The Death of Glitter: Cape Town’s Underground Queer Club Scene
Hope Street is quiet for a Saturday night in Cape Town. An old, nondescript building with sports-betting advertisements in the windows isn’t where one expects to find queer kids hanging out. But there they are, some in leather, some in drag, smoking cigarettes and standing in a queue that curls out the door and around the corner, waiting to get into a party called Death of Glitter (DOG).
Inside, there are two dancefloors. "CONSUME" is downstairs. Slot machines have been moved to make room for a small, basement-style rave. The DJ balances a crown of candles on their head; black wax drips down their bare chest as they dance. Upstairs is "KISS." This DJ, the party’s founder, is changing from a rhinestone-bedecked wedding gown into a pair of hip-high latex boots. The music is shiny, poppy, and erratic. People are laying out on pool tables and ashing rollies onto stained red felt. One of the performers is washing fake blood off their body in the sink. The phrase "SAY UR GAYERS" is written in red lipstick on the mirror. Votive candles illuminate kids wearing nothing but glitter. They are cutting lines of cocaine with a Smart Shopper card on the toilet seat.
There's someone statuesque, encrusted head to toe in silver paint. Some kids dressed in white lace lingerie, bridal veils, and sunglasses are vogueing. Someone is dressed as Jesus with pearl-embroidered white robes and a crown of thorns painted gold. Someone is pulling their boyfriend on a leash. "Is it Ash Wednesday or is that just dirt on your face?” Kids wear fishnet over their faces and rosaries on their heads.
By two in the morning, half the people in the club have shed their clothes. Lipstick smears. Platform heels crunch broken glass bottles. It’s hard to breathe on the dance floor. Kids rolling on MDMA close their eyes and get intimate with whomever’s close. There’s kissing and biting and rubbing up against one another. It’s hard to feel sober even if you are, so enveloped is the crowd in the slippy, trippy, drippy fantasy they’ve created.
A DOG party feels one-of-a-kind, but Cape Town is no stranger to spectacular events in its queer subculture. The Mother City Queer Project is the biggest and longest-running example. Once sexual orientation and gender expression became protected by the South African Constitution in 1994, MCQP kicked off with the Locker Room Project, self-described as a "mega-deluxe, ultra-vivid, lush galore, fancy-dress sporty-art-party designed to celebrate and showcase Queer culture in the Mother City." Like DOG, MCQP emerged as a DIY celebration of the non-normative and marginal. But over its twenty-four-year evolution MCQP has struggled to "maintain a distinction between commercial exploitation and creative originality," favoring big venues over underground spaces, and prioritizing profit over accessibility. MCQP has furthermore been criticized as a "predominantly white affair.” What began as a subversive space has settled into a politics of assimilation, where "queerness" is subsumed by capitalist, exclusionary projects.
It makes sense that Tazmé Pillay, a Durban-born actor and performance artist, was disenchanted with Cape Town’s queer party scene. Tazmé decided to throw his twenty-firstbirthday party at EVOL, an "underground nightclub on Hope Street that has long been a safe space for Cape Town’s LGBTI community." This party, involving a group of friends, satisfied a craving for a fringe party space, where alternative forms of music, dance, dress, and sexual expression could be explored. Partygoers wanted more. And so, in May 2017, the first official DOG party, a "post-patriarchy bondage dungeon . . . in celebration of the taboo, the edgy, and the bizarre," “Unsex Me Here,” was born.
DOG has become a home for "freaks and creatures who define themselves by the undefined." It has reclaimed and re-queered gay nightlife from what Tazmé calls the "cisgendered, white gaytriarchy," where "queer" is not just a sexual orientation, but "something that eradicates, subverts, and transforms. It’s dirty. It’s unknown. It’s weird. It’s almost aggressive."
