. “My judges. Who is my winner? In three—Two—One.”
Three hands pointed at Aaliyah.
Her eyes watered as the crowd erupted. So many colors, she marveled. She tried to review what just happened, but it was foggy. Her legs buckled beneath her and she fell forward, grabbing onto the shoulder of Sapphire Lee.
“Woah, woah, baby. Don’t get too tired yet. You went first, you know what that means, right?”
“What?” Aaliyah asked. She heard the sudden lethargy in her voice as she felt her body drop lower into the pit of her stomach. “Oh,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut. She lifted herself off of Sapphire’s shoulder.
He grinned wickedly at her, “No break. We go straight to finals! Right, crowd?”
They agreed with him, many of the spectators breaking out in their own dance as the excitement skyrocketed. Frances and Bri hugged, smiling at one another. Frances picked up her water bottle and approached the stage. Her fans began to cheer.
She passed Aaliyah and looked at her, at first, quizzically, then with some concern. “You okay, Aaliyah?” Her voice muffled beneath the crowd’s cheering.
Sapphire Lee seemed to endlessly pump his arm, keeping the crowd wild.
“I’m fine,” Aaliyah managed.
Frances reached her hand out but Aaliyah bristled away from the contact.
“I said I’m fine,” she repeated as she felt herself drop low, the last of her high magically gone. The plunge came quickly; her body felt so tired. Frantically, she looked around the room as Frances walked towards her end of the circle, her lips tight in concern. No break? Aaliyah thought to herself.That’s fine. I’ll be fine. The voice inside her seemed to reassure her from so far away. She took a breath and exhaled, the motion lightyears away. She trembled.
“Since Aaliyah just went and you had yourself a nice long break—“ Sapphire stopped to wink at Frances. She had about ten minutes rest. “It means you’re going first, baby.”
She nodded at him.
He looked once more to the crowd.
“Let’s have ourselves a final,” he finished with a smirk.
It was a little after two a.m. and everyone was ready, each of the onlookers riding out the last of their excited energy. Paranoia and tension began to rock Aaliyah’s body. If I could just slip out for a moment– the restroom, maybe, she thought desperately. But it was too late. The music was already booming and Frances threw her one last look of concern before turning to face the crowd with a radiant smile. She began her set as Aaliyah closed her eyes and leaned back against one of the pillar structures that lined the dance floor. She struggled to loosen the muscle lock that was creeping down her legs. The music was so loud it banged in her head like an angry headache. Despite how loud it was, it still seemed to resound from far down a corridor. Aaliyah opened her eyes slowly.
Oh, this is bad, she thought weakly. Her mind insisted that she needed to beat Frances. She needed to—anything to pick her up from her life. She just needed to focus. Frances’ set was coming to a close and Aaliyah could barely hear the roar of the audience. She stumbled forward and raised her arm in defense as one of the streaking lights flared up before her. The light intensified, becoming brighter and brighter. Aaliyah could feel the heat searing into her skin. She whimpered as she tried to keep her eyes open. When she looked out, she saw her arm and something white. She pulled her arm in towards her chest and stared in horror. The dark black pigment of her skin was melting off like sludge. She cried out loud, cradling her arms, trying to pool in the dripping color. She looked to the ground where her legs extended and twisted, tangling themselves up with one another. They warped and warbled, changing back and forth. They morphed into snakeskin and Aaliyah moaned as it began to shed, her mind somehow removed from the sensation of skin being ripped from her legs.
She looked back at the light and watched in awe as it changed from the blinding white to orange to pink before it settled on a deep crimson blood red so vibrant it hurt to look directly at it.
A shadowed figure approached her from the darkness. It had the silhouette of a woman and she was just the right size.
“Mama?” Aaliyah whispered quietly.
The woman wobbled forward, her silhouette flickering in and out of focus. Aaliyah hadn’t seen her mother since she ran out on them. A crack fiend from the get-go, Aaliyah’s biggest fear was running into her, homeless on the streets, committing herself to the lowest forms of degradation. Aaliyah hated her mom for her ugly weaknesses, but the child inside of her still suffered from a sense of abandonment. She couldn’t forgive her mother for putting her habit before her children.
When the silhouette entered the light, it became a man and Aaliyah smiled, relaxing. Him—she hadn’t seen him in so long. The ache that sprung in her chest surprised her, she never realized how much she missed him, never realized the amount of need she felt ever since he left her in the house alone.
“Toussaint,” she said as she closed her eyes. Safety blossomed around her. “I was wondering when you’d be home.”
The brightness of the red subsided and Toussaint’s silhouette slowly began to meld with the approaching darkness of the room. Aaliyah’s world fell silent and she felt herself weep though she heard no sound. Her heart beat frantically as she tried to make sense of herself. The gravity of loneliness seemed to envelope her whole.
She had forgotten why she was there. She was sure that she desperately needed to do something. She needed to be something, yet she could hardly remember. What was it she was trying to prove? She couldn’t remember.
Slowly and surely, without any awareness of the world around her, Aaliyah’s consciousness faded until there was nothing left. The music was gone; her dance was gone. Even the room filled with dancers and the mysterious man with the long hair tied into a bun—it was all gone. All that was left was herself, lonely and abandoned, and the darkness that caved in on her.
Noelle Marie Falcis received her BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing at UC Irvine. She is currently at Antioch University completing her MFA. She is an advocate of Hip Hop culture and strives to educate, uplift, and empower through combining the power of dance and writing. Find out more about her at noellemarie75.wordpress.com.