Girls! Girls! Girls!
by Matt Kalkhoff
 

Once upon a time, there were six little girls who went to the DJ academy. One from Ohio, one from California, one from North Carolina, two from the District of Columbia, and one from Alabama. They were each assigned very hazardous duties, but the circuit took them away from all that, and now they work for all of us. I call them Circuit Angels, and they are the real queens of the party circuit.

The status of the nightclub DJ has advanced a great deal over the years. Considered idols by many, they are worshiped by fans who readily pay large amounts of money to hear them perform live. In the United States, these positions have traditionally been held by men, but this is quickly changing. American nightclub audiences are now witnessing a dramatic rise in the number of women who mix records live. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the gay party circuit, where a handful of extremely talented and determined female disk jockeys are changing the course of our coveted community-building dance events. In doing so, they are helping predominantly gay male revelers expand their horizons by experiencing dance music from a woman’s perspective.

Susan

Saint DJ Sharon White broke new ground and opened the door for succeeding female DJs two decades ago with her pioneering performances at the legendary all-male club. But it’s the diligent efforts and prolific performances by circuit icon Susan Morabito that truly paved the way for today’s turntable femme fatales.

Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Susan began DJing in 1982, honing her skills while playing at local lesbian bars. In 1987 she relocated to New York City, where she lives today. It would be difficult to name a major gay party Susan has not played. The summer months keep her busy spinning at the Pavilion for the Fire Island Pines crowd, but she still finds time to make appearances at many of the hottest circuit parties in the country and around the world.

It hasn’t always been this way for Susan. "I had a very, very hard time getting hired at [male] clubs because I was a woman," she says. "Some of the promoters who have hired me told me that they wouldn’t have hired me in the early days because I am a woman." Luckily, things have changed. In fact, Susan says that once audiences heard her play well, something she doubts the men were expecting, it wasn’t long before she had proven herself, and her calendar gradually began to fill up with increasingly impressive play dates.

Through the years, Susan has developed a unique and fascinating perspective on dance music and its relevance to the gay community. This perspective helps, at least in part, to explain why a DJ’s performance may not always be well-received. "DJing is like sex," she says. "You either connect or you don’t. You don’t know why you’re going to connect with somebody or not, and even if you connect one night, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to connect the next night." As Susan points out, during sex either party can just stop if things aren’t working, and move on. A DJ does not have that option; he or she must go on with the show, hopefully finding a way to make things work. Sometimes the DJ simply cannot, for whatever reason, turn things around and save the night. Herein lies an important difference between good and bad performances.

Susan also finds similarities between the evening’s progression of musical styles and that of a night of passion. "You don’t just do one thing," she insists. "You have the foreplay, the peak, the climax, and then the cuddle. That to me is wholeness for the evening." Expressing her disappointment in how faster bpm’s are often dominating entire sets these days, Susan goes on to regretfully report, "Unfortunately, many people just don’t get the foreplay and the cuddle anymore."

Personal tastes in music aside, Susan is quite happy with the success she has achieved playing for discerning and demanding male audiences. She finds that her professionalism has earned her a lot of respect, and that promoters generally treat her very well. The same goes for the crowds, but she has no doubt that a small percentage of men still have a problem with the idea of a female DJ. Yet she doesn’t let this bother her in the least. Instead, she will continue to share her vision of the music with her fans, and looks forward to venturing into the realm of studio remixing and production work.

Susan recently launched a New York tea dance called "Hush," and she returns to South Beach engagements at Salvation during Thanksgiving weekend and at Crobar during Winter Party Weekend.

Dawna

Approximately twenty years ago Dawna Montel placed the needle down on the very first record she mixed live for a mostly-female audience at Robbie’s Nightclub in Pomona, California. Over the following 18 years, she played just about every ladies’ party on the west coast, including the Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs, Girl Bar, and Que Sera in Long Beach where she worked with then-unknown Melissa Etheridge in the early 80s. Dawna also worked with the Swedish Egil at Los Angeles’ K-Rock radio station in the late 80s, and then again with him at Groove Radio. But it wasn’t until she started playing for men just a couple of years ago that she really connected with her audience.

"I’d much rather play for the boys," she explains. "It’s just nice to know they’re tapping into what you’re doing. It lets you be a little more artistic and free ... you don’t have to be so timid about breaking a new record. They’re very on top of what’s going on in the music industry, and they’re so passionate about the music ... that’s what I love about them."