Tazmé and the creatives he attracts know that DOG is not just an opportunity for queer people to "celebrate being themselves," but to re-contextualize club culture within its queer origins. Rather than using "queerness" in an appropriative sense—i.e., as an "aesthetic"—DOG invests materially in queer communities. Queer, trans, and nonbinary artists are invited to collaborate on installations. Queer, trans, and nonbinary DJs are hired to play. Photographers Alix Hodge and Meghan Daniels, along with videographer Tarryn Naude, ask for consent before they document or publish film from the party, quelling fears of a partygoer being outed. Entrance prices are capped at R50, making the venue accessible for those below Cape Town’s upper economic echelon, at least compared to other clubs in the city. Most importantly, DOG is a space where gender disobedience, consensual erotic expression, and radical forms of resistance are encouraged.
Over the course of DOG’s evolution, the party has generated a community bigger than Tazmé could have imagined. The event has inspired short films and editorials, leading some to believe that DOG has started "a growing underground sex party movement," or has brought forth, as one blogger put it, "the future of Cape Town’s underground nightlife." Members of the Russian feminist protest punk group Pussy Riot asked to play at DOG's Dark Light, and photographs from their performance—featuring a balaclava-clad Tazmé—wound up without their consent in a solo exhibition by Italian artist Marinella Senatore.
All this attention might be good for getting the word out to people who need accepting spaces. But it also leaves the underground party susceptible to commodification. What happens when a photograph from the party gets sold to wealthy art investors? What if all the publicity leads partygoers to assume that DOG is the next destination for cool, Instagrammable content? The party is also attracting more straight, white partygoers than it once did. If a party like DOG assimilates into mainstream party culture, what gets lost? Tazmé calls DOG "a precious space," and when a space is precious, "you protect it, you don’t fuck with it."
For these reasons, and because the party has grown out of its venue, Tazmé has chosen to make this upcoming DOG the last to take place at EVOL. Tazmé wants “We Beat On” to be a celebration, "happier" than parties in the past, "effervescent . . . like drinking a sip of champagne." But the pressure is on. People have been anticipating the next iteration of DOG for months. Tensions are even higher knowing that it’s the end of an era, that DOG will cease to exist as its devotees know it. We Beat On is set to be "A celebration of the past, a commemoration of the ecstasy of our utopia as we travel onward toward the future." But no one, not even Tazmé, knows for certain what the future holds.
If Hope Street seems quiet at night, it's even more so on a Saturday afternoon. The bar downstairs, called Stag’s Head andHectic on Hope, looks different now than it will tonight. The daytime clientele stare blankly at slot machines, drinking Castle Lite and chain-smoking Stuyvesants. The bartender's also smoking. She looks bored.
Tazmé is on the floor upstairs, wrapping gels over EVOL’s fluorescent light bulbs. "This is giving me PTSD from my mother forcing me to gift-wrap as a child." The club feels empty, almost haunted. EVOL’s grimy look might be off-putting to some, but for DOG artists, it’s the perfect blank slate for collaborative art curation. Oscar Keogh, one of the installation artists for We Beat On, has just arrived with their partner Tatianna, carrying bags upon bags of decorations: tiny mother Mary figurines, artificial roses, a fake wedding cake, and Play-Doh-style devil faces. They are trying to figure out a way to hang their mini-disco ball chandelier from the ceiling without using nails because EVOL’s fragile ceiling recently crashed down on partygoers. Behind them is Rosa Karoo-Lowe, carrying a bouquet of Wizard-of-Oz lollipops and a train of pink balloons. Wes Leal and Boni Mnisi have constructed a shrine to Grace Jones. Self-described "sluts in love," Astrid and Simone, are setting up a medieval-chiropractic suspension rig. Pinkfelt hearts advertise their R5 spank booth, a fundraiser for their bondage education collective.
Despite all this activity, Tazmé is freaking out. "What do you mean the balloons don’t float?” he says over a phone call. “It’s two thirty. I don’t have my catwalk yet."
"We’re on track," Fleishman assures him. If Tazmé is the director—and the star—of this theater, Fleishman is the stage manager. He sets up the lights and the sound, helps artists navigate their installations, and brings Tazmé's far-out ideas to fruition.
