Super Subcultures

A Ruckus of Romance

In an age of Internet flings, some singles still seek their soul mates on the sweaty, crowded dance floor.

A Ruckus of Romance

Around one a.m. on a recent Friday night, two go-go dancers—one man, one woman—shimmied in unison on the small stage inside a crowded West Village basement bar. They wore identical white suit vests and their faces were both glittery with silver eye makeup. Two women rushed on stage and danced alongside them to the pulsing beat of hip-hop/electronic mash-ups. More women, and a few men, kissed, shimmied and grinded amid scattered conversations on the large mirror-lined dance floor. Upstairs, an array of young women sat on tall round stools next to the bar, arms draped around each other’s necks as they kissed. The line for the women’s restroom snuck around the front wall, and so did the mostly-female line for the men’s bathroom. A tall bald man in a suit and gray scarf cut the line.

“So is this a girl’s bar now?” he asked in a faint British accent. “There seems to be a lot of girls here.”

Emily Hall Smith (Photo by Jessica Bal)
Emily Hall Smith

Back downstairs, Emily Hall Smith, twenty-eight, wearing a flannel shirt, brown hair buzzed closely on the sides and parted in a wave on top of her head, walked up to talk to the go-go dancers. Later, I noticed Smith introducing someone to another woman who had just arrived. Her hands rested comfortably on the small of both women’s backs as she formed a connection between them. This was only one of many potential bonds Smith would make that evening.

Smith is the founder of Hot Rabbit, a weekly Friday evening party held in the basement of The Monster, a bar in the West Village. Even on a slow night at Hot Rabbit, the dance floor is crowded as people grind and primp enthusiastically in the mirrors that line the floor. A busier outing might attract more than five hundred people. Although there is technically a cover to enter the bar, many are granted free access by uttering a tongue-in-cheek password disseminated online: one week it was “Fetch”; another, “Woof.”

Advertised as a queer dance party rather than a strictly lesbian one, a variety of personalities are represented at Hot Rabbit: boys, girls, trans, butch, femme, androgynous, dressed-up, dressed-down: it is a microcosm of the queer world, but is particularly popular among young, artsy and attractive lesbians.

“It was designed to be a ruckus,” Smith says. “It’s meant to attract people from all walks of life.”

(Photo courtesy Hot Rabbit / Gizelle Peters)
(Photo courtesy Hot Rabbit / Gizelle Peters)

“I just really like people,” Smith continues. “When I first moved to New York, I was having parties in my apartment for anyone to attend.” Soon, friends who dabbled in nightlife suggested she do it professionally.

While one might assume at first glance that the young, fashionable party operates as a  quickie pick-up scene, on closer inspection it’s anything but. What’s most striking about Hot Rabbit and a cadre of related parties is that the scene provides something that often doesn’t seem to exist in New York City anymore—a real live social network where a woman might spot someone she likes one week, strike up a conversation the next, then pursue things further a week or month after that. The anxiety and urgency that often results from the fear that the other person will disappear into the bowels of New York City nightlife and never be seen again is not necessarily an aspect of this particular scene.

Smith and Tina Romero, a friend from Wellesley, previously ran Confession, a “pet project” that Smith says was meant to feel “more like the old-school chill hangout parties.” Low-key and held in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on Monday nights, “it was more of a talk-and-get-to-know-people event rather than a dance-your-face-off event,” Smith says. When Smith decided to start a new party, one that would be a bit more clubby, she already had a following of people who knew her and her events.

One day about two years ago, Catherine Currie, a friend of Smith’s who has blogged about her experiences coming out and finding love in New York’s lesbian scene for several years, received a friend request on Facebook from someone named Chaud Lapin. It was an almost-empty page with a graphic profile picture of a pink, punky rabbit, and underneath, an X formed out of two bright orange carrots. “It was friending everyone on the scene, but no one knew what it was,” says Currie. “Pretty soon, we all started getting invitations to this party, and it just blew up.”

Shots of Hot Rabbit partiers (Photos courtesy Hot Rabbit / Gizelle Peters)
Shots of Hot Rabbit partiers (Photos courtesy Hot Rabbit / Gizelle Peters)

When I asked Smith about her mysterious Chaud Lapin Facebook persona, she laughed. “Well, I studied abroad in France and learned some French there. And that’s what they called people like Dominique Strauss-Kahn—you know, guys who do stuff like that—chaud lapin, hot rabbit. It translates to sex maniac. I thought it was really funny, so I decided to use it.”

