Flagging in the Park: the whirl story

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"This is the gayest thing I've ever done in my life!" laughed my friend Ricky Strawberry as he twirled around and around, unfurling lengths of tie-dyed cloth to Hi-NRG dance tracks from a live DJ in the sunshine. If you know Ricky Strawberry, that's pretty damn sparkly pink unicorn in a rainbow thong bathing under a Splenda waterfall gay. In fact, it was the gayest thing anyone in my pinko posse had ever done, as well, and we had a ball. It was gay, it was amazing, it was gaymazing, and you should do it too.

It? Flagging in the Park, the summertime monthly gathering of fluttering human butterflies in the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. I wrote about it in this week's Super Ego nightlife column -- and it happens for the final time this year on Sat/2, 1 p.m.- 4p.m. 

Flagging -- or flag dancing, wherein the dancer whirls around waving psychedelic-patterned, weighted pieces of fabric -- has been around for several decades. I remember the first time I saw it was in the '80s at a giant outdoor picnic in Detroit organized by Metra magazine, but it really took hold inside gay clubs during the '90s, when circuit parties were on the rise. (Flag dancing of a non-gay-specific kind, using actual flags with poles, is an ancient art still practiced especially in Italy and New Orleans -- and in Midwestern marching bands.) The exact gay origins are fuzzy -- men dancing with giant fans at disco clubs were a common sight, and you will see lots of flaggers at the disco-celebrating Remember the Party event next weekend, for instance, which acts as a reunion for patrons of the classic Trocadero Transfer venue in the '70s and '80s.

Like many alternaqueers of my generation, flagging was a turnoff in the '90s -- it was too associated with annoyingly relentless circuit music, mainstream gym culture, and bad drugs in my mind. But that was a long time ago, and like a lot of things from that time, a rediscovery after old conflicts have died out puts things into a totally different perspective. (You don't see much flagging in mainstream gay clubs these days, and the music at Flagging in the Park is a bit more fun and interesting than I thought it would be. For the October installment, the DJ is Steve Sherwood.) I was able to appreciate the art in a different context, and without prejudice. Flagging in the Park is a beautiful event, full of rich historical meaning. It welcomes everyone -- there are also large contingents of hula-hoopers, poi-twirlers, and other talents -- and has taken on a more spiritual aspect.

When I went in August (I had heard about it for months, and was encouraged to finally attend by my friend Steven Satyricon's lovely writeup over at The Juice Box site) I was lucky enough to see the organizer, Xavier Caylor, be sainted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for his community work. And Flagging in the Park (FITP) really does bring in a bunch of donations for community organizations, as well as provide community healing. "Without grief, you can't have joy," said Xavier, referencing the spirits around us in the AIDS Grove. Xavier took over FITP 10 years ago, and he teaches a flagging class at Gold's Gym in the Castro every Wednesday, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. He's also several thousand degrees of hotness, yowza. I wanted to know more about how he got involved, and some of the spiritual aspects of the art. His story is below -- and you should drift on by this Saturday afternoon to see for yourself. Xavier provides plenty of free flags to borrow, and flagging really is a bit of good exercise, I discovered. 

XAVIER CAYLOR: "I picked up my first set of flags from a friend of a friend at a party on Will Rogers Beach in 1997. I was hooked and we proceeded to flag everywhere we could: at home, in clubs and circuit parties. I heard about FITP from a fellow that I met at a circuit party in Palm Springs; he told me of a community of good friends that met during the summer months at a park in SF. I managed to contact someone and planned a weekend getaway from So. Cal. to attend in July of 1998.

"In 1998 the recently dedicated National AIDS Memorial Grove was young, the flaggers met in the then newly planted fern grove and gravel circle on the far West side. Twenty people gathered on what was a truly magical day for me; I was amazed with the variety of people, flags, and energy there - like a kid in a candy store. I not only left my heart in San Francisco but gave it freely to a tie-dye artist that became the catalyst for me moving here in just three short months. For the next few years he and I co-produced the event, popularity soon crowded us out of the circle and into the meadow. I have been producing the event since 2001 less two years that a friend took it and moved it to Dolores Park. Originally the events were planned a few days in advance around a sunny weather forecast. In 2002 this changed, acquiring permits and making these outreach events for charity brought a whole new dimension to our gatherings.

"What does the event mean to me? It was and is a magical space where love was born and flourishes, where flaggers can come out of the clubs and into nature. Held in a place that was built out of grief, mourning, and reflection by something that devastated our community and for a few hours we pour color, love, celebration, and heritage carefully back while raising consciousness by giving back. It is the place that our tribes come together to socialize, bond, and strengthen community. It is also a place that people walking through the park can happen upon a surreal event, take it in for a minute, and leave having had the opportunity to try something new or just stop and take in the music and visuals before moving along to where ever it is they are going. I usually plan 3 or 4 FITPs per year between May and October -- the last one was supposed to be the final one this year, but we had such a great crowd and great vibe that we decided to have one more.

"If you've picked up flags you've most likely been asked by someone to show them how to do "it." I've been showing friends since day one, taught at workshops in SF, NY, SD, and Dallas. I've been involved with group and solo performances, led people in tie-dye, and given away hundreds of flags while traveling to parties in Brazil, Australia, Thailand, Spain and the UK ,not to mention many cities around the US.

"About my class at Gold's Gym: When I moved to San Francisco Club Universe, 177 Townsend, on Sundays was known as Pleasuredome and was a venue with a huge stage that flaggers flocked to weekly to play and share their art. It was a beacon to flag dancers on the West coast and beyond, introducing a steady stream of club goers weekly to the glowing fabric twirling in the U.V. flooded stage. It's close in 2002 was a blow to the dance and flag communities. In 2007 I approached the management at Gold's and asked if I could hold a weekly space for flaggers to come and practice - I was envisioning a free space that I would hold for a year with the purpose of re-energizing my tribe and reviving that weekly space. Troy at Gold's Gym enthusiastically offered me a position and added the class to their Group X fitness program - I've been teaching Wednesday nights since. It is a place that people that have never flagged can come and learn - I have flags for use and set up black lights to make them come to life. The community comes to practice, play and socialize. I support new and old flaggers at the gym and outside of the gym by leading tie-dye classes/open studios so people can make their own flags. Weekly pre class discussions are opportunities to share history, personal stories and current events. Other flow toys (like poi and fans) show up from time to time and I support them if and when I can.

"The group of guys that started FITP in 1996 shared a common experience, they had all gone to a week long experience in consciousness building in San Diego called the Miracle of Love which used active meditation techniques developed by Osho Rajneesh. Those flaggers came together in 1998 to bring those techniques to the gay community through a weekend seminar that is still going strong called the 'Men's Inner Journey.' It was through delving deep into the techniques of active meditation that I realized what a spiritual event flagging is. Though people don't usually make the connection between flagging and meditation, there is a point when the body and mind are so engaged that in the exuberance of the dance the mind is set free to a place of stillness. I believe that meditation something lacking in our lives and something we need to recharge our spirit and connect with our soul.

"Flagging is a visually appealing dance that has lived primarily in the gay community for the past 40 years. It touches on spirituality by being an alternative form of meditation palatable for people on the go. I am proud to be one of the many that keeps this art form flourishing by holding the space to pass it to the next generation of artists. www.flaggercentral.com is a great resource for our community."

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