"We’re on track. Keep telling me that," says Tazmé, ashing a cigarette into an empty can of Appletiser. "Where is Bernard?"
Bernard Fourie, at twenty-one-years old, is the manager at EVOL. Curly-haired and cherub-faced, he’s the person you’d least expect to be at the helm of queer culture’s epicenter. He waltzes in late, wearing harem pants and flip-flops, proud of having finally set up a card machine for the upstairs bar. Fourie and Tazmé have become fast friends, probably because Fourie is the only club manager in Cape Town who doesn’t mind someone being carried through his club on a bondage crucifix.
"I like the hair," Fourie says. Tazmé has recently added teal streaks to his thick, crop-chopped bob.
"Thank you," he says. "I'm going to unveil it during my set because I'm a drama queen." Tazmé’s DJ persona is Dragmother, a term in drag and ballroom culture for a seasoned queen who takes an ingénue under her wing. Tazmé is, in this sense, the mother of DOG and its community. Like a mother tidying up for guests, Tazmé is a perfectionist.
"What if no one comes tonight?" Tazmé bemoans. If tonight is unsuccessful, then hopes of DOG expanding beyond EVOL are less promising. But if tonight goes spectacularly, perhaps it’s because people know it’s the last jol at EVOL, and thus, the last jol worth their time.
Astrid reminds him that over eight hundred people RSVP’d on Facebook.
"Don’t say that. That makes it even worse."
Hours later, EVOL has transformed into another world. Rosa has turned the downstairs sports-betting room into a neon-lit, candy-colored grotto. Tzara is its Good Witch in a hot pink leather jacket. Tarryn—who is, tonight, the suave, mustachioed, four-foot-five Elliot—films her live-set with a handheld camcorder. The drinks and smiles of the dancers glow blue in the UV light. These campy, bubblegum aesthetics are a far cry from the dark magic of past parties, but are a welcome injection of joy.
Tazmé comes in on the stairs in his first outfit of the night—green-ruffled chaps and nine-inch platform boots—balancing a gin and tonic in one gloved hand, and a Savanna in the other. "No one’s here yet," he laments to his partner, Carlo, who trails behind him in a pom-pommed blazer. "It’s only ten."
Ten is early, but upstairs is already packed. That’s a good sign. Parasite Hilton is on the decks, mouthing the lyrics to a Lady Gaga remix. Silver foil letters adorn the DJ booth in a lazy swoop, spelling out D, O—but the "G" has gone missing. Some may have gone too hard, too quickly. One girl is vomiting out of the window; her lingerie-clad friends grab her so she doesn’t fall. Partygoers pass by this scene without batting an eye. Caught up in the sensational world they’ve entered, they’re accustomed to the raucous and raunchy.
In the back of the club, the pool tables have been pushed up against the walls, draped in lace cloth and artificial roses, set for a banquet. Keogh, in a fur coat, sits on a bench beside their artwork, bemused by all the drunk people who have already incorporated their artworks into fashion statements, which they are flaunting on the runway that dominates the room. Partygoers take turns in front of the spotlight, their outfits are DIY couture: a few pieces of electric tape over someone’s nipples, a partystore tiara. There’s the missing "G"—some girl is using it as a hat. DOG runs on currencies of fabulousness and fierceness. A shiny outfit or extraordinary dance move attracts a chorus of affirmation: "Yaaas, queen! Slaaay!”
The next DJ, Lazy Susan, is on top of the DJ booth, stomping around expensive audio equipment in high heels. Their leotard rides up their ass; feathers shed off their white boa and litter their gold-leafed hair. It’s rare one sees a DJ do more than head-bop behind the booth, but DOG inspires this kind of performance. The dance floor becomes a kind of theater, pushing the body of the performer and the audience. A mainstream diva anthem like Cher’s "Believe" is a surefire floorfiller at a queer party. The crowd becomes a chorus of serendipitously choreographed bodies: vogueing, popping, grinding, kissing, spinning, seemingly all in unison. Dancing becomes a collective, physical, affective experience. Community becomes not something just imagined, or talked about, but something felt.
