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Dancing the night away in downtown Austin

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Downtown dance clubs cluster in two areas: the Warehouse District and Red River Street. Last week, a troupe of four adventurers embarked on some late-night research at six of those clubs.

After touring a shuttered dance club, budding nightlife impresario Neil Diaz, newly minted bar marketer Brenda Thompson and her friend Allison Baron joined me at Oilcan Harry's to check on that long-running quadraform gay bar. Distinct cultures are generated around the central well bar, sports sidebar, crowded patio bar and moderate-size dance floor. Doesn't matter the time — someone is always tempted to dance here.

Years ago, Rain stole some of Oilcan's nightlife thunder. In fact, they share a clientele that bops between the two bars, separated by the abandoned Qua-gone-Hyde. (Who saw that coming? I did, years ago.) Here the patio and front bar usually sizzle, and the tiny dance floor attracts a surprising number of volunteers. The gyrating seems to work best when it spills off the platform and on to the U-shaped area around it.

We next headed to Haven, the upstairs spot that started its nightlife history as the original Alamo Drafthouse, was reborn as the upscale Pangaea, then evolved into Phoenix and now Haven. Owner Sky Cheung explained that the evolution, as well as his personal history played out across two continents, a prime subject for a future column.

The western side of Haven is now open to the elements, while the central and eastern segments remain chilly and danceable on a humid summer evening. On Sundays, Cheung says, Haven has inherited some of the Kiss & Fly set.

Over on Red River, Barbarella remains the dance club of choice for the hipster set, including a gay subset, not just on gay nights. Long ago, this was the Crossing, a capacious spot with a spacious patio. Then it served as an ill-fated hip-hop joint. It was packed this night, and the mixed-mastered masses were in high sybaritic form.

Swan Dive, former home of Barbarella, remains one of Red River's most compelling concept clubs, decked out by the folks who brought you East Side Show Room and Hillside Farmacy.

During this visit, an indescribable onstage band motivated men and women to dance in unbridled, folky forms. (Imagine hipsters at an ecstatic barn raising.) I don't think of cocktail-and-music Swan Dive as primarily a dance club, but people are always cavorting there.

Our last stop was Elysium, at one of Red River's most enduring shrines, just above East Seventh Street. It's gone under a dozen or so names since I hung out at a gay country club there in the 1970s. For more than a decade, it has enjoyed its current name and sensibility, attracting some of the biggest acts in the underground music scene (such as M.I.A. before anyone had heard of M.I.A.). On other nights, it suffices as a darkish dance club.

We learned ever more about Red River's nightlife history from the locals during what turned out to be a rather quiet spell for Elysium. Not as quiet as our next intended stop, Lipstick, which was dead dark on a Thursday.

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com or 445-3970