Looking back at Denver photographer Shadow’s gritty nightlife portraits from 2019 to the beginning of 2020 is an act of masochistic nostalgia. It’s hard not to long for the normalcy of a time when nightclub doors were wide open, and queers, gender-benders and other rebels created a community, dancing to thumping music and looking fabulous while doing it.
Shadow’s photos are on display at Dateline Gallery through March 13. Shot on a Fuji instant camera and lit by an iPhone flashlight, they immortalize moments of joy, pain, contemplation, tender love and freedom among goths, drag queens, DJs, artists and dancers. The images give us a flash of hope that we’ll dance together again soon.
But the work raises another question: What are club kids without clubs?
Westword caught up with ten of the people in Shadow’s portraits to find out what the dance floor represents to them and how they’ve been coping since the pandemic put a stop to the party.
DJ Rockstar Aaron
DJ Rockstar Aaron is “a Denver icon and my BFF,” says Shadow. “We often travel together to find the best parties.”
And if you’ve been out on the scene for the past few years, you know that Aaron, with his goth makeup and mile-high spiky Mohawk of many colors, is a constant presence.
“Nightclubs, for the most part, are a great escape from everyday problems,” he says. While he hasn’t been able to deejay at a nightclub for some time, he’s moved his regular Forbidden Bingo event and some deejaying online.
What does he want to see more of in these bleak days? Says Aaron: “I think that right now, the world needs more art.”
TransWitch, an otherworldly drag performer and transgender activist, misses the community formed in the clubs.
“As a trans drag performer, nightclubs — especially ones that provide space for performance artists and cater to a trans clientele — often double as safe spaces for people in our community. They’re not only places to let down your hair and dance, but also of exploration, self-knowledge, expression and chosen family,” says TransWitch (they/them), who has spent the past few months on a journey of self-discovery. They have experienced catharsis and new hobbies, and explored the complexities of their dynamic gender identity.
“It's been isolating for all of us, but especially those who are more in need of comfort and a community to hold them," TransWitch adds. "I'm looking forward to a time when we can, again and with more safety, share ourselves with each other in all our new truth and beauty, all our new radical experiences and future plans. A time when we can come together and, like the inhabitants of Zion, cause the earth to shake with the reminder that we are strong, we survive, we are here, and we are not afraid.”
Hairstylist, makeup artist, drag queen and stage performer York Deluxe has been coping with the pandemic through Zoom happy hours with close friends.
Still, she misses going out.
“Nightclubs can be a safe space for us to express ourselves and be our true, authentic selves without the worry of judgment from people,” says the performer. “Without them, it has been very hard and depressing to not have a social outlet such as walking around a club and meeting new people or seeing your friends.”
Rene Cordero has worked as a tattoo artist for eleven years. Shadow describes him as "a club kid who likes to party and can be found in the alternative LGBTQ scene, as well as the local goth and punk scenes. A fashion icon, Rene often designs his own outfits — and a few of my outfits, too.”
For Cordero, dressing up in fabulous fashion over the past few months has offered a helpful emotional outlet during the pandemic.
“Getting a look together, even if it’s just to go to Target, is my way of coping for right now,” Cordero says.
Tommy Dumont, who works as both a bartender and a DJ, says, “The nightlife space is my first home. In the absence of these spaces, I’ve found myself struggling to make ends meet and have lost a big part of my community. Having a dance party in your living room just isn’t the same.”
Without his usual income, he’s had to get creative with how he funds his lifestyle, including how to pursue his musical hobbies without breaking the bank.
“I look forward to the day when I can dance alongside my friends and other strangers again,” says Dumont.
Michael Stone, aka Pleasure Wave
Michael Stone’s life revolved around live gatherings.
“Before the pandemic hit, I was primarily employed as a DJ and event planner, so the initial shift away from that was jarring,” says Stone. “Beyond being a source of income, clubs and parties are a core source of community, exploration, expression and escape. At first I tried a few DJ streams, but it showed me the importance of an in-person, intimate setting and how that allows us to connect through music and dance.”
Stone has been using this time of isolation to hone his DJ skills, gather and create music, and find inspiration for future events.
“I’ve also been working to understand how this major social mutation will impact the way we interact socially and party moving forward,” he adds.
As the wicked stepmother of Denver’s queer underground, drag queen Novelí heads up a number of alternative drag nights, including Koven, God Save the Queen and Wake the Dead. She is a formidable force and familiar face around town, and even once graced the cover — albeit in cartoon form — of local literary magazine Suspect Press.
For Novelí, “nightlife is community, and for those of us whose identities are marginalized, it can be our primary way of connecting with others who are like us,” she says.
“A couple years ago, I got together with a collective of trans and nonbinary witches and started Koven, an event that centers the queer and trans perspective,” Novelí recalls. “I've had many people tell me that the event is like a church or spiritual experience for them, and that they've felt seen in a way they hadn't been before that experience.”
Missing all of that has been hard.
“The lack of being able to have that kind of in-person connection — especially for people who are on the fringes of society and don't have that community otherwise — is super-isolating,” she says. “I've kind of just been hibernating and trying to remain grounded.”
Parisse is a dancer and part of the Kiki House of Flora, the Denver chapter of the Portland-based House of Flora. The house competes in voguing contests, in which each participant masters five elements of the dance: catwalks, hands, spins and dips, duckwalks and floor performance. For vogue dancers, nightclubs are a temple, a space of liberation.
“Queer spaces allow me to express myself as feminine or masculine as I desire to be,” Parisse says. “It means letting the five vogue elements take over the dance floor while continuing to praise the visibility of our Black and Brown trans pioneers.”
Parisse has been coping with the pandemic by having spontaneous dance sessions at home: “I’ll blast my favorite artists and make my own club and runway at home. We’ve been given the opportunity to create our own spaces and make our own rules.”
Denver drag performer and model Amayas Gonzalez owns and operates a gender-free clothing brand.
“For me, clubs are an escape from a world that doesn't want me to love myself,” says Gonzalez, who has been trying to enjoy every moment and make any space a club. “Even if my club is at the grocery store with elevator music in the background, you’ll catch me voguing or dancing in any mirror I pass.”
DJ Dutch Confetti
DJ Dutch Confetti, who has been a resident DJ in Denver’s LGBTQ community, grew up in the iconic New York City club scene in the ’90s. Now he's vocal about his sobriety within the queer club community and done with the scene.
“Dutch Confetti hung up his club kid cape in March of 2020 when all was lost,” he writes Westword. “Dutch had been curating mischief [as a DJ] since 2005. As nightlife gradually devolved as a result of bloated social media egos and the declining social prowess of the American youth, it became clear that there was no place anymore for Dutch’s brand of frivolity. The carnival is over. Signed, what once was Dutch Confetti, but now knows better.”
Catch Shadow’s solo exhibit, 2019-2020, through March 13 at Dateline Gallery, 3004 Larimer Street.