A mixture of progressively sexy tribal rhythms, disco house, and high energy vocals compliment a driving bass line that keeps the after-hours boys dancing under Dawna’s direction well into Saturday morning at the Spike in West Hollywood. She has recently started playing circuit parties – like Indepen-Dance in Laguna Beach this past July – and she hopes that her success at the Spike and other events will generate more out-of-town bookings.

Dawna does not believe she has been treated differently by promoters or club owners because of her gender, "but I do think they’re more skeptical to go after female DJs," she speculates. "It’s kind of like the boys’ club, "she adds. "But you can’t dwell on that, you just have to let them know that you’re one of the boys and that you can hang with them." Her philosophy about her profession is also quite admirable, and surely contributes to her rising success. "It’s up to us to set the standards for what happens on our dance floors, and to keep people entertained as well as educated," she explains. "You should be able to build a relationship and a trust with your dance floor, so that when you are playing something they have never heard before, they give you respect, and trust your judgment that you are playing it for a reason."

This determination, coupled with a profound perception of her role as a turntable temptress, has consistently impressed both male listeners and promoters. You may not have heard her name much yet, but all indications are that Dawna Montel is one woman who is well on her way to circuit stardom.

Keana

Now working on her second full-fledged career, Keana is a true circuit-hopper. She conquered the equestrian circuit early in life, working as a stable manager for the prestigious Hunters & Jumpers stable in Hunterton County, New Jersey. As a stable matriarch, Keana traveled around the country to various horse shows. Eventually she realized that she had gone as far as she could in that career, and prepared herself for a major change. "I felt like there was something more for me," she recounts. "But I didn’t really know what that was."

One fateful night in 1994, a friend convinced her to accompany him into New York City to The Monster where Warren Gluck was spinning. It was there that Keana discovered a new passion, one that would drastically alter the course of her stagnant life. "The music just really touched me, because I had never heard music like that before," she fondly recalls. "So we started going out three or four times a week. My friend suggested as a joke that I should become a DJ. I thought, Yeah, why not? Sure." And so began Keana’s foray into the world of dance music and the artistry of cleverly mixing the tunes together.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Keana would become an entertainer, considering her partents’ show business background. (Her father directed the Ed Sullivan Show, and her mother danced in and choreographed the show.) In any event, she was definitely ready to carve out her own niche. Having been surrounded by gay people on the horse circuit for years, Keana was quite comfortable frequenting gay bars. She proceeded to make many good friends and valuable contacts in New York City, not the least of which was Warren Gluck himself. Keana taught herself how to mix records on a couple of old turntables and a crude mixing console that didn’t even have pitch control. She persevered, and gave every tape she made to Warren for his critique. Her talent may have been raw, but Warren saw a lot of potential, and encouraged Keana to continue practicing and developing her skills.

Fast forward a few years. We now find Keana with a revered residency in the Chapel at New York’s infamous Limelight, where she plays on Sunday nights. Keana also spends quite a bit of time playing on Fire Island, but she made her circuit debut in 1999 in the Winter Party’s first Rising DJ Showcase. Logic Records recently hired her to mix their third in a series of Pride compilation CDs, and she’ll be returning to Miami this month for White Party Week, where she’ll spin on Friday night at Level along with her mentor, Warren, and fellow female DJ, Tracy Young.

Keana may be relatively new to the scene, but she is taking full advantage of the pioneering groundwork laid by her predecessors. But she thinks she has one possible advantage over her lesbian counterparts. "Being straight makes a difference," she admits. "I think I have a closer connection with men because of that. I don’t have any illusions of sexual conquests or anything; they’re my friends and that’s it. I just flirt and have fun." Keana also believes that being a woman made it more difficult for her to get her foot in the door, but now she says, "I’m hoping that it’s going to work to my advantage." Her positive outlook and love of music keep Keana from worrying about competition from other women on the circuit. "As far as I’m concerned," she says, "there’s plenty of room for everybody. All I can say is that I love what I do, and the music comes from my heart."

Michele

South Beach audiences have been treated to the innovative mixing skills of Washington, D.C.-based Michele Miruski on several occasions at Salvation. Another self-taught DJ, Michele began mixing records during her last year of college in South Carolina. She moved up to our nation’s capital after graduation and began spinning at lesbian bars around town. When she landed a spot at the Frat House playing for the boys, her career shifted into high gear. Her Monday night time slot wasn’t exactly desirable, but her performances at the Frat House eventually caught the attention of the famed Tracks crew, which then led to many notable performances at their now-demolished venue.

