My first taste of live drag was at Town Danceboutique, and it put years of watching drag through a screen completely to shame. Having discovered Drag Race before I was old enough to drink, Town’s Friday nights were like a magical journey into a gay wonderland. I arrived too early and spent half an hour deciding whether I should sit up front or stand a little farther back. I ended up standing, eagerly bouncing on the balls of my feet in rhythm with the music the entire time, peering in between heads and over shoulders because the audience was much bigger than I had expected at first.
Everything about Town was bigger than I expected. The stage felt like a grand proscenium, the patio like a whole rooftop. I spent every dollar I had with me that night, anxiously waving a fistful of bills around for the queens to notice. I lost my voice screaming “COLLECT, BITCH” when Ba’Naka, who was performing as Ursula, brought around a plastic cauldron to gather tips. I knocked elbows with strangers as I threw my hands up to cheer for Riley Knoxx’s flawless Beyoncé. I even lost my ID jumping up a bit too excitedly. And when it was all over, I headed upstairs for the go-go dancers.
Town was the cornerstone of queer performance in D.C. It was simply the place to go for your first drag show. Part of this had to do with its 18-up Friday nights, which gave D.C. teens like myself a place to experience everything you can’t get from watching videos. I feel for the teens who have nowhere to go without fakes, for the queer kids who will turn 18 without knowing the excitement of a drag burlesque show. Town was D.C.’s megachurch of gay nightlife: there was space for everyone both metaphorically and physically. As a result, the club was able to host large-scale events for the queer community, from fundraisers to fashion shows. Like the city’s out-and-proud teens, these parties have lost their go-to venue. It’s in these ways that Town’s closing leaves us feeling lost and alone.
After all, Town wasn’t just our first drag show; it was also our first night out, and our first night out. It was where we went to see Detox and Willam, Jujubee and Raven, Trixie and Katya, Manila, Alaska, Jinkx, Lady Bunny and so many more. Town was where we got to know—to love—Ba’Naka, Lena Lett, Tatianna, Riley Knoxx, and Shi-Queeta Lee. It was where we met our idols—the queens whose faces were tattooed on our calves—and our best friends. Town was where we flirted with gogo dancers and danced with strangers, where we kissed and… did more than kiss. Town was where we gagged over death drops and jump splits and wig reveals and strip teases. It was where we screamed “YAAAS” until our throats became sore. Town was there to party with us after our first pride. And our second. And our third. And our last. It was where we prayed for Orlando and fought against gun violence. Town was where we first understood what ‘chosen family’ really meant. It was where we sparkled and twirled and clicked our high heels. Town was where we celebrated the weird and the vulgar, the punk and the kitschy, the gross and the glamorous. Town is where we celebrated ourselves. It was a whole world. A kooky, colorful, campy world of its own, brimming with memories for so many of us.
Photographer Katherine Gaines has documented hundreds of shows over seven years for Brightest Young Things. Here are a few dozen of her favorite shots, culled down from thousands.
Words by Afriti Bankwalla, photos by Katherine Gaines