Community organizing and party planning are not so different. Both involve listening to people’s wants and needs and working to make it happen. Maybe that’s why Pauline Miriam’s dance parties for older women have spread like wildfire, and are still going strong after nine years.
Hot Flash/Inferno Dances began in Portland in 2004 and are now held regularly in cities across the western states, including Salem, Tacoma, Seattle, San Diego, and Phoenix.
Miriam, 61, puts on the monthly dances with the help of her partner, Joyce Schlitz, 55. (The couple met at a Hot Flash event). She has no prior experience in business or event promotion. Instead, she draws from a background in political organizing.
“I’ve been a grassroots fundraiser and organizer for the past 44 years. I started in 1968 in antiwar movement,” Miriam says. “I came out in 1972 and was working in leftist and lesbian feminist separatist movements in Philadelphia. That’s where I gained all my experience.”
Miriam worked for a print shop that did jobs for the radical movement — “regular” printers were sabotaging their work. She spent her nights in organizing meetings and prioritized political action over career. So when Miriam found herself suddenly single after a 10-year relationship, her impulse to engage with the community kicked in.
What she found when she reached out was a surprising number of older women looking for a different kind of dance night. One that played music they liked, at an hour they wanted to go out, and filled with women of a certain age and maturity.
“At the first dances, we had prerecorded music. Some were held at 3 in the afternoon,” Miriam says. “But none of it mattered because the women were so happy to have a place to go.”
In the beginning, the dances had a (flexible) age minimum of 36. Miriam chose the number because of its significance in Jewish mysticism as a blessing. She’s since dropped the requirement because she finds that an older crowd (typically 30-plus) self-selects.
“Younger women are afraid of the name,” and its menopausal connotations, Miriam says.
Still, she adds, the party needs some age diversity to stay in business. The 50-plus crowd simply isn’t reliable enough.
“As we age we always expect to go out,” she says. “But instead it’s: ‘Do you feel like going out this weekend?’ There are real differences in our community based upon age.”
As part of her efforts to keep things fresh, Miriam is trying out popular Portland DJ Roy G Biv at some of her Portland and Seattle nights. DJ Roy G Biv is best known for her recently-wrapped monthly party, Bent, and appearances at queer nights like Homo Deluxe, Gaycation, and Deep Cuts.
“The fact of the matter is that we’ve grown younger and that’s deliberate,” Miriam says of the crowd, which typically ranges from 30-45. “The difference between our dances and typical 20-something dances is that we’re known for being overly friendly. We’ll bend over backwards to make you feel like you belong in this place.”
With Portland’s last remaining lesbian bar — the Egyptian Club/E Room — long gone and the end of Crave, Hot Flash is also the only remaining dance party for women.
“No one is cliquey at our parties. They ask other women to dance,” Miriam says. “Part of it is that it’s women only. There’s a comfort level you don’t get [otherwise]. Some people are lesbians genetically; I believe some are also by choice. I want a really safe space for women. That’s my emphasis — it’s not queer, it’s not gay, it’s women.”
It’s that expansive view (the same one that makes Hot Flash trans-inclusive — even allowing trans men to attend for as long as they feel a part of the community) that motivates Miriam and Joyce to support human rights causes as far away as Uganda.
“I’ve been out for 40 years, I’m a Jew, and I understand holocausts more intimately than many people,” Miriam says. “I was appalled when I heard about the Ugandan ‘Kill the Gays’ bill. [Ugandan LGBTQ activist] David Kato was murdered on our eight-year anniversary because his picture was posted [in a newspaper]. That’s genocide. That’s a holocaust. That’s happening to our people. Not only in Uganda, but in many other countries.”
In addition to selling Ugandan handmade goods to raise money for the Spirit of ‘76 Foundation, Hot Flash supports local organizations such as Esther’s Pantry, Q Center, the Sexual and Gender Minority and Youth Resource Center (SMYRC), Butch Voices, and the Humane Society.
“In some ways, Hot Flash in completely subversive,” Miriam says. “You can do a lot of things when women are busy cruising each other. As an old leftie, my ulterior motive has always been to fund organizations that are busy doing the work I’m not doing because I am busy running the dances.”
But even the dances are more than dances. At each event, Miriam posts a large bulletin board where women can leave and take business cards, allowing attendees to network and connect with women-owned and -operated businesses. She still brings back the event that started it all — speed dating — from time to time, and will soon be hosting a free Wednesday social gathering where women can connect in a setting more conducive to conversation.
Though she appears to be barreling full-steam ahead, Miriam acknowledges she is closer to the end of her run with Hot Flash than the beginning.
“Pauline says she’s got five years,” Schlitz says.
“My deadline is 63,” Miriam clarifies, adding, “But I figure you’ve got three more years after me.”
The pair has already passed the Bay Area party on to new management and Miriam says she hopes someone will step in for her when the time comes. Still, she seems confident that the event will carry on.
“The dances were so demanded and the women needed it so much,” Miriam says. “Hot Flash became its own entity.”