Eleven o’clock hits, and the lights go out. Madonna comes on. Dragmother comes out through the bathroom, towering above the crowd on Carlo’s shoulders. She wears a sequined ball gown skirt and a makeshift crown. Dancers are screaming and cheering her on. She is the mother of their chosen family and is treated like a celebrity. Carlo drops her off at the stage. Two backup dancers remove her skirt and unfasten her leotard as she lip-syncs. Fleishman holds up a strobe light for her, his face demure, unphased by the spectacle. Shirtless now, wearing nothing but hot pants and her mile-high heels, the drama queen tosses off her crown, shaking confetti out of her teal-streaked hair. The backup dancers bring her a shiny, tinseled cloak and something that looks like a torpedo. There are a few false starts as she tries to pull the trigger, but once she does, the crowd is showered in silver confetti.
The dancers stay on the dance floor all through Dragmother’s techno pop classics and into Queezy’s deep house set. Deep house is a genre at home here, stemming from both house—which emerged as a distinctly black, queer, and working-class genre in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York—and its South African offshoots—namely, Durban House, Gqom, and Kwaito. Its looped instrumentation and centripetal lyrics embody the eroticism that makes queer club spaces distinct from their heteronormative counterparts. EDM, for example, has been called a phallocentric genre, marked by beats that get faster and faster until they achieve climax, and the beat drops into silence. Deep house is pleasure-building rather than pleasure-seeking. Queezy is dressed in her staple drag costume—bright orange bodycon dress, platinum blonde wig, and devil’s horns. She plays repetitive, twelve-minute-long tracks that keep dancers glued to the floor. This is not your average bar, where courting happens and the heterosexual couple goes home, keeping their erotic moments private. And this is not your average night being “out” in Cape Town, where, despite South Africa’s progressive policies on gay rights, displays of same-sex intimacy are met with condemning stares, at best, and violent outbursts at worst. DOG facilitates a situation where sexuality is free to be out in the open, and queer people are relatively safe. Still, no safe space is entirely safe. One guy starts to film a group of girls making out with each other on a bench. They shout and throw their drinks at him.
EVOL staff members look absolutely bewildered. They weave through the throng, dodging any number of flails and gyrations, to collect empty bottles before they break. Most of them have given up telling people not to smoke inside, and the subsequent haze is almost as intoxicating as the dancing bodies that permeate it. Or rather, almost as intoxicated. It’s no secret that drugs, alcohol the tamest of them, lubricate the ease with which partiers relate to one another. Many, if not most, of the dancers are rolling on MDMA. Bathroom queues get stuffed up by kids doing cocaine. Those who can’t wait snort off keys and acrylic nails. Some just lick their palms.
Approaching the early hours of the morning, many partygoers have spilled out onto the street. Some have gone to their cars to fuck, take more drugs, and then get back to the party. Fluorescent street lights strip faces of their allure, revealing smudged makeup, torn clothes, and dark undereyes. A few carguards saunter up and down the street, soliciting spare change from the drag queens and bondage girls. They remain largely-empty handed.
Inside, both dance floors are becoming sparse. The diehards stagger and sway, succumbing to sleeplessness and inebriation. The art installations have been ransacked. The catwalk has turned into a cuddle puddle. EVOL smells. When the party shuts down, a collective groan erupts across the club. The lights come up. The bar closes. The sweepers come out to tackle the ashtray that’s been left on EVOL’s checkered floor. Still, people loiter about, singing poorly in the absence of music, taking last-minute photographs on their smartphones. No one wants DOG to end. A polaroid floating around says it all: "DOG has been my lifeline." For some, DOG is the closest thing they’ll ever have to utopia.
If DOG is a utopia, what is a utopia? It is both imitative and original. It is both temporary and ongoing. It is both challenging and safe. Above all else, it’s a politics of potentiality. As Tazmé defines it, utopia is "looking toward things that could be. Looking forward to a future. It might not necessarily come to fruition, but the point is, we’re dreaming it up. We’re thinking about it. We’re trying to make it happen."