Romero, now a twenty-nine-year-old film student, was one of the first to DJ a Hot Rabbit party. She met Marika Litz, twenty-four, over a year ago at Hot Rabbit and says the timing was “perfect.”  Although Litz had actually spied Romero at there a few months earlier, later finding her on Facebook, they had not connected that night.

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“I knew I would probably see her at Hot Rabbit,” Litz said, shrugging off the fact that she didn’t speak to her future girlfriend the first time she saw her.

Photo courtesy Hot Rabbit / Gizelle Peters
Photo courtesy Hot Rabbit / Gizelle Peters

“I had just broken up with someone and was really hurting,” remembers Romero, a tiny blonde with a nose ring and wide smile, reflecting on the first night the pair finally spoke. “I was even dating guys at the time, and all my friends—including Emily—were like, ‘no…no, don’t do that.’ So the night I met Marika, I was in a cab with Emily and all my DJ equipment—like, stuck under my mixers—and Emily was talking to me about it, and I was like, ‘Okay, so find me someone.’”

At the time, Litz lived close to The Monster bar, and went to the party that night with her roommate. She and Smith had become friendly during previous Hot Rabbit nights, and when Litz saw Romero spinning, she nervously asked Smith if she should approach Romero, who was deep into her set list.

“Emily was like ‘YES YES YES!’” Litz says, laughing. “She was like, ‘go!’” After a few drinks—“liquid courage,” Litz noted—she went up to the booth. Following an initial confusion, when Romero thought Litz wanted to request a song, the two connected immediately and made plans to go on a date soon thereafter.

Litz says she couldn’t wait the “standard twenty-four hours” to text her. Their relationship moved relatively quickly, with dates three or four nights a week, and Litz recently moved in to Romero’s Park Slope apartment.

Speaking softly at a coffee shop recently while browsing through photos of the couple, Romero explained that she had been wary of getting involved with Litz at first because she had been hurt badly by previous partners. “But,” she continued, “I felt safe with her.”

Tina Romero and Marika Litz
Tina Romero and Marika Litz

Litz laughed at the high school portrait Romero keeps of her in her wallet: a sweet-faced sorority girl with shoulder-length hair and a pink V-neck, barely recognizable as the woman sitting next to her: serious gaze, cropped hair.

When I ask Smith why she thinks Hot Rabbit is such a good place to meet people, she responds, “It’s an event that’s meant to be inclusive, diverse, and a safe space for queers of all stripes. No one is unwelcome as long as they are there with a positive spirit, and I think because we present that attitude outwardly, we’ve been rewarded with a following who look out for one another.”

Smith, who is currently single, says she herself has never met a girlfriend at Hot Rabbit, instead she acts as “the eyes and ears and bouncer-like person,” interacting but staying above the fray. The way Smith interacts with partygoers is clearly part of what creates this atmosphere: whether she is standing by the entrance or mingling around the room, Smith is someone who makes it her business to befriend strangers, which ultimately can lead to many different kinds of love connections.

Desiree Akhavan, twenty-eight, is the creator of The Slope, a comedy web series that “follows the lives of a lesbian couple navigating their way through modern-day Park Slope, Brooklyn.”

Season 2, Episode 3: “Primary Care Giver” from The Slope on Vimeo.

Akhavan’s connection to this party scene was originally through Romero, a classmate at NYU Graduate School of Film. When Akhavan and her writing partner needed to hold a fundraiser for the web series, they decided to do it at Confession. There was a kissing booth (two dollars for a kiss), a raffle and a photographer taking portraits of the partygoers. Akhavan, outgoing and striking, was recently single. Star Sawyer, a newish New York transplant from Florida who went out often, happened to be there the night of the fundraiser. “I had watched The Slope before, so I was well aware of Desiree’s show, and I saw her there, and I was like, wow, that girl’s really hot,” Sawyer remembers.

“And then,” Sawyer continues, looking over at Akhavan, “you asked me what my name was and I told you and we had a short conversation, and then that was kind of it.”