When she’s not spinning her magic on Saturday nights at Velvet Nation in D.C., Michelle travels the country sharing her music with gay audiences in cities like Key West, Atlanta, Denver, and New York. She’ll continue to put her eight years of classical piano and guitar training to use in the DJ booth, but she’s ready to move on to the next level. "Everyone has always told me I’d be best at production work and remixing," she says. "Now I just have to prove it to myself."

Michele has always had confidence in her technical abilities but, during a recent visit to New York’s Twilo, this Billboard-reporting DJ had a revelation. "When I heard Junior, that changed my life," she reports. "It just really expanded my knowledge and made me realize how much further I can take the crowd. I realized there was so much more that I could do musically." Michele likes to keep people guessing, and you just never know when a sample from a movie like "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" or "The Wizard of Oz" is going to pop up in one of her sets. Yes indeed, it does sound like Michelle has been influenced by the Master of Remixing.

"It’s an edge for me in some ways," Michele says about her gender. "Some club owners may be a little wary [about hiring a female DJ] because a lot of people still think they should hire a guy DJ to bring in the guys. But it can work for you as well as against you. There’s not that sexual tension that some male DJs may encounter." Certainly, this could be a distraction for some DJs, particularly now that many of them are celebrities within the gay community. Nevertheless, Michele loves playing for the boys, and she’s grateful for the efforts and accomplishments of her peers. "You can’t help but respect Susan Morabito for what she’s done for this whole community as far as getting a woman’s name out there," she says. "I’ve always listened to her with an open mind because I knew that there would be something to learn from her"

Tracy

The youngest and newest Angel on the circuit scene is Tracy Young, and she’s living most every aspiring DJ’s ultimate dream right now. After getting her start in Washington, D.C. nine years ago, Tracy followed in Victor Calderone’s footsteps and began spinning at Liquid in Miami. She is now a local girl living in South Beach who plays regularly at Level and Vivid for predominantly straight crowds. Tracy has had to travel out of town to reach gay audiences in the past, but this is quickly changing, as she is slated to perform at Level this month during White Party Week. Oh yeah, there’s that Madonna thing too.

Ingrid Casares, formerly of Liquid, took Tracy under her wing and offered her the incredible opportunity to spin at Bar Room on New Year’s Eve last year. Luckily, Madonna just happened to be partying at the club that night, and was apparently quite impressed by the musical stylings of Ms. Young. So impressed, in fact, that she later flew Tracy up to New York City to man the decks during the movie premier party for "The Next Best Thing." A request to remix her new song, "Music," followed shortly thereafter. Madonna was so happy with Tracy’s mix that she included it on the commercial maxi-single release, used it for the extended remix video of the song, and suggested it to Donatella Versace for use in an upcoming fashion show. Madonna also had Tracy remix her new single, "Don’t Tell Me."

Straight, gay, lesbian – Tracy has played for all types of audiences. "I like a balance. I like to see what’s going on in all markets," she explains. "But I definitely enjoy playing more for gay men. I just get excited when I’m playing for somebody else whose priority is also music." Acclaimed performances in Provincetown this summer have catapulted Tracy onto the distinguished list of hot circuit DJs, and helped her land gigs on Fire Island and at the Columbus Red Party, as well as the aforementioned White Party Week Friday slot at Level alongside DJ Warren Gluck. The Winter Party people liked this combination so much that they chose to repeat it for DHRF’s Winter Party on the beach in March. And her debut compilation CD, "Inside My Head," has just come out.

Women may still face more challenges than men when it comes to breaking into the music industry, but Tracy is confident that things are improving. "I think that the more women who are in the business, the more people will accept it, which will make life easier for every other girl who wants to be a DJ," she muses. Tracy also revels in the camaraderie of women in the music business, and she’s truly thankful for the opportunities afforded to her. "I owe a lot to Ingrid, because she really opened a lot of doors for me," she says. "Because she’s a woman too, she gave me a lot of chances to prove myself."

Knowing the right people is certainly important in this business, but a good attitude, a positive outlook, and progressive thinking are equally significant. "It’s all about doing what you love, kicking down doors, and breaking the barriers," Tracy insists. This is a formula that seems to have worked quite well so far, and will surely help Tracy to realize her dream of creating an album of original material in the spirit of Moby and Groove Armada. One way or another, we will definitely be hearing a lot more from Tracy Young in the future.

