Just before the pandemic, Emma Warren was flicking through her recently published, critically-acclaimed book on London’s jazz scene, Make Some Space, and a couple of few lines she’d written sparked a new wave of inspiration. They went something like this: “Dancing in the dark is a human need, humans have been doing it forever. Dancing is medicine.”
“When I wrote it, I thought, I know this is true, but I don’t really feel like I can back it up in any shape or form apart from relying on very dry, sciency things like heart rate or endorphins,” Warren says over Zoom. And so Warren set out to prove the life-affirming benefits of dancing with her new book, Dance Your Way Home: A Journey Through the Dancefloor. Never mind relying too heavily on all that textbook stuff. Warren has plenty of frontline experience on the dancefloor.
In the ’90s, she was THE FACE’s clubs editor, under then-editor Johnny Davis, when hedonism, optimism and the clubland youth explosion of the time was as paramount to the magazine’s pages as bagging the biggest celeb for its cover. She also wrote extensively for Jockey Slut, the gloriously irreverent cult music mag that ran from 1993 – 2004, covering clubs, pills, thrills and everything in between.
Dance Your Way Home traces decades of school discos, after-work piss-ups, under-18 clubs and, of course, the legacy of acid house, queer clubs like Heaven, right through to the UK’s nightlife of the 2010s, such as the rise and eventual demise of dubstep incubator Plastic People.
There are countless books on nightlife out there – ones that summon images of sweaty, swaying bodies in illegal raves, trace the impactful origins of techno in Detroit, and make Berlin’s underground club scene sound like a hardcore orgy (not so far off, to be fair) – but Warren’s second book places direct emphasis on movement. It’s not all about clubs; it’s about dancing as a primal need.
“As someone who has been on the dance floor for decades, I was in a good position to be able to share some of the things that those of us that have spent some time at the dance truly know and believe,” she says. “We know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
In Warren’s book, a dance to Whigfield’s Saturday Night at a cousin’s wedding holds just as much power as being two pills deep at a warehouse rave in the middle of nowhere. Whatever the environment, dance is about joy. No one dances and feels rubbish after – unless, maybe, you’ve slipped over onto your arse. But go to any club night worth its merit and you’ll be confronted with people from all walks of life. And that is the dancefloor at its most powerful.
“The dancefloor can be a place in which people who have different life experiences, who walk through the world in a way that brings different responses from the state, can have a communal experience,” Warren says.
Then, a bit of the sciencey stuff. “There’s evidence that shows when people move in synchrony together, they rate each other more highly, after swinging their arms about together in the same way. That obviously has an effect on relationships between people who experience the world differently.”
Us club regulars need no convincing. But throughout Warren’s book, the police are a foreboding presence, poking their beaks into almost every chapter. They’re either closing down a party, attempting to end the fun, or at least moaning about it. “I wasn’t expecting to be writing a book with so much police in it,” Warren says. “We know the Met have troubles and need to do some radical fixing up of the systems of accountability around policing, generally, in this country. I wonder if they just need some dancing culture-ation?”
Speaking of culture, there’s no talk about the dancefloor without recognising where most of it started in the first place. It wasn’t two white blokes in a recording studio who thought up acid house, techno or garage. It was the Black, brown and Latino working-class communities, many of whom were LGBTQ+. They flipped racism, homophobia and sexism into pounding BPMs, pioneering influential scenes in Detroit, Chicago and New York. We have these communities to thank for the club nights we lose our heads at today.
“All of these powerful dancefloors [in the book] happened from the street up,” Warren says. “It was often made by people who were living in a version of the state that did not operate in their interests. Grassroots creativity is always present. We need a much, much bigger appreciation of the way that communities of colour built post-war culture, because it’s absolutely true in every single way when it comes to music.”
When it comes to the dancefloor, its greatest strength is bringing people together. It’s something we missed during the pandemic, when there was genuine fear that clubs would never open again, or that gigs were a relic of the past. It’s a release from the 9 – 5, a place where lovers meet for the first time, where sartorial styles are invented, where new friendships are formed and where youth take their first steps into adulthood.
“There’s something about dancefloors that are built on need, which often have culturally powerful music coming out of them. It generates newness,” Warren says. “We need dancefloors that reflect our context or our lived experience. It can be a place where you can be around the people who share your context, or a version of it, that you recognise and care about.”