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At 30, New York Pride’s Dance on the Pier Is Ever-Evolving

The newly resurgent Fergie is on the phone from L.A., excitement in her voice over a high-profile gig this Sunday, when she’ll perform for upwards of 7,000 mostly male, mostly shirtless fans, as the featured artist at New York Pride’s annual Dance On The Pier. “I’ve wanted to play the pier dance forever!” she exclaims. “For a while, having a kid and being off tour, I wasn’t performing. But I recently started performing again and so it was perfect timing. I was offered to play this year and immediately jumped at the chance.”

“It means so much to allow me to give back to a community that has really given me so much more than I could ever give back in my life. Especially considering what happened in Orlando,” says the singer, who’s long had a connection to the LGBTQ community, and was honored in 2013 by Logo’s NewNowNext Awards. “I’ve had so much support from them, not just career-wise, going back to Kids Incorporated when I was eight years old, through Wild Orchid and Black Eyed Peas and solo stuff, but even more so on a personal level. I’ve just gotten so much from the community in terms of lessons about accepting myself. Even in the times in my life when I couldn’t even love myself, I had so much support.”

When Fergalicious takes the stage at Tribeca’s Pier 26 — the last pier dance in that location she’ll add her name to a roster of artists that in the 21st century alone has included Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Cher, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande. The Dance on the Pier, now in its 30th year, is the second-biggest event of Pride Week in New York, after The March, the parade down Fifth Avenue that is the single most iconic LGBT gathering on the planet. The Dance has also grown exponentially since its beginnings, in much more hardscrabble times, in 1986. HIV/AIDS was raging like a wildfire and with it a renewed vilification of gays and lesbians, and money was scarce.

“It was on the old pier at the end of [iconic LGBT thoroughfare] Christopher Street,” recalls Alan Reiff. “It was a concrete pier, but it had holes in it and it was falling apart. And for the sides, we had to put up poles and buy these giant rolls of plastic fencing, and we literally had to put plastic around the entire three sides of the pier.” Reiff is a schoolteacher and longtime LGBT activist and volunteer for NYC Pride (officially known as Heritage of Pride) who was part of the planning committee for the first dance. “The whole point was to create a safe space, at the end of the Christopher Street Pier, in an area that the police had been constantly clearing out because there was a lot of illicit behavior,” he says. Queer New York had a long history with the piers, dating back to the Wild Wild West Village of the 1970s, in between Stonewall and AIDS, when cruising and sex was rampant in the dilapidated pier buildings along the Hudson River. And even when that activity subsided, the Village piers remained — and do to this day, to a lesser degree and in much more pristine surroundings — a gathering place for LGBTQ youth.

“Especially for gay kids of color,” says Ricky Londono, a fashion buyer who’s been to 28 of 29 pier dances, beginning with the first, when he was 18. “When you’re not old enough to go to a bar, and you want to be around fellow gay people, the piers were the only place to go. There was no place for gay youth to congregate.” (This phenomenon is gorgeously, movingly depicted in Paris Is Burning, the essential 1990 documentary about the scrappily fabulous, largely black and Latino drag ball scene.) Even now, Londono says being outdoors is the single most important aspect of the Dance on the Pier. “Being outside, during that time of day, when the sun is setting, it starts to get cooler, and the way the music carries on the water there,” he explains. “It’s the most unique experience of the year for me. It’s something I look forward to and plan for every single year.”

At 30, New York Pride’s Dance on the Pier Is Ever-Evolving

Chris Frederick gets it. Frederick is the Managing Director of NYC Pride, one of only two year-round staffers for the non-profit, and one of his many hats is as the man in charge of securing the location for the pier dance. “What a lot of people forget is that the dance was created as a protest, he says. “It was created in a time when people couldn’t dance out in the open with the ones that they loved. And it’s interesting that after what happened in Orlando, the dance still plays a really important part in showcasing same-sex love out in the open. And I think this year more than ever, the dance plays a really important role in that.”