Akhavan nods as she listens to Sawyer, thirty-seven, talk about their first meeting. “During the course of the night, I found out that she was no longer with her girlfriend at the time, so I went up to her and said, ‘here is my two dollars for the kissing booth, but I have to go home. See you later.’

Desiree Akhavan and Star Sawyer
Desiree Akhavan and Star Sawyer

Like the first interaction between Romero and Litz, Akhavan and Sawyer did not initially stay in touch, despite being immediately drawn to each other. They didn’t even exchange numbers.

It did, however, hit Akhavan the next day that she had previously seen Sawyer on OkCupid, and, according to Sawyer, had given her a five-star rating.

“Probably a four,” Akhavan interjects. “I rarely give a five. No, I never give a five.”

Looking at Sawyer’s profile again after the fundraiser, Akhavan still declined to contact her.  “I was like, oh, she is really cute, and I liked her. And I thought—I actually did think—‘Oh, I’ll probably see her again at one of Emily’s parties.’ I know that Emily attracts the same group of people usually, and if I saw her at one point, the chances are that we’d run into each other again.

“And we did…two weeks later, exactly two weeks later at the Hot Rabbit party.”

After independently deciding to buy each other a drink, the two exchanged numbers and began dating.

“Star did the most insane thing the first time she slept over—she left her toothbrush in my bathroom,” Akhavan says, laughing. “My roommate thought she was a psychopath.”

Sawyer shrugs. “I really care about dental hygiene, okay?”

Akhavan rolls her eyes as Sawyer squeezes her knee. Akhavan says that at the time they met, she was going out a lot—“on the prowl,”as she describes it—but now the two live on the Upper West Side, close to Sawyer’s office, and don’t go out as often.

On a snowy night a few weeks ago, Mila, twenty-five, a DJ at Hot Rabbit and bartender elsewhere, and her fiancée Shannon, twenty-nine, held hands and eyed each other as they recalled their first meeting. Recently engaged, they were still smitten, giddy with excitement about the ring Shannon had surprised Mila with. They relished telling their story.

“Can I say this?” Shannon said, looking at Mila, who nodded playfully. “The first moment I kissed Mila, I knew I was going to fall in love with her and date her and marry her. I could just feel it.”

Mila nodded and twisted the diamond around her finger. They both talk about how they had serious trust issues before they met each other. Shannon, who is currently getting her doctorate in neurobiology at NYU, goes out to bars and clubs often, and had noticed Mila at various parties around the city and Brooklyn. “Probably the first time we saw each other or spoke or whatever was through nightlife in general. We’ve known each other—or known of each other—for, like, a year,” Shannon says, nodding to Mila.

The two laugh when they remember that in their first interaction, Mila, waiting tables, had hit on Shannon by saying, “I like your hair,” before hurrying away.

“I didn’t think someone like her would ever go for someone like me,” Mila says. “Working in nightlife is very different from going out in nightlife.”

“And then when she was DJing at Hot Rabbit in the spring,” said Shannon, “I asked her if she would play some Robyn—which happens to be a favorite of both of ours—and so she was really excited and played it for me.”

A few weeks later, Shannon saw her DJ at The Metropolitan, the gay bar in Williamsburg where she works. When she went to request a song, Mila remembered that she liked Robyn and put it on before Shannon even asked.

One night after circling around each other for months, Mila was closing up at The Metropolitan and Shannon stayed late to talk to her.

“I kissed her and we were making out for, like, thirty minutes in front of her staff,” Shannon admits, giddily. Since they got together, Mila says that the two have been “inseparable.”

“I met a bunch of my close friends—including Emily—at Hot Rabbit,” Shannon says, discussing the many connections she’s made on the nightlife scene.  “I dated someone pretty long-term, like a couple years ago, who was really, really uncomfortable with the, uh, lesbian nightlife and lesbian society in the city. She had bad experiences with it. I did not have that experience at all when I started going out in nightlife. Everyone was so welcoming—and yeah, I found my group of close friends. So people who are not aware of lesbian nightlife, or like opportunities to go out, I always try to be super welcoming and bring them into it.”

Mila nods enthusiastically. Shannon brought Mila into her group of friends, helping her network and DJ with promoters like Emily.

Mila, who was spinning at Hot Rabbit the night we spoke, was excited to show me their new matching tattoos: the word “hers” on the inside of their left ring fingers.