Lydia

Quite possibly the most visible female DJ on the gay party circuit these days, Lydia Prim has come a long way from the $3.35/hour she made washing glasses at a small gay bar in Montgomery, Alabama 15 years ago. After several years as a self-described DJ groupie and apprentice in Alabama, Lydia took her newfound talents to Pensacola, and then on to Atlanta and New Orleans, where her popularity skyrocketed during her residencies at Fusion and Bourbon Pub Parade, respectively. Also a Billboard-reporting DJ, Lydia’s career has continued to pick up momentum in recent months, and shows no signs of slowing down despite her current (if not peculiar) home base in Birmingham, Alabama.

She still plays in Atlanta and New Orleans regularly, but she has expanded her circuit resume with highly sought-after engagements at Salvation, The Hotlanta River Expo, Fireball in Chicago, and the Blue Ball in Philadelphia. Ironically, it was after Lydia’s 1999 performance at San Francisco’s leather-oriented Folsom Street Fair that "the phone started ringing." Fans can also look forward to upcoming continuous mix CDs by Lydia on Aftershock party promoter Jito Garcia’s label, Tremor Records, as well as a Circuit Sessions installment on 4Play Records.

If Lydia has been discriminated against due to her gender, she is genuinely unaware of it. "Perhaps I have blinders on," she suggests, "But I don’t encounter that prejudice. If I do, it’s never said to my face." In fact, she recalls, "There’s a bar in Atlanta that I wanted to play, but I was told they would never hire a woman. I ended up playing there." It’s this type of determination and ambition that have propelled Lydia’s remarkable career, not to mention her extraordinary ability to work a room and give the crowd exactly what they want. But she agrees with Susan Morabito in one respect regarding sexism in the music industry. Recounting a conversation with Susan, Lydia asks, "How come when any of these male DJs go off [complaining about being disturbed by too many people while working], people say they’re just having a bad night? But with us women, it’s always, ‘She’s a bitch.’ It’s not bitchiness," Lydia insists. "It’s busyness."

Bitch or not, Lydia relies on her sharp wit and keen sense of humor to deal with work-related obstacles and to cope with working in a traditionally male-oriented profession. A friend of Lydia’s on the Folsom Street Fair committee relayed a story to her about the meeting wherein the decision was reached to include her in the line-up. "One guy laughed and as a smart-ass remark said, ‘Well, what if she gets her period?’ So when I arrived in San Francisco," Lydia says, "I made sure that I tracked down that guy, gave him some money, and asked him to please go get me tampons at the store. [I did this] just to show him that I never take stuff like that as insulting. I always see it as very catty and funny."

Lydia also has a serious side, one that is particularly apparent when she discusses her philosophy behind DJing, and what it’s like to be a woman playing for predominantly gay male audiences. "You’re always going to encounter prejudice in some form, so just try to find a way to deal with it," she advises. "You can actually turn it around so it does more good than harm. Use it for fuel instead of baggage." She also harbors a deep respect for and admiration of her peers, and values her relationships with them, regardless of gender. "I think there’s a sense of community among DJs in general," she says. "I think that cuts across gender lines."

Lydia is scheduled to appear at Salvation on Thanksgiving weekend.

Luminary Ladies

These girls are currently enjoying lots of support from within the gay community, and because of this, the female DJ phenomenon will surely endure long after the novelty has worn off. "There is something quite nurturing about having a female presence in the DJ booth that I think the men enjoy," suggests Craig Smith, Events Coordinator for DHRF/Winter Party. "Having a girl in the booth is a nice contrast to the sometimes all-male, sexually charged environment on the dance floor." DJ Manny Lehman concurs that "adding a female touch into the mix is a good thing," but he doesn’t believe that gender matters when it comes to landing a job. "I think it is totally a music-driven agenda," he declares. New York promoter John Blair further emphasizes that "Good music is good music. It is no harder for a woman to break in [than] it is for a man. I think it is very hard for anyone to break in, as the slots are few and the DJs are many."

Our lovely Circuit Angels will continue to travel the world, spreading their wings and touching many of our lives as they generously share their love of dance music with the masses. Perhaps they’re simply fulfilling our innate need to be coddled by a female figure. More likely, their hard work and innovative visions are inspiring our lives and providing the perfect compliment to our community-building dance events. Whatever the reason for the female DJ’s rise to prominence, it is clear that this emerging trend is improving the circuit by reshaping our tribal gatherings into something even better and brighter.

Michele Miruski summed it up best when she said, "The bottom line is that if you’re a good DJ, it doesn’t matter what sex you are." Amen, sister. I’ll dance to that.


© 2000 Matt Kalkhoff

This article was featured in Miamigo's November 2000 issue.