The pier dance has had several locations, three under Frederick’s tenure. When he came on board seven years ago, the event had had a long run on Pier 54, a spot noted to history buffs as the port from which the doomed ship Lusitania left on its final voyage, and where the Carpathia docked, carrying survivors rescued from the Titanic. But 54 was crumbling, losing chunks of viable dancing space every year, and in a stopgap move in 2012, the dance was moved for one year to an indoor building. “That was a really eye-opening experience that drove home the need to keep the event outdoors, explains Frederick. “Because it did feel different. This event has to be outdoors just because of its meaning.” The following year, the dance relocated two miles south to its current setting, Pier 26, in the shadow of high-rise apartment and office buildings, including the poignant figure of One World Trade Center. If it lacks the faded charm of its predecessor, it’s cleaner and in Frederick’s words,  “more controllable”.

It wouldn’t be a dance party without music, and while the early years of the dance featured mostly DJs and the occasional appearance by a house diva like Ultra Naté, the most “seminal moment” in the history of the Dance on the Pier, according to Londono, came in 1999, when superstar Whitney Houston — then riding higher on the club charts than the pop charts, with a string of No. 1 remixes from her album My Love Is Your Love — showed up as a surprise performer. “Here was an artist of such tremendous stature — by far the most famous person to ever grace the stage at the pier dance,” he says. “And there was MTV, to interview her, and to talk to us!”

Yes we were, and yes I was. Of that landmark appearance, Whitney later told me, “We’re all God’s children.” One of the young fans I spoke to that day was David Russell. Today with Crush Music Management, Russell oversees the career of one of pop’s leading lights, Sia, but in ’99 he was a 23-year-old fan who’d waited hours with his friend Derek Gruen (later to become Scissor Sisters’ Del Marquis) to make their way to the way to the packed, sweaty front of the crowd, on just the rumor that Houston would be there. “It was iconic, and it felt like a stamp of approval,” says Russell. “I look back at that footage from that day, that quick little interview that Derek and I did with you, and I just think about the looks on our faces. Especially because it was Whitney, with her ties to the [notoriously homophobic] hip-hop world. This felt like her saying, ‘I’m coming to your house!’” Even on a much more modest stage than exists today at the pier dance, with little production, Houston delivered three songs and two important words. “It was incredible, because she said, ‘Happy Pride’,” remembers Russell. “That she acknowledged that it was Pride meant so much.”

From then, the die was cast. The Dance on the Pier became a place where people wanted, even expected, the appearance and affirmation of a major star. In the early 21st century, they were still unannounced “surprise” appearances: Janet in 2004, J-Lo in 2006, and Jennifer Hudson in 2008. But there were also rumored showings that didn’t pan out — not a good look, particularly when attendees these days are paying $85 a head (as compared to $5 when the dance began), to say nothing of the $1,800 six-person Ultra VIP bottle service cabanas. It’s something that Frederick addressed when he took the reins. “You don’t want people showing up thinking it is gonna be Madonna and never deliver on Madonna,” he explains. “So in 2012, beginning with Cyndi Lauper, we shifted to announcing the artist ahead of time, and I think that’s worked well for us.”

At 30, New York Pride’s Dance on the Pier Is Ever-Evolving

Not that booking the event isn’t still a challenge. While NYC Pride has deep-pocketed sponsors including Wal-Mart, Delta, Hilton, and Facebook, and ticket prices to the dance are not cheap, the organization is still a non-profit, and in the words of Dance Director José Ramos, “We can’t pay what Coachella can pay.” But that doesn’t stop stars from asking. “Nowadays everyone has ten million different handlers,” says Frederick. “And they don’t want a sub-par performance, they want a full production. So I get demands of like 500 thousand dollars just to have someone show up and sing four songs.” Offering the manager’s point of view, Russell adds, “It would never happen now the way it happened in 1999, because now you need to meet a guarantee for production costs and things. As you say, they charge so much money that people expect to see a big person. It’s a sign of the times. And if you’re trying to bring in people like Ariana Grande, I think ultimately it comes down to the funds to cover.”

Fergie knows that she wants to bring “something special” for this Sunday’s performance. Expect a four-song set, featuring at least a portion of her dark and sexy new trap-flavored single “Hungry (1st Byte),” the first bite from her upcoming and long, long-awaited second solo album, Double Dutchess. It’s been nearly ten years since her hit debut The Dutchess — so long that I told her a friend of mine recently joked, “Ask her when she’s gonna put out her Chinese Democracy!” Her response was pure Fergie. “Does your friend have a kid?” the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old asks. Erm, no. “Well there you go! I’m not gonna be in the studio 24 hours a day until the sun comes up. I’m waking up when the sun comes up and watching Yo Gabba Gabba! And I’m not willing to sacrifice that!”

Though she’ll be making a number of live appearances throughout the summer, from the U.K. to Japan, none will have quite the significance of her pier dance appearance, which Fergie says will include some acknowledgment of the victims in Orlando. She says that when she heard about the murders, her resolve to play Pride was even greater. “It made it that much more important to not live in fear and to make sure that the celebration of pride is what it’s supposed to be. To not take away from that triumph, but to also honor and reflect on the memories of those that were lost.”

Like the city that hosts it, NYC Pride and the Dance on the Pier have enjoyed boom times since 1986, and yet with success and growth comes sniping. There are perennial complaints about pier dance ticket prices, to which Reiff responds, “Pride is expensive, baby. It costs a lot of money to get permits to march down Fifth Avenue.”

There’s also the longstanding criticism that the pier dance — in contrast to The March, which draws people of all colors, shapes, sizes, ages, and faiths, a rainbow in the truest sense — is largely made up of one homogenous segment of the LGBTQ community: muscled white men in their 20s–50s, an iteration of a circuit party that may strike some in 2016 as anachronistic. Frederick is sensitive to that charge, and is open to evolving the dance and other Pride events. “I think we’re always trying to think of ways to make all our events more inclusive,” he says. A new generation expects there to be a level of inclusiveness in events.” Still, says Reiff, “Sometimes our community just likes to complain.”

At 30, New York Pride’s Dance on the Pier Is Ever-Evolving

The Dance on the Pier will soon be looking for another new home, as Pier 26 will soon be converted into a maritime museum. While Frederick isn’t showing his hand regarding the future, changes are afoot. “We look forward to bringing a totally reimagined event to NYC Pride in 2017,” he says. But wherever they end up, fireworks should certainly be a part of it. The culmination of every pier dance is a 15-minute pyrotechnic display at the end of the pier. “It’s such a beautiful, emotional moment,” says Ramos. “Just a great finish.” Reiff concurs. “It’s just very liberating and empowering to be outside, in the public, not ashamed of who you are, under fireworks. There’s a link to what we’ve grown up with about celebration and independence.”

Still, there’s Orlando. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting backdrops for the Dance on the Pier than 2015’s euphoria over the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on marriage equality, affirmed only 48 hours earlier, and this year’s horror of the Pulse nightclub shooting, less than two weeks ago. “Last year, everyone wanted to partake in the joy,” Reiff recalls. “All of these young people saying, ‘Oh my God, I can get married!’” Whereas in 2016, the Pride veteran predicts that recent events “may have awakened a sleeping activist in people.” Londono, who will attend his 29th out of 30 pier dances this weekend, doesn’t expect Sunday to be any more somber. “Because that’s what Pride is,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘I want to go and dance and be with 7,000 people and wave rainbows and have fun.’ There definitely seems to be a feeling after Orlando that, ‘Our sanctuary was invaded.’ And as much as young people may want to think of gay bars as passé, that we don’t need them anymore — of course we need them, especially outside of somewhere like New York. And you’re not going to scare me into not communing with my people. They’ve been trying to make gay people disappear for millennia, and we’re not going away.”